The poem from which the title of this post and epigraph lines were excerpted is a Bly translation that begins, “I am too alone in the world, and not alone enough/ to make every minute holy.”
I like the epigraph, of course, because it highlights the theme of this entire weblog: that we unfold and that we do so in order to become real as people and as leaders. I find Rilke’s words comforting, harsh and true. The “folded” places are the ones where we are still not entirely open to the reality of who and what we are, the powers we hold, and our genuine responsibilities.
The image he captures is one of self-hiding. I see a person bent over, unable to fully sit up or truly stand, pretending instead. The lines also call up to me the familiar image of those who “keep their heads down” in order to avoid being seen. We stay “folded” and, like the child who puts her hands over her own eyes and says, “Now you can’t see me,” we risk the same delusion that our true character is invisible to others, and we are therefore “safe” in our lie.
Whether it is with my own self or with others I am supporting, I often find that the unfolding begins to happen through the acknowledgement of a previously unacknowledged feeling. I recall, for example, a professor who was running a class for business executives. I occupied a guest role within his agenda to talk about coaching with the executives, and the professor volunteered to assist me with a sample coaching session in front of the group. This was not a role-play. He was actually struggling with the problem of what to do about an employee of the college who was not giving him the administrative assistance and support she’d been assigned to provide. In our sample coaching session before the executives, I asked him at least three times how he felt about the employee. Finally, in exasperation he blurted out that he was really angry with her. Up to that point, this had all been a rather intellectual conversation about what he should try to do to get the administrative support from her he needed, as if there was a way to manipulate the situation or manipulate her. Once he acknowledged his anger in real time, however, he sat back and was quiet.
Eventually, he turned to the group and said, “I am embarrassed. Here I am teaching a class on effective leadership and I was unable to acknowledge the way I felt about another person.” After another moment he continued thoughtfully, “By noticing my anger, I now know exactly what I need to do.” With that he laid out some concrete, even obvious steps to talk with the employee and her immediate supervisor about the situation — and he expressed relief. He had a plan.
As you can see, there were actually two previously unacknowledged emotions in this story. First, it was the anger. What held the professor’s acknowledgement in check was a second emotion, embarrassment. Anger didn’t fit with how he saw himself as an expert, so he was embarrassed. Avoiding and suppressing the anger also avoided and suppressed his experience of embarrassment. He had been “folded,” a lie to himself and to others, including the employee.
This seems to me to be a very understandable scenario. And if you say to yourself, “Well, that’s not me. I’m not embarrassed by my anger,” well, that’s understandable, too. But claiming not to be bent over isn’t the same as not being bent over, and I would challenge you, as I also challenge myself, to find those places where the lie still exists, whatever the emotions might be. What you are embarrassed or ashamed to feel may well be a place to begin.
Perhaps it is pushing it too far to say that all good self-coaching begins with the acknowledgement of something felt that’s awkward or hard to talk about. We’re so good at displacing our emotional realities. To say, for example, “I’m frustrated” or “I’m upset” is so much easier than saying “I feel guilty” or “I’m afraid I’ve disappointed both you and myself” or “I’m depressed” or (this one is so powerful) “I’m embarrassed.” Labels like upset and frustrated point to what’s deeper down without actually revealing or acknowledging it. They are notoriously good at keep us from working through the complexity of feeling many things at once.
The surface labels are a sign we may want the answer to those feelings without actually feeling them too much. Yet, if we stay numb to the feelings, we don’t have a chance to work through them, and for them to work through us. Teacher Parker Palmer’s Facebook sharing of a the names of the children killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School and his advocacy to continue to feel the grief as the way to drive social action and change is right in line with this philosophy. And so is asking for help if an emotion is overwhelming or taking us in a direction that’s destructive.
Naming and experiencing the reality of your own emotions can start the process of standing up in your own life. It’s true you may have to also acknowledge a lie you wanted to believe about yourself. But once you’ve done that, you have found the door to your own responsibility: the responsibility to address what you feel, it’s source and it’s implications. You gain power, and like the professor out of touch with his emotional reality, you find you are actually on the road to doing something constructive — precisely because you let yourself feel. Emotion can move us, enabling positive action and change.
It’s pretending we are better than or different from what we feel that keeps us stuck. And what’s stuck inside us can really burn us, you know, or really build up in us like a river hidden beneath a field of ice. Like fire, like water, the emotions that are unconsciously there will find a way to express their sound and fury, whether we want them to or not.