You and I become the sum total of the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, our personal narratives. Here are four steps to developing the right, most empowering narrative.
I was finishing a coaching session with a couple and decided to ask the question, "So which of your strengths would you like your partner to ask you to contribute to your marriage more often?" What followed was 45 minutes of profound, deep, honest, heartfelt sharing between both of them.
She stated that from the beginning of their marriage, when she had tried to organize and activate him around one of their tasks, he had told her not to nag him.
"I realized at that moment that because I never wanted to be a nag in our relationship, I simply stopped contributing my strong achiever strengths. But I realize right now that I am extremely strong in being able to activate things, get things done and organized. I really want you to ask me to use those strengths on our behalf as a couple, for our sake together."
He looked at her, some tears in his eyes, and said, "I can see that now - this is your area of powerful strength. You were being sensitive to my feelings. But now I want you to know that I deeply honor your strengths and I want to ask you to use them freely on our behalf, to make us even stronger than we are."
In turn, he said to her, "I want you to ask me - to trust my deeply relational strengths - to use my abilities to pull people in, to go deeper with people, to include and help build deeper relationships, even in our relationship with each other. I want to know that you truly honor and respect these strengths and their wisdom in me. I want you to ask me to use them even more."
I sat there, realizing that I was witnessing a powerful sacred moment - two people truly "seeing" each other, truly being seen by each other - two people honoring and respecting the pure goodness and strength in each other.
I've seen again and again that this is what happens when couples take the time to
- identify their top strengths,
- to share with each other what those strengths are,
- to affirm and validate each other's strengths and how each person is using them,
- to engage in dialogue and discovery about how their individual strengths can work together in creating the strongest, most authentic, and effective relationship,
- to apply this discovery to developing a relationship mission statement, along with specific ways (goals) to moving forward as a couple in building on that mission,
- and to truly honor who they are as a couple and the unique, relational presence they can have in the world around them.
It's a powerful things to observe!
That's why I'm offering a four hour workshop to help lead couples through this kind of experience and process together (and it also includes a personalized 90 minute skype session with me after the workshop). The potential of building an even stronger relationship is powerful, especially when you focus on your strengths. It's about learning how to leverage your strengths in a way that transforms your relationship from mere survival to thriving. Who among us wouldn't want that for the most important relationship in our lives?
Go to the Events page on my site for more information.
No matter how long you've been in your committed relationship, no matter your age, no matter your hang ups, healthy and strong relationships take intentionality, focus, honesty, and energy. This workshop will offer you that space and some important tools to engage with each other. And it will be fun, informative, and possibly even transformational.
Both of you are worth it! And so is your relationship! Feel free to share this opportunity with others you know.
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.
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.
My wife and I recently watched the Oscar-nominated movie Flight. It's an incredibly powerful and even disturbing story about an airline pilot (played in an Oscar-worthy performance by Denzel Washington) who is forced to come face to face with his own truth--something he's been avoiding his whole life. Spoiler Alert: The powerful irony of the movie is illustrated in the final scene where he sits in his prison AA group and remarks that he's never felt this free in his whole life. There is something very liberating that comes from standing in your truth, embracing who you are, owning your strengths and weaknesses, your successes and failures, and being willing to look past your performance to the more foundational issue of core identity. Where does your true value and worth come from: the roles you play every day? The quality of your behavior every day? Or is there something more grounded and centered and fundamental?
Captain Whip Whitaker (Denzel Washington) gets those two realities confused. He's clear on his performance as an airline pilot--he's one of the best in the industry and the story's crisis reveals that truth. But he has placed his identity exclusively in that role to the exclusion of admitting another truth: his alcoholism. And as long as he refuses to stand in that truth, his denial continues placing people, including himself, in painful harm's way.
Captain Whitaker doesn't experience true freedom until he finally embraces the whole truth.
So here are FOUR WAYS TO EXERCISE YOUR TRUTH MUSCLE:
Embrace the whole truth about yourself.
We all have a shadow side--that place that is trying to get heard in order to make sense of life--which often manifests itself in unhealthy, unhelpful ways.
