Winter Green

8 Aug 2019

I often talk about this 'vulnerability' stuff, but what actually is it and why on earth would anyone want to do it? For me personally, the vulnerability journey has been anything but fun. Deciding to fully feel and welcome any feelings that are uncomfortable or painful is no walk in the park. It was 18 months of travelling the vulnerability road before I noticed some actual results from it that were worth celebrating. Most of the moments in between were frustrating, scary, confronting, eye-opening, winding, crushing, heartbreaking, and embarrassing. So why would anyone want to do it?

For me, it was in understanding something important about how I see myself and how that is always in balance with how I see other people. As a boss, I wanted my staff to never be ashamed to talk to me, even about the most confronting things. I was managing a team of around 160 people, plenty of whom were experiencing their first job. Working with them over a couple of months would see them navigating personal growth, trauma, changes, mistakes, successes. I wanted to be in that with them and to have them feel comfortable to talk to me about those challenges without feeling like I was judging them.

Here was the thing, though. I thought that emotions in my life and decision-making were weak, irrational, illogical, not at important as intellect and a waste of energy. If I could control my feelings, I was an adult and that mastery gave me the power and composure to be the rock I needed for my staff, family and friends. But what I didn't realise is that if I thought my own emotions were weak, irrational, illogical and a waste of energy, it didn't matter how much I was open and kind and empathetic to the people I was supporting. By suppressing, judging and dismissing my own emotions, I was fundamentally unable to fully commit to not judging other people's. The reason for that is, while on the surface I came across as genuinely open and caring (and heck, I even came across that way under the surface), if I was limiting the capacity of feeling I allowed myself I was absolutely putting a cap on what I was capable of feeling for other people.

It was written down for me in these seven words:
De-emphasises the feelings of self and others.

We were at the opening retreat of an incredible 12-month leadership program. We'd done a leadership skills analysis and those seven words were written down in my top six traits. It was incredibly confronting but what it did for me changed the way that I saw the drive to control emotions. Understanding that any limits I put on myself limited my capacity to understand, empathise with and connect with other people, meant that I had a new way of looking at the mastery of my emotions. It made me flip from thinking controlling them made me feel powerful to feeling like a prisoner of my past habits. I could feel incredibly powerful things: anger, disgust, fear, embarrassment, weakness, pain and I had suppressed every single one because they were inconvenient. By cutting them off I had put a limit on what I could possibly feel or be. I had detached huge parts of myself in order to cope with challenges instead of to experience them.

I then had to unpack why these particular emotions weren't favourable to feel. Why did I see feeling as such a weakness? It was at this point I had to begin slowly separating them out. Someone who feels anger is not an angry person. One passing emotion is not the measurement of them. The courage to show up, feel it with the whole heart and then let it pass, that is the measurement of them. This separation of emotion from the person had to happen gradually and at multiple levels. The moment I felt like I understood that because I felt pain that didn't make me weak, I would have to relearn the same lesson from another angle and at a deeper level.

Any lesson we learn in life is not flat. Lessons are multi-dimensional. They have as many facets as a brilliant-cut diamond. Lessons have multiple facets because we as people are multidimensional. Every lesson we learn has as many facets as we do. So while it may feel like 'why am I learning this lesson again, I should know this', I'm not repeating the same lesson, I'm learning a new part of it and at the same time I'm learning a new part of myself.

So back to feeling pain. Think of it like slowly getting into the water at the beach when the weather isn't too blisteringly hot to care about the temperature of the water. At first, you start with just your feet, but you're not swimming yet. Your feet adjust to the temperature and they feel like the water is great, like it was never too cold to enter. Now at this point, you could get out, lay in the sun for a bit, warm-up, then return and have the same experience with the water being too cold. Or, you could stay in the water and appreciate that you're having the courage to see how it feels. Now imagine a wave comes in. You're not far in the water, so the wave is only going to lap at your calves. But you're calves haven't been in the water yet. Your feet may have adjusted but your calves are shocked at the cold. Again, you could get out now. It's not comfortable. The thought of getting your knees wet when your calves are so cold could be too much to bear. So you stay with just your calves wet. Then they adjust. So you move a little deeper into the water. But you're not swimming yet. And a wave will come again and the next part that is hit won't be used to the cold and wet and will take a little while to adjust. And eventually, you'll be swimming.

Now, unlike swimming, vulnerability is not something you can jump into headfirst, start swimming and have it done with. Everything I did to protect myself from things that were uncomfortable I did for a reason. There are years of habits and behaviour that I would need to change and the thing about habits is that they are subconscious. So I'd open myself up to feeling the hard thing and then a circumstance that would make me feel that hard thing would arise. My natural instinct would be to turn away from it, push it down, control it, subdue it, shut it off and I'd have to stop the entire machine from doing the old habit. I would have to manually sit at the controls and force myself to build a new, difficult and uncomfortable response to the circumstance. When I'd manage to do it once, the circumstance would come back again and it would feel bigger than last time because what I could feel could be bigger. It could be more nuanced. It could be much more specific and the whole gritty process would begin again. And there were hundreds of circumstances in daily life I had learned to navigate with stoicism. And there were hundreds of different emotional responses I had refused to let myself feel. 

With every inch that I won back as I learned to feel, my capacity to feel grew. Which seems nicely romantic except that the things I was learning to feel were difficult to embrace. It wasn't fun to learn how big a pain or fear or embarrassment I could feel. But the thing about this is that feeling the uncomfortable things means I would build my capacity to feel their opposite as well. Without fear, there is no courage. Without embarrassment, there is no confidence or humility. Without pain, there is no joy. To feel one greatly is to exercise the capacity feel the other the same.

But I haven't gone into why this vulnerability stuff is important and that is: resilience. It was 18-months before I noticed this resilience. It wasn't an imperviousness to the brutal feelings that happened, it was an ability to observe the responses I had, to still be able to feel them and to bounce back from them in a way I had never felt before. It was in the ability to not be ashamed of the kaleidoscope of emotions I might feel and to be able to articulate where they came from. It was to be in a challenging moment, to come out of it in a different place mentally and emotionally than I would have before and to think 'ah, there it is'. It was to go through difficult things with a quiet pride that I was being both completely honest with myself and that I was living each moment fully.

So for every minute that I invested letting myself fully feel any painful or uncomfortable things I ended up accidentally building up my capacity to feel their opposites. There's an old saying that your cup of sorrow is as big as your cup of joy. There have been some wonderful moments where I have been able to test the boundaries of the joy and love I can feel. Even better, it has definitely changes the way I connect with people and it means I bring a lot more humanity into things. It feels a little like when the numbness is wearing off after the dentist. Parts of myself that were numb are now waking up and alive and I can feel them. It's like coming home to myself.

These pics and this shoot have been bouncing around in my brain for a while. While it isn't the exact weather conditions I wanted, I still adore the final product. Winter is such an underrated season and I am glad I got to do this outfit and shoot to capture the romance of it. To achieve it, I brought in one of my favourite people, Olivia French. She's a buddy that I've been coaching a little bit to help me do photos such as these. We met in the freezing cold at sunrise, just before the drizzling rain started. She did a beautiful job capturing what I was visualising.

Unfortunately, all the items I'm wearing will be hard for you to find since I've owned all of them for years. For your own curiosity though, they are:

Coat: Review
Dress: Alexandra Grecco
Shoes: Modcloth

- L

1 comment

  1. An inspiring and truly thought-provoking post. And a gorgeous coat too - that colour is amazing on you!


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