Brené Brown

I don't care what people think... (no… actually I do)

Lately I have been combing my memories looking back at my childhood for instances that gave me cause to start putting on the armour that I wear. I saw a new therapist for the first time on Saturday, and Cheryl listened patiently to me ramble on, with no clarity of why I was really there, other than a sense that I need some help navigating the quagmire that I currently find myself in. It reminds me a lot of the scene in Lord of the Rings where Bilbo and Sam are trying to make their way through the swamp of the dead, and Gollum keeps telling them not to look down, and hurry up so they don't end up there forever. Right now, it kind of feels like my journey is stuck in that swamp, caught between what I am discovering, and the destination (at this point unknown).

For a long time, probaby as long as I can remember, I have been very insecure. I was an awkward kid, with Howdy Doody orange hair (adults commented and kids teased) glasses, and a head that hadn't grown big enough to fit my ears. I remember getting called "goggles piizano", "big ears", "carrot top" all of which seem pretty trivial to me now, but back then it was anything but. My therapist told me that children develop their sense of who they are between the ages of three and twelve, and I definitely would have internalized that I wasn't cool, wasn't good enough, wasn't a lot of things during those formative years. She also said that those years are when kids start to self protect, and I definitely did those things, namely started putting on the armour and the persona built around the act of "I don't care what anyone thinks".

My indifference was almost universal. While I knew I was smart, I also quickly came to an understanding that being too smart only invited ridicule from my peers as well, so I stopped trying, and started to coast, an unfortunate habit that has dogged me my entire life. Unless of course, someone could inspire me, and then I would go all in. I had a teacher in Grade Six, Mr. Norton, who found a way to inspire me, and frankly our whole class. He made us feel so smart, he told us we were smart, he tapped into something that made me want to try, to give it my all. I remember him teaching us about base 5 math - he told us that it was the math he was teaching to his university students. It was the only year during my primary eduction that I got honours. After Grade Six I went back to not caring. That pattern of not caring took me through eleven years of univsity culminating with a degree in Law. Sounds strange now, but looking back I see how much more I could have gleaned from my many years of attending school, if I had just allowed myself to care about the process a bit more.

Not caring was a great coat of armour, thick and strong enough to protect me from the hurt of rejection. Not fitting in was a pretty common theme of my life, and yet that is all I wanted to do. I tried so hard (too hard) and as a result came off desparate most of the time, which isn't a very endearing quality. I was always too intense, too talkative, too verbal. Even the seed of becoming a lawyer was planted early on, as I was always talking and arguing, and being told I would make a good lawyer when I grew up.

I retreated into books, I read voraciously as a kid, often staying up until three in the morning reading books (crazy big books) like Roots, Shogun, and all kinds of fantasy novels. What kind of twelve year-old reads Roots? Don't get me wrong, from the outside my life looked pretty normal, pretty average for a kid growing up in rural Alberta. I liked motobikes and horses, I was a cowboy in the making. But what I am beginning to realize now is that I wanted desperately to fit in, to be popular, to not be the kid that everyone mocked, to not be the kid that was laughed at.

The shame associated with those formative years, appears to be the thing I have to deal with now, at the age of forty-nine. My therapist told me, in a very matter-of-fact way that I am essentially emotionally paralyzed from the neck down. In other words, I just don't know how to relate on an emotional level, as I learned early on that living in my head hurts way less. And she is right. I have cultivated an identity over decades that is built around my brain. I am quick, combative, fearless, impulsive, intimidating, reckless, confident, brash, at times a bully, relentless (I have been called a Bull in a China shop more than once). All of which I have worn proudly, like the boy scout that I once was. Becoming an expert in coffee, wine, cooking (sort of) all of which gave me a sense of importance. Being perceived as fearless, an entrepreneur, someone unafraid to take risks is all part of the act too. I am beginning to see that a lot of it is just performance, and my body belies the act. While I may appear to be completely in charge, my body deals with the stress through intense perspiration, my armpits are like fountains whenever I am stressed, and lately it takes far less to stress me out.

So I am learning is that all of this has kept me from allowing the real me to see the light of day. The vulnerable, scared, insecure kid with bright orange hair and big ears, has been locked up all these years. I locked him up, because I was tired of the pain and the shame, and I opted instead to be the confident, dauntless Poul, that most people see today. Brene Brown talks about self compassion as a critical element of being wholehearted. I think that part of this journey will require me to look the awkward twelve year-old in the face and tell him that I like him, actually love him; although right now, I think I may still be embarrassed by him (obviously something that still needs work).

