The upside of showing our less than perfect self to the world

micWhenever we’re trying to do something new, something for the first time, we feel an excitement, but also fear. What if we mess up? What if make a fool of ourselves in front of others? And if we do put ourselves out there, some of these fears may come true.

In her wise and helpful book, “The Dance of Fear,” Harriet Lerner shares how her  anxieties and fears about speaking in public came true one day.

As I strode out before the audience and placed a copy of my speech on the podium, I failed to notice that this particular lectern lacked the conventional ledge for holding papers. The pages of my speech cascaded to the floor. This incident might have been relegated to the category of minor embarrassment had it not been for the fact that I had not bothered to number the pages. Unlike my Seattle speech, this was a brand-new presentation and I wasn’t familiar with its flow and structure. “Just a minute,” I said brightly, then spent the next five shuffling papers and trying to control my panic. At last I was ready to begin.

Ten minutes into the speech, I broke the expensive laser pointer that I had borrowed from my hosts. Keeping my sense of humor about it became difficult when, a few minutes later, the left shoulder pad of my silk jacket somehow lost its moorings and came to rest up against my neck. “Breathe,” I sternly ordered myself, but by now I was beyond the reach of oxygen therapy. I finished my talk in a stew of embarrassment and wondered if I should drastically lower my fee for future (if any) speaking engagements. But my trials were not over. During the question-and-answer period, I was forced to respond, “I don’t know,” several times. “Some expert,” I berated myself.

What do you think happened after the talk? Harriet of course was mortified and wanted to remove herself from the situation as soon as she could. But…

…I saw to my surprise that a small crowd of women had gathered around the lectern. They were smiling at me. “Thank you,” said one, reaching out her hand to shake mine. “It was wonderful to see you being so real.” A younger woman, a psychology graduate student, chimed in. “I’ve always been afraid to speak in public,” she confessed. “Now I feel, if you can do it, I can do it!” Others spoke of the palpable connection they felt with me during my talk, a sense of being in the presence of someone they already knew and understood. Being approached by members of an audience following a speech wasn’t a new experience for me. What was new, however, was the level of vitality and connectedness I felt flowing toward me that evening. I looked around at the open, loving faces surrounding me and felt my embarrassment melting away.

We’re comfortable sharing our competence, but shy away from sharing our vulnerabilities. Maybe we’ve been raised to believe that anything less than perfect is not good enough. Maybe that’s a bar we’ve set for ourselves. Whatever the source, it’s important to remember that the fear of being anything less than perfect limits us. On the other hand, putting ourselves out there, practicing our craft in public makes us human, makes us others connect with us, see us as real.

I wish I had a story like Harriet’s that I could share, but I don’t. And I realize now that this means that I’ve been saying “No” because I wasn’t perfectly prepared to do something, when I should have been saying “Yes” and figuring it out along the way.

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Hoops are NOT for jumping through!

Sculpture by Elissa Farrow-Savos
Sculpture by Elissa Farrow-Savos

I read a wonderful post yesterday (see: In Others’ Words “Sorry, not sorry”) about how women are conditioned into being over-apologizers, ready to say sorry early just to end the conflict, or sorry for taking up too much space on the subway, or sorry to turn down a request. As Laura points out:

…moving through the world apologizing for taking up too much space is NOT LITTLE.  When you do that, you are conceding that you don’t have the right to stand up for yourself, or allot your time the way you want, or occupy the space you require.

If you’re a sorry over-user, you’re also likely a frequent “Yes-er.”

Being “nice” – something women are conditioned to be from the moment they are born – usually involves saying “Yes” to everyone else’s needs before their own. While generosity and looking out for others is a wonderful virtue, women (and especially Indian women) are taught to sacrifice themselves for the greater good.

But how does this behavior work out for us? Not so well, it turns out, if you are last on your list.

Adam Grant’s wonderful book Give and Take tells us that “givers” come in two flavors. “Otherish givers” have a high regard for others’ interests AND their own interests. “Selfless givers” have a high regard for others’ interests but not their own interests. Adam found that “otherish” givers emerge at the top of their fields while “selfless” givers emerge at the bottom, burnt out from too much giving, and possibly resentful.

One thing we need to remember is that people expect us to take care of our own interest, so they may be unaware that our “yes” is coming at a high personal cost.  You may be giving a bit of yourself away when you say “yes,” but the person at the other end may not realize the cost, or if they knew the cost, they might be ok with hearing a “no.”

