In college, I had my first “real” girlfriend. No, I didn’t have imaginary girlfriends in high school (well, maybe a couple Freshman year), my first longer term and significant relationship just happened to be in college. This relationship was tough for me.
While I knew what it was like to have a girlfriend based on songs by Boys II Men, Jodeci, and Dave Mathews, I was having trouble comparing my experience with theirs. Listening to K-Ci & JoJo sing about “Freek’n You” is great for getting advice on what candles to set up in your dorm room, but they suck at advising how to balance your needs & wants with those of another person. Overall, I didn’t know how to be a good boyfriend and I wasn’t really sure my girlfriend knew what she was doing either (no, not that way you sick pervs, even though my roommate’s R&B music collection definitely provided best practices for that).
Where do you turn to when you need advice? Friends, family, a teacher, co-workers? In this “struggling with girlfriend situation”, in a pre-internet world, I turned to my friends. Now, remember the time – I’m a Sophomore in college, so my friends are going to be around 19. If you need advice on how best to deal with a relationship today, are you going to ask a 19-year-old? Hell no! You’re better off watching Jerry Maguire and listening to TLC and Destiny’s Child for advice (which is what I did after asking my friends). As you can imagine, my buddies didn’t provide much help and probably just said something crass like, “get drunk so you can last longer.” Gee guys, thanks for that.
Music was all about bumping and grinding, which actually just seemed kinda uncomfortable. Jerry Maguire’s whole “you complete me” thing just confused me more. I was starting to think I was best served quitting the relationship all together and finding solace in something I understood – watching WWF while stuffing my face with a bag of Cheetos and hearing Stone Cold Steve Austin yell definitive things like, “and that’s the bottom line, cuz Stone Cold said so!” You’re speaking my language Mr. Austin and thanks for being so clear with your words.
The gods must not have been wrestling fans, because as luck would have it, I soon found a flyer for “free counseling”. This was a service my school had set up to give grad students who were studying to become psychologists, school counselors, or other shrink like professions, real life experience with kids like me who needed someone to talk to. I signed up and found myself spilling my guts, once a week, to some rookie therapist for the next two months.
Looking back on this experience, I remember it being extremely awkward. Here I am, a 19-year-old dude, telling a young woman not that much older than me, (maybe 23 years old) all my problems with a girlfriend. The “therapist” probably got all her training from 4 books, 3 classes, and a healthy dose of Dawson’s Creek. However, I remember really looking forward to being able to talk to someone, just about my concerns and issues, and the feeling of relief as I left the sessions. By putting myself in an awkward and vulnerable situation (telling a stranger my biggest problems), I found additional confidence, support, and peace. I can’t say things ever got exponentially better with the girlfriend, we officially broke up after a couple of months, but I now had a belief that trusting people and talking was a viable path towards resolving my problems.
There are a lot of conversations and news these days about vulnerability and “being vulnerable”. A researcher and author, Brené Brown, has helped to bring vulnerability to the limelight with her incredible Ted Talk on the issue, which has been watched over 32 million times. If you aren’t one of the 32 million, I highly recommend it:
Brené has also written the New York Times Best Seller, Daring Greatly, which supposedly is a great read and I hope to tackle it soon.
Brené’s research has led her to discover that vulnerability is the birthplace of; joy, creativity, of belonging and of love. Wow! Who doesn’t want more of that!? (Come to think of it, didn’t Ginuwine have a song about birthing love and joy?)
Here’s the problem – Brené goes on to show how the world we live in does very little to cultivate vulnerability. In fact, we go to incredible lengths to numb vulnerability. We do this by; medicating, eating, drinking, and escaping from facing that which makes us vulnerable. The problem with this approach is you can’t selectively numb vulnerability. When we do this, we numb everything and become more distant from having the courage to be imperfect and get comfortable with our imperfections.
In my own situation, when I find myself vulnerable, I use my phone to escape. It’s a crutch that is always nearby at the ready. When I feel out of control in dealing with my kids, check out the stock market! Feeling antisocial at a party, put my head down and send a text to a friend! Don’t know how to handle an awkward family situation, go look at mlbtraderumors.com! Shoot, in writing this blog post, I’ve looked at the weather, the current price of bitcoin, and my email at least 10 or 12 times to escape having to put these thoughts out into the world.
Using my phone might not sound as detrimental as sucking on the spout of my boxed wine, but I can assure you, if it was socially acceptable to do so, I’d be crushing wine at every turn. Overall, my phone allows me to run mentally, when my feet have to stay stationary. The escape is all the same.
By doing this, I’m not allowing myself to become at ease with the vulnerability and thus, I’m preventing myself from more quickly finding the solutions to my problems. Or, as Brené Brown says, finding joy, creativity and love. As painful as it is to bask in a pool of vulnerability, I find it more painful to live a life running from it and wondering, “what could have been?”
For me, talking to a grad school student counselor (even one with less experience than Miss Cleo), was an initial attempt at facing my vulnerability and trying to sort through the really yucky, swampy mess that were my emotions. When I’m in a real rut, I have found no better medicine than talking to someone. Over the course of my life, I have sought out friends, co-workers, family members, teachers, counselors, psychologists, EO colleagues (business therapy), and now you, readers of this blog, for help in tackling the “V” word.
Just like everything, being vulnerable takes practice. I don’t think we can wake up one day, look out the window and say, “looks like a helluva day to start being vulnerable!” Judging from my own experience, it took years to build up the “V” muscles to attack this issue and write a blog post to the massives.
If seeing a student therapist in college was the start, I started making real strides to be vulnerable while attending Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO) Forum Meetings. “Forum” is for groups of 4-8 business owners, providing a “safe space” where these individuals meet once a month and share issues both personal and business related. Initially, I was hesitant to share my problems with other business owners. Actually, I was petrified every time we would meet. However, the more I talked about the 5% (those issues I barely even discussed with my wife), the less scary the meetings became and the easier it was to talk about these things with anyone, not just my forum group. The experience was one of the most rewarding of my life and without it, I don’t have the courage to write to you now.
For a first hand example as to how the practice of vulnerability works, feel free to look back on the post, travel teachings. This was the first post where I felt nervous and scared to hit the submit button. Now, I look back on that content and don’t think much of it, the stuff I’m writing to you now seems a lot more frightening. I hope this vulnerability trend continues – while scary, it’s worth it.
Fired & Free Recommendation – To be vulnerable, practice is key. Find “safe spaces” (a partner, good friend, counselor, etc) where you can share the 5% (feelings or issues you are afraid to share with even significant others). The more you share, the less these thoughts will bother you and the easier it becomes to be vulnerable. This uncomfortable area is where real growth occurs.
One of my reasons for writing this blog is to cut through all the bullshit I’ve experienced both in my professional and personal life. I’d like my children to grow up in a more authentic and honest world. I can see your side eye through the screen and you’re probably saying something to yourself like, “that’s some pie in the sky dreaming Dan.” It is.
Thich Nhat Hanh, a teacher of mindfulness, among many other things, has a quote I will leave you with,
“My actions are my only true belongings. I cannot escape the consequences of my actions. My actions are the ground upon which I stand.”
If we were all a little more vulnerable, wouldn’t the ground be a little more solid for us all to stand?
I have a small ask.
In the comment section below, please take a moment to answer the question, I feel vulnerable when…
I’ll go first.
I feel vulnerable when I think about what to do next professionally. For so long I’ve had a clear plan as to how I wanted my career to unfold. Not knowing what I’m going to be doing over the next year and beyond scares me. I don’t feel in control as I once did.
Here’s to finding the birthplace of joy, creativity, of belonging and love in 2018.
Author Bio: Dan started Fired and Free in 2017, to provide his “truth” after being fired as CEO of the company he started and led. After a diverse 17-year career in management consulting and entrepreneurship, Dan now leads 3Sixty Leadership, where he provides coaching and consulting to business owners with 5 to 500 employees, helping them to work “on” their business not “in” their business.