“All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence.” ~ Roshi Joan Hallifax
This is where it gets real.
In order to nurture our sense of belonging, we must be tough AND vulnerable, strong AND soft. We have to take care of ourselves in order to build up the reserves we need to be ourselves, stand for what we believe in and stand alone when we need when we need to do that.
Otherwise, we remain trapped in our ideological bunkers trying to fit in.
Self-care is fundamental for a sense of belonging.
Or as Dr. Hallifax says, we need to inhale.
Parents, spouses, coaches, teachers, nurses, and many others have a tendency to exhale (AKA take care of everyone except themselves) never pausing to inhale (AKA take care of our own needs). Keep that up and you'll suffocate.
For many of us, strengthening our back is a specific and personal challenge. We’re driven by what other people think. We fear they won’t like us if we are “just” ourselves. We’re afraid of disappointing. Our self-esteem depends on being liked.
The challenge is letting go of those deep-rooted fears and needs.
If you’ve been there (I certainly have), you know that isn’t easy.
We judge ourselves way too harshly. We’re certain everyone thinks we’re not smart enough or pretty enough or kind enough or helpful enough. Somewhere, somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves or have been convinced, that we are not enough.
And so we look down on ourselves. Maybe not all the time, but enough that our belonging teeters.
“Our work is to get to the place where we like ourselves and are concerned when we judge ourselves too harshly or allow others to silence us.” ~ Brené Brown
Or in the words of Maya Angelou, “I belong to myself. I am very proud of that. I am very concerned about how I look at Maya. I Like Maya very much.”
Being myself - my own person, brave enough to go my own way alone if necessary and stand up for myself and what I believe without fear - requires this level of self-respect and self-love.
This level of self-care is not about treats like bubble baths, chocolate, or wine though all of those are quite nice.
This is about caring for the soul that lives in this skin suit, walking this earth learning and remembering how to love in all circumstances. Unconditional radical love and forgiveness starting with me. That is the foundation of belonging.
“Belonging is so primal, so necessary, the threat of losing your tribe or going alone feels so terrifying as to keep most of us distanced from the wilderness most of our lives. Human approval is one of our most treasured idols, and the offering we must lay at its hungry feet is keeping others comfortable.“ ~ Braving the Wilderness
The first time – and maybe the first 10 or even 100 times - we step into our own personal wildernesses, it takes our breath away. I can vividly remember practically hyperventilated the first time I knowingly, deliberately, and consciously stepped out that limb. I was certain someone was back there gleefully waiting to saw it off behind me.
Speaking up, staying true to our truth, has a frighteningly divisive power. That was a huge hurdle for me. I prefer collaboration. I adore finding the middle way. I’ve believe that dividing is the best way to kill something off. Cut it out of the pack – whatever “it” is - and it will die.
For so long, the idea of locking some people in and shutting some people out simply by the act of standing on my beliefs was beyond daunting. It was literally un-doable. I could feel the loneliness and judgement wafting towards me long before any action was taken, and was certain I would suffocate or worse if I went into that smoke.
That’s a powerful disincentive.
But here’s the shocker. Once you bravely go forth into the wilderness, you’ll find your True Tribe. So many of the best people have already gone before you, but you were too busy hiding and avoiding to notice. And yet, there they are – thriving, dancing, creating, celebrating, belonging.
My husband, the Marine, would likely advocate “strong back, armored front” which is what Brené Brown claims was her typical response. Mine would have likely been “curl up in a little ball, prickles out, soft belly hidden.”
Both responses make vulnerability impossible. Neither is any way to live. No matter how much we fight it, vulnerability is “the birthplace of love, joy, trust, intimacy, courage – everything that brings meaning to your life.”
Most of us develop our armor, our prickles, as children, especially if we feel the adults in our lives are not really protecting us. A child with a traumatic childhood quickly learns that vulnerability is dangerous and that nurturing their innate softness in any way is a weakness leaving them exposed and defenseless. Their emotions get scrambled and the truths they were born with begin to feel like false memories.
Here’s the real truth, the one you knew when you drew your first breath – vulnerability takes strength and is an accurate measure of courage.
Vulnerability is not weak. A willingness to cultivate a strong back and soft front is brave. It requires us to show up even though we know we can’t control the outcome.
Vulnerability is another great paradox. It’s the ability to be tough and tender, excited and scared, brave and afraid – all in the same moment.
Another enemy of our strong backs and soft fronts is dismissing our own pain or, conversely, comparing our pain to that of others. Doing either of those erodes our ability to empathize. Diminishing our own joy or amplifying our own pain in a misguided effort to make someone else feel better or ourselves feel less guilty, only robs everyone of the richness of feeling alive and on purpose. Instead, we feel “less than” and often bring down the people we were intending to elevate by our misguided action.
I’ve saved the biggest, hairiest, and worst for last. Worst, because we can only do it to ourselves – and we do.
We wander through life avidly and determinedly looking for confirmation that we don’t belong. Just listen to your self-talk sometime! Even the bravest and most confident among us do this. And we fervently believe in its truth because once we’ve made it our mission, we’ll see confirmation everywhere. We’ll search faces for evidence we are not enough or don;t belong and find it everywhere because we’ve blinded ourselves to any other possibly.
If you make it your goal to “prove” you don’t belong, you’re not enough, you’re too dumb or ugly or silly or…. That’s what you will see. You will firmly believe the universe is proving you right when the only thing happening is you are proving the vitality of your self-imposed blindness.
Are you courageous enough to protect your heart against constant judgement and evaluation especially your own?
In the words of Walk Kelly’s cartoon character Pogo, “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
Or better yet, “We have met the wilderness and it is us.”
Only a strong back and soft front can both protect and nurture your wild heart, the one longing to plunge into the wilderness.
I don’t just survive the wilderness…I AM the wilderness.