by Emily Waite
Growing up in the Mormon church, the voice that narrated my life up until now was screaming of perfection. For as we know, though we will never reach it in this life, perfection is the goal – always. After leaving the church I had shed the rules and perfection of Mormonism. But recently, through the wonderful addition of a mid-life crisis, I’ve realized the framework of perfection was still very much alive and well in my life. If there were a patron goddess of “Emmy’s Identity” she would be living in a well-manicured mid-century home, never making mistakes, always saying the right thing, invariably polished, receiving an A+ every day which clearly leads to an A+ in life. Her mantra would be “There’s nothing we can’t do if we work hard, never sleep and shirk all other joy in our lives.” Otherwise known in the world we live in as “Having My Shit Together”.
This Patron Goddess was wrong and also annoying. But trying to shut her up is like trying to get my son’s cat out from under the bed when she doesn’t want to come (shoutout to Kitty-Kitty!). You can stare at her and coax her, coo nice things and promise treats. But in all reality you have two choices: wait until she is ready to come out on her own (which, let’s be honest, cats are laughing at how ridiculous we are 93.7% of the time) or face your fear, get a buddy to lift up the bed frame and grab that cat no matter how much she swipes at you with her sharp claws of doom. (I should be clear here in saying I’ve never done this myself but I’ve watched it happen and cats are SCARY.) And I wasn’t prepared to wait for her to waltz out from under the bed whenever she felt like it.
My buddy holding up the bed frame was my therapist Edna and I was gonna have to face the claws of fear and accept the fact that I did not, in fact, have my shit together. And that it was time to be open about that fact. Edna was quick to pick up on the fact that I love homework and will complete all assignments throughly as to get an A+ in therapy. (This is a paradox of course but I’m not perfect remember and we are all adults here I think we can handle it) My homework from Edna that week was to share my innermost insecurities and thought patterns with my two best gal pals. Oh boy.
I can’t quite adequately express the level of discomfort this brought me.
Once, when I was a sophomore at Brigham Young University, my roommate and I stumbled upon a house full of cute boys while out on a walk near campus. We decided on a whim that we would pretend that we were from England and promptly executed the accent and an entire back story of British allure. The evening was lovely and these boys were hooked. There wasn’t much (if any?) cultural diversity at BYU so we were a pretty big deal. At the end of the night we went on our merry way assuming that we would never see these boys again. We were wrong. A couple of months later I was enjoying my late night run to Hardees with some friends for a bacon cheeseburger and fries (Ah the metabolism of youth!). I was mid-story about an annoying girl in the apartment next door when I turned to face one of those boys from my night of UK deception. I was made.
The discomfort was kind of like that.
Don’t get me wrong here. I opened up to my girlfriends. They knew almost all aspects of my life. But what they didn’t know were the rules that I was playing by inside my head. What they weren’t aware of was the internal dialogue that had been plaguing me for as long as, forever maybe? Sure, I could share with my girls the tough stuff. But usually in reference to all the other people in my life. And quite consistently AFTER the toughest part was behind me. Less vulnerability that way. So much more comfortable. But just like the false eyelashes I wore for my wedding that felt like tiny barbells for my eyelids that I ripped off at the end of the day, it wasn’t working for me anymore.
Over the next few days I sat across from from friends and dropped my cloak of invisibility to reveal the naked truth. Through the bees in my belly, the restless leg shifting and the tears I managed to truly be myself. And you’ll never guess what happened. (Or maybe you will, you might be much further along in life than I was).
My friends loved me even more.
Those girls told me how long they have waited to be sitting “on the other side of the couch” with me after all these years. Those girls knew how hard I was being on myself and just loved me anyhow.
Have you ever seen the viral video of a young teenage boy who has been colorblind his whole life? His grandfather is standing next to him as he puts on these special glasses that will reveal the world of color that he has been unable to witness up until now. His visceral response to what he sees and experiences is full of shock and awe. He cannot believe it at first until his family starts asking him what colors he is seeing. He looks down at a bench to
reveal small balloons in rainbow hues. “Blue, purple, red, yellow, orange, green…” he says. At this point he starts to quietly sob, shoulders quaking at the moment he is experiencing. The beauty of what could have been this whole time and what he now sees is possible comes crashing into his heart. He is overwhelmed with love and appreciation and possibility.
Yeah, that's kind of how it went for me too.
So, I’d completed my first practice session and so far this openness and vulnerability thing was working out. Despite the extreme discomfort, I was seeing glimpses of what life could look like. A life in which I was really showing up and being seen was one that I knew I wanted. A life where I could be free to live “outside the box” without fear of judgement would let me let go of the measurements I had placed on my worth. I knew that the more vulnerable and authentic I could be, the easier I could shed the weight of perfection that I’d carried around all my life. But I had just put the seed of vulnerability into the ground and the little leaves were just barely starting to sprout. There was going to be a lot of watering, feeding, and tending ahead of me required to grow this new plant.
