At Arm’s Length

I don’t bite, but please don’t come any closer. (Taken by my best friend for her B&W Photography 101 Class)

When I first meet someone, I tend to keep my mouth shut and smile.

Talking to an old friend over coffee is nice. I just listen intently and nod as they share their stories.

When I talk to acquaintances or exchange emails with my blog readers, I hear time and time again,

You’re so honest and genuine, yet…I feel like you’re holding back.

And when I go on to ask what I should do differently,

Let us get to know the real Erin. What is a typical day like for you? What makes you come alive? What do you do when you’re not writing?

My initial response is usually a slightly defensive sigh and perhaps an eye roll. Then I pause and wonder, Do I really come across as aloof? The fact that the same critique continues to come up–both in real life and within the realm of blogging–makes me believe that maybe I am suppressing and concealing parts of who I am. A pocketful of bright confetti strips, stuffed into the dark depths of my favorite jeans, secretly longing for the freedom to carelessly flail about in the wind.

For years, I’ve been picking at the outer seams, cautiously tucking my colorful idiosyncrasies further and further from view. For years, I’ve been attempting to understand how it is that I can be seen as authentic and relatable, yet simultaneously apprehensive and unfeeling. Somehow both a mass of charged energy and a complete enigma.

I think I compartmentalize topics into safe zones while sectioning off others with caution tape. Make yourself at home in the living room, but don’t you dare peek into my son’s filthy bedroom! I’ve always been good at analytic problem-solving, so I want to talk about about how to optimize your work space because I can actually help; I absolutely love yoga, but I’ve only been practicing for a year, so I don’t feel I’m experienced enough to offer any helpful insights. It feels as if some doors have been swung wide open and others are dead-bolted shut, without my realizing it and against my will.

I recently met up with my cousin for dinner. He’s five years older than me, so he has always been like a big brother. There has always been lots of teasing and he has always been my strongest role model and mentor. Though we’re different in nearly every way imaginable, he never fails to give me a new perspective. It’s the kind of relationship money could never buy. 

A year ago, the two of us drove together on a road trip to California, and at one point he asked me, “If you could be anywhere right now, doing anything….what would it be? It was a tough question for me, and I never ended up offering an answer. I still don’t have an answer, in all honesty. Even if I did, I’m not sure how comfortable I’d feel sharing it. My dreams seem fluid and fleeting, a string of unrelated and contradictory hopes and longings.

In talking to to my cousin over sushi, I shared some of the things I hope to do in the next several years. He smirked and replied, “I can’t see you doing any of that. Really think about it… Can you?” Yes…I mean…I don’t know. He made me question myself, which was slightly perturbing. But worse yet, he was convinced that 1) I won’t go back to school, 2) that I’ll jump at the first chance to move across the country or across the world, 3) and that if I meet the “right guy,” I’ll be as good as gone. I was completely taken aback. Is he projecting his own life onto me? Does he know something I don’t? Or does one of the people I’m most honest an open with see me in a completely different light than I see myself–a completely different version of “me” than I’m trying to convey? It was an eye-opening evening for me, though I still haven’t figured out exactly what it is that I’m supposed to be seeing…

I don’t have my life together, and I often beat myself up over that. I can’t decide what book to read next, let alone what I want to do with my life. I try to do everything, I give up on everything, and then suffer asphyxiating panic attacks because I’m not doing anything. It’s a vicious cycle. I’m highly allergic to peanuts and if any of you have food allergies, it’s that feeling. For everyone else, I’d describe it as an external crushing paired with an internal swarming and swelling. I sometimes feel like I’m dying, just because my ducks are out enjoying the water, rather than lining up at my feet.

No one has their life together. I am fully aware of this. Yet, I still set unrealistically high standards for myself. I still, somehow, expect myself to do it ALL and to continually function at 110%. Cue Friend #1 to walk up, slap me, and then give me a hug and tell me to lighten up.

Sometimes I get so scared of failure and not being enough that I bury those insecurities and then decorate that unstable little sand castle with my shiny and ornate superfluous parts.  The things we do, the ways in which we attempt to compensate for and hide our perceived shortcomings are pernicious. A subtle and insidious erosion that, with time, can begin to seem normal.

I recently read (and heavily marked up) Daring Greatly by Brené Brown. The subtitle —How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead–says it all. Being vulnerable requires courage. And being vulnerable can positively transform how we go about our lives and how we interact with others.

Vulnerability has always been a struggle for me. I don’t feel comfortable speaking up, standing up for others, or revealing things that could potentially be turned against me. I’ll do any of these uncomfortable things when I feel that the gains outweigh the risks, but that’s admittedly not very often. Though I don’t understand that aloofness that seems to permeate my presence, on some level, I do. It manifests itself as a heaviness, anxiety, and sense of inadequacy. When I want to say something and then think better of it, I can physically feel the knots and the lumps growing in my. My pockets are bulging with multitudes of mylar, but there’s something unsettling about being the only one in a austere room tossing up confetti for no better reason than to just release it into the world.

Alright, Erin, so you’ve taken all of these classes and read dozens of books on the psychology of  happiness and well-being. You’ve studied interpersonal relationships, vulnerability, uncertainty, cognition, and more. Shouldn’t you understand how to stop fending off friends by now? Don’t you know how to change? Hypothetically, an exuberant YES! In practice, it’s a bit more complex, simply because vulnerability requires habituating a practice. It takes time and a continued effort to break out of our comfort zones and explore new (and potentially better) territories. When you put up walls, you’re not protecting yourself from getting hurt; you’re isolating yourself from people who actually care and shutting out countless magnificent opportunities. Just out of reach is the worst place to be, the worst place to hold someone else.

