The older I get the more I realize how significant it is to learn how to say No to some things in order to say Yes to others. And especially to learn which are the more important things to push back against and push forward toward. Here are two strategies for doing this well.
Remember the ancient story about David and Goliath? A young shepherd David going to battle against the enemy giant Goliath? He ends up killing Goliath with only a few smooth stones torpedoed by his leather slingshot. The part of the story that is particularly powerful is what happens before that final scene. The King, whose people are battling Goliath's army, calls David before his throne and offers his own personal body armor to wear to go up against the giant.
Now this is no small offer. The King has been a hugely successful warrior and leader of his people, achieving epic victories through the years. And he's always worn this special armor to protect himself and he's used the sacred sword to defeat his enemies. Now he offers them to David.
So David tries on the armor and the sword. But they don't fit him ... at all! He staggers and stumbles around under the weight of someone else's armory.
And now David makes the most strategic decision possible. The King and others see it as foolish. But David knows it's smart and courageous.
"Thanks for your generous offer, O King, but I have to go into battle in my own armor, using what I've always relied on and what I'm best at!"
So David goes to face the giant, dressed in his shepherd's clothing, and holding in his hand the weapon that has brought him success in protecting his sheep against the wild animals in the wilderness--a leather slingshot and some smooth stones.
And the rest is history.
Here's the point. When it comes to facing your life well, the most effective, strategic decision you can make is to stand in your own armor, not someone else's.
Why? Because standing in your armor is when you're at your strongest, most powerful, and fulfilled place. It's all about strategic energy management.
I'm talking about your brain function and its natural preferences.
Brain Function and Natural Preferences
Your brain is wired with neuronal synapses--connections between cells (neurons) that produce certain behaviors. By the time you're sixteen years old, you've lost half of these networks (billions and billions)--thankfully--otherwise, you would as an adult be like a small child frozen in sensory overload. So in this case, less is more.
By your teenage years, the synapses that have remained are the ones from which are created your talents, your natural preferences.
Your smartness and your effectiveness depend on how well you capitalize on your strongest connections.
As Marcus Buckingham puts it,
"Nature forces you to shut down billions of connections precisely so that you can be freed up to exploit the ones remaining."
So you begin to notice that when you engage in certain behaviors and reactions, they just "feel right" to you, while others, no matter how hard you practice, always seem stilted and forced. This is good and as it should be.
Strategic energy management is all about utilizing and building on your natural preferences. That's the most energy efficient.
Brain experts remind us that when we are operating outside of our natural brain preferences, our brains are expending 100 times the level of resistance; as contrasted to when we are leading with our natural preferences which expends 1 times the level of resistance. So which way is more energy efficient?
T1 vs. Dial-up Connections
It's like connecting our computers with a hyper-fast T1 line versus an old dial-up connection. Which works better? Which is more efficient? Which has the greatest speed and productivity?
Living our lives from a place of personal natural preference is the T1 connection. Living life trying to be something we're not is the ancient dial-up connection.
And the consequences of "dial-up" is devastating: fatigue, hyper-vigilance, immune system suppression, reduced function of the frontal lobe (the thinking, processing, evaluating, and creativity brain center), memory problems, discouragement and depression, self-esteem problems, high levels of ongoing stress. We are literally killing ourselves prematurely.
Dr. Phil puts it this way,
"Ignoring who you truly, authentically are can literally be killing you. Forcing yourself to be someone you are not or stuffing down who you really are will tax you so much that it will shorten your life by years and years."
Why Strengths Work Is So Vital
This is why I value strengths work so much. It's about identifying our natural preferences and then discovering specific ways we can utilize those strengths more intentionally. It's about validating and affirming each other's strengths (which really is a way of validating the true person in front of you and setting them free, via their T1 line, to be at their best and strongest place). It's about exploring together how each person's strengths can be brought together with the other person's strengths and strategically managed and leveraged in ways that help the couple to be at their strongest, most effective relational place--discovering the relationship's T1 line.
Imagine what happens when couples approach their relationship from this vantage point--the affirmation and honoring of each other's most authentic self, and then building a relationship on this strongest of strong foundations. It's allowing each other to wear the right armor as opposed to forcing them to wear something else. It's identifying the couple's unique armor and then together going into battle to face the giants of life. That's the way giants are battled successfully.
Here's the way one couple I did this strengths work with described their experience:
"My husband and I have been married for 14 years and have worked through our share of challenges during that time. Working with Greg helped us re-kindle the spark that we had lost track of during those challenges. We now have a renewed vision of why we're together and how to honor and leverage each of our strengths in exciting ways. Thank-you, Greg!"
I'm teaching a strengths workshop for couples about these very issues (March 23, 1-5 pm, San Francisco, CA). Registration deadline is March 17. And it's limited to 10 couples. If you're interested, go to this link for more information: Strengths-based Couples.
Looking for a Speaker or Coach?
If you or someone you know in your organization is looking for a keynote speaker or workshop teacher for events in your company, congregation, or association gatherings, I would be happy to come speak on this theme or others like it. And interested in strengths coaching? Feel free to email me at email@example.com or look at the Speaking or Coaching pages of this site.
My closest friend Paul and I were having our weekly phone visit a few days ago on New Years Day. We shared how we had experienced and lived out the primary feeling words we had chosen at the beginning of 2013 - the feelings we most wanted to experience for the year and what activities we had engaged in to help us truly feel those words.
The sharing was powerful and very validating, as it always is when we visit - a weekly commitment we've made with each other for the last 16 years. Being able to bear witness to each other's lives, the ups and the downs, the victories and the challenges, is extremely affirming and encouraging.
At the end of our New Years conversation, we both commented on how blessed and grateful we are to have this time set aside for deep, honest, authentic, sharing of our lives with each other. We both know many men who simply don't have this experience in their lives for various reasons.
The Challenge of Men, Friendship, and Masculinity
As my last blog post described, I've been thinking a lot lately about the challenge we men have with intimacy with other men, in our friendships, in our professional associations (which manifests in such unhealthy ways in our leadership styles and insecurities). Many of us have been conditioned since childhood that being a man means primarily being strong all the time, aggressive, not showing too much emotion, choosing confidence over authenticity, and being independent.
So our friendships tend to reflect that picture of masculinity. We engage in activities - "shoulder to shoulder" rather than "face to face." We play hard with and against each other. We joke, we poke fun. Our primary way of communicating is through sarcasm, trash talking, knocking the other - all in good form, of course.
When I was trying to find a picture for my last blog, and I googled "pictures of men's friendship," out of the hundreds of photos (mostly about men playing sports), there was one showing two men in a face to face conversation.
And we wonder why our culture is so biased when it comes to masculinity and what it means to be a real man. Taking the time to share honest feelings, to talk about how life is going, to be transparent, empathetic, compassionate, and authentic expressions of need and insufficiency or inadequacy - that's for women.
Significant Research About What It Means to be a Real Man
In truth, though, more and more research is emerging to unabashedly reveal that that picture of masculinity is one-sided, limited, and insufficient to a healthy, strong life. It's in fact only one piece (and often misused piece, at that) of what it means to be a man.
Dr. Niobe Way, professor of applied pschology at New York University, wrote a Huffington Post blog last November, explaining how the tragic child sex abuse scandal at Penn State by one of the football coaches could have happened ("Penn State and the Crisis of Masculinity"). She charts the typical process of conditioning our boys go through especially in their teen years.
And then she hits the research. Stunning!
For example, Sociologist Kirsten Springer studied 1,000 middle-aged men, and found that those who most rigidly adhered to ideals of masculinity (such as emotional stoicism and toughness) reported the worst physical health over a 40-year period.
For example, Psychologists Joseph Pleck and James Mahalik also found that adhering to norms of masculinity such as emotional stoicism for boys and men is significantly associated with poor mental and physical health and with high rates of risky behavior and violence.
Not only is our culture's masculine norm producing unhealthiness, it also bleeds its disease profusely into the work place.
Misguided Masculinity Impacts the Workplace
What I see often when I do consulting and coaching in corporations and businesses is that this male leadership model (which tends to refer to employee development and personal growth as "soft skills" as opposed to the "hard skills" of data and financial productivity) ends up
reducing employee engagement, increasing stress, lowering employee loyalty to both cause and company, and ultimately leaving a carnage of bodies and disillusioned minds-hearts-and-spirits in the wake of these leaders.
Many male leaders are simply not getting it because they're acting out of a misguided sense of masculine strength and influence.
It's About Leveraging How We're Really Wired - Being Fully Human
The truth about men is actually counterintuitive. Notice Dr. Way's description:
"Primatologist Frans De Waal, developmental psychologist Michael Tomasello and evolutionary anthropologist Sarah Hrdy, among many other scientists, conclude that we need a complete 'overhaul' in our conceptions of human nature to account for the extensive research that underscore our deeply empathic, cooperative, and relational nature. Caring about what others think and feel is the reason why, according to Charles Darwin, we have survived as a species. Being emotionally sensitive and caring about others is not a sign of being 'girly' or 'gay' but a core element of being human, essential for surviving and thriving."
That's profound! We need to stop raising our boys with the stereotypical masculine image of emotional stoicism, independence, autonomy, and being strong as not showing caring and compassion too much (not exercising all those "girly" qualities).
What I'm talking about is what it means to be truly human - how we as men are in fact wired, and why reclaiming this part is nonnegotiable to both the survival and success of humanity.
This is a huge health issue. And it's also about how we as men can be most effective, influential, and successful in whatever mission we're engaged in.
My friend Paul and I, in our conversation on New Years Day, ended our time by recommiting ourselves to our regular journey of sharing, accountability, and support. Right before we hung up the phone, we affirmed to each other what an amazing blessing it is to carve out this sacred space in which we can be real, honest, emotionally aware, and authentic. I can't imagine not having this kind of friendship in my life.
My friendship with Paul has and is truly making me a better man!
Looking for a Speaker?
If you or someone you know in your organization is looking for keynote speakers or workshop teachers for events in your company, congregation, or association gatherings, I would be happy to come speak on this theme or others like it. And interested in strengths coaching? Feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Are Male Friendships Different From Female Friendships? My wife Shasta Nelson is one of the leading friendship experts these days, especially in the realm of female friendships. Her book Friendships Don't Just Happen: The Guide to Creating a Meaningful Circle of Girlfriends is one of the most complete and profound explanations and prescriptions of the multifaceted dimensions of healthy friendships - why it's important and how it can be developed and sustained in deep and meaningful ways.
As I've read her book and listened to her speak to multiple audiences, I've thought how much men need and crave this kind of friendship intimacy, too.
It's been a fascinating experience bringing this view up in conversations with men and women. Invariably, some people respond by saying that male friendship looks different and men approach relationships from a completely different standpoint, their needs simply are different - as one male expert puts it, men's friendships are more "shoulder to shoulder" compared to women's which are "face to face". Men bond over activities as compared to women who bond in conversation and self-disclosure.
For some reason, most likely a lot from my own personal experience as well as all my work as a coach and pastor with both genders, I've had a difficult time with that stereotypical and simplified depiction of male friendship. I reject the notion that men don't crave intimacy (which includes the need for honest and authentic self-disclosure and empathy) as much as women in our friendships.
When I have coaching conversations with men and create a safe space in which they can share their lives deeply and authentically, I'm finding that men are as fully capable, and in fact as sincerely interested, in full disclosure and admittance of the need for intimacy and honest sharing. They are craving the same kind of depth and closeness in their friendships as women do, but for the most part they're simply not getting it.
Latest Research on Men's Friendships: How the Shift Happens
Turns out, research is now showing this craving for depth and intimacy is absolutely true about men and their friendships. Men are in fact wired with not only this same desire but also the capability for the same kind of intimate, deep friendships.
According to a recent article in Salon ("American Men’s Hidden Crisis: They Need More Friends!") New York University psychologist Dr. Niobe Way studied and interviewed boys in each year of high school. What she found was fascinating.
Until the age of 15-16, all the boys she interviewed described their friendships with other boys using the same vocabulary as the girls used about their friendships:
"Younger boys spoke eloquently about their love for and dependence on their male friends. In fact, research shows that boys are just as likely as girls to disclose personal feelings to their same-sex friends and they are just as talented at being able to sense their friends’ emotional states."
Then something happened. From the age of 15-16 on (right at the same age that the suicide rate of boys increases to four times the rate of girls), the same boys talked about their guy friends far differently.
One of the boys described this shift the way almost all of those boys who were interviewed did:
When he was 15: "[My best friend and I] love each other… that’s it… you have this thing that is deep, so deep, it’s within you, you can’t explain it. It’s just a thing that you know that person is that person… I guess in life, sometimes two people can really, really understand each other and really have a trust, respect and love for each other."
But when the same boy was a senior in high school, notice the shift: "[My friend and I] we mostly joke around. It’s not like really anything serious or whatever… I don’t talk to nobody about serious stuff… I don’t talk to nobody. I don’t share my feelings really. Not that kind of person or whatever… It’s just something that I don’t do."
Why the Shift Happens
So what is happening? As researchers are noting, as boys get older they are becoming conditioned to disassociate from what are often seen as more feminine qualities in order to be manly, macho, accepted in the male places of our world.
For example, why is it that sports coaches or military sergeants, in trying to motivate guys, call them "girls" -- as if somehow that demeaning use of a perfectly neutral term is suppose to inspire guys to be stronger, try harder, be more of a man?
So men learn early on to disassociate themselves from anything feminine--which unfortunately leads to a distancing from the experiences and expressions of need for intimacy, closeness, self disclosure, empathy, and other feelings. Which in turn serves to isolate them from developing meaningful and close friendships with other men.
But as research continually reveals, this disassociation is actually distancing us as men from our complete selves by cutting vital parts of ourselves out.
Tragic Consequences of This Shift
Here's the way Lisa Wade, in her Salon article, reflecting Dr. Niobe Way's significant research, describes the tragic outcome:
"So men are pressed — from the time they’re very young — to disassociate from everything feminine.This imperative is incredibly limiting for them. Paradoxically, it makes men feel good because of a social agreement that masculine things are better than feminine things, but it’s not the same thing as freedom. It’s restrictive and dehumanizing. It’s oppression all dressed up as awesomeness. And it is part of why men have a hard time being friends."
Two Things Men Need to ReShift and ReFocus On Who They Really Are
First, Men need positive male role models to show the power and transformational experience of intimate friendships with other men - friendships built around mutual self-disclosure, honesty, authenticity, empathy, caring for each other, and yes, sharing good times with each other, too. Male friendships are not an either/or proposition. It's both/and.
And Second, Men need to be given permission that it's not caving to a stereotypical feminine way of being by wanting and engaging in deeper, caring male friendships. Men need this permission from the women in their lives and from other men. The media isn't helping at all! So others need to step up and openly talk about what it means to be a male with all the multifaceted qualities men have inside them that need to be expressed and that contribute to building deep and lasting and meaningful friendships with other men.
Because the truth is, men are hardwired with a yin and yang of qualities: we are both "soft" and "hard" -- we crave strength and power, and we also long for warmth, intimacy, caring, and empathetic nurturing and sharing. Men have been cultured to neglect one for the sake of the other. But it's both/and.
And the sooner we men embrace this truth, the healthier we will be emotionally, mentally, physically, and relationally. We will be living in alignment with who we truly are. And that's always the place of greatest authentic power and well being.
If you or someone you know in your organization is looking for keynote speakers or workshop teachers for events in your company, congregation, or association gatherings, I would be happy to come speak on this theme or others like it. And interested in strengths coaching? Feel free to email me at email@example.com.
"Wasted strengths are like sundials in the shade."
Have you ever tried reading time from a sundial in the shade? Hard to do it, isn't it. For a sundial to work, it needs to be--go figure--in the sun.
I walked into one of the parks in Golden Gate Park and got all excited when I saw an old sundial. I couldn't wait to figure out the time with this ancient instrument.
And then, when I got closer, I noticed that tree branches had grown out and over the sundial essentially putting it in perpetual shade. The sundial was worthless other than as an ancient artifact.
Truth is, wasted strengths are like sundials in the shade.
For you to be able to shine with the brightness you were made for, for you to be able to point accurately to your true timing so that you give maximum benefit to others, you must be in "your sun"---you must know and use your strengths. No one else can do it for you. You are the steward of your strengths. Don't waste them. They're some of the best, most effective resources you have.
Here's how it can look when you choose to wisely steward your strengths. Let's see what lessons we can learn from one highly successful person.
Warren Buffett's Strengths Stewardship
Marcus Buckingham, in his book Now, Discover Your Strengths, talks about Warren Buffett. He's one of the richest people in the world who comes from such humble beginnings in Omaha, Nebraska. What a life he's lived.
Speaking to a roomful of students at the University of Nebraska, he said, "I may have more money than you do, but money doesn't make the difference."
To the students, many of whom could barely pay their phone bills each month, his observation seemed a bit glib.
But he continued: "If there is any difference between you and me, it may simply be that I get up every day and have a chance to do what I love to do, every day. If you want to learn anything from me, this is the best advice I can give you."
Though on the surface this appears to be the typical throwaway line from someone who's already banked their first billion, it's actually quite profound.
Turns out, Buffett is very sincere when he says this. He loves what he does and genuinely believes that his reputation as the world's greatest investor is due in large part to his ability to carve out a role that plays to his strengths.
And his strengths as an investor actually are quite nontraditional and unexpected for high-powered successful investors these days.
Here's how it worked for him. First, he is a very patient man, as opposed to the stereotypical impatient, high-speed, uber-active investor. So he has turned his natural patience into his now famous "twenty-year perspective" that leads him to invest only in those companies whose trajectory he can forecast with some level of confidence for the next twenty years.
Second, his mind is more practical than conceptual. So his practical mind made him suspicious of investing "theories" and broad market trends. He once wrote in his Berkshire Hathaway annual report, "The only role of stock forecasters is to make fortune-tellers look good." So he made the commitment to only invest in those companies whose products and services he could intuitively understand (e.g. Dairy Queen, Coca Cola, The Washington Post), the latest MBA theories and predictions be damned.
And third, he is inclined to be trusting of people's motives, not skeptical. So he has put his trusting nature to good use by carefully vetting the senior managers of the companies in which he invested and then stepping back and away, letting them engage in their day-to-day operations without his interference.
Turns out, he's a world class investor because he deliberately and persistently plays to his strengths (his innate wiring and talents that he has honed with increased knowledge and skill through the years).
Buckingham makes this observation: "The way he handles risk, the way he connects with other people, the way he makes his decisions, the way he derives satisfaction---not one of these is random. They all form part of a unique pattern that is so stable his family and closest friends are able to recall its early tracings in the schoolyard in Omaha, Nebraska, half a century ago." (p. 21)
Four Ways to Steward Your Strengths
So what lessons can we learn from Warren Buffett about how to effectively steward our best resources and strengths, about how we can be sundials in the sun not the shade? What did he figure out that can serve as a practical guide for all of us?
"One, look inside yourself; Two, try to identify your strongest threads; Three, reinforce them with practice and learning; and Four, either find or carve out a role that draws on these strengths every day. When you do these regularly, intentionally, and persistently, you will be more productive, more fulfilled, and more successful." (p. 21)
These are exactly the four steps that comprise the outline of what I work on with all my coaching clients---and I do this work for myself, regularly and persistently. In essence, I am helping myself and my clients to become wise and effective stewards of our best personal and professional resources---our God-given strengths.
I want for myself and for everyone else to be sundials that tell accurate time---and that are useful to others---because they're in the sun not the shade. This is authenticity.
"Remember Greg, other people's reactions to you say more about their story than about yours."
I've never forgotten that advice. I've certainly seen it to be true over and over again. And it's helped me stay focused and centered and grounded on my truth ... most of the time.
You need to remember this, too, whenever people choose to respond to you in judgmental or critical ways because you've done something or said something they disagree with or oppose. One of the lessons we learn in life is that people tend to see us through the lens of their own self concept. They actually are judging themselves vicariously through us.
We are often loved and admired for who people choose to think we are or need us to be rather than who we really are. And conversely, we are often rejected or snubbed not for who we really are but for who they see us to be and whether we've lived up or not to their projected image of us.
Either way, we are being responded to from their own personal needs not our own. It's a false self and image. They're not holding up an undistorted mirror for us to see ourselves as we really are. They're holding up a picture they've painted of us. And it's destructive to us if we base our self worth on an illusion.