I have no idea where this is going to lead. While intellectually I understand what my therapist says when she tells me I am emotionally paralized, I have no idea what learning to use the rest of my emotional body looks like, let alone how to actuate it. The only time I cry now, is during movies, perhaps because it is dark, or it is safe, but it is the one place in my life where the emotions actually bubble to the surface. Sometimes so much so that even my son will notice it and ask "dad were you crying" with a quizacal look on his face. So I know that I have emotions, and occassionally they are allowed to surface. Truthfully the whole prospect scares me. I don't know what my life will look like without my armour. I don't know what my life will be like when I open the vault that keeps my emotions in check. What I do know is that I am tired of living the lie of "I don't care what people think" and look forward to retiring from my acting career, and settling into a place where I can just be myself. Until then, I will keep walking the dog and listening to thoughtful people. Turns out that my therapist lives in my neighbourhood and has a dog named Charlie too. Too bad I couldn’t just do sessions while walking the dog, it would be way cheaper, LOL.

Grief (A man unacquainted)

Grief is something I am not good at, never have been. Honestly, I don’t think I have allowed myself to experience grief very often; part of the bit of wearing my teflon suit of armour. It’s not that I haven’t had opportunity to experience grief - my cousin died tragically, numerous grandparents are now dead, my dad died… I have experienced plenty of death in my life. Yet in all of this, I remained relatively stoic, reigned in my emotions, was “tough” and '“strong” through it all.

I have been listening to Brené’s Rising Strong for a second time (needs time to percolate) so that it will sink in. At one point she refers to one of her favourite quotes from C.S. Lewis

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will certainly be wrung and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries, avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable. To love is to be vulnerable.

That protective way of life, has largely been the path that I have chosen, as I instinctively knew that it would result in less heartbreak. I am not for a moment suggesting that this was the better path, but it was definitely the less painful one. With that said, I now am beginning to realize that while that path is less painful, it is also far less real, and far less meaningful.

I am slowly learning that leaning into the hurt, leaning into the emotion of heartbreak is a required element of grief. And while we typically associate grief with the death of loved ones, we can experience grief in all types of circumstances. The death of a job, a dream, a community, a friendship, or frankly anything in our lives where we have significant expectations that are unmet.

I am just starting to come around to this, and starting to recognize in myself the hurt and pain associated with unmet expectations (mostly what Brown calls “stealth expectations”) largely uncommunicated. I am beginning to wonder whether in fact, these stealth expectations are harder to reckon with than those that are laid out in the open. The ones held close, seem to be stronger, more important, more linked to emotion, and as a result, more easily dashed.

Grief is the emotion, the process, the path into that hurt and heartbreak which must be taken, if we are to emerge on the other side more whole hearted. I am just learning to rumble with this. I am having many conversations in my head as I walk and listen and think, trying to work this out.

I am finally seeing a psychologist again for the first time on Saturday. I have no idea whether we will connect, but I am hopeful. I hope that there will be a fit so that I have a way to navigate these rough waters. Rough water is not always a bad thing! As a beginner kayaker, I prefer the calm water of the North Saskatchewan River, but as I improve in my technical skills, I know that like all things, I will go looking for something with more kick, more excitement, more danger. I will be on the hunt for rougher waters.

Until then, I will have to do the work of navigating the rough waters of my emotion, my unspoken expectations, my bottled up grief, and I actually think that this ride will be better than the real water counterpart could ever be. We shall see.

Brutally Honest (holding my breath with this one)

I wrote about expectations a few days ago. We all have experienced poor customer service because of unmet expectations! Deliver on my expectations and I am satisfied (but only), fail to meet my expectations and I am pissed (and will tell everyone how you failed over and over again) and if you happen to exceed my expectations, I will sing your praises until the cows come home (Canlis, Au Pied de Cochon). I may be wrong, but I think this is just human nature. These concepts around customer service is what we are trying to instil in our team at Transcend; exceed customer’s expectations and we win! I point to companies like Apple, Virgin Airlines and Mortons, as all of these organizations are famous for exceeding patron expectations and as a result garnering rabid customer loyalty. We all love to be treated well, to be known, to feel connected, to feel like we are included and belong, even with businesses we engage with.