Also the more often we say “yes,” the more often expected / less remarkable it becomes. As the wise Gretchen Rubin says about shared work:

When you’re doing a job that benefits other people, it’s easy to assume that they feel conscious of the fact that you’re doing this work—that they should feel grateful, and that they should and do feel guilty about not helping you.

But no! Often, the more reliably you perform a task, the less likely it is for someone to notice that you’re doing it, and to feel grateful, and to feel any impulse to help or to take a turn.

By default, I try to jump through hoops that people put before me. As I try to become more judicious about when to say “no” and when to say “yes,” a memory from playing a video game as a kid comes to mind. We’re in a circus in which a majestic lion must jump through hoops on fire, that come to him in ones and twos and threes, faster and faster. I try to think of myself as the lion. But instead of jumping through the crazy hoops, I side-step them and saunter on. And I think,  why would a majestic lion jump through hoops? And I repeat to myself, “Hoops are NOT for jumping through…”

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Smashed eggs and banana bread

I recently came across this exercise as a way to break through creative resistance:

All you need to do, before you start your creative work for the day — your writing or painting or software designing — is to crack an egg! Just break it in a bowl, egg shells and all. Then, get up and go do your work.

The thought here is that breaking an egg for no good reason makes us feel squeamish and resistant — similar to the resistance we feel as we set out to write something, to shape something, to draw something. The physical act of cracking the egg helps break through the psychological resistance that holds us back.

And so I did. I cracked the egg with my bare hands and squished it and felt the shards of its shell dig into the palms of my hands. The sorry egg lay on the kitchen top as I went to write on my blog, an aside that my sister remarked was a style very different from my typical measured way of writing. More INFP than INFJ, she said.

I did this exercise again a day or so back. Only this time, I was still a little bit stuck as I wrote, too much in my controlled, left-brained state to be able to let go. And as I stared at the blank screen before me, I thought: Let me bake! And so I did, some banana bread with a little bit of rum, using the egg that I’d just smashed, carefully picking up all the pieces of shell. I guess creativity is like that. You can destroy something but then pick up the pieces and make something you never imagined you were going to make in the first place.

banana bread

Recipe: The Best Banana Bread Recipe (I also added a dash of white rum).

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Do check out Ritu’s original blog post “On being creative and cracking an egg.

Maybe it is time

birdI’m feeling like I’m at a cusp these days of what I was and what I will be. I don’t know quite yet what I will be, what I want to be, but I feel ready to say goodbye to some patterns of my past which no longer serve me. I described this feeling to a friend as being trapped in an egg and pushing the walls, ready to hatch. Caterpillars becoming butterflies sounds much prettier but I feel more like I’m stuck in a egg and breaking free, pushing hard and the walls are beginning to crack. Maybe it is time to start taking some risks. Maybe it is time to write not censor. Maybe it is time to not be so proper. Maybe it is time to not just tippy toe in a lake of niceness but run toward a raging ocean.

Are You Listening Too Much of the Time?

communicationAs I wrote a while back, I’ve been working on my communication skills through Ramit Sethi’s “How to Talk to Anybody,” video training course. Although communication skills are so vital, it’s amazing that they’re never really “taught” at school.

With writers, a common problem is that we’re more comfortable expressing ourselves through the written word, with its backspace button that gives us comfort that we’re expressing exactly what we want to, as well as distance which helps us say what we want, without fear of how people may react. But we’re less comfortable expressing ourselves verbally. So, more often than not, we may spend more time observing and absorbing and assimilating – i.e., listening – than we do talking. The upside is that people often choose to talk to us, confide in us, and ask us for input. The downside is that we may not be heard because we’ve spent so much time listening.

As a natural listener, and (hopefully) an empathetic one, I’ve never had trouble listening to people. But Ramit Sethi’s course opened my eyes to a big issue in my communication: the fact that I was spending much more time listening that I was talking.

What happens in such a dynamic? Well, people end up leaving the conversation understanding very little about you! As I look back at years and years of conversations, I’m amazed at how I did not see the impact of this dynamic. I often asked lots of questions and listened carefully to what people had to say, so I knew a lot about them, and hence felt closer to them, than they knew about me or felt about me.

