People who know me well know that I’m a sucker for a new read. As long as there’s not six other books in queue or the recommended book is so uncompelling I can’t get through it, it’s mine for the taking. When I was beating up on myself recently, a friend recommended I look into the work of Brene Brown.
I started with her TED talk and then moved to her book: The Gifts of Imperfection — oh such a compelling title in a country that deems itself more perfect than any other. Some may call it a personal self help book, and while aspects of that may be true, the category has gotten such a bad rap lately that I’d prefer to call content what it is designed to do: help you get from A to B through whatever wisdom the author shares through their vantage point and skillset. If that’s self help, fine.
Is it self help when you need to learn a specific management skill and an expert who has the wisdom shares it through a book to get you unstuck? We look down upon wisdom that might help elevate ourselves and our sense of humanity but praise things that help our skills and ability to accomplish and succeed. You get my point.
Frankly if you dive deep enough into most things we do of “external value,” there’s always an underlining emotional issue that gets in the way. Take money. While clearly there’s a skillset in trading, investing and allotting the right money to the right buckets, selling too quickly or making the wrong decision often comes from a place of emotional fear rather than following a code of what works and what doesn’t. The best guys on Wall Street keep their emotions out of it but not all of us can. The same applies to raising kids, keeping a marriage together, staying healthy or running a company.
While most of Brown’s references are personal ones, the gift that this “read” gave me was largely professional. Here’s why. While clearly we all have moments where we’re afraid to be honest with ourselves and others, throwing our vulnerabilities out there with a friend or group of friends tends to be easier, at least for me. I’m more likely to lift the shield in a personal environment than in a professional one. The former can expel me from their group while the latter can fire me, impact my revenue, reputation and most importantly, self esteem.
When I read that Brown was a “shame researcher,” my immediate reaction was: how much is there to research about shame? Really? It’s so specific that I couldn’t imagine a professor dedicating her entire career to something that specific and yet, there are professors who dedicate themselves to ants and write lengthy scientific papers on the latest Melanesian ant fauna which end up as a TED talk, so why not?
Little did I know. Shame is not as specific as you might think. Through reading her book and doing some additional digging on my own, I can see how prolific it is in our lives, weaving its way into all aspects, from how we interact with family, peers, and loved ones to the person who hands us our double latte in the morning.
To deny that “shame” shows up in my personal life would be to deny being human, for we’ve all experienced it, however the piece which most resonated with me is how it awkwardly plays into professional relationships and dynamics, a place that doesn’t use the word “shame.”
Getting beyond it requires courage and compassion daily in order to live what she refers to as a wholehearted life. It requires practice. Malcolm Gladwell said it best in his 10,000 rule analogy. How can you ever ace something you don’t spend time practicing over and over and over again? The same applies to our personal lives. In other words, proactively practicing courage, compassion, connection and empathy is how we ultimately cultivate worthiness.
Time and time again, I have witnessed people not asking for what they’re worth and “owning it” while they’re at it. I’ve been there – we all have. Given that PR in general is often perceived as being useless, provides little or no value and can’t be measured, I find that many practitioners and consultants undersell themselves or charge on a transaction basis to bring the cost down in order to get the business. It’s an act of desperation when you do this – it not only commoditizes our business and our value but delivers an “action” rather than the “value of that action.”
Women often have a harder time feeling worthiness and the moment we attempt to prove our worthiness is the moment we’ve lost the game. Often, we feel as if we have to prove ourselves particularly when a CEO or worse, a COO suggests that what we do didn’t move the needle today. The problem at least in my industry, is that branding, communications and marketing doesn’t move a needle in a day, or a week or even a month, although sometimes it can. It’s a process, just like building relationships is a process. We cannot and must not ever measure our worthiness based on that formula and model.
Because of the nature of my industry, it’s even easier to undercut our worthiness than say a doctor, who performs a surgery and suddenly a limb is working again. At the heart of what we do as communications pros is storytelling. Aren’t the best stories the ones which are authentic, intimate and vulnerable at their core?
