"Self-Effacing Woman" by Soraida Martinez

I have been on the vulnerability path for many years now. I have talked in front of groups hundreds of times. I write a blog, which makes me in principle visible to anyone. Still, when I am in a group that I am not facilitating (it does happen!), it’s still sometimes challenging for me to express what I want.

In the workshops I lead, and in meetings I facilitate within organizational settings, I often see people who either don’t speak, or speak very hesitantly. One example stands out to me in particular, a woman who had a high level administrative position, who was respected by everyone, and who was carrying significant responsibility and decision-making authority at an organization I consulted with. Time and again the owners of the company would invite her into meetings for the explicit purpose of hearing her opinion which they valued so much, and yet she would somehow relegate herself to the role of taking notes, as if that were the purpose for which she was invited. When I talked with her about it, she literally found it difficult to trust that her opinion was, indeed, sought and valued.

Why is this happening, and why do I care about it enough to dedicate a blog entry to it?

I’ll get to why it’s happening and what I want to do about it further below. I want, first, to speak about why this is so important to me why I believe that changing the way we relate to our presence in the world, learning to trust that we matter, and acting on that premise, are part of what’s necessary to create a social order that truly supports life in thriving on our one and only planet.

Participating in Life

A social order that doesn’t work for most people depends on people not standing up for themselves; not speaking up when something is not working; not taking seriously their ideas, needs, dreams, and feelings; not trusting themselves to be “enough” to make a difference; not reaching out to others to create change together; not standing out “too much” by being different.

This is not a conspiracy theory. I don’t believe anyone does this intentionally to anyone else for the purpose of perpetuating the existing social order. Rather, the basic norms of behavior, the basic rules of socialization in most of our societies (recently described in an article I really appreciated), prepare most children to be passive, to doubt their value, and to accept or resign to life as it’s presented. It is only in unusual circumstances that people act as if their participation matters.

I want to transform these conditions. I want to change the reality in which the vast majority of people are occupied, primarily, by the basics of life, whether it be how to have enough food for the children by the end of the day, or how to manage all the multiple errands and complexities of life, even as someone with significant resources. I want people to take their dreams seriously, even to begin to have dreams beyond the hope that their children have a better life than their own.

On a smaller scale, I have a deep faith that life is not a zero-sum game. The word “faith” doesn’t really do it justice, because faith implies a level of not-knowing, while my own trust in the true possibility of mutually enhancing outcomes is based on experience. The synergy of creative solutions depends on full engagement.

I am reminded, once again and so often, of the simple agreement one couple I know practices: ask for everything you want and always tell the truth. We can only ask for everything we want when we believe that we matter, that the other person would care, that our well-being is important. We can only tell the truth when we trust that the truth that lives in us is valuable and can contribute to an outcome that works for all even if it’s initially not the most pleasant. On a phone call I led earlier today I worked with a woman who was struggling with believing that she had to be nice and polite. It didn’t take long for her to connect deeply to her knowledge that telling the truth was more honoring of the other people in her life, and provided more possibility for intimacy and meaningful connection.

When we move beyond individual relationships into groups and organizations, many people simply disappear. I have found a pervasive tendency on the part of so many people to see themselves as an “add-on” to a group rather than “part of” the group. People hardly take in that their presence or absence in a group changes the group, and instead imagine that the group is “there” and they join or don’t instead of seeing themselves as participating in shaping the life of the group.

On all levels, my own perspective is that whenever any of us goes all the way for ourselves, fully and truly, we become a vehicle for life unfolding. I don’t mean it in the sense that any one of us holds all the truth about anything. Rather, I mean it in the sense that when we speak up from the center of who we are, without hesitation, without holding back, without editing or covering up, then what lives within us becomes a gift to the group, a gift that no one else could make. This is a tricky proposition, because, often, after years of covering up the truth and being “nice,” we may accumulate a lot of anger and judgments. The kind of not covering up that I mean is about digging deeper than anger, to the core truth and vulnerability of what we truly want, what matters to us in its full rawness, the dreams and visions and wishes we have. That is the level at which our gifts can shine.

I have seen so many times a group being on the verge of making a decision that only one person is unhappy with, and if that person is willing to bring forth their concern a better decision emerges for the whole group through integrating what’s of so much importance to this person.

It’s not that we can’t be a drain of resources on ourselves and others. Of course we can, and often are. As odd as it may seem, my experience is that this happens when we don’t go fully for what is true. When we fight what is inside us it either erupts or leaks without our awareness, or it is held back and requires much effort to bring it out to light. Either way, the gift of wisdom that could be given to others remains elusive. When, instead, we take full ownership of what we speak for, we can be more creative and flexible to work with others to transcend polarities and arrive at unexpected results that work better for everyone.

Stepping into Our Power

In this area, as in many others, I learn a lot from observing children, especially the very young ones. The younger we are, the less socialized, and the less traumatized, the more we act intuitively from within, free to express and to trust. The quintessential image of a toddler sharing exuberantly the latest accomplishment or find is my metaphor for how we can all be.

Almost all of us have lost this initial unself-conscious approach to life. How can we find the willingness to break loose from the constraints of so many years?

Because I believe in practice as a path to freedom, I think about small steps that can have meaningful consequences. One of them is to examine the language we use when speaking in groups, and remove, consciously, any of the words or little habits we have that undermine the power of what we say. For example, one woman at a recent workshop I led used the phrase “I don’t know” whenever she spoke in the group. At one point I worked with her on saying all she was saying without those words. This brought her face to face with some feelings she needed to work her way through in order to embrace her power, a piece of work she would otherwise not reach for.

Another practice, one which I continue to engage in again and again, is to take action even when we are not feeling ready. We don’t need to be or know anything before acting. We don’t need assurance that things will work out or that we will be accepted before acting. So many times when I write a blog I have so much uncertainty. The more personal, the more uncertainty. I can get easily flooded with a familiar experience of vulnerability which comes up when I want to write things that are about myself, a momentary dip into self-doubt: is it really something that would interest other people? Is there a gift there, or am I “using” this medium to satisfy myself?

My practice, the one that has deepened my capacity for vulnerability and with it my power, has been to do it anyway. To speak the truth even when I fear consequences. To expose the tender spots even if I not sure they will be received in the way I want. To go forward even if I don’t know what will unfold. To take on a task even if I don’t have all the skills or resources to do it.

When I write, it means, often, taking an extra breath and hitting the “send” button when emailing the written piece to Dave, who then edits, finds images, and posts the final result. When I am with other people, it means soliciting internal and external support, even when I am in a leadership position, so that I can say the truth, always, and with the most care possible.

No amount of hiding, giving in to self-consciousness, or being nice and agreeable will get us, collectively, to a different social order. We can’t wait for others to do it for us any longer. It seems to me the time has come for each of us to live full force, because there is no one else who can be you or me. It sounds simple, and yet I find it so intensely true that it’s almost overwhelming. The more we make our gifts easy to see, the more we own, embrace, and embody our gifts, the more we move toward that glorious vision of a world in which all of us are truly free.

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