And yet, being known and being valued for our unique strengths, stories, and talents – apart from the fact that we’re good listeners! – is something that we all want.

Ramit’s solution? For every two questions you ask, make a statement.

And so I’ve started consciously to focus more on self-disclosure; to listen, but also to talk. And slowly but surely I can see the difference its making. Not only do I understand people around me, they’re beginning to understand me.

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Writing advice from the wise and witty Brenda Ueland

I love, love, love Brenda Ueland’s “If You Want to Write A Book about Art, If You Want to WriteIndependence and Spirit,” a MUST read for those looking to rediscover their lost creativity. Here are some of my favorite learnings  from the book.

Our innate creativity is often destroyed by the time we reach adulthood.

It (our creativity) is very tender and sensitive, and it is usually drummed out of people early in life by criticism (so-called “helpful criticism” is often the worst kind), by teasing, jeering, rules, prissy teachers, critics, and all those unloving people who forget that the letter killeth and the spirit giveth life. Sometimes I think of life as a process where everybody is discouraging and taking everybody else a peg or two.

Brenda urges us to keep this spark alive, because:

..it is life itself. It is the Spirit. In fact it is the only important thing about us. The rest of us is legs and stomach, materialistic cravings and fears.

So, how do we keep it alive?

By using it, by letting it out, by giving some time to it. But if we are women we think it is more important to wipe noses and carry doilies than to write or to play the piano. And men spend their lives adding and subtracting and dictating letters when they secretly long to write sonnets and play the violin and burst into tears at the sunset.

But what urges us to write, to paint, to create?

One of the intrinsic rewards for writing the sonnet was that then the nobleman knew and understood his own feelings better, and he knew more about what love was, what part of his feelings were bogus (literary) and what real, and what a beautiful thing the English or the Italian language was…

And one of the most important intrinsic rewards is the stretched understanding, the illumination…you will never know what your  husband looks like unless you try to draw him, and you will never understand him unless you try and write his story.

So, how can we release the poet hidden in us, or bring to the surface the tune that is caught in our throat? Brenda talks about the right way to work:

I learned from them that inspiration does not come like a bolt, nor is it a kinetic, energetic striving, but it comes into us slowly, and quietly, and all the time, though we must regularly and every day give it a little chance to start flowing, prime it with a little solitude and idleness. I learned that you should feel when writing, not like Lord Byron on a mountaintop, but like a child stringing beads in kindergarten–happy, absorbed, and quietly putting one bead after another.

In our creative endeavors, Brenda urges us to:

Be careless, reckless! Be a lion! Be a pirate! When You Write

And yet, fear often keeps us from being a lion.

It is because of the critics, the doubters (in the outer world and within ourselves) that we have such hesitance when we write…

As I write this I many times have had the chilling feeling come around my heart because of the thought: “What if it may not be true? People will say I am crazy. Where is my logic? I haven’t a Ph.D. in philosophy or psychology.”

She shares how she moved past this fear herself:

A few years ago I would not have dared say anything in this book without looking up long, corroborating passages in big books: “William James says,” etc., etc.

I believe now in speaking from myself, as I want you to do when you write. Don’t keep marshaling thoughts like “I must prove it.”

You don’t have to prove it by citing specific examples, by comparing and all. If it is true to you, it is true. Another truth may take place later. What comes truly from me is true, whether anybody believes it or not. It is my truth.

If there are so many difficulties involved in reclaiming our creativity and then moving past our fears to express ourselves, the question arises: why do we do it?

Because there is nothing that makes people so generous, joyful, lively, bold, and compassionate, so indifferent to fighting and the accumulation of objects and money. Because the best way to know the Truth or Beauty is to try to express it. And what is the purpose of existence Here or Yonder but to discover truth and beauty and express it, i.e., share it with others.

“If you want to write” will inspire you, will support you, will nurture you as you look inside yourself and try to find the fanciful little girl who lived in you, who thought that a orange tree would grow out from her mouth if she swallowed some seeds. Or maybe the little boy who thought that once he dropped the letter in the post box it traveled through winding tunnels and it would fly out the other end, just where his grandma lived. That little boy or little girl still lives somewhere deep inside of us: they’re calling out for us to find them.

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About to Criticize? Praise Instead….

About to Criticize? Praise Instead…

I just finished reading Maria Chaudhuri’s memoir “Beloved Strangers,” an accountcriticism of her growing up as a child in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and then as a woman in New York, in the United States. I picked up this book after hearing Maria speak at the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year and sensing a sensitive soul in her.

