The One About Vulnerability, Change and Growth

When I was 18 and moving on to college, I was extremely uncomfortable in my own skin. It was brought on by years of being told I was worthless and stupid by one parent and abandonment issues by the other, and this discomfort kept me from doing just about anything that took me even more outside my comfort zone. Forget risk-taking, I was just trying to get through my day and figure out who I was. That was uncomfortable enough. I didn’t like going places alone. I wanted someone with me so I could imitate them if I didn’t know what to do. I never wanted to stick out or feel like I was different than anyone else around me.

I married when I was 20 and had my first child by the time I was 21. I have never lived alone. I went from my parent’s house to my college roommate to my husband. All of these experiences always left me with someone I could look at to get the answers. I wasn’t enabled in the way that I’d ask them to do it for me (because I never wanted to appear inept), but I was able to watch and learn and ask a question if I felt really brave. If I didn’t have the courage, I would go without until I figured it out myself. I have yet to determine if I understood at that age that it was fear holding me back or stubbornness and the desire to never look stupid or worthless. Probably a little of both.

When I really began presenting and traveling in education, talking about the things I knew how to do, it began to take me even more outside that zone. The first time I called an Uber by myself or got on a flight by myself was scary. Getting a rental vehicle, driving in unknown cities, constantly meeting people for the first time and wondering if my social cues were correct…all daunting. Then there was the first time I cried in an airport because my flight was cancelled and there were no cars to get home and I had nobody to talk me through that could help me take the steps I needed to move on. While it may seem silly to some, these were actual anxiety ridden moments for me. But, I made it through each one, and every time I did I took a moment to feel proud of myself and I eventually began to understand that the moment of anxiety lasts for just that: a moment, but the understanding that I can get through these challenges and become more comfortable with the uncomfortable was the greatest lesson. Understanding my fear. Putting her in a corner. Patting her on the head and telling her to pipe down.

I was in an interview recently where the candidate brazenly admitted that she was afraid of change so she has to be cognizant that when change is coming that she works very hard on moving herself forward. While some types people will think this is a weakness, I was silently chuckling as I have written blog posts about this very thing and my own struggles with change even though I have worked for so long with “Innovation” right in my title. As far as I was concerned, that was the moment I wanted to hire her. I would so much rather work with someone who is vulnerable and self-aware than someone who either truly feels like they are perfect or knows the right words to hide their weaknesses. For example, the people who say there’s always room to grow but then when a topic is mentioned, they’ve already “been there, done that” and have learned all they need to know. I’d take the one willing to admit their faults and how they’re trying to grow in a heartbeat. There’s no competition. Because I have been there and I understand that putting yourself in a place of high vulnerability and facing your fears puts you at a level of self-awareness and personal growth that being “born perfect” will never do.

This week I am in Washington DC with my youngest daughter. We were in the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum yesterday and I was watching her walk around in awe at the huge, historic planes and thought how I would have never had the courage I would have needed to have this experience with her had I not taken those steps to move forward so long ago. Sometimes, when people talk about risk-taking, it’s not about the planning a jump off a cliff. Sometimes the risk-taking needs to be whatever it is you need to do to allow yourself the freedom to do the things that set you up for growth and having the tools to move forward. Sometimes it’s baby steps, like summoning your first Uber, that will eventually lead you to a larger reward. There is always a fine line between “I can’t” and “I won’t”. It’s easier to blame others for holding us back than recognizing and dealing with our own losses and fears. However, it’s so much more rewarding to do it anyway.

My Own “Life Rules” For Building Resilience

One of the characteristics that people pick out most often about me is my level of resilience. Some mix it up with tenacity and they do go hand-in-hand, but it really is just the ability to keep moving forward when things get difficult and I seem to get pushed backwards on whatever journey I’m walking. I don’t think that I was born with this level of resilience, but I was born with certain personality traits that made me more adaptable therefore building my resilience. For example, if I have a problem and I ask for help, I am truly open to what the other person is saying and will consider how I can use the information. I have always understood that part of being resilient is understanding that when I make a mistake I must adapt and be better, whatever that means for the current situation. Sometimes, I am able to figure this stuff out in my own head. Sometimes, I need other people to shift my lens for me.