Brené talks a lot about those who are wholehearted. Those subjects (research subjects) who have this innate sense that they are worthy of love and belonging. After reading Daring Greatly, I actually thought of myself as one of those people (confident of their innate worthiness of love and belonging). Oddly, after reading Rising Strong, I realized that I am actually not one of those people who inherently believe that they are worthy of love and belonging (I was lying to myself). I have another blog post in the cue about that, later.

Getting back to expectations. I realize that I am poor at communicating them. I rarely communicate them, maybe because I haven’t taken the time to figure out for myself what those expectations even are, and perhaps because articulating expectations is an act of vulnerability. With that said, I have started thinking about what my expectations are going forward when it comes to the notion of friendship. For those of you who (Still) count me as a friend, I apologize in advance.

I realize that I am disappointed largely because of my unspoken expectations in and around friendship. And yet I know that the people in my life cannot meet my expectations if I never communicate them. Even having to think about what my needs are in relationships is venturing into foreign territory for me. The process of communicating expectations requires courage (obviously something that I lack) to suffer discomfort and perhaps more risky, having my expressed needs rejected. So instead of taking that risk, I have in the past, mostly opted for the thing which is fast and easy, namely suppress, quell and ignore my needs and expectations, and then live frustrated in the reality that my relationships don’t measure up (circular and self defeating reasoning, I know!).

As I journey through all of this, I am beginning to realize that the lack of mutual connection in my life, is a source of pain. As I critically evaluate many of my friendships, I am finding that I have to admit that I am the often the instigator when it comes to facilitating connection. I enjoy hosting people, enjoy cooking for people, enjoy throwing a party (smaller lately). While all of this is true, what I am also starting to realize is that being the one to initiate these connections most of the time makes me wonder about the actual strength of my relationships. I get that that sounds shitty, TRUE, but I am trying to be more honest and vulnerable.

As I begin to attach words to long held feelings of unworthiness, I am asking myself why it is that I initiate text conversations at a ratio of 10:1? Probably because I crave connection? The same goes for hosting people for dinner. But at the risk of being considered petty, I am starting to realize that if I don’t initiate contact with many friends, it rarely seems to happen. Assuming that all of my friends are doing the best that they can, I have to assume that everyone is busy, everyone has a lot on their plate, and that life swallows up time and opportunity to connect. Yet, with that said, I also have to acknowledge that upon reflection, it doesn’t feel very good knowing that without my initiative (on the whole) my life perhaps would be largely devoid of meaningful connection. This realization is definitely an area of shame in my life, and one that I want a reckoning from.

So if I have to articulate my needs and expectations in and around friendship, I have to say that I have a need for greater mutuality when it comes to connection. How can friends be vulnerable with each other if there isn’t an opportunity to connect and build relationships of trust? If we are all too busy to connect, the chance of meaningful conversation built upon mutual vulnerability will likely never exist. Perhaps this is the reality of the world we now live in? And while the mad scramble of life seemingly takes no prisoners; I don’t have to like this reality that I find myself part of.

I realize that what I am writing is probably going to be perceived as being shitty. I realize that this may possibly result in less dinner invitations being accepted. But in truth, this is not my intention. My intention with this post (albeit raw) is to be brutally honest, and truly vulnerable about how I feel. As someone deeply committed to the notion of community, one of the things I long for is authentic connection. I also realize that many people in my life aren’t in the same place I am, aren’t in the same stage in life or career. I am aware that I am afforded a rarefied luxury of flexibility and freedom in my day-to-day life, and I think that this freedom perhaps, is in part to blame, because I have time to connect when most everyone else in my life is busy with work and family.

Me writing this, doesn't diminish my affection for my friends, on the contrary. Me writing this doesn’t negate my desire to host dinners, fires, or get-togethers. But having said all of that, what it does articulate is a deep desire to know that I am worthy of love and belonging and that my friendships aren’t simply a byproduct of my own creation, a product of my constant persistence (a polite but persistent nagging) and people simply giving way. Sounds a bit like junior high, I know, but this is where I am at; forty-nine years in the making.