In the passage below, Maria describes how she was humiliated by her Math teacher as a six-year old for failing to “get” numbers, their addition and subtraction, their multiplication and division.

Invariably, Mrs. Bashir would fling my lesson book across the classroom, grab me by both ears to pick me up and place me, red-faced and burning on the “shame bench” outside the classroom. There I remained until the noonday sun baked my skin dry. As the energy seeped out of me in streams of sweat, it took me all my strength not to faint.

The shaming continued until it became clear that I would not make the same mistakes again. I stopped making mistakes because I stopped being able to add or subtract at all. On one occasion, Mrs. Bashir was perplexed when she opened my lesson book to see that I’d neatly copied the assignment but left it entirely undone. Concluding that the shaming had been inadequate, she dragged the red bench, which had stood just outside the classroom window, inside, and placed it next to the teacher’s desk so the victim could squarely face the gleeful spectators of her torture. Saved from the tropical sun, my skin began to recover its natural tone again but my six-year-old heart was broken. As my classmates looked on mockingly, I hung my head and wished I would faint after all.

How did this criticism affect Maria? Did she start to “get” Math?

Unsurprisingly, all that Maria was able to take away from this experience was a fear of Math, and worse, a sense of shame. Whenever punished, Maria escaped the classroom by running away in her mind.

This was when I invented the odd game with numbers. I ran up and down the shapes of their horrid bodies, hid in their nooks and crannies and refused to hear anything they might have to say to me. I fantasized chopping them into edible bits and gobbling them up, once and for all, so they’d leave me alone. No matter what I tried though, they stayed with me. They greeted me every morning from the pages of my books, cooing incessantly in my hand, “Shame-shame, shame-shame, shame-shame…”

Has harsh criticism ever helped you do better at anything in your life?  Either as a child or an adult? Personally, I cannot think of a single time when such destructive criticism has helped me “improve” my performance. Like Maria, I have wanted to escape and run away to somewhere safe when faced with harsh criticism. Such criticism has made it harder for me to do something that I’m finding difficult to do in the first place.

Destructive criticism breaks our spirit, makes us fearful, makes us freeze. It clips our wings, making us do worse, instead of  better. Praise, on the other hand, gives us wings and helps us fly.

This was true for Maria at school, this is true at work.

In a recent study, researchers found that some managers consistently rated all their employees higher, and others consistently lower, than the average. They wondered if this was a result of bias and wanted to understand the effect the ratings had on people who worked with these managers. The authors say:

Are the positive-rating managers indulging in grade inflation? Do the lower ratings actually represent a more objective and deserved analysis of a subordinate’s performance?…Or perhaps the ratings are in some way self-fulfilling, and the leaders who see the best in their people actually make them better, while those who look more critically make their subordinates worse.

We favor that second interpretation, since whether deserved or not, the psychological effect of these ratings was dramatic. Anyone who joined us in the discussions with the subordinates of these two sets of managers would have instantly seen the impact. The people who’d received more positive ratings felt lifted up and supported. And that vote of confidence made them more optimistic about future improvement.  Conversely, subordinates rated by the consistently tougher managers were confused or discouraged—often both. They felt they were not valued or trusted, and that it was impossible to succeed.

Praise and confidence in employees sets them up for success. Holding them to meet impossible standards brings them down.

So, the message is clear. If you’re faced with a choice between praising and criticizing, choose praise. If you’re struggling through harsh criticism you’ve received, praise yourself for your efforts instead of beating yourself up.  From the wise and wonderful Louise L Hay comes this wonderful affirmation:

I praise myself for big and little things.

I am a wonderful being. I used to scold and criticize myself because I believed it would help me improve my life, and yet, criticism has not improved me over the years. In fact, criticism seems to make it much harder to change and progress. So, as I listen to my inner dialogue and find that I am being critical, telling myself that I’m not good enough or that I’m doing something wrong, I recognize the old patterns of childhood, and I immediately begin to speak lovingly to my inner child. Instead of tearing myself apart, I choose to nourish myself with praise and approval. I know I am on the way to becoming consistently loving.

What are some strategies YOU use to deal with harsh criticism? How do you take the learning from the criticism without letting it get you down? Do share your experience in the comments.

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