I’ve lived my life by setting up rules for myself in my head – something that I usually only tell my best friends who understand how my particular kind of brain weirdness works and are willing to excuse it. For example, my rule for relationships is if someone makes me sad more than they make me happy, it may be time to reevaluate the energy I put into that connection. These rules are usually constructs of adversities I’ve gone through in my life. When something happens I create a rule to help guide me in the future. It’s both how I’ve built my level of resilience and how I continue to maintain it and move forward with my life. More of my life rules for resilience are:

Will this matter in a year?
Awhile back, I was sitting with a co-worker friend of mine who happened to be sitting in front of me when I decided to break down about some difficult personal issues that I had going on at the time. For anyone who knows me at all, I wear my heart completely on my sleeve and if there is something bothering me it’s a significant amount of effort for me to school my emotions. I received an upsetting message while we were working and I broke down and verbally vomited my situation onto her lap.

I remember her being supportive and placing our work aside and giving me the time to spew. I don’t remember the specifics of what she said until she said this: Will any of this matter in one year? Five years?

At the time, I thought back a year and fast forwarded to where I was. Nothing seemed the same. She even told me that sometimes when adversity strikes, she would begin counting back from 356 days and would eventually forget why she was counting before she hit 1. I really took to this line of thinking. Even if what happened mattered, I would surely begin healing before the year was up. Five years out and it was possible that even the worst adversity would be just a memory. My resilience helps me understand that with anything that happens I will move on. Time will help me heal and grow, and I will become okay with the person I become.

Grieve today, move on tomorrow
I have found that some people get caught in one or the other; they either only grieve or they only move on. Grief shouldn’t be reserved for major disasters. Sometimes, grief needs to be felt and recognized over little disappointments as well. Grieving the failure of a goal or relationship recognizes that it was important and that it didn’t work out the way you hoped. Moving on recognizes that it’s important to continue to live your life according to the trajectory that you hope to set after that failure.

My general rule for failure is grieve today, move on tomorrow (in cases where it’s not a major catastrophe, of course). While sometimes I feel like it’s the emotional equivalent to rubbing dirt on a bruise, it still gives me the permission to feel bad about what I was hoping would happen. I like the timeline of one day because timelines and structure make me feel safe. When I don’t have them, I create them. So, one day I allow myself to grieve, the following day I begin to pick myself and move forward.

Take control of what you have control over, let the rest go
Learning to decipher what you can and cannot control and letting go of what you can’t is part of building resilience. The more you practice being able to quickly categorize pieces of a situation into controllable and uncontrollable the quicker you will be able to act on the things you can. You don’t need to be a control freak to desperately cling to the choices you have the right to make when it seems like everything around you is a whirlwind. Also, sometimes moving forward and making the choices you can will encourage others around you to do the same. So, while you can’t control what they do, you may be able to influence their movement. When you realize what you do have control over, it will help you become more okay with situations that are difficult.

Learn to take time to respond
This realization has come to me a with maturity and the knowledge that when I can take control of an emotional reaction to an emotionally charged situation, I am both steering the conversation and giving myself back something to control. I have a crazy temper. When I was younger I was quick to strike back at people who would irritate me for whatever reason. I was nearly proud of my quick wit and ability to burn people speechless. As I became older, I realized that I needed time after that initial irritation to simmer before I would respond, and that whatever I wanted to argue was so much more effective when I could respond with less emotion and more strategy and intelligence instead.

Practicing this change built resilience in two ways. First, I may be, in any situation, the one person who responds rationally and in the end I am positive that I will be satisfied with the way I responded and have no regrets that I fired back something I would later have to apologize for. Second, by responding rationally, I have less of a chance of further angering the other person, therefore moving past the issue quicker and with less drama.

Building resilience helps to get past adversity in a healthier state. The quicker that you are able to understand a situation, deal with the feelings from it, and move forward, the quicker you are able to really recognize your purpose and meet your goals without getting sidetracked. Also, building resilience before a major life event by working on the little adversities that can happen everyday will help prepare you for something massive that seems like there would be no preparation. While it might seem like resilience is about “getting through”, it’s really about moving forward and becoming okay with the person you’ve become in the process.