Caitlin is traveling with friends this week, and the trip involves a flight. If there is one phobia that I haven’t quite managed to shake, it’s flying. I love to travel, but you don’t want to be the person stuck next to me in a plan – I gasp and grab the armrests a lot. Suffice it to say that while I trust the family taking my daughter and I’m so grateful to them for providing her with this adventure, my maternal anxiety is in overdrive today. Caitlin doesn’t know that. I’m not a big fan of letting my neuroses impact my children’s experiences. I was texting a friend last night about my struggles with letting my daughter “spread her wings” despite my personal discomfort. “Seems like adulthood is all about doing the hard thing for the long-term benefit,” I commented.
For me, “the hard thing” usually involves letting go of control. (See ‘fear of flying’ – above. I’d probably be fine if I were the pilot.) I’ve come to realize, though, that most of the time, my desire to control the circumstances around me has less to do with fear of what those circumstances may produce than fear of what will be revealed about me in those circumstances.
I intermittently follow Brené Brown’s blog at www.ordinarycourage.com. Brown is a research professor whose work focuses a lot on the value of vulnerability and the trap of its opposite, perfectionism. In an article for CNN, Brown writes, “Perfectionism is a 20-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it's the thing that's really preventing us from being seen and taking flight.”
I don’t know about you, but I have spent most of my life listening to the voices in my head that give a running commentary about how any thought, word, action, or inaction of mine will be perceived by others – the voices that say “that’s not good enough.” Yet, all of the cool things, the magical things that have happened in my life have come from allowing myself to be vulnerable, to take risks – including the risk of looking like a screw-up or of being rejected. It is only when I manage to turn off those voices, that the real me gets a chance to spread her wings and be heard. (There’s a reason I write with the doors shut.)
But, the hard part is that vulnerability isn’t always rewarded. Sometimes you will lose something precious. Sometimes you will be misunderstood. Sometimes you will, in fact, be rejected for the person you are. And, it’s hard to keep plugging forward in the face of those losses, to convince yourself that it’s better to risk rejection as yourself than to be accepted for someone that you aren’t.
My son is a perfectionist. His teacher, my husband, and I have spent most of Aidan’s academic career working on convincing him to take risks with his work, and to accept that the occasional mistake doesn’t necessitate starting over or giving up entirely. Yesterday morning’s “book report” kerfluffle was emblematic. When I asked, “How did your book report go on Friday?” I hadn’t expected him to burst into tears and bury his face in his hands. It turned out that when I had nixed his original idea for the report (which involved copying a section of the book word-for-word), he got stuck and couldn’t figure a way out, but was too ashamed to ask for help.
Shame is the evil cousin of perfectionism.
Aidan didn’t see his original idea as plagiarism. To him, the part of the book that he wanted to present had already been written, so it was obviously “right.” He struggles with the concept of doing anything original or creative to showcase what he got from the book because he’s afraid that what he produces will be “wrong.”
The lesson that I hope someday to get Aidan to see, and the lesson that I hope Caitlin will continue to integrate, is that we are so much more real when we keep ourselves moving forward in the face of our imperfections – our humanity.
One last anecdote on the beauty of vulnerability:
I’ve written before about my friend, the singer Vatrena King. Vatrena has one of the most truly lovely voices I have ever heard, but more importantly, she possesses a quiet, generous soul and iron strength. In December, she held a concert that she and her friend and manager, Poppy Peach, had been planning and working toward for months. A week or two before the concert, I interviewed Vatrena for our local paper, and she told me the history of one of the songs she would perform. “It Is Well With My Soul” was written in the 1800s by a gentleman who had lost his family under tragic circumstances, yet, in the face of that loss, he wrote a song of acceptance and strength.
As fate would have it, Vatrena was hit by a nasty respiratory virus on the day of the concert. Now, we’ve all heard of diva singers cancelling concerts for the merest throat tickle “to preserve their voices” – or, more likely, to preserve their sense of self. Vatrena, however, though she could barely speak, powered through her concert with joy and humor. She even joked at one point that while she is normally a soprano, she was having fun seeing what life is like as a tenor.
No, Vatrena’s voice that night wasn’t up to its usual standard, but her performance showcased something far more beautiful – love. Her love for her friends, family, and fans in the hall that night shone in every note she sang. She was willing to risk the vulnerability of an imperfect performance in order to be real and to show her gratitude to the people she loves. And, that vulnerability created something far more powerful than perfection ever could. Listen: