This past week was my last at the American Red Cross in Portland. I put in my resignation in early December, after experiencing the single worst professional experience of my career. In short, my character was called into question, and the person in the room with the best opportunity to defend it…didn’t. I was humiliated. I was angry. And I was hugely disappointed. But instead of questioning myself (I know my heart), I immediately felt the very clarity I’d been seeking for months. A dear friend and colleague said “I think this was the impetus you needed to break free from these chains.”
That day, while I was confident about my resignation, I had no idea what was next. For some time, I’d been feeling underwhelmed by my work, but the flexibility of my position allowed me to discover, explore, and enjoy some of the best of what the Pacific Northwest has to offer – very reasons for my move to Portland – and my outside passions fed my soul, even as the job continually wore it down. What’s next for me in life feels necessary and certain and altogether improbable and a little bit crazy all at the same time. It follows along with some things I’ve been giving a lot of consideration to these past few months: honesty and authenticity, what I consider the stuff of being “real.”
The worst professional experience of my career came from my being honest…and subsequently being told that wasn’t okay.
I remember once, some eight years ago, in a different job, I messed up and got called into my boss’s boss’s office. My direct manager was there with me, and his manager explained what I’d done wrong. Briefly, frankly, expectantly. I owned it and apologized. Genuinely. The guy looked at me with surprise, seemingly taken aback, and thanked me for my honesty. I thought (and probably said right out loud because, well, honesty) What else would I be but honest?
Almost a decade – and lots of life – later, I’ve often wondered how much room there really is for honesty in our public spaces – work, community, politics. I’ve always been someone who believes that language matters. I’m careful to be inclusive in my speech and sensitive to the fact that not everyone looks like, feels like, or believes like me and thus may feel differently about words and truth than I do. I’m also of the belief that in order to move forward as a culture, as a country, as a people, we’ve got to, as Brené Brown advocates, “speak truth to bullshit.” I believe that we should talk about (not around) the issues that matter most – sex, gender, race, and all the “isms.” As it turns out, it seems like fewer people are really available for this than I hope…and it leaves me questioning the open/honest thing all over again.
On a more personal level, I’ve long grappled with determining the “appropriate” level of honesty in personal relationships. And just about the time I think I’ve got it figured out, I get tripped up again.
In my mid to late twenties and even once in my early thirties I lost friends (good friends, close friends, dear friends) because I was “too much.” In each case (there were three specific incidences), my honesty seemed to “get the best of” the relationship. In hindsight, I was looking for a much more vulnerable space than any of these women could provide at the time. And that was ultimately detrimental to the connections. One of my greatest trials in life (Universal Lessons, as Gabrielle Bernstein calls them) has been learning when, where, and how much to let my guard down – and with whom it’s okay to be real. It’s an on-going…negotiation, it would seem.
In her work on the subjects of trust and vulnerability, Brené Brown uses the analogy of a marble jar. As people in our lives do things to earn our trust – support us, display kindness, stick up for us, and keep our secrets – we figuratively put marbles in their jars. When they are mean or disrespectful or share our secrets (i.e. break our trust), we remove marbles. It’s the folks in our lives who’ve earned the most marbles with whom we can be most honest, vulnerable, and ultimately true to ourselves.
A man I was dating last year told me I was “a bit of a pain in the ass” because I was honest about some things. I guess when he asked me what I thought, he expected one thing, and what he got was something different. And that was too much for him. There were some marbles in his jar, but the moment he spoke those words to me and about me, he poured all of them out. At the same time, he brought up a lot of insecurities for me.
I’m the first to tell friends and young people and even the reflection in my mirror “This above all, be true to yourself.” “Be-you-tiful.” I’m reminded daily of these words from Dr. Seuss because they’re hanging on a wall in my house: “Be who you are and say what you feel because those who matter don’t mind and those who mind don’t matter.”
All of this sounds really good, right? But ultimately, being real can be really really difficult. I dare say it’s quite exhausting. And sometimes it’s very lonely. A friend and I have always wondered what it would be like to “be medium.” It seems like some of us feel all the feelings, experiencing the highest of highs and lowest of lows, while others somehow exist on a more even and steady emotional plane. We call the latter reality “being medium” and wish sometimes we could master it.
At the same time, I don’t want her to be any different than she is right now. To me, she’s wholehearted. And if she were just medium, I probably wouldn’t like her nearly as much. She would bore me. She wouldn’t feel genuine. And I certainly wouldn’t want to be my real self with her. She’s told me before she feels the same…and that gives me hope.
My mom read this excerpt from the children’s book The Velveteen Rabbit at my grandma’s funeral: “Real isn’t how you are made,” said the Skin Horse. “It’s a thing that happens to you… You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”
It seems to me there are lots of people in the world who don’t understand. But those who do are the ones I want to fill my life and spend my time with, meeting their real with mine.
After that terrible professional experience, I went to my favorite spot for comfort food. I’d been crying – a lot – and I knew my face was red and blotchy and my eyes were puffy with tears…but I’m generally not afraid of being “emotional” in public. The fact is, we all – every one of us – experience a whole gamut of emotions. And being emotional doesn’t always allow us to stay carefully kept. That day, I took all of myself into that place…and I was met with kindness and sincerity and comfort in more than just my food – just what I needed, it turns out. The manager gave me my meal for free, saying “I hope your day gets better.” She…understood. And she put a whole lot of marbles in her jar that day.
Recently, someone suggested to me that because of past traumas, we sometimes try to make ourselves very small in certain situations or in the presence of certain others. We might do this in an attempt to fall off the radar or keep from disrupting or upsetting people. Really, we’re attempting to hide from hurt they might cause us or to make ourselves so unassuming that there’s no risk of our attracting unwanted attention. I’ve done this many, many times. It’s exhausting and sometimes makes me feel like I can’t breathe. It’s the opposite of being real.
All in all, being real is HARD. But not being real, I’ve come to believe, might in fact be even more difficult. If I can’t be honest, if I can’t be vulnerable, if I can’t be authentic and wholehearted, then I’m not being me…and I think I might ultimately rather take myself out of situations altogether. There’s certainly risk in that. Indeed I’ve lost friends. I’ve given up romantic relationships. And now I’ve given up a job. But so far, I haven’t ultimately given up on me. The risk is great, but I’m holding out hope the reward will ultimately be greater. Someday, maybe I’ll be shabby with my hair falling out…but I will have become real.