Vulnerability, humility, and ego.

Kitchen in disarray.
My messy kitchen after a coffee flood.

Dear Friend,

Last week I shared a post on Facebook and Twitter that began, “Guess what Miss Brilliant just did?” You may have seen it—the picture of my kitchen after I brewed a whole pot of coffee without the carafe in place, causing a small flood that soaked through to the basement.

Two of my favorite comments from friends were “You are wonderful,” and “I love you.” And there were many comments to the effect of “I’m glad I’m not the only one who does stuff like that.”

It struck me how much people relate to each other’s vulnerability. How much, even, they crave it. Brene Brown—you may have heard of her?—said this about vulnerability:

Vulnerability is at the core, the center, of meaningful human experiences.

Vulnerability is inevitable–no one and no life is perfect. But it’s the act of sharing our vulnerability that keeps us humble. If all I ever wrote and talked about was what I did well, my successes, what’s going right in my life, how could I possibly retain a sense of humility? How could I not start to think I was better than others? How could anyone possibly relate to me, and why would they want to?

Brene Brown achieved astronomical success through her research and insight on vulnerability, shame, imperfection, and other frailties of the human condition. But I wonder—how does one retain a sense of humility when fame and fortune of that magnitude come calling?

By making a conscious decision. Because owning our vulnerability and retaining humility are choices.

Humility is a choice.

Early in the coronavirus, my dad sent me this link about the Washington State lieutenant governor who left office to pursue the Priesthood.

The New York Times reported that Cyrus Habib, a political rising star, said “he could feel himself being sucked into a ‘celebrity culture’ in American politics that had nothing to do with public service. He could feel himself being swallowed by pride,” so he walked away before that happened.

A politician choosing humility over ego? How was that not splashed all over the headlines?

I was so impressed with Habib’s story, I planned to write about it, but then the coronavirus took over our lives, and it took our lives, and then racism took George Floyd’s life, and those events seemed so much more important than writing about vulnerability, humility, and ego. (Although I believe ego is at the root of both our pandemic fiasco and systemic racism, but I’ll save that for another post.)

Then an ego-boosting thing happened to me and I realized the universe had given me an excuse to tie the threads together.

Tying the threads together.

Last year, I had a Tiny Love Story–My Son, the Homeowner–published in the Modern Love section of the New York Times. (If you click on the link, scroll down to the 4th story.) It was a thrill, but I kept my ego in check, as it was only 100 words, not a full-blown personal essay. Yes, it was the New York Times, but my words were a blip.

Out of the blue last week, I got this email from an editor at the Times:

I write with exciting news from Modern Love: We have partnered with Artisan Press to publish a book of Tiny Love Stories. Of the hundreds of Tiny Love Stories we have published, we plan to include roughly half of them in the book, including yours. It will be in bookstores late in 2020 and is available for pre-order online.

“Including yours.” Including mine.

Whoa, ego. Fame and fortune haven’t found you yet. It’s still just 100 words. It’s not like it’s a best-selling memoir.

The gist of my memoir—that I’m a people-pleaser, that the compulsion to keep the peace at all costs prevented me from advocating for my son in his hour and months and years of need—keeps a lid on my ego.

It’s not a premise to brag about. It’s not something to be proud of. When someone asks, “What’s your book about?” a part of me cringes.

But I tell my story because I believe my vulnerability will be someone else’s grace. I believe others will see themselves in me, in my timidity, my fear of conflict, my self-doubt, and the recognition will open them to personal growth.

My vulnerability may be your grace.

Will my story achieve astronomical success? Will my memoir become a best-seller? Unlikely. I may never know if I can maintain humility when fame and fortune come calling. But that’s not the point.

Vulnerability…[is] having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.

~ Brene Brown.

The point for me is to continue on the journey, even without knowing where I’ll end up. On the way, I’ll continue to tell you of coffee floods, and buying the wrong milk, and my people-pleasing backfiring, and other silly and not-so-silly trials of life.

It will connect me to you and you to me and remind us both to keep our egos in check. Brilliant, don’t you think?

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Stages of Grief during COVID-19.

Image by Carrie Z from Pixabay.

Dear friend,

Are you still struggling? Me too.

So much loss and pain and fear within myself and among humanity. I’d been trying to wrap my brain around what I could say about it but it all seemed like more blah, blah, blah, just like the blah, blah, blah that fills the airwaves and my inbox every day.

Then my son Matt sent me a link to a podcast he listens to regularly: The Art of Manliness. In this particular episode, the host, Brett McKay, interviewed David Kessler, a grief expert and collaborator of Elizabeth Kubler-Ross—-creator of the five stages of grief.

You may be familiar with the stages, which ebb and flow, not in any sequential or linear order: Denial, Anger, Bargaining, Depression, Acceptance.

In this interview, Kessler said what we’re experiencing during this pandemic is grief. All of us, except those rare individuals (if they exist) who are somehow immune physically, socially, and emotionally to what’s happening to our world, are experiencing grief.

We’re experiencing pandemic grief.

It certainly feels that way to me.

Kessler goes on to assert that we’re the first generation to have “feelings on feelings.” In other words, “I feel X about this situation. And I feel Y about my X.”

No wonder this is so difficult!

Kessler doesn’t name the second level of feelings, but in many cases, as it is for me, that feeling is guilt: since I have it so much better than others, I feel guilty about and un-entitled to my negative emotions.

I believe it’s a form of survivor guilt. I recognize it from Matt’s rumble with a brain tumor when he was eleven, and it persists for me today. He was, and is, so much better off than many, many other brain tumor survivors. How can I possibly grieve for what was lost when I have so much to celebrate? Deep in the thicket of bringing my memoir into existence, I fight that war often.

