An old Cherokee man was teaching his grandson about life. He looked at the boy and said, ‘A fight is going on inside me. It’s a terrible fight and it’s between two wolves. One is evil — he is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority and ego. The other is good — he is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith. The same fight is going on inside you — and inside every other person, too.’
The grandson thought for a minute and then asked, ‘Which wolf will win?’ To which his grandfather replied, ‘The one you feed.’
I recently heard this story while listening to Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since. For several days, this story kept popping up in my thoughts and I wasn’t sure why. Like many of the themes that continue to appear throughout my journey, the message felt so intangible. I could see and feel them, I was receiving them and I followed them, but something was holding me back from being able to understand what they really meant. In fact, much of this current phase of my journey has been about healing and that just recently became clear.
Not too long ago, Ellen and I were having lunch with Susanna Peace Lovell, aka @mamapeace, and we were reflecting on how difficult it is to be vulnerable. Some women strive their whole lives to achieve an unattainable goal of perfection so they never have to admit they’re vulnerable. We were raised in a world where vulnerability is synonymous with weakness, where the pressure to be self-sufficient and independent makes us feel like we are never enough. I happened to mention another episode of Oprah’s SuperSoul Conversations (literally, my new favorite podcast) with Brené Brown where she talks about what it means to ‘Dare Greatly’ and the importance of vulnerability. As soon as I mentioned this episode, Ellen told us she recently purchased Daring Greatly and both she and Susanna said they had just started reading it! We have come to believe there are no coincidences in life, and I knew this was the universe speaking to me again. I bought the book that day and it changed my life.
Brené Brown talks about understanding shame, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy. […] We all have shame. We all have good and bad, dark and light, inside of us. But if we don’t come to terms with our shame, our struggles, we start believing that there’s something wrong with us — that we’re bad, flawed, not good enough — and even worse we start acting on those beliefs. If we are to be fully engaged, to be connected, we have to be vulnerable. In order to be vulnerable, we need to develop resilience to shame.”
I was immediately flooded by emotion as soon as I read this. I have been single for a couple of years now, and this is a conscious decision I made coming out of my last relationship because I knew I had a lot of healing to do. It was a relationship where deep down I knew from the start it was never going to work. After several month of dating I uncovered a lot of really hurtful lies, and it turned me into a person I never want to be again. I started to question everything and quickly learned that unless I asked about every detail, he was going to keep as much information from me as possible — what my father refers to as ‘lying by omission’ — and he was secretive about everything, even things that were completely inconsequential. This destroyed me and I became someone I didn’t even recognize, but I stayed with him hoping things would get better. I thought if I could change enough to meet him in the middle maybe he would do the same for me. But of course things only got worse. And then eventually, the night before my friend’s wedding (that he had committed to attending, which also happened to be the night before Valentine’s Day), it ended with a ghost. Naturally I carry a lot of shame from that relationship. But for some reason, even though I logically know this is shame, I’ve never been able to connect the dots in my own life to go from feeling shame to having resilience to it. How do I feel shame so tangibly, and understand so clearly what caused this shame — and still have no idea how to get to the next step? Especially when the answer is so clear: I need to allow myself to be vulnerable again if I’m going to continue on this journey. So how do I get there?!
Overwhelmed with emotion I was tempted to stop reading, but I felt something pushing me to go on. And then I found it, thanks to Peter Sheahan, who says, ‘Every time someone holds back on a new idea […] and is afraid to speak up […] you can be sure shame played a part. That deep fear we all have of being wrong, of being belittled and of feeling less than, is what stops us taking the very risks required to move forward.”
The buckling pressure to succeed has made us feel like our self-worth is directly tied to what we do or the things that have happened to us. So much so, that in the moment of my deepest pain, I remember telling myself, ‘Love doesn’t happen for everyone. And you’re broken. So broken that even the slightest emotional attachment to someone sends you into panic and you become that horrible person again, the person you never wanted to be. So if you’re going to get through this, you have to understand that those things happened for a reason and that’s not an experience you’re meant to have. Lots of people never find love, and that’s a reality you have to face.” I believed I did something to deserve being treated that way, and I was deeply ashamed of it. In a lot of ways, I still am.
But in that moment, I finally understood. I realized you don’t just magically decide one day you are going to be vulnerable. Being vulnerable is a process that starts with acknowledging your shame and becoming aware of its triggers. Holding space for the emotions tied to shame, and then letting them pass so you can make mindful decisions throughout your day in a state of choice rather than reaction. I spent the last two years drowning myself in work hoping that if I stayed busy enough, my shame wouldn’t catch up to me. But if this experience has taught me anything, it’s taught me that the universe will continue to give us the same challenges over and over again, until we’re finally open enough to learn from them.
After more than two years of shielding myself from pain and shame, I finally understood the messages. Silence breeds shame, it breeds isolation and it breeds anxiety. By embracing the embarrassing things that have happened to me and by talking about them, I take their power away. I am able to hold space for my pain, so it will finally pass. And I can create distance between myself and my shame, so I can finally acknowledge that those events happened to me, they are not a reflection of who I am. Because we are bigger than the decisions we make, and what we do is not who we are.
This week I also learned the hard way that becoming vulnerable means embracing challenges one day at a time. Some days, you may even have to take it one hour at a time. Because it takes a lot of courage to acknowledge shame, and it takes even more courage to put yourself out into the world so people can truly see who you are, independent of the things that have happened to you. A space like that, filled with uncertainty, can be overwhelming and it’s okay to ease into it, as long as you are clear about your values. If vulnerability is the goal, then make space for the uncomfortable moments when you can and eventually your actions will follow. And most importantly, forgive yourself when you can’t. Any time you allow yourself to be judged by others, through any medium or circumstance, you’ve already achieved vulnerability through your courage. Each act of courage is seamlessly aligned with your values and who you want to be. When you’re willing to let go of who you believed you should be, you find new freedom to become who you are.
The only way for me to move forward is to take risks and to put myself out into the world, in spite of my fear of judgement and rejection. I’ve spent the last two years avoiding eye contact with the bad wolf, feeding his insatiable appetite with my shame. I’ve been shielding myself out of fear and numbing my feelings by overworking. I couldn’t stop thinking about the Cherokee story because I was out of alignment with my values. That story came into my life to help me see the crossroads in front of me. So I can feel this pain, let it pass, and finally make a choice. I can choose to grow and move forward — to step into this new role as a creative visionary, business partner and leader — or I can stay where it’s safe and I’m in control, risking nothing and gaining nothing. Without even realizing it, I found the strength to make this choice long before I was brave enough to share this story. But through my story, I’ve already started feeding the good wolf.
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For anyone who hasn’t seen this yet, I highly recommend you watch Brené’s TEDxHouston Talk. She will open your eyes to a whole new perspective and her words will change your life!