Vulnerability is something that I need to work on. I just need to figure out where to begin.

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Daring Greatly Review + Giveaway

What if I fail? What if I’m not good enough? What will people think of me? We’ve all probed these and similar questions. Each of us, at one time or another, has doubted our abilities. No one is perfect and bulletproof is a myth, yet everyone occasionally trips over these instances of fear and insecurity.

In her many years of researching connection, psychologist and storyteller, Brené Brown has spent much time exploring the topics of vulnerability and shame, as well as examining how these emotions affect our relationships. In her latest book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, Brown shares her research findings, fearlessly exposes her personal story, offers a guided journey towards understanding the driving forces behind out behaviors and–most importantly–encourages each of us to reclaim our lives and fearlessly reopen our hearts.

“Connection is why we’re here. We’re hardwired to connect with others and it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”

Though we’re inherently driven towards connection, over time society has driven a wedge between our natural inclinations and societal exceptions. The structure of our cultures, families, and organizations choke that desire for openness and vulnerability in well-intentioned, yet devastating attempts to preserve order. We construct complex means of navigating through life while keeping everyone at a safe distance and forever fixating our eyes on the exit sign. We want to experience others’ vulnerability while keeping our own secrets and insecurities close to the chest. I can completely relate to Brown when she states, “along with my fear of vulnerability, I also inherited a huge heart and ready empathy.” That dichotomous combination makes day-to-day life excruciatingly difficult, at times. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

Vulnerability is at the core of our most difficult emotions–fear, disappointment, and grief–but it is also the wellspring of love, belonging, joy, empathy, and creativity. It involves both an openness to positive experiences and an acceptance of the potentially heart-breaking risks. Likened to a tightrope, vulnerability is that trembling midpoint where moving forward and turning back are equally terrifying, and standing still is an entirely unstable option. With that knowledge, why would we ever do anything other than move forward?

As the title suggest, Daring Greatly is broken down into multiple sections. The implications of Brown’s research and observations are applied to all areas of life, from self-growth and relationships to parenting and leadership. The insights offered in the book are thought-provoking and invaluable.

What drives our fear of being vulnerable? Are we building walls around ourselves as a defense against vulnerability? What is the price we pay by shutting down and disengaging? How can we learn to embrace our vulnerability and begin to transform the ways in which we live, love, parent, and lead?

We live in a culture of scarcity. Nothing ever seems to be “enough” and we’re continually striving for more money, more power, and more material possessions  Maybe, beneath all those superficial “wants,” what we truly long for is love and acceptance. Remove that maybe, because research has shown that it is connection, not possessions that bring us true and lasting joy.

We live in a culture of shame. We compare our lives, our relationships, our children, and our teams to those around us and then question our own technique, our own worthiness. We’ve forgotten how to trust our intuition and we’ve lost sight of our unique strengths and perspectives. To complicate things further, men and women experience shame differently–women struggle with physical beauty and motherhood, whereas men worry about being perceived as weak. We all cause ourselves unnecessary pain when we shut down or lash out due to fear, pain, and that all-too-familiar insidious sense of inadequacy. An important lesson highlighted in the book is to pay attention to how we act while in this state of shame and fear. The worst crime we can against a loved one is to shame them–even after an apology, the damage is irreparable because we’ve shown them our willingness to use confidential information as a weapon.

The concept of perfection is seductive. Yet, perfection does not exist in the world, as we know it. Instead, vulnerability lies at the core of human experience. It’s through vulnerability that we learn about and experience courage, compassion, and human connection. Vulnerability is also a prime catalyst for innovation and change.

In interviewing numerous individuals over the years, Brown realized that vulnerability is never an effortless pursuit, but rather it is often a daily struggle to become comfortable with one’s power and gifts. Each day is a new opportunity to remind ourselves that we are worthy, that we are enough. We don’t have to be “perfect,” but we should strive towards engagement in all that we do, and we should commit ourselves to finding some alignment between our personal values and our actions. 

“Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to  wake up in the morning and think, no matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to be at night thinking, yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”

Having majored in psychology, I’ve developed a post-collegiate fondness for psychology and personal-development books. Under that broad umbrella of admiration sit many prominent researchers. Brené Brown is the one standing tall, smiling, and shamelessly singing along to Journey’s Don’t Stop Believing. After viewing her TEDx talk on vulnerability, reading The Gifts of Imperfection, and singing along with her at World Domination Summit 2012, I  did not hesitate to pre-order Daring Greatly as soon as it was announced. The book far exceeded all expectations.

Does the book sound like you something you may be interested in? As luck would have it, I was offered by the publisher an additional copy to give away. You read that correctly–you could win a free copy of this wonderful book!

Daring Greatly Giveaway

What can I win? Enter to win a free copy of Brené Brown new release, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. I have one book to offer, so there will thus be one winner.

When does the contest run? The contest will run now through Saturday, October 13th at midnight (MST). 

How can I enter? In the comments below, answer the following question: What’s worth doing even if I fail? (You’re welcome to share other thoughts, as well.)

Can I earn additional entries? Yes, you can! Like analyfe’s Facebook page, post a tweet  about the giveaway @analyfe and then leave a comment saying you’ve done so.

Are there any restrictions? The contest is limited to residents of the continental US.

How will the winner be chosen? The winner will be chosen at random, and each entry will be counted separately.

What if I don’t win? Daring Greatly is a wonderful book, so consider investing in your and buying or borrowing a copy.

*I’m still in the process of transferring the blog from analyfe.wordpress.com to analyfe.com, so to avoid confusion I’ll be accepting entries on both sites, though I’d prefer the former (turquoise header)*