I love the way Richard Rohr, in his book Falling Upward, puts it:
"Beauty or ugliness really is first of all in the eye of the beholder. Good people will mirror goodness in us, which is why we love them so much. Not-so-mature people will mirror their own unlived and confused life onto us, which is why they confuse and confound us so much, and why they are so hard to love." (p. 153)
For this reason, as Rohr emphasizes, it is a necessity for us to find at least one undistorted mirror that reveals our inner, deepest, and yes, divine image: a loving, honest friend to help ground us by how they see us in our truth and accept us for our truth.
A Spiritual Dimension of Friendship
This is truly one of the deep spiritual dimensions of friendship and human relationship. Healthy friendship holds a mirror in front of us so we can see ourselves undistorted, the way we truly are, who we really are. And that friend who holds the mirror for us says to us, "Whatever you see in this mirror, I love. I accept you the way you truly are---the real you, not some false image of you that either I or others might project, or even you might project on yourself. I love and accept You."
I have a friend just like that. He and I have been on our friendship journey for 15 years or so. We have talked on the phone or in person whenever we can be together almost every week of those 15 years. He has held the mirror in front of me through the highs and lows of my life, reminding me of who I really am, no matter how others have responded to me. That mirror has revealed some ugly things that I tend to shrink away from, as well as some beautiful things I'm drawn to. But through it all, he has loved, accepted, and affirmed me for who I really am beyond all the externals I and others tend to fixate on. And that has helped empower my own growth into the person I truly am and want to be.
Rohr makes the observation that
"it is only whose who respond to the real you, good or bad, that help you in the long run" (p. 153). This is the only kind of love that ever redeems.
That's why my friend Paul has been so empowering and transforming to me through all these years. Together, we have learned and practiced how to see each other through the lens of our deepest core truth. And this authentic sight has been instrumental in growing us both spiritually, relationally, and individually.
This is the way God has modeled friendship with us.
"Like any true mirror, the gaze of God receives us exactly as we are, without judgment or distortion, subtraction or addition. Such perfect receiving is what transforms us. Being totally received as we truly are is what we wait and long for all our lives. All we can do is receive and return the loving gaze of God every day, and afterwards we will be internally free and deeply happy at the same time. The One who knows all has no trouble including, accepting, and forgiving all. Soon we who are gazed upon so perfectly can pass on the same accepting gaze to all others who need it. There is no longer any question 'Does he or she deserve it?'" (Ibid., pp. 159-60)
My friend Paul continues to give God's gift of perfect receiving to me time and again. I hope I can do the same for him. After all, it's our deepest human longing and desire---to be loved, accepted, and perfectly received no matter what. Isn't it?
Are you that kind of friend to someone else? Do you have this kind of undistorted mirror in your own life? Is your view of God/the Universe one of perfect receiving of you, who you really are, with no judgment, only acceptance---that you belong here in this world in all of your authentic being---that you truly matter?
Nakedness and Inadequacy Remember that nightmare we've all had at one point or another about being naked in public in front of a crowd? Do you remember what you feel in that dream? Excited? Elated? Proud? Seductive?
Most often we feel shame, fear, embarrassment, extreme vulnerability, powerful discomfort, maybe even horrified.
Why? Because the dream is often about the fear of exposure, fear of rejection; that if people saw us for who we really are, they would not accept us, they might even ridicule us. Dreams about nakedness in public is about a deep fear of inadequacy and even shame.
So our culture demands that we go out in public looking good, clothed not just adequately but impressively. We grow up in families that equate high performance with value and worth. We learn early on to hide our inadequacies as best we can in order to appear put together. Perfection is the standard.
The irony is that deep down we know that perfection is not only unreasonable, it's pretty much impossible. Read my last blog where I give the example of the hitting percentage of baseball's best players. Even the greatest batters in history never hit perfectly. And they're heroes.
And yet we continue to hold ourselves accountable to that perfection measuring stick, holding our self esteem and self worth hostage to an impossible standard. And if you're a part of a religious community, that standard is spiritualized and theologized, raising the stakes even higher of having to measure up.
Connecting Perfectionism and Shame
Dr. Brene Brown, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, points out that
"where perfectionism exists, shame is always lurking. In fact, shame is the birthplace of perfectionism." (p. 55)
That certainly explains our fear of exposure in our nightmare of being naked in public. We will do whatever it takes to keep our inadequacies from being seen because deep down there's a feeling of shame connected to failure or imperfection. We see ourselves as "less than" in our failures.
So we resort to whatever form of perfectionism most fits our goal of appearing "together" in every setting: e.g. we'll not take on any difficult tasks or take any risks for fear of failing and being exposed; we'll automatically assume responsibility for something going wrong, taking the blame; or we'll refuse to ever own up to mistakes, blaming other people for what went wrong; we'll avoid any situations that might cause us to look like we're not good enough; or we'll refuse to leave the house unless we look just "right" in public, trying to maintain a predetermined image that's acceptable to us and others. And the list goes on.
But let's face it: this is a really really tiring way to live! Isn't it? It takes a lot of mental and emotional energy to try to maintain a perfect image for everyone else, including ourselves. Exhausting! And it keeps us from the freedom of really living life and enjoying life in new and wonderful ways. That belief system narrows rather than expands our lives.
Three Ways A Spirituality of Imperfection is an Antidote to Perfectionism
One of the powerful antidotes to this debilitating life approach is the practice of a spirituality of imperfection. That's right. Healthy, genuine spirituality is based upon embracing the value of imperfection.
Here are several Whys and Hows to practicing this spirituality of imperfection.
First, imperfection is a call to practice compassion on yourself.
Dr. Brown interviewed scores of people who were engaging with the world from a place of authenticity and worthiness. She noticed that all had a lot in common experience when it came to perfectionism. First, they spoke about their imperfections in a tender and honest way, and without shame and fear. Second, they were slow to judge themselves and others. They operated from a place of "We're all doing the best we can." Their ability to step into self compassion was extremely high. (Ibid., p. 59)
The next time you make a mistake or do something less than perfectly, practice compassion on yourself. Don't judge yourself negatively by going to that indictment, "I'm such a loser! Why can't I do anything well! If people knew I was this kind of a failure, they'd reject me for sure!"
"A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life." Christopher K. Germer
Second, imperfection is a place of Light. Let it in.
The great spiritual teachers of the past saw imperfection as the crack in the armor, the "wound" that lets God in.
Meister Eckhart (the 13th century German theologican, mystic, and philosopher) wrote,
"To get at the core of God at his greatest, one must first get into the core of himself at his least."
This truth is applied by the contemporary Jungian analyst who identifies "addictions," for example, as one of the "wounds" that lets God in:
"Addiction keeps a person in touch with the god .... At the very point of the vulnerability is where the surrender takes place---that is where the god enters. The god comes through the wound."
So rather than immediately condemning ourselves for a mistake, failure, or even continual "wound" whenever it manifests itself, pause ... embrace it ... and let it bring you to the point of surrender ... let it point you to God who comes through that mistake to embrace you and love you, and then to little by little bring healing to your wound.
