Four elements that allow us to flourish.
To mark a return to my blog after a year and the revamping of my website I want to offer some new thoughts in the form of fresh blogs. To begin with I want to reflect on four practices that are, for me, hallmarks of one of the elements I speak of on my website. The three elements I speak of offering are poetry, photography and guiding. This blog and the subsequent ones are about primarily about guiding.
I use the term guiding deliberately and just as deliberately I am not using the term leadership. I am not saying there is not a need for leadership, but like many terms it has become baggy, like a jumper gone out of shape, so I want to be more precise. Leadership so often implies an individual, out front, with a plan and an iron sense of the rightness of that plan, and the unerring ability to know what is right. I have used the word guiding because I have come to believe that what we need, in many of the situations we face in life, is good guiding. I use the more active and continuous guiding rather than guidance as I think it meets an ongoing need rather than a one-off demand for instruction.
To situate what I want to say I think it is important to clarify the situations where one could apply these practices. In most organisations whether commercial, public or voluntary sector there is often a glaring need for another kind of leadership. This also applies to smaller settings such as counselling, spiritual direction, and small group work. In all the above mentioned I have witnessed the power of the practices I am now going to elucidate.
The four practices are robust vulnerability, safe uncertainty, archetypal sensitivity, and reading the field. These elements carry a charge that makes for moments of real change.
William Wordsworth says this in his autobiographical poem, the Prelude
There are in our existence spots of time,
That with distinct pre-eminence retain
A renovating virtue, whence–depressed
By false opinion and contentious thought,
Or aught of heavier or more deadly weight,
In trivial occupations, and the round
Of ordinary intercourse–our minds
Are nourished and invisibly repaired.
Moments of real change are identified by Wordsworth as spots of time that nourish and repair our minds. To be guided by others into these spots of time that have a renovating virtue is a profound gift and as Wordsworth notes they retain a pre-eminence in our lives. In my time in Jungian therapy, I have experienced a number of these spots of time, moments of clarity that were nourishing and renovating.
In fact, I have been fortunate enough to have had these moments throughout my life, both as a recipient and as someone involved in facilitating such moments. I developed these four practices initially in my time as a Community Organiser and then when I trained as a Spiritual Director and in the last few years during my work with the Male Journey an organisation that works to foster healthy masculinity and finally in my primary occupation as poet I seek to offer and reflect on these qualities.
In quoting Wordsworth I want to express how much I trust the poetic imagination when it comes to the guidance we need in our organisations and in our lives. I want to appeal to this poetic sensibility in my comments about each of these practices.
An American writer and sociological researcher Brené Brown has this to say about vulnerability:
‘Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.’
Vulnerability is the path. That is also clear from Grayson Perry’s book for about masculinity ‘The Descent of Man’. I went to see him on the tour he did in 2016 when the book was published. To an audience in the Sheffield City Hall, at least half of which were men, he emerged in a Gingham Print dress and make up and proceeded to talk to us about his forays into the masculine psyche. He is, in fact, very competitive and loves cycling, but in all his meetings with men from teenage gang members to alpha male city traders he said he discovered one overwhelming fact; that men are fearful of vulnerability and need help to see that it is the path. At the end of the book he has a manifesto for men in which he sketches out certain rights he thinks men should sit down for! The right to be vulnerable, the right to be uncertain, the right to be intuitive, among others.
These rights stood out as salient when it comes to vulnerability. In relation to my work with men another sentence from Grayson’s book stands out. He identifies that many of us have tried to offer Rites of Passage to men that mimic or are based on traditional rites, and I have played a role in some of these, but this comment gave me pause for thought. He says: ‘these may work, but I can’t help feeling that we need a version that prepares young men for modern, urban, gender-equal society.’ This has to my mind got to have something to do with encouraging and being exemplars of robust vulnerability in the face of our contemporary life.
What is robust vulnerability then? I would offer these thoughts as a starting point.