For example, we lash out at and fight with our partners, not because we want to be jerks, but because we want to be heard, we want greater intimacy. Unfortunately, we've chosen an approach that goes counter to the very thing we're longing for and instead creates greater distance. We maintain some addictions, not because we want to imprison ourselves in unbreakable chains and create terrible chaos and pain and suffering in our lives and everyone else's, but because we're hungry for belonging, a sense of worth and value, and we desire deeper, more lasting pleasure and intimacy. Unfortunately, we've chosen an approach that goes counter to the very thing we're longing for and instead creates greater distance and suffering. We get hooked on unhealthy ways to compensate for our lack--it's quicker, sometimes easier, but far more deeply painful.
But the whole truth is also that we have a light side in us. We love others with good motives. We serve others for their own good not just ours. We develop healthy intimacy with ourselves and others. We give with unselfish compassion and caring. We choose delayed gratification at times for the right reasons, in the right places, in the right ways. We show honor and respect to people, including ourselves. We affirm and appreciate others, including ourselves.
As the great wisdom traditions describes, we are this mix of yin and yang, shadow and light, healthy and unhealthy motives, ego and soul. Both sides are a part of us which make up the whole truth. To deny one for the sake of the other is to cripple the whole.
Honor your Shadow side.
Our shadow side must be acknowledged and honored for what it contributes to us--the understanding of what is trying to be heard from deep within ourselves. My cry for intimacy, or for wanting to be seen and heard and honored, or for wanting to feel the depths of life and joy and happiness, or for wanting to feel significant is a deeply human hunger and need. We have to address these desires. To deny them is to deny our humanness and short-circuit the goal of being fully alive as God intended. Our goal is to learn how to dig deeper for the most basic ache inside ourselves and then to choose the most effective, healthy ways to satisfy it.
Genuine satisfaction can not be experienced until the deepest, most true hunger is identified.
How would you describe your shadow side? How does it manifest itself? What is your shadow saying about what's most important to you?
By being willing to embrace your shadow and listen to it, your honoring it will facilitate your experience of your whole truth.
Learn from your Hungers.
Hungers are not bad. Even Jesus affirmed and blessed hunger when he said in the Beatitudes, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied." (Matthew 5:6)
Having hungers is not bad. Acknowledging them is a part of wisdom. Understanding them leads to wholeness.
The hunger that has the most satisfaction and fulfillment, says Jesus, is the hunger for what is right, true, noble, pure, just, helpful, loving, compassionate, hopeful. Hunger, which is the deepest, truest form of desire and want, is what must be honored and embraced.
So what do you learn about yourself from your hungers and desires? What values do your hungers reveal are most important to you? How do your hungers correspond to the above list of what Jesus calls the most satisfying? What is it that you really, really, really want and how does that specific truth inform you about your whole truth?
One of the powerful paradigms in the 12 Step Recovery program is the insistence on standing in your truth, the whole truth, and practicing it relentlessly. That means refusing to deny the addiction and what it means to you; refusing to live in dishonesty; agreeing to name your shadow daily. And it also means working hard to embrace the other side of your truth--learning how to feed the light side, live in it more completely and honestly, stepping into regular practices and behaviors that reinforce that part of the truth.
What are the practices you've developed that reinforce and solidify your experience of your truth? Do you have daily mantras and inspirational readings that reinforce your truth? Do you pray and meditate on it? Do you finds creative ways to serve and give to others from a place of unselfish compassion? Do you engage in self affirmations about who you really are, your true identity as a deeply loved and fully accepted human being by God?
In the end, as Jesus once observed, it is only the truth that sets us free. Captain Whip Whitaker experienced that in a very dramatic way. You and I can experience it in our own ways. The nature of truth is that when it is honestly embraced, it is the most truly liberating and empowering experience on earth.
"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.
"Death is not the biggest fear we have; our biggest fear is taking the risk to be alive - the risk to be alive and express what we really are." Don Miguel Ruiz I spent some time this morning at the Federal Building for Immigration downtown San Francisco supporting one of my gay friends, a dear colleague in ministry and one of our leaders of Second Wind. He appeared in front of an immigration judge this morning to tell his story in order to apply for legal asylum here in the States. His request is based upon the real dangers of being gay in the religious subculture he lived and worked all of his adult life within in his home country. When he emerged from the court room with his lawyer and we debriefed the experience, I asked him what it felt like to retell his story in great detail. "It was cathartic in many ways but also very painful - remembering all the awful things I encountered when I came out as gay: the ostracization from my church community, the loss of my pastoral occupation and reputation, my marriage, the pain for everyone including my kids who had to put up with ridicule from their friends and others, living with the fear of rejection every day, often experiencing it in painful ways. But I feel good about how clearly and openly I told my story to the judge." His son was there to speak to the judge on behalf of his father, too. "I want for us both to be able to live here in this country and build our lives here," he told me.