Isn't that what we do as parents when our child falls down, scrapes himself, and comes to us bleeding. We don't refuse him, telling him to get cleaned and bandaged up first before we embrace him. We get down on our knees, pull him into our arms, holding him tightly and tenderly, whispering words of love. We gently clean up the wound, put a band-aid on it, and then hold him close again. That moment of "wounding" lets our love into his life in tangible, intimate ways.
The New Testament spiritual leader Paul, who wrestled with what he called "a thorn in his flesh" (some kind of either physical or emotional or spiritual ongoing ailment) and kept asking God to remove it from his life, was confronted by the grace of God in the midst of his wound. Rather than taking the "wound" away from Paul, God came to him in the middle of it, and said,
"My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in your weakness." 2 Corinthians 12:9
So embrace your "wound" and let it allow God's amazing compassion and love to shine through the cracks of your armor straight into your life.
And third, imperfection is a place of Light. Let it out.
To paraphrase Leonard Cohen's lyrics from Anthem,
"There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets out."
It is a misguided myth which our perfectionism gets us to buy into: that we lose people's respect if we fail and make mistakes, if our "wounds" show too much.
Truth is, people aren't looking for perfection from us; people are wanting authenticity, honesty and transparency even about our imperfections. "Be real," people often say.
The same New Testament spiritual leader, Paul, emphasized this truth when he described human beings as "clay pots"--cracked containers. His point was that the Light (he called it the "glory of God") that lives inside us is able to shine out into the world through our cracks (2 Corinthians 4:7). No cracks, no visible light to the world. God needs our cracks so God's glory can shine through us in order to reveal divine compassion and love to others.
So rather than running from our imperfections, rather than covering them over, or hiding them, or even denying them, we can "sanctify" them (give them over to a holy purpose)--that is, allow them to be used by the Light as vehicles through which the Light of Love radiates out to the world.
Leonard Cohen is right. There's a crack in everything. That's how the light gets out.
Sometimes, it's the "sinners" that are more appealing than the "saints." Who wants to be around someone who tries to be perfect all the time, who refuses to admit imperfection in themselves or others, and who thinks they're more "righteous" than everyone else? No grace or compassion there. Perfectionism is, after all, an attempt to play God.
So embrace the crack. Be vulnerable. Be authentic and transparent. That will be used by God to let the Light shine out, to show others that even in our imperfections, love and compassion can shine through and be visible and experienced by others. Sometimes, it's our willingness to be "naked" in public that reveals the true glory of God.
The premise was that four celebrity judges would try to guess which of the three contestants was the genuine character being described in an unusual and unique life story read out loud by the host. All contestants introduced themselves by the name of the true character. The two "imposter" contestants could lie with their answers, the true character had to tell the truth in every answer. After questioning each contestant, the judges would vote. The host would then say those famous words, "Will the real [name of the character] please stand up."
I used to love watching the show, trying to guess which was the real character. I sometimes got it right. But often I was completely surprised. And I've never forgotten the host's line at the end of the vote: Will the real ________ please stand up."
So what was the appeal to such a simple game show? The drama of trying to figure out who was who? Deception? Humor? Seeing judges voting? Unusual life stories? A competition of winning and losing?
Probably all of the above. But I think there was also something else at play. We are drawn to that which is true, to people who are able to stand up and truly be themselves. We call this Authenticity.
I'm inspired by the way Brene Brown, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection, defines Authenticity:
"Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we're supposed to be and embracing who we are." (p. 50)
The "letting go" of this ideal self we think we're supposed to be (and even that can change depending on which environment we're in at any given time) is really hard. Isn't it? Why?
Why Living Authentically is So Difficult
Our external culture. We live in a world that strongly encourages, sometimes even demands, that we fit in, don't stand out too much, conform to accepted expectations and standards. Though our country was founded on individuality and the pioneering spirit, our culture has strong ways of limiting all of that.
We're raised to acquiesce to authority---the authority of parents, adults, institutions, people who know more than we do, power, position, status. We're taught not to trust ourselves or our gut instincts or to look too deeply inside ourselves. All true authority is outside ourselves, we're told.
No wonder we have in our culture an authenticity challenge.
Our internal Culture. Compounding this cultural squeeze is the truth that inside ourselves we often have another battle raging. It's a self-esteem and self-worth issue. So that whenever we feel shame or unworthiness or guilt that creates self-doubt, we can quickly and easily sell ourselves out and say, "I can be anybody you need me to be. Watch me!"
So we can allow our self-identity to shift with the winds and tides of our surrounding people---whatever it takes to please them or get their approval so we can feel good about ourselves.
We definitely have an authenticity challenge these days.
So how do we learn to choose authenticity more and more in our daily lives---to choose to be our real Selves in every context, living out the fullest and most confident expression of our true Selves?
Three Steps to Choosing Authenticity
Notice the three actions described in Dr. Brown's definition of Authenticity:
- Daily practicing
It's unrealistic to think that all of a sudden, one day we can simply declare, "Okay, I'm perfectly authentic now. I'm good to go."
"Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It's about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true Selves be seen." (p. 49)
When you consider that we are making this choice against everything that we've established through the course of life as being "true" about ourselves and what's really important---pleasing others at our own expense, living up to everyone else's expectations, letting every situation determine how "real" we should be, hiding behind masks, or trying hard to be someone we're really not---it's no wonder authenticity is a daily, even moment by moment, choice. We have to practice it regularly. We have to develop a new normal.
Authenticity is a process of becoming---a journey into being more fully genuinely ourselves. So our practice demands: "In this moment, faced with a choice of how I'll show up in this situation, I choose authenticity. In this moment, I choose to be real and genuine and honest. I will not hide myself. In this moment, I will not let fear of what others might say or think dictate how I show up. I choose to let my Self be expressed. In this moment, I will be Me to the best of my knowledge and ability and in a spirit of respect, love, and compassion."
- Letting go of who we think we're supposed to be
We have to stop living our lives based on other people's expectations and standards. We need to respect and honor their choices. But we don't have to emulate them. We are each unique individuals. We have to let our masks go. We have to let go of our attempts to squeeze into someone else's mold. We have to let go of our obsession with pleasing and seeking approval in order for us to feel good about ourselves.
For a trapeze artist to let go of the trapeze and fly through nothing but empty air takes courage. It's scary and even risky.
So is letting go of false identities---especially if we've lived them for a long time. We end up flying through uncertainty, even at times lack of clarity about who we are. We risk rejection and lack of acceptance. People close to us might actually like us the way we've been. We might "fail" at being Ourselves. Yes, it takes courage to let go.
But we can't grab a hold of the true identity (the other trapeze bar) without letting go of the false.
- Embracing who we really are
Think of a time when you felt really true to yourself, when you felt completely safe, loved, accepted, honest, when you felt really strong and energized. What was happening? How were you showing up?
Chances are you were actually being your true Self. That's what you have to embrace and grab a hold of. That's the new trapeze bar you've been flying through space to catch.
