Saturday, May 12, 2012

Living into the messiness of life

Life is messy and most of us devote much of our attention to trying to control it. As do governments, corporations and the managers of complex projects and programs. We call it problem solving, planning, regulation and risk mitigation.

But who would have thought that this desperate effort to clean up and organize the mess and "put it into a Bento box", so we feel less vulnerable, could be leading us all inexorably towards disconnection from others. It can also lead us into a world where more and more of us numb the pain of disconnection through addictions to alcohol, drugs and food.

According to University of Houston research professor BrenĂ© Brown, whose social work research focuses on connection, humans are neuro-biologically wired for it. The more we try to control and predict things, the more we develop a narrower or rigid view of the world. The more rigid our ideas the less able we are to converse and interact openly with others. And as we become less able we are to freely converse with others, we enter a dangerous cycle of shame - the fear of disconnection, and blame - how we rid ourselves of that pain.

Brown found that a sense of worthiness separates people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who struggle for it. They have a whole-hearted approach to life. They have courage, the courage to be imperfect. They have compassion, the ability to be kind to themselves first, and be kind to others. They have connection, the ability to be their authentic selves, to be who they are rather than who they think they should be. And they completely embrace vulnerability and enter into relationships, knowing there are no guarantees that it will work out. Rather than think of vulnerability as painful or comfortable, they simply see it as necessary.


Brown began her research by collecting stories - "data with a soul" - about the role of connection in the lives of people. When she asked about love they talked about heartbreak. When she asked about belonging they talked about exclusion. And when she asked about connection, they talked about dis and the fear of disconnection from others.

Brown shows that "vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but... it's also the birthplace of joy, of creativity." At the heart of shame is "I'm not good enough", and at the heart of this is vulnerability. And in order for connection to occur, we have to be really seen as who we really are. People who do not feel shame, have no capacity for empathy or connection.

We try to overcome our vulnerability by making everything that's unknown or ambiguous or mysterious more certain. We argue there is only one right answer, and everyone else is wrong, so there is no longer room for conversation. If it does not work out we simply blame others. In politics. In religion. And in the way we run our businesses. Or live our lives.

And when this does not work we numb vulnerability. We use alcohol, food and medication to try to smother/diminish our grief, our shame, our fears and disappointments, so we don't feel these emotions as much. And when we numb these, we also numb their other aspects, the joy of connection, creativity, belonging, love, gratitude and happiness.

What Brown discovered changed her life. She learned to give up some of her urge for control and order, and to "lean into the discomfort", to love the messiness.

So here are some questions for a workshop to help us explore these ideas:

1. Give examples of how your life is a mess and you love it OR life's messy and you try to control it and put it in a Bento Box.

2. What makes you feel vulnerable? And what associated emotions do you feel?

3. Tell the story of who you are with the courage to be imperfect, with your whole heart.  What will you do to be authentic, to let go of who you think you should be, and to be who you are?

4. Tell a story of a time in the future when you were able to use "wholeheartedness" to "live into the discomfort" of your life?

5. How might business, political and community leaders use "wholeheartedness" live into the discomfort of their activities.

6. How could project managers, bankers and regulators who focus on the controlling everything (and minimising risks) use "wholeheartedness" approach to do their work more successfully?

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