Courageous Enough to Share Our Personal Vulnerability with Others byFather John Powell and Loretta Brady
All the passages below are taken from Jesuit Father John Powell and Loretta Brady’s book “Will the Real Me Please Stand Up?” published in 1985.
There is a theory about inferiority complexes which I am willing and ready to accept. This theory contends that we all have inferiority complexes. These complexes come almost as an inherited part of our infancy and early childhood. They are firmly established in the first five years of life. Someone who counts such things has written that the average child, during the first five years of life, receives 431 (!) negative messages on an average day. “Stop making that noise … Get down from there … What are you doing with my scissors? … No, you’re too small … Look at the mess you’ve made … You’ve got dirt on your shoes and I just cleaned the kitchen floor!” And so forth (x 431).
As a result of these negative messages, we develop instincts of self-protection. We try to cover or pad our egos to prevent further damage.Psychologists call these protective efforts “ego-defense mechanisms.” The most common of these are the five described here:
(1) Through compensation we lean over backward to avoid falling on our faces. Freud calls it reversal, or reaction formation. For example, the dogmatic know-it-all keeps pontificating in order to repress the doubts that might arise in him or her and undermine the safety of being certain. The little boy “whistles in the dark” as he walks through a cemetery at night. The stubborn little girl keeps insisting, “It doesn’t hurt … It doesn’t hurt!”
(2) By displacement we construct a psychological detour, an alternate course or outlet for impulses that we can’t let out directly. For example, I can’t express my hostility to my boss whom I find obnoxious because I might get fired. So I go to a baseball game and yell, “Kill the umpire!” Or I put my fist through a wall, after kicking the cat. Another kind of displacement is expressing my true emotions but about the wrong issue. A woman who feels starved for affection may not be able to ask her husband to hold her, but she can complain that he is always late, or hasn’t lifted a hand to help her clean out the basement.
(3) By what is called projection, we cleverly disown undesirable qualities in ourselves, but attribute these repugnant qualities to someone or something else. In projection, as noted earlier, we shift the responsibility for our shortcomings and failures from ourselves to someone or something else. You will remember that when God confronted Adam in the Garden of Eden, Adam blamed his failure on Eve. “This woman you gave me—she tempted me!” When God turns his question to Eve, she said it was all the snake’s fault. “The snake tricked me into eating the forbidden fruit,” says Eve. In other common projections we blame our poor work on inadequate tools. And some with an astrological inclination have even claimed that their failure was due to the fact that their “moon wasn’t in the right house.” Or perhaps, “The devil made me do it.”
(4) Another method of ego-defense is called introjection. When we introject, we claim as our own the good qualities or deeds of others, sharing vicariously in their achievements and basking in the rays of their glory. It is also possible to introject a sense of persecution or personal martyrdom. We imagine ourselves as heroic victims. Also, it is a form of introjection when we identify our material possessions with our persons, and swell with pride when someone admires our mink coat or fancy yacht. There are many forms of introjection. We can identify with athletic or television heroes or heroines. One Manhattan psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Berg, actually forbids his patients to watch the “soaps” because there are so few happy persons in them. The doctor fears that his patients will introject the sense of dramatic tragedy found in most of the characters.
(5) Finally, there is rationalization. I think it is the most prevalent and widely used of the ego-defenses. It is a phony exercise in self justification. This self-deception can be worked in various ways. For example, I may find good reasons to excuse myself from doing what I know I should. Or I may find justification for doing what I know is wrong. If I fail to keep a promise to you, I rationalize that you didn’t really think I was serious. Or if I find your wallet, I rationalize that Robin Hood became a hero by stealing from the rich to give to the poor! Sometimes the self-deception of rationalization seems to have no outer limits.
These are the most common cover-ups or ego-defense mechanisms. They are all impediments to good communication because they somehow conceal our vulnerability. The problem is that we do not really communicate our true selves when we are engaged in one of these ego-defenses. We are not being real. Consequently, we cannot grow up to our full potential. We will never fully mature as long as we indulge in these self-protective defenses because they are barriers to authenticity. In one way or another they keep us from contact with reality.
A healthy and growing person accepts the human condition of weakness. “People are mistake makers, and I am one of them. That’s why they put erasers on pencils, you know.” Healthy and growing persons are also good communicators because they are ready to share openly and honestly. They share not only the light and bright but also the weak and wounded side of themselves.
From our first discovery of language, we are tempted to use it not to express and reveal our true selves, but to pretend and to manipulate reality. As children we got rewarded for our self-proclaimed goodness. “I was a good boy all year. Honest, Santa Claus.” We also learned how to use the manipulation of tears to get attention. Later in life the misuse of language can assume more serious proportions when we tell people that we love them in order to use them. And once used, these manipulated people become “trophies of conquest” and take their places in our trophy cases. And usually, the deception is planned and executed simply to prove that we are not really inferior. It is simply another cover-up of our vulnerability.
Obviously, these defenses of our wounded egos lead us into endless and sticky games of phoniness. Fortunately, there is a positive, creative, and health-producing antidote. It is simply to accept ourselves in the human condition of weakness and to admit the facts of our limitations. Such honesty and openness counteracts our unhealthy tendencies. Honesty and openness, willingness to share ourselves, warts and all, makes us real. It puts us into the kind of contact with reality that enables us to grow up and to become all that we can become.
