Over the many months of writing this blog, I have alluded many times to having chosen vulnerability as a path of spiritual practice for myself, most recently when I wrote about the freedom of committing to a path. As I’ve been on this path for almost 16 years, I wasn’t expecting to be bumped back almost to the very beginning. This is precisely what happened to me over this past weekend as I was sorting out a painful reaction I had to something said about me.
In the past few weeks, I was exposed to quite a number of statements about me that took some effort to digest. I am grateful to years of practice that enabled me to go beyond old habitual ways of taking things personally. For the most part, I felt enormous tenderness toward the person who expressed these statements. Except for this one paragraph that kept spinning inside me. Every time I thought of it, I felt an inner cringe. I don’t like it when I am so preoccupied with something said about me; I feel less free, less open, less capable. I wanted to get relief, and I wanted to have more self-understanding why it was so hard to hear that under certain conditions of acute stress I was perceived as “unpleasant”. And so I brought it up in a conversation with my empathy buddy, fellow NVC trainer Francois Beausoleil.
What I got to after some poking around at the obvious, was the clearest way I’ve ever articulated one of the fundamental dilemmas of being me. The number of times people have difficulties in relation to me is quite high, and I have never been able to understand why. What I am aware of in terms of challenging behavior on my end doesn’t add up to the level of challenge people have expressed to me over the years. There’ve been times, sometimes lasting years, when I lived in debilitating despair about this. Since those days, I’ve developed a high degree of self-acceptance. I’ve also come to a place of much greater peace with the amount of pain and challenge that I experience in my life. Even so, I still experience bouts of acute pain and helplessness. What I became clear of on that conversation was that my internal response to the comprehension gap between my sense of myself and the amount of difficulty people have with me has been to believe – which I still do! – that only by being “perfect” in some elusive way in my social behavior will I be able to prevent the prevalent challenges that people have with me. This belief persists despite my knowing that “perfection” doesn’t exist; despite my knowing that it’s not in my power to affect other people’s reactions to me; and despite my deep self-acceptance. The result is that I put enormous pressure on myself in terms of how I act. During that period of stress when I was perceived as “unpleasant”, and at almost all other times, I strive to either be fully present despite the challenges in my life, or to be fully authentic about my inability to be present, and to ask for support so I can become present. What was so painful was to imagine that my stress “leaked” despite my valiant efforts to manage it with grace.
In this moment, as I am writing this, already calm about this situation, I am not surprised if this indeed happened. One of the areas of challenging behaviors on my end is precisely that I can become abrupt, even shrill in moments, when I am under a lot of stress and I am trying to make something happen. So, looking at it now, all it means is that it happened in some moments when I thought I was more present than I was. That’s only human. I can feel tender toward myself and toward others at the same time.
After my conversation with Francois, I went for a walk with a friend and shared with her my perception of the two ways that I could see myself contributing to difficulties people have with me. One is this behavior under stress, and the other is a certain kind of oblivion in terms of social wisdom, blind spots, lack of consciousness, which always surprise me when anyone points them out. They are always obvious after the fact, and I don’t catch them when they happen. I can so totally see how on the receiving end this can register as lack of care.
That was the point when the bigger surprise came. After listening to me, my friend, who’s known me for years, brought to my attention a third way in which interacting with me can be challenging. I hadn’t remembered that I often make it quite challenging for people to give me love and care unless it comes in “just so” forms which only few people ever find. While I have known this, and know where this protection originated in my childhood, I hadn’t until that day related it to my path of vulnerability. Suddenly, I saw the paradox: how could it be that after almost 16 years of being on that path it was still difficult for me to receive care in other forms than the precise ones that my organism favors? That’s when I understood that my path of vulnerability has been on my terms: I come out, by my volition, and “undefend” myself. I express myself and willingly accept consequences. This is only one side of vulnerability. I’ve not yet even begun exploring what cultivating receptive rather than volitional vulnerability would look like. I’ve had a couple of small experiences that have given me pointers to what this could be. One such experience showed me that this kind of vulnerability is about letting go of a certain kind of holding, allowing the world to “catch” me, and taking the risk that I might “fall” and there would be nothing to land on. A far greater risk to this organism than ridicule or lack of acceptance. It’s about stepping, once again and beyond infancy, into the experience of being at the mercy of others. It’s about a form of deep surrender I’ve only experienced fleetingly. Just as much as I wanted to reclaim my vulnerability when I started my path, I can almost feel the yearning to find my place, to rest in the grand scheme of things, to be part of, not so separate, not so alone.
Now, as I am wrapping up this piece, the confusion I so often have when I write about myself surfaces again. Why would anyone be interested in the intricacies of my inner life? How could this be of any meaning to anyone else? Would anyone judge me for this – as self-absorbed? Complicated? Wordy? And now I see that the journey, the new one, is beginning, because a new question arises: how can I open up to the possibility that some people may respond with love and appreciation? How can I allow myself to take it in, to enjoy it, to rest in it?
Incomplete, confused, raw, and so fully human, I place this piece and myself in your hands.