One of my favorite authors, Brene Brown, has done extensive research and studies of the concepts of authenticity and vulnerability. Her TED talk –The Power of Vulnerability – is one of the top five most viewed TED talks in the world with over 35 million views. That’s what I call “hitting a nerve” in the collective consciousness if you ask me. A favorite quote from her book “Daring Greatly” addresses this new practice of vulnerability I was trying out. She says, “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome. Vulnerability is not weakness; it’s our greatest measure of courage.”
My own experiences with vulnerability are time markers of my life that started young. One of these was during my 8th grade year in school. We all know Junior High School is the pinnacle of insecurity, self-doubt, and adolescent hazards. And, to be honest, if you don’t agree, had a wonderful 7th and 8th grade experience full of friends and fun and have no idea what I’m talking about…..well I’m not sure we can be friends. My Jr High experience was a simply dreadful one. Being my true self wasn’t really something on my radar. What I wanted, as most pubescents do, was to be liked and accepted. I wanted to feel a sense of belonging and was going to do pretty much everything I could do to make that happen (within limits you guys remember I am a rule follower, goody-two-shoes). I wasn’t popular and didn’t have many friends. I had a couple friends from church but they weren’t especially “ride or die” when we were out in public. The others were mostly acquaintances that I’d been in school with since 4th grade. This is all to say, I was thrilled when I received an invitation to a Halloween party at the house of one of the most popular boys in the school. It was in the “rich” neighborhood and would take place in his garage with a DJ and dancing and endless snacks and no parents. Everyone was talking about it!
I didn’t have much time to figure out a costume and we didn’t have much money. But still my mother dutifully and enthusiastically pulled out the tub from the hall closet containing what we had available. I knew I needed a real costume. I couldn’t just show up with a half hearted attempt to such a major event in my life that would most certainly catapult me into popularity and therefore solve all of my problems. Sounds perfectly logical.
Wait, it gets better.
It was determined the best costume option we had was a giant bunny suit my older brother had worn in a local theater production. Think Bugs Bunny with a hint of Eeyore. Not only that but my sweet mom and I decided it would be even better if we stuffed some pillows into it to make me a fat bunny. Here is the point in the story where I remind you that I was NOT cool in 8th grade. Just in case that wasn’t obvious.
The time arrived and my dad dropped me off outside the house with a “have a good time!” and plans to return in a few hours to collect me again. So there I went, by myself, following the balloons and the sound of Depeche Mode around the side of the house to my future. I nervously walked out of the sunlight, through the open door and into the darkness of the garage. I don’t know the exact number of seconds it takes for ones eyes to adjust from full sun into darkness, but that’s about how much time I had to realize that every single other female at that party was dressed as every possible version of Madonna or Cindy Lauper. My whole world tilted. I may as well have been standing there naked. (I look back now and laugh as I imagine the silhouette of a giant obese bunny walking through that door and how that must have looked).
This vulnerability was so fierce I could almost taste it in my mouth. There wasn’t pointing and laughing. I won’t pretend it was that awful. But there was staring, awkward half smiles, and whisper giggles from various corners of the room. The way I saw it I had two choices: 1) run outside to a neighbor’s house and ask to use their phone to call home and hope that someone was there to come pick me up again right away — no cell phones people, I’m old — or 2) accept the situation and try to survive the discomfort
I chose to stay.
I wish I could say that my 12 year old self saw the power of showing up and confidently saying “This is me! I’m here and I’m worthy!”. In reality, my choice was to stay because it was overruled by my fear of how much worse it would be if I ran out of there wiping away tears with my giant carrot. (this is a true part of the story. I was actually carrying a large carrot as a costume prop). So I stayed. I am currently squirming in my seat just recalling my fragile pre-teen self who turned a bright shade of red and felt her armpits squirt violently. I want to hug little Emmy who shuffled around in a corner so as to be obscure about whether she was actually dancing or just fidgety. I want to put my arm around the young lady killing an obscene amount of time at the soda station trying to “decide” which can to grab. But I also shed a tear for that awkward looking girl who said “yes” when a nice boy asked her to dance a slow song (it was Eternal Flame by the Bangles for those who want a lovely little shot of nostalgia) and who laughed along with him when her fat pillow belly kept bumping him around. I want to do a happy dance for the girl laughing, by the end of the night, near the donut table with a few of her schoolmates.
That girl was brave, even when she didn’t want to be. That kid survived and she showed up. She was one tiny baby step closer to recognizing that she deserves to be here; ALL of her.
She is my inspiration as I fertilize and water and put out into the sun my plant of authenticity. That little badass is reminding me that it’s time to get it together and show up right now. Even when it’s scary. Even when I’d rather not, but thanks.
Even when I quit my job and tell my boss — and good friend — the true reason.
Even when I speak openly about my gay son to my very orthodox family.
Even when I answer honestly to a close friend’s question of “What’s going on with you?” despite the fact that we are in the middle of lunch rush hour at my favorite cafe and I have a 98.3% chance of crying.
Even when I choose to speak out loud, for the first time, my fears and insecurities with no guarantee of the outcome.
Scary, scary, scary.
But there is a risk assessment that our wise vulnerability researcher, Brene, reminds us we need to make. We can either let go of what people think or we can let go of who we are.
Well I’m not sure I’m willing to do that.