Now my friend (along with his long time committed partner) waits for two weeks to hear the immigration judge's verdict. And we wait with them as their friends and spiritual community who love them and are committed to the journey of life together.
And I'm reminded of the great courage and bravery he's manifesting to take the risk to be genuinely alive, the risk to express who he really is in spite of the consequences he's both faced and continues having to put up with even in this country. I admire him for his honesty and his integrity to live with transparency and congruity.
It's not easy choosing to be alive and really live life in alignment and integration. It takes risks. We have to encounter our fears. We have to be willing to fail from time to time but then to pick ourselves up and keep moving forward. It's not easy.
Have you ever asked yourself what your biggest fears are to living the life you feel deep inside you're called to live? What does the cage look like that might tend to keep you from being really alive?
Maybe that's why in my work with people I encounter so many who are simply trying to survive, to make it to death safely, not pushing the edges of their lives, simply maintaining the status quo. It's easier that way - it appears less risky. But notice I say "appears" because in actuality, it's more risky. When you live your life out of alignment, not being who you really, trying to live someone else's life instead of your own, when you're not living your calling and purpose, settling instead for status quo, your inner spirit and physical body pick up on this lack of congruity and create what we call dis-ease - a restlessness inside, a lack of ease. Experts remind us that this condition is a condition of stress. And when you live with this state of stress for a long time it becomes chronic. And chronic stress has been shown to be terribly debilitating to the body, leading to a susceptibility to disease and illness on multiple levels, including depression. Our human systems are designed to experience maximum status when there's complete alignment between our emotions, our feelings, our thoughts, and our behaviors - when we're living within the integrity of our true selves, when we're using how we're wired with boldness and confidence and purpose.
As I listened to my friend's lawyer giving a thumbnail sketch of the process this morning and where it goes from here, I felt deep admiration for her as a professional who is so committed to helping people enjoy the opportunity to live life deeply and freely in this country. I was reminded of the profound statement of mission and purpose Jesus stated when he began his ministry. He quoted from Isaiah 61, applying the mission of God to himself: "God's Spirit has anointed me and chosen me to bring freedom and liberation to the captives, to proclaim this as the year of God's redemption and favor for all."
In my opinion, this powerful and professional lawyer who is helping our friend and all her other clients has stepped into the legacy of the great prophets of old and Jesus himself who came to give all people the joy of freedom and liberation to be alive, really alive.
Filming the event this morning was another of my friends here in the City. He and his wife (both leaders in our Second Wind spiritual community) are producing a documentary about gays who are trying to reconcile their sexual identity with their religious and spiritual orientation. These two courageous people are sacrificing everything they have to travel the country (carrying their 20 month old daughter along) filming stories to highlight this tremendous need. They, too, have stepped into the legacy of Jesus' mission of announcing the freedom and liberation to be alive, really alive, for all people. I admire their persistent passion and boldness.
It takes courage to take the risk to be alive no matter what your orientation - "the risk to be alive and express what we really are." This isn't about sexuality. It's about being human on every level. We all face it. And it's risky business. We have to take intentional steps forward every day, choosing to live deeply and purposefully instead of letting the days go by without any thought or awareness or momentum. It's about choosing to live our God-given life, not someone else's.
But in the end, for those who are willing to take that risk for themselves and on behalf of others, the reward of living in alignment, of living with purpose and mission, of choosing courage and boldness instead of fear and intimidation will far outweigh the risks. There's certainly stress in taking risks. But this kind of stress - eustress - always trumps distress! It's actually good for you.
I love the way George Bernard Shaw describes this kind of life. This is the way I want to live. This kind of life is the highest level of spirituality and it produces the most profound kind of transformation possible (Jesus' life showed this to be true). Here it is:
"This is the true joy in life, the being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a might one; the being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances, complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy.
"I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community, and as long as I live it is my privilege to do for it whatever I can.
"I want to be thoroughly used up when I die, for the harder I work, the more I live. I rejoice in life for its own sake. Life is no brief candle to me; it is a sort of splendid torch which I have got hold of for the moment, and I want to make it burn as brightly as possible before handing it on to future generations."
So here's to taking the risk of being alive and expressing what we really are, for our sakes and for others and for Life itself!
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