Badassery (redefined)

For almost all of my life, I have respected the idea of a badass. Someone who lives on their own terms, lives without fear, perhaps even lives dangerously. Maybe it is a byproduct of growing up on a farm (of sorts), or at least growing up in the country, where we just did things without giving much thought to the consequences. Jumping motorbikes and snowmobiles over fences, pushing the limits with equipment, basically thumbing our noses at danger. Truth be told, I am still a bit too much like that (everyone at Transcend Coffee thinks of me as a cowboy, doing things that the average person wouldn’t even consider). I am not trying to be reckless, but I think it is a bit hard wired into me, from my time growing up - that you just get er’ done, safety be damned.

So working through Brené Brown’s definition of a badass (or badassery) has been a bit of an adjustment, and upon reflection, her notion of being a badass is growing on me. I like that she flips the notion on its head, and rather than celebrating the reckless, cowboy, safety be damned approach to life, that I grew up admiring, she celebrates the one who has the courage to be vulnerable. She writes

To me the real badass is the person who says, “Our family is really hurting. We could use your support.” And the man who tells his son, “It’s okay to be sad. We all get sad. We just need to talk about it.” And the woman you says, “Our team dropped the ball. We need to stop blaming each other and have some tough conversations about what happened so we can fix it and move forward.”

I have found the response to this blog interesting. I never expected many people to read it, and frankly, I am surprised that as many people have taken time out of their busy lives to ingest it as have done. But even more surprising than the analytics, is the conversations I have been having here and there with people who want to encourage me with the project.

I have had a couple of very encouraging conversations in the last couple of days, not because of them celebrating this blog, but far more importantly, because we had honest, raw, emotion filled talks about the shit in our lives. The conversations were about suffering, emotions, regret, failure, anger, resentment, and disappointment. And while that might not sound like fodder for great conversation, I left both instances feeling refreshed, uplifted, because for the first time in a long time, I was having meaningful interaction with friends which transcended the day-to-day, the mundane, the weather.

This little quirky project of mine, a journey into living wholeheartedly, and then writing about it, has opened unexpected doors into not just my life, but the raw lives of others, and is enabling human connection, the thing I have been longing for.

I still have no idea what the hell I am doing, or how I will get to where I need to ultimately end up. I still need to find a good therapist (if you know of one, please pass there name along). I still need to ingest more learning (2nd time through Rising Strong on my walks with Charlie). I need to figure out how to lean in more and practice it. I need to quit reacting and making assumptions concerning unpleasant circumstances and start living in the knowledge that people are doing the best that they can. I need to start being more curious about my own reactions and emotions, hell I need to figure out how to name my emotions! You would think that someone who can taste and identify flavours like black currant and jasmine in coffee and wine would be better at identifying the physiological and psychological responses that my body has; so much work to do. But in the midst of it all I am moving forward, growing, and more importantly seeing the fruit of this journey into being more vulnerable (Julie, I think you might be proud of me?).

So, while I still give props to the somewhat reckless actions of my youth, and acknowledge the things in my life that exist because of misguided bravery, I am starting to grasp (albeit slowly) the true bravery required to live wholeheartedly, to live in the midst of courageous and difficult conversations. Now I just have to figure out if I can still be a cowboy and a badass at the same time? LOL.

Generosity and Expectations

We have been talking a lot at Transcend about expectations and customer service. Good customer service is very difficult to find in the market place, and I think that the biggest problem with this deficit is most of us have unmet expectations which leave us feeling cold. We have been talking about exceeding people’s expectations as a way to win at customer service, but that requires that you actually know what the expectations of your customers are, or alternatively help to set those expectations.

I think the same is true in life. I think that many of us live our lives without any real thought as to what our expectations are in life, and as a result, often find ourselves disappointed and frustrated.

I know that I fall into this pattern of living. It is easy to drift into the daily grind of getting up, doing work, catching a bit of TV, maybe if we are lucky a little exercise and then bed. The cycle continues day after day, until another month, year, perhaps a decade has passed, and we look back and wonder where the time has gone, and why we feel so disconnected.

I have never been good at setting goals. I tried once to outline a five year plan and it was a complete waste of time. I feel constrained by plans, goals, metrics. But I also know that I often find myself disappointed in life and I think that is because I have very rarely taken the time to understand and more importantly communicate what my expectations are to myself and those around me. I am not talking about being demanding, or pushy, but rather being clear about what is important to me, so that others know, and can assess whether they are up for being part of the journey, and can decide whether or not they can actually meet my expectations.