That story you remember is a snapshot of your Authenticity. Remember it. Relish it. Visualize it again and again. Those powerful positive memories will give you courage to choose Authenticity again and again. Embrace who you really are.
Embrace vulnerability. Let go of the need for perfection, even in trying to be You. Give yourself permission to fail, to make mistakes, to not do it really well every single time you embrace You. That's okay. You're on the journey of Authenticity.
Embrace compassion for your Self and for others. Remember that you are made of both strength and struggle, as Brene Brown puts it.
Embrace that your greatest gift to the world---to everyone around you---the gift that God has given you and you alone, is You. No one else is or can be You. Stand in your Truth and that truth will set you and everyone around you free. Only Authenticity gives freedom. Don't deprive the world of your Authentic You.
So next time, when the situation arises and says, "Will the real You please stand up," jump to your feet, hold your head high, and with joy reply, "Here I am, you lucky people!" :) And the rest of us will the better because of it. So will You.
E.E. Cummings once wrote, "To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself---means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight---and never stop fighting."
Wow! That statement really hits me deeply because I know that to be true in my life experience. There's a reason so many people don't go on the search for their authentic self---because it's so hard, sometimes even painful, definitely difficult. You're often battling against your own powerful limiting beliefs, against other people's expectations of and choices for you. It's easier to deny that nagging thought that we might not really be living our authentic selves.
No wonder it often takes a crisis to shake us off our pedestal, forcing us to go on the search for authenticity. When we choose to push against the system of our own beliefs and others' expectations, the system pushes back. You've felt that, haven't you? The systems in our lives use shame, guilt, religious dogmas (which in essence is using the "God" card---"you're going against God's will for you!"). We're told we're being selfish and narcissistic, thinking only of ourselves. "You just need to sacrifice yourself for the sake of others. After all, didn't Jesus say, 'Take up your cross and follow me?' Remember, life isn't just about you." Those messages are deeply personal and painfully powerful to go up against.
Talk about strong push back. It always happens when you choose to practice authenticity, stepping into the full expression of your true self.
I remember walking the streets, sometimes in the middle of the night, wrestling and struggling with the implications of my choice to live my life rather than the life so many others I looked up to were telling me I was obligated to live. I felt so alone. The weight of the world burdened me down, sometimes even literally, as I felt the loss of so much I had valued in the past. The push back on every level was intense.
But little by little I began to realize that the alternative was even more potentially damaging. Even medical experts these days are recognizing this truth. Here's the way Dr. Brene Brown states it, in her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are:
"If you're like me, practicing authenticity can feel like a daunting choice---there's risk involved in putting your true self out in the world. But I believe there's even more risk in hiding yourself and your gifts from the world. Our unexpressed ideas, opinions, and contributions don't just go away. They are likely to fester and eat away at our worthiness. I think we should be born with a warning label similar to the ones that come on cigarette packages: Caution: If you trade in your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief." (p. 53)
Sacrificing who we are for the sake of what other people think we should be just isn't worth it. There might be some short term pay offs (like superficial and conditional acceptance, affirmation, kudos). But the long term damage, as she points out, are brutal.
So what do you do when you're experiencing the Big Push Back? Brene Brown says she repeats three simply phrases to herself:
Don't shrink. Don't puff up. Stand on your sacred ground.
That's right. Your true Self is sacred ground. It's who God sees you to be and believes for you.
That's why Jesus, when the Devil tempted him to doubt his true Self, refused ... three times in a row ... in the middle of the hot desert ... when he was at his tiredest, hungriest, weakest.
"I don't need to do anything to prove myself to you, Devil, or to please anyone else's expectations for me. I know my truth because it came straight from the mouth of God when He told me, "You are my Beloved Son; I believe in you; I'm proud of you! Period!"
So next time you're feeling the Big Push Back, whether from your own inner doubts or other people or powerful institutions, remember to do three things:
Don't shrink! Don't puff up! Stand on your Sacred Ground!
And when you do, remember you're in good company. Even Jesus did that.
So here's to choosing authenticity. Here's to fighting the good fight. Here's to all the health and well being that come from standing in your truth.
And if you need some support to do this, write me (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I'll suggest some ways I can be helpful. GregoryPNelson.com
I do a lot of coaching with individuals, groups, businesses, teams, churches around the issue of strengths (utilizing the results they get from taking the online StrengthsFinder). What are your top strengths? How are you using them? What are the shadow sides of each of your strengths and how can you manage those shadow sides? How can you use your strengths more intentionally, consciously, and competently? How Strengths Work Increases Well-being
I love doing this strengths work with people because I've seen that when people tap into their strengths more deeply and consciously, their ability to live a more productive and fulfilling life at work, in relationships, and even in spirituality radically increases. In fact, research shows that people who more often than not lead with their strengths are six times more meaningfully engaged in their life circumstances and they experience a three times higher sense of overall well being in life.
Who wouldn't want those kind of odds?
I'm noticing more and more that when people begin this exploration, increasing their understanding of how they're wired and what their innate talents are, they are in fact coming face to face with who they really are and who they are truly designed to be. And that is a profoundly spiritual experience.
Why Strengths Work Is Spiritual
One of the descriptions of spirituality I appreciate is this: "The intentional journey of becoming more whole, more fully alive, and more deeply human which results in authentic and meaningful connections with self, others, and the transcendent.”
The more in-tune we are with who we are, the more in alignment we are with how we are each designed and wired, the deeper and more authentic and meaningful our connections are to others and even to God.
One of the early Church fathers, Irenaeus, wrote,
"The glory of God is man fully alive."
Think about that for a minute. God's glory is heightened and made more evident when people are living fully alive. God's glory is shown, not when we constrict our lives or other people's live, not when we narrow our lives down, but rather when we expand our lives, when we increase our aliveness, when we alignment our lives to who we were made to be and to learn to live that way with more abandon and confidence and courage.
And that's exactly what happens when people tap into their strengths more consciously and competently. They become more uniquely fully alive---they become more of their true selves, as God designed them. Living out our strengths is one of the most significant ways we uniquely manifest the image of God in each one of us.
God is definitely not into the "cookie-cutter" approach to life. All you have to do to see that is to open your eyes and behold---to pay attention and to notice---the profound and immense and rich diversity that exists in this world.
Some Strategic Strengths Questions I Use With Clients
I have the sacred privilege as a strengths coach to be a front-row witness to this wonderful diversity with every person and group I do this work with. I always am in awe of how beautiful and unique every person is. And that individual beauty I see only grows and deepens as people come to embrace their unique strengths profile and learn to live it more consciously and effectively day after day.
So here are some of the questions I assist people in exploring and processing about their strengths:
- How have you seen yourself using each of your top strengths? Give specific examples. Describe how you felt when you were engaged in that activity/behavior.
- What have you noticed is the shadow side of each strength? What is your specific negative tendency with each strength at times? For example, if your strength is Empathy, do you ever find yourself getting too emotionally involved in people? Do you take on their feelings so deeply that you can't seem to let them go, to separate yourself from their feelings, so you can begin to feel exhausted, burned out. Their negative or painful feelings you start to take on yourself? Give specific examples of how you have manifested the shadow side of your strengths.
