“Courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.” - Brené Brown
I would like to leave 2014 with a confession. Here it is:
I did not specialize in marriage and family therapy because I was naturally good at these relationships. I came into this field somewhat shocked that there was so much I needed to learn for myself. In fact, had it not been for entering into this field, I am almost certain that I would be a divorced man today.
We enter into adulthood often expecting that life would work out naturally, just as naturally as how we grew up in our families. But then, we wake up one day to realize that our spouses are quite different from us; that what our parents knew and did with us no longer work with our children; and that we ourselves carry all sorts of baggage from our past to add to the dysfunctional relationship patterns of our present-day lives.
Life is hard, especially if we want to keep on improving it. I don’t know about you, but I want to keep improving myself. There is nothing more exciting to me than to take on yet another personal challenge and to experience the psychological torque and stretch of growth. The results are worth it: greater self-awareness, a sense of wonderment, deepened humility, richer connectivity with others, and an increased capacity to share life more fully.
Starting tomorrow, New Year’s Day 2015, I would like to embark on my one resolution for the year: I want to connect authentically with the world, imperfections and all.
When I think of Malaysia and what a terrible year 2014 has been for us—three air calamities, drought in the middle of the year, floods at the end of the year, poor results in international education scores, news of widespread deforestation, political and religious strife (the list goes on)—I have to ask myself if I were put in the shoes of the leaders of our country, would I be able to handle all these problems? The answer is a clear “no.”
I wish I could have a private conversation with our leaders and let them know that I could not do any better than they are doing, and that it’s OK to admit that they are struggling. Why shouldn’t they be struggling? What makes them any less vulnerable than I? I would like to let them know that they can display their less-than-perfect humanness with me, and that I will not see it as a weakness on their part, but strength—the strength of vulnerability. And I would like to remind them that admitting our humanness doesn’t mean that we cannot continue to learn and improve. Tony Fernandez, CEO of Air Asia, is an exemplary figure in this regard. In this difficult time, his vulnerability and authenticity is evident, yet I feel confident that he will push through and deliver on his promises to make things better. My respect for him grows.
Now, what about me? Can I be equally authentic and vulnerable when I am put under the spotlight?
Recently, the Sin Chew Daily did a three-page coverage of my educational life story. As I am challenged in my Chinese reading skills, I had my mother read it to me. She was happy for me, but wondered why I admitted some of the less-than-pleasant facts about my past so publicly: the confusion, the depression, the suicidal thoughts, the smoking and drinking.
“I don’t know,” I replied. “I guess I just told my story and the journalist covered it as she felt would be interesting to the public.” I needed to be real, I added, especially with young people these days who are smart, skeptical, and easily turned off by pretence.
But not long after I had patted myself on the back for my adventure into authenticity (well, at least in the Chinese media, which I can’t really read), one of my staff came up to me and remarked, “I didn’t know you used to drink and smoke!”
“Yes, I did,” I replied.
“Smoking is really bad,” she added. “I hope that was in the past!”
I smiled, deciding not to let her know that I was wearing a nicotine patch, trying to quit, again, from my recent failure to manage my stress in more healthy ways. It was a knee-jerk reaction. It was one thing to be honest about my past, but to reveal my present vulnerability felt so threatening to my ego that I conveniently allowed my quiet smile to mask it.
Now, as some kind of a twisted penance, I am revealing it to her—and the entire world at the same time—through this post. Why? I think Brené Brown captured it most aptly:
Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.
We are socialized and conditioned to hide our inadequacies. It hurts to be shunned and put down by others. But as good research—and my wife would add “common sense”—is showing us, living less than authentically leads to all kinds of personal and social ailments. I’m sure you have already watch Brené Brown’s famous TED Talk. But in case you haven’t, have a look below. It makes sense to move towards wholehearted living. The cost of hiding our true selves is greater than the risk of embracing our vulnerabilities and showing up authentically to connect with each other.
I really don’t want to click on “publish” for this post. But everything in my gut tells me that it is the move I must make: to risk my reputation and show up authentically to connect with the world, imperfections and all. I know some people will not understand, and my friends on the religiously conservative side may even judge me. That’s OK. At the end of the day, I must be true to myself and my God, and the only way I know how to do that is to live out my true self wherever I am, and with whomever I come into contact. I am confident that by doing this, I will become a better and happier person, and hopefully be more able to spread some of that “better” and “happier” with others.
I wish you and Malaysia an authentic and vulnerable New Year. May the honest embrace of our weaknesses lead us into becoming better people, for ourselves, our families, and our nation.