I know that I have always longed for meaningful community. I wrote a small blog post a while ago on this subject. Truthfully, I have never had that longing met. I talk about community, think about it, but I don’t think I have ever stopped to identify for myself what my expectations are in and around community. As a result, I am often disappointed and frustrated with any attempt to build or nurture community. True vulnerable mutual friendship is a rare thing in my life, and I am guessing in most people’s lives. We all are busy, we have more to do than time to do it, work and family consume most of our time leaving most of us sleep deprived and exhausted. When we do find time to get together with friends, it can often feel hollow and unsatisfying. I am beginning to wonder whether this is because we (I) have failed to define for ourselves and communicate our expectations, and as a result, have them left unmet.

The problem with communicating expectations is that it is scary, at least on a personal level. Being vulnerable and communicating our needs to others opens us up to rejection which in turn causes pain. So instead, I know that I mostly choose to live in a place of frustration, due to unspoken and unmet expectations. I would say this is true in my life, even with those closest to me. I have never sat down with my friends and articulated what I would like to see in terms of how our friendship might work. I have never had one friend sit me down and tell me what they expect of me either. So I am guessing that like me, they have experienced frustration and disappointment as well (some of which I am likely the author of).

I have always held generosity as a personal core value. I like to think of myself as a generous person. While I think that I can say that this is mostly true (I am not always generous) I can honestly say that I rarely establish boundaries around that generosity. The result of this is often disappointment and unmet expectations; feelings of being taken advantage of, always having to be the one who initiates….

Brené Brown talks about “living big” and poses this question: what boundaries do I need to put in place so I can work from a place of integrity and extend the most generous interpretations of the intentions, words, and actions of others?

She goes on to define integrity as the act of choosing courage over comfort; choosing what is right over what is fun, fast, or easy; and choosing to practice our values rather than simply professing them.

I know that the thought of communicating clear expectations is a daunting prospect. Even as I write this, my thoughts rush to the assumption that my heartfelt needs in friendship are likely unreasonable (if they weren’t why do they seem so unattainable). This thought pattern may be totally inaccurate, but up until now, I have rarely (perhaps never) had the courage to articulate my expectations even to those people closest to me. So rather than exercising courage, I have chosen the easy way out, but the easy way leads to frustration.

Brené suggests that we take a piece of paper, one inch by one inch and write down the name of everyone in our life that has earned the right to hear our deepest thoughts and feelings. She says if there are more names than can fit on that tiny piece of paper, we need to edit that list because we aren’t being honest with ourselves. My initial thought when she said this was wow, that is harsh. But is it? It seems ridiculous that I am approaching a half century on this planet, and for all of it, I find myself in (what must be very common) a place of solitude because of my own inability to be vulnerable with others. Years of wearing armour, upgrading that armour, to ensure that nothing gets through the cracks has led me here. And yet when I am honest with myself, I don’t want to be where I find myself, and worse, I don’t have a map to show me how to navigate to where I actually want to be….

More rumbling required.


Brené Brown talks a lot about the notion of rumbling, or wrestling with our stories. We all tell stories about our lives. I have been telling stories about my life, and most of those stories have a narrative where I own very little of the responsibility. I think wearing armour for most of my life has me making up stories to help me explain my sense of isolation, and my lack of community. I think that being a risk taker, doing it alone, not needing any help have all been part of my narrative. This narrative though is one born out of need to protect myself, and are not born out of a place of being vulnerable.

I am actually a pretty good story teller. I can hold court, so to speak, and when I get on a roll, people tend to engage. I actually believe that I can (to some extent) talk my ideas into reality, and perhaps that is true, I am actually not sure anymore. What I am learning is that these stories that we tell ourselves are often not accurate, and are instead the things we tell ourself to protect and deflect. Brown defines these protective stories as confabulations, or fictions told in earnest. So in other words, we tell ourselves lies, but actually believe our own lies, because we see them as true. I guess it is looking at my life through rose coloured glasses. Brown says

the goal of the rumble is to get honest about the stories we’re making up about our struggles, to revisit, challenge, and reality-check these narratives as we dig into topics such as boundaries, shame, blame, resentment, heartbreak, generosity, and forgiveness. Rumbling with these topics and moving from our first responses to a deeper understanding of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviours gives birth to key learnings about who we are and how we engage with others. The rumble is where wholeheartedness is cultivated and change begins.

