Practice in Vulnerability, inspired by Brene Brown

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There has been a long gap in posts on this blog, partially because during the Fall of 2011 I was utterly overwhelmed wrapping up my final semester of the Masters in Public Administration / Nonprofit Management program. The other reason, however, was that I felt like I had nothing to say. When you’re so busy, wrapped up in task after task with something to be done every moment, you become like a machine. You forget to think beyond the superficial and feel. Or you do feel, but you’ve become so out of touch with yourself that you have no idea how to express it. This is strange for me, because I’m used to a previous version of myself—some one who felt and expressed things at every turn, at the very least through my artistic interests. But the deeper I’ve delved into my leadership position, the less I’ve expressed, verbally, artistically, or any way.

So while I was being machine-like over the past few years, working to knock out my tasks in pursuit of my goals, my feelings were still there, bubbling beneath the surface, waiting to come out. My passion for my cause was so embedded in me that I at least could not contain that, nor would I want to. But everything else – all the little (or big) feelings that make me human – I’d turned off. Mostly I’d learned to turn them off when I’m around other people, I think because I worried that having normal, human (imperfect) feelings made me a worse leader some how. A wiser part of me sees that this is not only untrue, but a dangerous path.

I need to be open, to connect. I need it to be a better leader, I need it for the causes I love. I need it for me.

A friend of mine sent me this video and told me it reminded her of me, and a discussion I’d had with her recently. Brené Brown discusses the need to put yourself out there and accept the consequences of our vulnerability. I had heard this before–When making new friends, bonding with others, you expedite the connecting process by allowing the other to see you vulnerable. Sometimes you must be the first to show emotion, or make a confession. “It’s always a risk,” Brené says. But you need to try anyway, because “The ability to feel connected is why we’re here.”

The following confessions are my attempt to connect with you and practice vulnerability.

Last fall I found myself looking up the definition of “burn out” and nodding my head to myself as I read it. Now, having finished classes, I’ve found time to rediscover myself, ponder what directions my life may take me while working to remain devoted to the organization and cause I serve. I believe I’ve evaded true burn out, but having been so close, I am eager to analyze my needs and revitalize myself so it doesn’t get me later.

Lonely Leadership Brene Brown TED Talk

Surrounded by people on a regular basis it is hard to imagine that I would feel isolated, but I have and sometimes still do. When you are a founder or nonprofit leader you sometimes become known by your affiliation with your cause instead of as an individual. While this may be great for rallying volunteers or story telling on your organization’s website, it can leave you wondering how many people truly know you as a person—and how many people would see you for who you are, imperfections and faults and all, and still like you any way. Because you’re not sure who likes you for the whole you (rather than for the cause you’ve become entwined with), you risk that feeling of alone-ness. You stop expressing yourself and all of your true feelings because you worry you might lose the people around you if they hear what’s really on your mind.

I know others in the nonprofit world, especially in leadership positions, might relate to this need to feel connected. The expression about leadership, “it’s lonely at the top” is cliché but can be true if you’re not careful, no matter how big or small the effort you’re leading is.

Feeling isolated is not all. We may feel an overwhelming guilt that we haven’t made a bigger difference yet or blame ourselves for the lack of resources available to do so. We want to help every person who needs us but know we can’t help every one all the time—so we feel drained when every person who needs us does ask for help. We’ve spent so much time sending the message that we’re here to help that it when people take us up on that, it can feel like people forget we’re people with needs and feelings, too. We forget how to say “no” for fear of letting people down. And then, when we’re overwhelmed, we can let people down any way.

We get deeper and deeper into our work. More and more, we spend nights and weekends working and reject opportunities for connection because we feel guilty allowing ourselves to have fun when there are so many problems in the world we feel we need to solve. Eventually we forget how to say “yes” to the things that might bring us personal joy, and the cycle continues, and then those opportunities are lost.

I feel all of these ways from time to time. But I believe it’s possible to seek rejuvenation if I let myself. The first step is forgiveness. I’m human. Extremely flawed and imperfect. I can be selfish, petty, jealous, sad, anxious, angry, insecure like any one can. I can allow myself to feel these things and express them—but if I forgive and accept myself, I can also to channel the energy of these emotions into something positive for myself. But first I have to forgive.

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