And I find myself fighting with my first and second generation feelings about COVID-19:

  • I lost my disability income last September and my appeal was recently was denied. I’m not able to produce any sustainable earnings. But how can I feel sad when my husband is still employed and we’ll never lack for food and shelter?
  • I’m afraid of getting infected, but I rarely have to leave my house. How can I worry when so many others put their lives on the line every day?
  • I feel hopeless about the future of the book industry, and worried that I’ll never get an agent for my memoir. But how shallow can I be to even think about a mere book when people are dying?
  • I’m distraught over my good friend who is extremely ill with COVID-19. But how can my feelings even compare to what his family is going through?

You get my drift.

Kessler’s advice is to “Stay in your first generation feelings,” allow yourself to feel without judgment. If you do this, he says, the feelings will pass through you in a few minutes.

I’m not sure that “passing through” happens so easily, but I’m going to try that this week.

I’m going to feel whatever I feel. I’m going to sit with all of my feelings and acknowledge them. I’m going to accept them whether they pass through me or not, and my goal will be to go easy on myself: self-acceptance is key.

I hope naming this collective expereince as grief helps you to go easy on yourself. I hope you can sit with your feelings today, accepting them for what they are. I hope you can grieve in whatever way you need to. And I hope that gives you solace.

Above all, I hope you are safe and well. If not, know that I grieve for you, as does the world.

There was much more in the interview that I’d like to share (including a sixth stage Kessler added) but, because there’s so much we all have to process every day, because of all the blah, blah, blah, I’ll save those thoughts for another week.

What about you? Does this pandemic experience feel like grief?

[If you don’t see the comment box here, click on the title of this post, scroll to the bottom and, Voila! Or, you can click on “Contact” in the menu bar and send me an email. I really do want to hear from you!]

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As a people-pleaser, my truth holds me accountable.

Workman wielding a hammer near a brick wall.
Image by kalhh from Pixabay.

A couple of years ago, we hired an electrician—I’ll call him Ed—to install a ceiling fan on the front porch and a new wall switch in the foyer.

Because there was a light switch in the living room on the other side of the foyer wall, the new switch would have to be installed lower than usual. My husband explained the situation to Ed, who understood.

Ed’s assistant—I’ll call him Jack—came the following day to do the work. I was in the kitchen when I heard a muffled curse and immediately knew what had happened. When I went to investigate, sure enough, there was a gaping hole in the plaster, exposing the back side of the living room light switch.

The correct and incorrect location of the wall switch. As a people-pleaser, this presented a challenge.
Unfortunately, I don’t have a picture of the misplaced hole.

Damn. I hated seeing that hole, but, even more, I hated the conflict it presented. As a people-pleaser, I’d rather scrub a toilet than face a conflict.

There were a number of ways I could have responded:

1) I could have yelled and make a fuss:

This is exactly what I feared would happen! We told your boss the switch couldn’t go there. You’d better fix it and it had better be perfect!

The very thought of making a scene like this gives me the heebie-jeebies. For better or for worse, I’d rather have a hole the size of New Jersey in my wall than yell at the person who put it there. Jack already felt horrible, I assumed, and I didn’t want to make him feel worse. The damage was done, literally, and yelling at him would not patch the plaster.

A people-pleaser is usually more concerned with another person’s feelings than their own.

2) I could have calmly expressed my anger in tone and words:

Jack, this is really maddening. We explained to Ed why the switch couldn’t go there. Didn’t he tell you?

This type of response wouldn’t patch the plaster either, but it would honor my feelings. A mistake was made, and I had every right to be mad and to express it. Most of my regrets in life–not that I dwell on regrets, but I try to learn from them–happen because I hadn’t honored my negative feelings, and didn’t speak up about them. I wish I had learned early on in life to express anger appropriately, but what I learned was to not express it at all. As you suspected, I didn’t choose this option.

A people-pleaser often doesn’t know how to express anger constructively.

3) I could have squashed my feelings and minimized the problem.

“It’s OK. Don’t worry about it. These old houses are always tricky. The hole can be fixed.”

Sigh. I’m sorry to say this was my choice. No problem! is my default. Face-to-face, in-the-moment, person-to-person conflict makes me so uncomfortable, I often pretend there isn’t a problem. I pretend I don’t care or that I’m not mad or upset or disappointed or annoyed or ready to explode.

I’m not proud to admit it, but it’s the truth.

I’m telling my truth to hold myself accountable.

A hole in the wall rates only a meh in the scheme of life. But by “outing” myself about these minor incidents, I hope to better understand and come to terms with the incidents that really matter, like the story in my memoir. And I hope to outgrow my toxic agreeability.

I tell my truth as a way to hold myself accountable.

I tell my truth in hopes that it will inspire others to explore and free themselves of their own people-pleasing habits.

I’m telling my truth to inspire other people-pleasers to free themselves.

The hole-in-the-wall scene is Act 1 of my wall-switch story. Dealing with Jack was the easy part. Confronting Ed, his boss, was the hard part–the part that left me with regrets. I’ll tell that scene next week.

(If you’re not subscribed and you don’t want to miss Act 2, just find the “subscribe” button and provide your email.)

If you’re a people-pleaser and you’d like to call yourself out, feel free to email me your story at contact@karendebonis.com (just click on “Contact” in the menu bar) and I’ll keep it between us.

If you’re feeling bolder, please add your comment below. (If you don’t see the comment box here, click on the title of this post and scroll to the bottom.)

Who knows? If my story inspired you, your story may inspire others. Together, we’ll grow stronger backbones and thicker skins. Together, we’ll be free.