- How have you noticed your strengths playing out in your relationships? Give some specific examples. For instance, if you have Adaptability, do you tend to wait until the last minute to plan an activity with your significant other? Do you prefer not to structure or plan something but to let it come to you or simply go with the flow? How does your strength(s) impact your significant relationship?
- What is the strengths profile of your significant relationship? How do your top five individual strengths react together as a couple? Where are you both strong? How does that reveal itself in how your relationship shows up in the world? What do people experience in the presence of your relational strengths profile?
- Develop some specific, tangible goals for how you can increase the use of each one of your top strengths in the major life areas: work, relationships, spirituality.
- What are deficiencies in your strengths profile that you need to consider bringing other people with complementary strengths into your life? How can you partner or collaborate with people who bring strengths you don't have so you can be more productive and effective?
I typically go on a 12 session, 3 month journey with the people who want to really dig deep into putting their strengths to work in their lives. And I can tell you, it's a hugely rewarding, satisfying, transforming experience. They all tell me how life changing it is. And the more I do it, the more life changing it is for me, as well.
How Strengths Work Impacts Organizations and Congregations
I also do strengths work with congregations and other organizations. Once people begin to understand the role their strengths can play in their personal lives, this new awareness carries over into their actions within the organizational mission. When we take a look at which of everyone's top strengths are most represented---based upon everyone's test results---that corporate strengths profile delivers some astounding and powerful implications for how the whole group is designed to be at their strongest in the way they serve their constituents and communities. Effective mission and productive service grow exponentially. And people who serve in those groups experience a much higher level of engagement and fulfillment than ever before.
So in the end of life---whatever your view about how that happens in terms of divine accountability for your life---what's true is this:
God will not ask you why you weren't more like someone else. God's only question to you will be, What did you do with what you were given? Did you steward your Self as deeply, passionately, and faithfully as you could? Were you your own true Self?
This is one of the reasons I think strengths work is so spiritually significant---and why I believe in knowing my strengths and using them as courageously and actively as I can. It's about being the only Me that really counts in the end; and the only Me that truly brings me fulfillment, purpose, and joy.
Want to Know More?
Would you like to know more about this process? Feel free to email me: email@example.com. I'd be happy to give you more perspective. Would you like to engage in strengths coaching with me? Feel free to contact me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
What Is the Roar of Awakening? In my last blog, I told the story about the tiger who grew up thinking he was a goat but who finally discovered he was a tiger. Read the story if you haven't already. Upon his discovery, he let out a huge "roar of awakening."
The roar of awakening is the discovery that we are more than we think we are; we have taken on identities that incorrectly or inadequately express our essential being. And when we arrive at this divinely-inspired realization, we experience a totally different reality that expresses itself in a new kind of personal power, passion, and confidence.
One of My Roars of Awakening
One of my roars of awakening came when a highly respected leader in the church I was pastoring years ago deeply yet firmly affirmed my leadership style and effectiveness. I had just downplayed myself to him, making an observation about myself that I had held to be true for years. I had been retelling this narrative to myself every time I encountered a difficult, and potentially conflict-inducing leadership moment.
He stopped me and said, "Greg, I never want to hear you say that about yourself again! Ever!"
"Why?" I pressed back. "I'm just being honest about myself."
"No!" he countered. "You're not! Because it's not true. You're stating an identity that simply has no basis in fact." And then he spent the next five minutes describing all the things he had observed about me in my leadership position which clearly countered my own self-perception.
As he boldly and articulately described what he both saw in and believed about me, the light of truth began to dawn in my mind. I saw it for the first time. He was right. I had been living and believing both an incorrect and inadequate picture of my essential being. I had been living as a goat instead of the tiger I really was.
As I look back now, I can see that that awakening was a watershed moment. My leadership, the owning of my true leadership capabilities emanating from my unique essence, took on a new kind of power and confidence which resulted in profoundly effective outcomes as a spiritual leader and pastor. I had found my "roar."
Obstacles to the Roar: What Is the Narrative You've Been Living?
Have you considered what narratives you've been living in your life that might be incorrect or inadequate? Have you ever taken the time to evaluate the truth about those personal narratives?
We don't only tell inadequate stories about ourselves. We also hold incorrect narratives about others--perhaps our spouses or significant others, our colleagues, our bosses, our friends and family members. The destructive power here is that as we keep retelling these perspectives they grow stronger. They end up seeming truer and truer. So this becomes the reality at the center of our relationships. And we wonder why these relationships can never seem to improve or get better or be fixed.
Painful Consequences of a Wrong Narrative
It is astounding to me how many people are not living their own truth or the truth about others and so have not been able to step into their personal or relational divinely-given power to show up in the world with clarity, confidence, courage, and contentment.
Over the years of living in this unreality, they become satisfied with bleeting like goats instead of roaring like tigers. After awhile, they actually come to believe that they are goats (imagine believing, for example, that you're in a "goat of a relationship" instead of a "tiger of a relationship"--how would that impact how you show up in that relationship?).
Consequently, they never seem to arrive in a place of alignment and congruence with who they really are or what the essence of their relationship truly can be. There's a form of timidity or aggressive conflict they end up manifesting to themselves and to the other. They might not even be aware of it. But there's this subtle hesitancy they often seem to feel in many situations--an inability to really land and be grounded where they are.
In the religious world, we often tend to label this as humility, on the one hand, or righteous indignation, on the other. Truth is, ironically we are actually spiritualizing this sense of inadequacy or conflict by giving it this spiritual attribute in order to feel okay about it.
But it never completely works for us--deep inside we long to be free of this timidity, hesitancy, and sense of personal and relational inadequacy. Without being aware of it at times, we are actually hearing our tiger nature calling out from deep inside us to be embraced.
We cannot allow ourselves to be content with being a goat if our nature is actually a tiger. We must embrace our tiger. Only then will we awaken the roar. Only then will we and our relationships exude a confident, genuinely compassionate presence in the world. And we will be like Jesus, who with a boldness that comes from unconditional acceptance of his truth, loved others shamelessly and tirelessly.
Next time, What does it take to awaken our roar?
"The King's Speech" is the powerful, Oscar-winning true story of one man’s quest to find his voice and of those closest to him who help him find it. For a description of the story, read my last blog post. As the red light in King George VI's broadcast room begins blinking to signal the momentous moment for the royal global broadcast, his speech therapist and friend Lional Logue, knowing how nervous the King is, says to the King, "Forget everything else and just say it to me."
In the next 3 posts, I want to unpack the three parts of that statement. What do they say about discovering your unique, personal significance (your voice) and how can you use your voice to put your unique stamp on the world.
1. "Forget everything else."
This first part of Lionel's statement might be the toughest for some of us--“forget everything else." In this context, it’s forgetting all the obstacles and challenges that tend to intimidate you into silence or timidity or hesitation or staying with the status quo, taking the easiest route ahead.