- It is far more than callow revelation of issues or situations that have not been processed.
- It is brokenness that has been plumbed, experienced and befriended almost invariably with the help of others.
- It is a willingness to allow others to witness your journey through difficult and painful situations.
- It therefore equips us with a roadmap of possibilities that can be explored in a safe way to unlock the potential of these vulnerabilities.
- It is a joining of forces with others who have the hallmarks of brokenness befriended.
- It is this that makes our vulnerabilities robust.
Brené Brown defines vulnerability as ‘uncertainty, risk, emotional exposure’. However, she also says: ‘vulnerability without boundaries leads to disconnection, distrust and disengagement.’ Hence the need to seek the help of others, friends, partners, therapists, and medics. The dictionary defines robustness among other things as being able to withstand or overcome adverse conditions. When we work with our vulnerabilities, they become robust and make us stronger, more able to lead others through them. Brené Brown also identifies certain myths when it comes to our attitudes to vulnerability.
- Vulnerability is weakness
- I don’t do vulnerability
- Vulnerability is letting it all hang out
- We can go it alone
It is important for me to say this in conclusion, vulnerability is never easy. I remember when I was at the height of my anxiety breakdown, it was Christmas time 2014 and my two daughters had come home from London for the holidays. They decided to go and see the Paddington Movie. I was suffering badly form agoraphobia and was particularly triggered by cinemas. I came up with an inadequate excuse for not going with them and I could see the looks of confusion and consternation and even frustration on my eldest daughter’s face. I felt wretched but nothing could have dragged me out that evening. I sat in the house alone and felt helpless and worse hopeless as I could not see what could change the situation. I felt utterly at the mercy of the intense feelings of dread I was experiencing. I really thought that these intense feelings of dread I was having were the presage of some mortal event that would carry me off.
As I lay on the bed with the dog, wondering what the next thing would be to take me to A&E, where I was a frequent visitor convinced that I was about to die. I suddenly remembered that I had ordered a DVD and booklet on the recommendation of the hairdresser who came to the house. It was by a man called Charles Linden; she had raved about him as a speaker about anxiety. I had visited his website and seen the title – ‘The Linden Method Total Freedom from High Anxiety Conditions’. It felt like snake oil to me but in my desperation, I had forked out the £120 for the material and then it had sat on my bedside table unopened.
On this night I remembered and shoved on the DVD and opened the book. Much to my surprise I heard something that was life changing. It wasn’t, however, the method though there were some helpful things in it. It was the list of the symptoms of anxiety. As I went through it, I was ticking them off, OCD, depersonalisation, derealisation, tingling in the spinal area, on and on they went, and I finally came to an admission – all the things I am feeling were just anxiety. This was a massive just, but it meant that I wasn’t dying right there and then, even if it felt like it.
This moment of utter vulnerability and all the very challenging feelings around it was not as Brené Brown points out, weakness. I had to embrace it and then admit things to my family, friends, therapist and they all said – we have been telling you this for weeks. How humiliating, I didn’t hear them or believe them. I could have continued to ignore them all. Or just let it all hang out as Brené puts it. Keep going around the same cycle. I could have tried to go it alone and isolated myself further. What I did do was keep working on it. I kept asking for help and searching for ways to accept my anxiety and live through and with it.
All of this added robustness to my vulnerability. As Grayson says I had the right to be vulnerable, the right to be uncertain, the right to be intuitive, the right not to know, and the right not to be ashamed of any of these. Shame is corrosive. The willingness to be vulnerable and to do the work that vulnerability invites creates the ability to withstand or overcome adverse conditions, in other words robustness. Every time I have been willing to expose my own vulnerabilities around anxiety, I have had people come to me saying how grateful they are as it made them feel less alone with their own.
When we are being guided or guiding others robust vulnerability is for me a hallmark of trustworthiness, it creates good work.
Look out for the next in this series – Safe Uncertainty