I have been starting to look more closely at my Teflon coated life, my stories, and my bottled up emotions. To be honest, I don’t much like the squirmy process. I don’t like how it makes me feel, I don’t like the emotions and pain it is welling up. Frankly, I am not good at it; I am so much better at avoiding this stuff, not leaning into it. With that said, I know if I want to grow into a place where I can live more wholeheartedly, I need to give space for the rumble. Frankly I need to get some help with this (anyone know a good therapist) as already, it is self evident that I can’t do this on my own (ironically, that is one of the most powerful stories I tell myself, I can do it by myself). Admitting my need is a very vulnerable space for me, and it flies in the face of my narrative of being a generous person. My version of generosity is about giving, but my version rarely if ever receives.

I have lived with the narrative that it is better to give than to receive all of my life. I have lived with the narrative that we are not to let the right hand know what the left hand is doing (or in other words, you never talk about the good that you do). I think the problem with these stories that I tell, is that they inherently keep me from be honest about my own needs, my own expectations, and as a result I often live in a self made shadow of isolation and frustration. I blame others “I just am not into small talk”, or we don’t have anything to talk about, we just don’t connect. But I am learning that vulnerability is built on being curious, curious about one’s own fictional stories, and I think curious about what drives others. If looked at from that vantage point, we all have intense points of interconnection, where, if we are willing, we can practice being vulnerable, and perhaps in the process be heard, and understood just a little bit more?

To be honest, I don’t have any clarity or answers at this point, and that in itself frustrates me. So instead, I will take Dr. Brown’s advice and lean into the rumble for as long as it takes, continuing to struggle with my own made up stories, and trust that the process in and of itself will provide some reckoning..

Don't want him to be a wuss

When my son Andrew was born, I was overcome with emotion, one of the few times in my life, where I allowed myself to cry without restraint. It was an extraordinary event in my life…

Michelle and I had avoided having children for the first eight years of our marriage, as we had our sights on completing our education. We were married relatively young, I was twenty-three she was a year younger. We were still both attending the University of Lethbridge at the time.

Years later when we decided it was time to start a family we discovered that we were not naturally inclined towards procreation. I remember having a sperm test done, to determine if I was the culprit in our lack of success. I remember visiting the doctors office where I was secretly relieved as our odd practitioner (he always wore a Star Trek badge) informed me that “I could father nations”. At least I wasn't impotent. After that, we started the initial phases of fertility treatments and despite our efforts, we remained childless. After a couple of years we simply decided that having kids wasn’t in our future and we resigned ourselves to a future without children.

I can still remember the place and time that Michelle told me that she was pregnant. I was driving in a rental vehicle on my way back from the Stoney Reserve just west of Calgary. I was practicing Aboriginal Law for the firm Ackroyd and had been down attending a meeting with Chief and Counsel. I had just left Red Deer, and the phone rang. Michelle was on the line, obviously emotional about something. She blurted out that she had suspected for a while, but hadn’t been sure, but now she was, and couldn’t wait until I got back to Edmonton, to let me know that we were expecting. I don’t remember much about the rest of the drive home, as I was ecstatic.

The remaining months of the pregnancy were actually tumultuous. After visiting friends in St. Andrews, Scotland and our friends Mark and Ronenne in Cambridge on our first real vacation, I arrived home and back to work only to be met by the managing partner who let me know that I had until the end of the day to pack my office and vacate the building. The partners had met to discuss my future at the firm while I was on holidays and decided there wasn’t one.

Andrew was born on the 2nd of January, 2004 and we couldn’t have been more excited. It was bitterly cold that winter, and I remember bundling him up, as we brought him home from the hospital. Our journey as parents had officially begun and I didn’t have a clue what the hell to do with a new born.

Andrew was probably only two or three weeks old when Michelle caught me tossing him in the air and catching him. Now in my defence, I was being careful, and I wasn’t tossing him very high, but nonetheless, she was horrified. My response to the chastisement was that “I didn’t want him growing up to be a wuss”! Needless to say, my rational for my actions was met with disbelief and I promptly halted that misguided parenting behaviour.