For King George VI it was the huge audience of millions around the globe; it was the fear of not being able to speak, to have his words choke in his throat and not come out; the fear of failure; the fear of not being enough; fear of now having anything of substance to offer his people. These are HUGE obstacles for the King.
Salon’s review of the King's history put it in perspective: “For all the pomp and privilege of his upbringing, Bertie was essentially an abused child, tormented by nannies, plagued by childhood ailments and raised in isolation from the outside world. He barely knew his parents (Michael Gambon plays King George V, his father), had no real friends, wore painful leg braces and suffered from early childhood from a chronic stammer that made his public appearances painful for everyone. Perhaps the last monarch reared in the old aristocratic style, with a father who ruled at least nominally over one-fourth of the globe's population, Bertie was literally a man trapped between worlds. As Firth plays him, the prickly prince (who spent his early career as a naval officer and teacher) is eager to take offense yet painfully shy, fully aware that the monarchy has become a defanged symbolic contrivance in an age of radio and motorcars, yet halfway convinced that divine right is still involved somewhere.”
He's a man of ambivalence and conflict--unsure of who he really is and unsure of what his real role as King is suppose to be in this new era, and definitely unsure of whether he can fulfill it or not. He's a man with a painful past that's still destructively shaping his present.
So when King George VI finally stands in front of the mike to deliver the most important speech he’s ever delivered and the nation has ever heard, his therapist and friend says, “Forget everything else.”
The Christian scriptures echo Lionel Logue with this significant perspective: “12 I don’t mean to say that I have already achieved these things or that I have already reached perfection. But I press on to possess that perfection for which God has shaped me. 13 No, dear brothers and sisters, I have not achieved it, but I focus on this one thing: Forgetting the past and looking forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on to reach the end of the race and receive the heavenly prize for which God is calling us.” Philippians 3:12-14
Considering the author of these words, this counsel is particularly apropos. St. Paul had quite a colorful past on both sides of the scale. He had achieved great religious significance in his Jewish community--PhD in theology, schooled in the most prestigious schools of religion, impeccable family tree, considered at the top of the religious pyramid. He was so zealous for the Church's religious cause that he was point person for the persecution, arrest, and even in some cases, execution of heretics and dissenters of the Jewish faith. Until he had a dramatic conversion experience and suddenly was convicted that he needed to join the very team he was trying to exterminate. A dramatic turn around, to say the least!
So when he writes about the importance of forgetting the past (both successes and failures), not getting locked in the past, in order the speak his voice in the present with authenticity and truth, he knows what he's talking about.
Forgetting the past isn't about denying it. It's not about pretending it never happened. It's actually about being willing to honor your past, to embrace its reality, to learn from it, to grow from it, to acknowledge that it's forever a part of your story and your journey. It's about letting that past inform you and seeing how it has shaped you. And then it's about letting it go enough to keep it from holding you back in guilt or pride, and moving boldly and confidently into your future by finding your true voice and speaking it.
This is my story, too. I have to let go of the chains of the past in order to courageously step into my truth, in order to stand in the power of my unique authority and show up boldly in the world.
There is no one else on this planet who has my voice, who has my unique experiences from the past and present, who has my individual truth learned from those experiences, and therefore who can speak just like I can. Right? If I don't find my true voice and speak it courageously, the world loses out. And if I can't let go of the chains of the past enough to step into my freedom and personal authority, I deprive myself and the world of important truth. The same goes for you, too.
PERSONAL REFLECTION: What are the obstacles or challenges that tend to hold you back from standing in confidence of who you are and giving voice to your truth and convictions? What tends to keep you from living and speaking with YOUR voice?
Any thoughts about your own journey of "forgetting the past" and what that process has been like for you?
In the next post, I'll talk about what it takes to find your individual unique voice.
"Self care is never a selfish act - it is simply good stewardship of the only gift I have, the gift I was put on earth to offer to others. Anytime we can listen to true self and give it the care it requires, we do so not only for ourselves but for the many others whose lives we touch." - Parker J. Palmer, Let Your Life Speak
It’s interesting how often people feel tinges of guilt when they take time for themselves away from what they feel are their “more important” life responsibilities like family, work, church, civic duties. It’s interesting how some people think that devoting time to understanding themselves more deeply, processing their internal issues and responses to various life situations, evaluating themselves is a waste of time or at best “naval gazing” which implies that it’s an activity that produces nothing of value other than a narcissistic endeavor.
Do you ever struggle with those paradigms?
I am by nature a self-reflective person (an NF in the Myers Briggs sorter, a Type 4 in the Enneagram). I get energized by going through the process of understanding my self with increasing clarity. I could be considered by some a self-assessment and personal growth junky. Well, maybe that’s overstating it a bit. But I do put a premium on this process and journey. Does that make me or others like me narcissistic? Hmmm. Depends.
Our use of the word narcissism comes from the Greek mythological figure Narcissus. As the legend goes, Narcissus was a rugged hunter renowned for his beauty. He was exceptionally proud, in that he disdained those who loved him. As a divine punishment, he fell in love with his own reflection in a pool of water, not realizing it was merely his own image. And he wasted away to death, not being able to leave the beauty of his own reflection.
This Greek myth has been immortalized in literature, poetry, art, music, and even psychology. It tends to refer to the negative human obsession with self, to get caught up in self-absorption, to be filled with vanity and pride at the expense of others. Narcissus is never a hero, always a warning.
Psychology has labeled narcissism as one of the personality disorders that some people suffer from. French writer Marie-Henri Beyle (who used the pen name Stendhal), in his novel Le Rouge et le Noir (1830), described the classic narcissist in the character of Mathilde:
“She looks at herself instead of looking at you, and so doesn't know you. During the two or three little outbursts of passion she has allowed herself in your favor, she has, by a great effort of imagination, seen in you the hero of her dreams, and not yourself as you really are.”
Many of us know people like Mathilde. When we’re around them we never feel truly “seen” or “known” because life is always about them. They seem incapable of moving past themselves to paying attention to others. Narcissism.
But gazing into the pool of your personal reflection (looking into the mirror) is by itself not narcissism. We need to have those authentic, honest times of healthy self reflection. Dr. Parker Palmer refers to this important aspect of self care as “good stewardship of the only gift I have,” the gift of my self to the world. If I’m not willing to spend time caring for my self, understanding my self, helping to bring more wholeness to my self, working to remove negative obstacles to my true self, than I won’t be able to give my best gift of self to the world. I will wound others rather than lift them up. I won’t be able to truly “see” them (like Mathilde) because I’ll be caught up in my own ego with all its insecurities (I admittedly have a lot to work on here). The touch I bring to others will be hurtful rather than helpful. And the world loses out. And so do I.
So what are you doing for your self care? Do you ever feel guilty when you take time for your self? How would you rate your stewardship of self? Do you have an intentional self care plan you’re working this year? How are you showing up in the world these days? Giving your best self? I'd love to hear your thoughts.