I have a physician friend who once told me of a hidden desire. He said he would “someday like to stand on a high balcony above the world, and announce to the whole human race, `THIS IS ME. THIS IS ALL OF ME. THERE IS NO MORE. THERE IS NO LESS. CAN YOU ACCEPT ME AS I AM OR NOT?'”
I told him that I knew what he meant. There is such a strong desire in most of us to shed our pretense, our sham, our phoniness. We all would like to be real. Phoniness requires so much effort. And once we start playing the game, we have to keep playing it. We would like to be able to put our real selves on the line (if not the balcony) rather than put an act on the stage. What a relief it would be to tell it like it truly is, to feel safe and secure in just being ourselves.
Such honesty would challenge us to stretch, to step out of our comfort zones. To tell our truth openly to everyone seems very frightening. The consequences of honesty sometimes seem too high a price. But not to worry. It takes about three weeks, according to the experts, to get in the groove of a new habit, if we practice it every day. The open admission of our human woundedness and weakness may well look like a mountain until we start the climbing. I know from personal experience that most of us anticipate the worst: “The world will stop spinning through space. The light of the sun will go out. I will probably faint. Others will gasp in disbelief.” And these are our more mild anticipations. But none of this happens. In fact, we immediately experience and recognize in ourselves a new honesty and realness.
At the same time others sense and reflect back to us their recognition of our authenticity. Our relationships become real, grounded in an honest self-disclosure. We realize that most of our fears are often more tormenting than the actual experience. We do most of our suffering on the way to the dentist and not in his chair.
Opening up my weak and wounded side, my fears and immature habits, even my phoniness and pretenses, will be such a relief. Taking you into my “closed rooms” will be a freeing experience for me. And in the exchange of such communication, you will get to know the real me. Our communication will no longer offer you only an edited and abridged version of me. What you see will be what you get: the one and only, the real me.
You won’t be afraid of me or be tempted to glorify me as someone who has it all together. You will know that I am a mistake maker and that I experience in myself the human condition of weakness. I personally like to tell people to whom I am relating, “If you ever get my number, it will certainly be a fraction. Part of me feels certain; part of me doubts. Part of me is loving; another part of me is selfish. Part of me is confident; part of me is insecure. Part of me is proud; another part is humble.” I have gradually become more content with being such an ambivalent person, who seems to be split right down the middle.
The peace that comes with such self disclosure is an immediate and undeniable reward. People who are willing to share their vulnerability don’t have to keep up the exhausting effort of repression. They don’t have to tie masks over their faces. They don’t have to go through the contortions of compensation, projection, and rationalization. They make what Dag Hammarskjold called the “longest journey,” the inward journey into self. What they see and hear in this exploration of their inner spaces they put out on the ticker tape of communication. “This is me. This is all of me, no more, no less. If you can come and celebrate it with me, fine. I must tell you this: I don’t have to please you. What I have to do is be myself, my own true self.”
Only when we are willing to share our whole selves, warts and all, are we really communicating. But more than this, my openness will have a definite effect on others. Honesty, like everything else that is human, is contagious. My coming out from behind protective walls to meet you face-to-face will inspire you to do the same. When we are real and honest about our vulnerability, others are immediately relieved. They know that we have taken a risk in exposing our “warts and all” selves. By our honesty they are invited and encouraged to take off their masks, to reveal their own inner selves openly and honestly. They are empowered to take a similar risk, and they will experience a similar sense of freedom.
Just the other day a fine man came to visit me. He immediately made the honest admission that he is a “recovering alcoholic.” He had been sober for several years and was going through the well-known “Twelve Steps” of Alcoholics Anonymous. He told me that he had already made the Fourth Step: “. .. a searching and fearless moral inventory” of himself. Now he wanted to move on to the Fifth Step: the admission of specific guilt.
Then, in a very open way, he confided that there “is something, a weakness in myself I have never told anyone. I was hoping that I could tell you.” He fearlessly proceeded to open up his closed room, and we looked into it together. Actually what he shared with me did not seem to be an uncommon weakness. In my own wordy way I explained all I knew about the subject, hoping that the sharing of this background knowledge would prove comforting. Just before he left, I asked him if he did feel comforted and relieved. “Yes,” he said. “What you told me was very helpful. But the main feeling of relief came with my own disclosure, just getting it out.”
He left my office, and I do not know if I will ever see him again. But this is for sure: I will never forget him. He was honest and real. Honest and real people tend to have this effect on us.
I would not like to leave you with the impression that making a general confession of all our sins is a necessary part of good communication. The Fifth Step of Alcoholics Anonymous asks its members to admit “to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” There may be some serious mistakes we have made which we would choose to confide only to a confessor or a very trusted friend. However, the kind of vulnerability of which we have been speaking here would include our fears, tendencies of weakness, everyday kind of mistakes, limitations, grudges, hurts, embarrassments, undesirable reactions, difficulties, shortcomings, and the pretenses that have become a part of us. And these should all be part of an ongoing communication if a good relationship is to grow better.
Finally, another bit of wisdom I have gained from an AA friend is: We are as sick as we are secret. On the other side of the coin is a positive expression of the same truth: We are as healthy and whole as we are open and honest with ourselves and with others.
Remember: The first three weeks are the hardest! [65-73]
The Twelve Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous
1. We admitted we were powerless over alcohol—that our lives had become unmanageable.
2. Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
3. Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
4. Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
5. Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
6. Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
7. Humbly asked God to remove our shortcomings.
8. Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
9. Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
10. Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong, promptly admitted it.
11. Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.
12. Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others and to practice these principles in all our affairs. (“Will the Real Me Please Stand Up?” 210-211)