Why tell this story? Fourteen years later, my kid is healthy, brave, and at times reckless. I doubt it has anything to do with being tossed in the air as a new born. But it may have something to do with my attitude and my perspective as a dad. You see, I think growing up constantly being bullied and put down, had burned into my psyche that fact that I was weak, and in my mind weakness was to be avoided at all costs. And the solution to being weak was to ensure that my son was going to grow up tough, so he could avoid the pain of being subject to ridicule and shame like his dad had experienced.

It all sounds crazy looking back on it, but reading Brené Brown’s books has me rethinking a lot of things, and I can see how so much of my parenting style has been influenced by what I experienced as a kid. I let Andrew do all kinds of questionable things as a youngster, like jumping off of a roof onto the trampoline (I am sure most of our friends think we are insane). Michelle gave up trying to override my tendency towards fostering Andrew’s recklessness a long time ago. Amazingly, and thankfully he has had little in the way of injury or scars to show for his bravery, and I am sure in part, he does a lot of those things to impress me, even though my encouragement is mostly subconscious.

The one thing that I haven’t encouraged in him (thankfully it isn’t too late) is to be vulnerable. In fact, I am sure that I have discouraged it most of the time. I have never been a fighter, but I have in the past encouraged him to be tough, and “stand up for himself” even to fight if necessary (there was a period of time when he was being bullied at school), a definite trigger for his old man.

It is such a cliche, but so true, that we men typically see vulnerability as weakness. We shouldn’t cry, show our emotions, or have too much empathy; it just isn’t manly. I am slowly discovering that this is all bullshit. That the emotions that well up in me as I watch a movie (sometimes even a commercial) are not a sign of weakness but that of being a healthy human. I know I have a long way to go in this regard, and frankly I am not sure how long it will take for me to allow myself the freedom to experience my emotions in their entirety. But what I do know is that I want to rectify my misguided approach to parenting before it is too late, and let my amazing kid know that vulnerability does not equate to weakness. That being a real man means embracing and owning our emotions, leaning into them, naming them, and working to understand them. Maybe, just like we are enjoying the process of developing our golf games together (he is already better than me) we can share the journey towards wholeheartedness together?! Hopefully then he will have a whole lifetime to live wholehearted, unlike his dad who is only just figuring it out with the last half his life already gone (turning 50 soon).

On Shame and Vulnerability

I listened to Brené Brown's book Daring Greatly over the past couple of days, I am now onto her book Rising Strong. My former psychologist suggested that I read Daring Greatly two years ago, which I brushed off at the time. Truthfully, had I listened to Julie back then, I might have more of a headstart on the personal work that needs doing now (I am not stubborn at all!). For those of you who aren't familiar with Brené's work, a great introduction to her research on shame and vulnerability can be found in her wildly successful TED talk. I like Brenê, and while I have never met her, I feel like I know her in part, because of how she communicates. I guess one of the benefits of listening to a book, vs reading a book, is that you get to hear the author read their work, which I think imbues it with more gravitas. I like the fact that she swears, she is real, she tells it like it is, and probably most importantly, she makes me squirm.

You might think it odd that I like that she makes me squirm, but in truth, I have always respected those who speak with clarity, who challenge me, who force me to look at myself. I don't suffer fools or small talk very well. I am someone who lives a lot in my own head, and I feels deeply, passionately most people say, but I rarely have a clue as to what I am feeling or how to name or process those emotions. I have worn Teflon most of my life, and for a long time, even was proud of that; I have been labelled a shit disturber, and a bull in a china shop and these are the kind descriptions.

What I am learning from Brown is that shame is a powerful thing, which impacts us early on, and has long-lasting impacts on how we live out our lives. As I have listened to Brené talk for well over twelve hours now, I am slowly realizing how many significant shaming events I endured as a young person. I was mercilessly ridiculed for having red hair (Howdy Doody red hair long before ginger was in style). I wore glasses starting in grade one, had big ears, and was completely awkward. I was punished by my grade one teacher for getting my work done too fast, was thrown down the stairs by bigger kids in grade two, picked up by my ears (literally) by my teacher in grade three for being a smart ass, and the list goes on. This bullying and shaming continued throughout my time in school, even until grade twelve where I was still mocked for my hair colour and appearance. When I look back on my grade twelve grad photo, even I am a bit shocked at how much I look like a complete cowboy nerd. I was so shy, so unsure of myself, so utterly lost. I was selected to travel to Ottawa in grade twelve as a participant in the Forum for Young Canadians. It was quite the honour, only four hundred kids from the entire country were selected, and there were thousands of applicants. I was so excited, and when I got there, that awkward, acneid, weird cowboy nerd was almost univerally rejected by the other attendees in my cohort. Frankly, I hated high school, and couldn't wait to get out of the small community that I grew up in. For as long as I could remember I felt like an outsider.