I often feel that when I begin to go there with a client, fear gets in the way…not just on my side but on the client’s side as well. The more I rely on emotion, intuition and creativity which is the essence of what makes me thrive at what I do, the more the client throws up roadblocks or devalues the deed because it’s so untangible. Beauty, art and yes, even moving the needle often comes from untangible.
Is a brand that you buy again and again always tangible? Sometimes it is (it’s faster, more durable) but more often, it’s a feeling you have about the brand that brings you back again and again. This feeling is the result of years of storytelling and messaging, not six month’s worth. And, consistency is key.
One of our inherent gifts as professionals is that we excel at not just creating that story, but delivering it consistently again and again. It’s an art and our clients need to understand that it’s an art, not a science. Own that art and you own your worthiness. We shouldn’t have to ‘sell or prove our worthiness’ again and again as if somehow showing a stat suddenly proves that our “art” is worthy.
Brown talks about owning our story and I’d ask you to think about how what she says here shows up or doesn’t show up in the workplace. Where she refers to love, belonging and joy, replace the words with self respect, connection and courage.
She writes: “Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love, belonging and joy — the experiences that makes us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
She also quotes Pema Chodron, a Buddhist writer who is one of my favorite authors. “In cultivating compassion, we draw from the wholeness of our experience: our suffering, our empathy, as well as our cruelty and terror. It has to be this way. Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounder – it’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
Hear hear Pema.
Here’s another little bit of wisdom for those who have a hard time with imperfection and asking for help. Depending on what circles you travel in, some have a tight network (let’s not forget the old school boy network, which yes, does still exist, especially in Washington), they rely on and often, they don’t even have to ‘ask’ for help. It shows up just because they’re part of that network. Others have different networks who help them out from time-to-time and others try to do it themselves…all the time: parenting, managing, creating, producing and running with very little delegating along the way.
Asking for help is hard when we are conditioned to strive for perfection, even if its something we disguise as perfect. From that place, we often feel that if we ask for help, we’re indebted to someone and that lays over us like a negative card. Within the confines of that negative card, it’s as if we’re always trying to figure out how to repay for that help, even if the help wasn’t a financial one.
This is how it shows up in many of our lives. While the following statement may sound counter-intuitive, it’s true and she’s right. Brown writes, “until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.”
This is also true: “Belonging is the innate human desire to be part of something larger than us….because true belonging only happens when we present our authentic imperfect selves to the world, our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.”
While I know many a narcissist in my business circles and on the flip side, others who have gone through the hard journey to get to self-acceptance, many of us still struggle with pieces of it from time-to-time. When that piece shows up in our professional lives, we second guess our decisions when our intuition tells us its the right one or we don’t ask for what we’re worth because a client widdles us down or leads us to believe our value isn’t worth a specific amount.
Suddenly we’re in a place of proving that we matter when we matter for just showing up and sharing the gifts we can deliver better than that client or possibly anyone else. Bottom line, we should be paid well for it: the value of it, not the task of it even if some of that value can’t be measured right away. I know people who have gone to psychologists for ten years – does the value of their work show up after a visit or does it take time to get results? What about a tennis coach? Does the value of a dentist’s work show up after one time or let’s put it another way, how would your teeth look and feel if you didn’t have those bi-annual check ups and cleans?
Value shows up over time and if you believe in yourself, your client needs to believe in your value too or don’t work with them. Walk away. I mean it – walk away. It’s the biggest gift you can give yourself. When one door closes, another one opens. And if you’re feeling fearful about that statement, think about Helen Keller’s fabulous quote: “when one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we don’t see the one opening before us.”
Live from a place of true worthiness, self-respect and authentic living and as Brown puts it, a wholehearted life and things will blow open for you. While it may not happen overnight, it will happen as long as you trust in the process. As an old wise monk said to me on a hike in Nepal many years ago, Patience, grasshopper, patience.
Photo Credits: Original Impulse. Andrew S. Gibson. Tiny Buddha. Jenny’s Endeavors.