“We’re only as sick as our secrets”. The principle is key to the 12 step programme for addiction recovery. The principle also underlies Truth and Reconciliation Commissions around the world, from South Africa to Algeria and Canada. The idea is that we all carry secrets that distort our relationships with others and with the world.
Once we expose these secrets we can be liberated from guilt and shame and liberate others from anger and hatred. We can allow the dream buried in psychic mud to emerge and flower, just like the lotus - symbol of the enlightenment process in Buddhism…
Of course, we are all high achievers. Being alive is an achievement in itself as life – though inevitable in our universe - was so improbable. The external identifiers of achievements are just signifiers in the external world. The real battle is in our internal world. The process of becoming fully who we are against our own internal resistance as we follow a dream. More on high achiever mentality here.
So what is the secret dream of the high achiever?
The secret dream
Simply put, the high achiever is driven by the need to achieve goals which can be internal (discipline, knowledge, mastery, even enlightenment) or external (degrees, jobs, relationships, etc).The societal rewards that ensue reinforce the pattern. Conversely, the pain of not achieving goals usually leads to ever increasing commitment to achieving the particular goal, until success ensues or the the body starts to resist and threaten to break down.
Many high achievers are driven by a childhood “dream” that was inculcated, namely to be the “top of the class”, to be a good student rewarded for our efforts. The high achiever’s dream is to be rewarded for their achievements, benefit from the fairness of meritocracy and win. You do the right things and the recognition and attention you naturally crave for as a human will be given. To know this part of oneself in all its facets is an important realisation for the high achiever’s true fulfilment.
However, this is only the beginning and, one could argue, hardly a secret. Everyone around the high achiever can see this even if they can’t see it themselves…The secret dream goes deeper.
The core of the secret dream:
At some point in early life, most high achievers (especially the workaholics) felt that they hit the jackpot: if I work hard and achieve goals (and I know that I can), then I will be accepted and loved. Or so they thought. Later in life the realisation occurs that noone is loved for their achievements. They may be admired, relied on and respected, but not loved.
In fact, recent research, for example from Brene Brown (author of Daring Greatly) but also Malcolm Gladwell, shows that the key ingredient for authentic, deep relationships is vulnerability. It turns out that we can’t engage meaningfully with others and the world from a place of hardened defence mechanisms. Vulnerability is essential for relationships of all kinds and can catapult those who embrace to success.
This is where the high achiever’s dream turns into a nightmare. Suddenly, the foundation of their personality becomes an obstacle to what they want most as a human being: deep connection and love.
The high achiever’s dream is suddenly shattered to reveal its core: it’s not about finally having enough achievements to be recognised and loved. It’s about the desire to be vulnerable and still be loved. To be in a state of openness, weakness, powerlessness and still be OK.
Once this painful yearning is touched, the high achiever is free to integrate forgotten parts of themselves and live a more fulfilling life.
Luckily, being vulnerable is a sine qua non of love and fulfilment in life.
What is vulnerability?
Vulnerability is an act and a choice as much as a state. It’s the commitment to reveal our true experience (feelings and thoughts including fears and desires) without knowing how they will be received by the other. Although risky, without this act of courage, trust and intimacy can never develop to their fullest.
In a relationship, someone has to take the first step…By taking the initiative to be vulnerable, we create a bridge, an invitation to the other to move into a deeper level of experience that transcends our daily trials and tribulations. This act creates an opening signalling safety (it’s safe to let your guard down with me) and enabling deep connection. Through gradual and mutual iterations of the act of vulnerability, deep connection can be created and the sense of safety in being seen and accepted for who we are makes us soar.
Vulnerability is seen by some as the origin for innovation, adaptability, accountability, and visionary leadership. Embracing vulnerability may also a guard against inconsistent and impersonal systems taking on a life of their own. For example, it is thought that the 2008 financial crisis was exacerbated by the fact that some leaders were embarrassed to acknowledge that they did not understand the financial products they were selling…
The CEO of The Lego Group, Jorgen Vig Knudstorp, has shaken things up by operationalizing vulnerability. He reformed performance management by penalising those who did not ask for help when they needed it. He says: “blame is not for failure, it is for failing to help or ask for help. It changes everything. Suddenly it becomes in my interest to be transparent on my real weaknesses, my real forecast, because I know I will not be blamed if I fail, but if I fail to help or ask for help. You stop drawing boxes and creating dotted lines. You look at the interplay.”
The road to freedom: embracing vulnerability (yes, but how?)
But how does the high achiever admit to vulnerability when their identity is wrapped up in being perfectly confident and competent? When models of leadership are still based on the authoritarianism and expert status?...First, this requires a willingness and commitment to give vulnerability a try.
For those who are willing to step in to the unknown and embrace real evolution, it’s time to play a game. The game of vulnerability. The way it’s played is by revealing our vulnerability with gradually increasing levels of exposure. These are:
1) Playing the game of vulnerability with ourselves: Journaling is a great way to do this. Putting the thoughts that we hold back on paper empties them of their power as the ink spills on the page. If you’re not sure what to write, take up the “morning pages” practice made famous by Julia Cameron in the Artist’s way. Scribble, uncensored, whatever is chattering away in your mind and notice the relief and peace that comes. Eventually, deep thoughts and beliefs will reveal themselves onto the page. Be prepared for tears and elation.
2) Playing the game of vulnerability with those close to us: One way to do this is to sit with one or more people you want to grow closer to and open meaningful conversation by saying: “What I don’t want you to know about me is…” A less daunting version is to pause before responding to people in any situation and make sure you are coming from a place of authenticity (where you reveal what is going on for you) rather than responding with platitudes or general niceties. Be prepared for miracles.
3) Playing the game of vulnerability with the world: This is where we get to play full out, creating projects and work of self-expression that reflect our deep intentions and desires to create. Whether it’s through creative writing or going for a job, project or career that truly resonates with you - even if you don’t know that you will be rewarded immediately and even if it clashes with people’s expectations - starting to go in that direction is where vulnerability (revealing yourself) really has ripple effects of global proportions. Be prepared for your destiny.
I hope this helps.
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Until next time,