It wasn't until I spent a year in Denmark after graduating that I started to grow a little self- confidence. The year I spent in Europe after high school was cathartic. I got a chance for a new start, got a chance to be part of a new culture, a completely differnet social mileau. I left for Denmark an awkward cowboy, and came home one year later as abearded, pipe smoking, clog wearing european intellectual (my parents almost didn't recognize me when I came through the airport).

Yet upon entering university later that year, I remember that same lost feeling flooding back, as I  wandered through long hallways at the U of L in what seemed like an endless sea of people who wanted nothing to do with me. But it was in university that I decided (a forceful act of my will) that I was no longer going to be someone who lived on the peripherie, and I forced myself to move out of my protective shell and into what Brown calls the arena. I have made it my goal to live in that arena ever since.

Brené Brown's work leans heavily on a quote from President Theodore Roosevelt in a speech that he gave where he made this statement - 

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.

I am someone who is pretty risk tolerant (perhaps an understatement) and I have generally thought of myself as someone who has life pretty well put together. Confidence has never been in short supply in my life, or at least that is the mask that I put on most days, the version of myself that most who know me get to see. I think, in retrospect, that my resolve to live in that arean (although I wouldn't have described it as such until recently) forced me to put myself in harms way. In univeristy I got myself elected as the President of the Students Union. In grad school, I got into a pissing match with my supervisor and in protest wrote the LSAT and applied to law school. Upon being accepted, I quit my MA program (despite my wife Michelle's protest) moved to Edmonton and started law school. While I enjoyed much of law school, I quickly discovered that law wasn't what I had envisioned. My articling year was another year of battling an extreme fear and shame culture, topped with a little corruption. 

Actually, looking back, I now see how even the training we receive in law school and in the practice of law, solidifies and galvinizes unhealthy communication practices, competitiveness, us vs them, argue to the death, bully, the list goes on.... and I now see how as part of this journey I am now on, I need to unlearn much of what I acquired during my legal training. 

While I have lived in the arena, for many years, and most recently in the last twelve years, starting and growing my own business, I am beginning to realize that I have done so, mostly with little or no awareness of my own emotional wellbeing throughout. I have had little awareness of how I have used shame, avoidance, and many other unhealthy mechanisms to get through it all. In short, I am beginning to see that despite all of my accomplishments, I have not been living in a very wholehearted manner. It is namely this deficit that I hope to figure out along the way.

Whether you want to read about my journey into wholeheartedness and vulnerabilty, and away from the crippling effects of shame is up to you. I would like to say that I don't care if anyone reads this (me wearing Teflon) but that is simply not true. But I am not writing this so that it will be read widely. But rather, I am writing this, because just like I think and process things verbally, on the fly (I argue with myself and others a lot), I also know that I process things more effectively when I write. Perhaps it is the creative process that Brown talks about, which has a healing effect, I am not completely sure? But what I am sure of is that when I put my thoughts down (on virtual paper) and then publish them, I have to own them, which makes them more real, more powerful; and thus, I will continue to write and publish my thoughts regardless of whether I have an audience in the process. Because at the end of the day, what I am after is transformation, a move towards vulnerability, leaning into the hard truths, so that I can be a better dad, a better husband, a better boss, a better friend, a better member of the human race.

Books I think you should read

I read a tonne, but realistically, most of my reading is online, threads, short reads. Having spent eleven years in university, where all I did was read books (most of which I didn't want to read) I don't read books very often any more. And to be transparent, these two books that I am recommending I have consumed via Audible which is my new favourite way to "read".

Trevor Noah's book Born A Crime was an excellent read. Not only did I learn a lot about the man and what makes him tick, I learned a lot about the history of South Africa, which was most shocking. I am a big fan of Trevor, and his book made me even a bigger one.

The other book I am currently in the middle of is Brené Brown's book The Power of Vulnerability which I am finding quite challenging. Brown is a great communicator and seems to have a knack for poking me in the areas of my life which probably need poking.