Big men do cry – and it saves lives

Offshore_oil_drilling_inspection

No man is an island

We’re guarded. We’re fearful. We’re so angry at each other because we don’t see each other, really.

-Roger Fox, son of Rick Fox, asset manager for Shell’s Ursa deep-water oil rig

Though much has changed in recent times, the message that “boys don’t cry” is still powerful in the lives of men. But in a story reported by Invisibilia, some of the toughest men of all – oil rig workers – received an intensive course in vulnerability. The fascinating part is why.

Claire Nuer, a leadership consultant, teamed up with Rick Fox, an asset leader for a deep water rig for Shell, to get the men that would work there in better touch with their feelings. As the men – and therefore the company culture – transformed, Shell’s accident rate dropped by 84%.

As Nuer had predicted, training these men to be open and vulnerable helped them communicate better, ask for help more often, and not try to do things alone out of pride or over-inflated self-reliance. “Part of safety in an environment like that is being able to admit mistakes and being open to learning — to say, ‘I need help, I can’t lift this thing by myself, I’m not sure how to read this meter,'” says Robin Ely, who wrote about this in the Harvard Business Review. “That alone is about being vulnerable.”

The process was far from painless. I was deeply moved reading about these men’s experiences – the toughness that was instilled in them, the hardships they experienced growing up, and the ways this work transformed their relationship with their families and with themselves.

Tommy Chreene, who had a tough reputation, broke down and wept before the group as he talked about his son’s terminal illness. “I was weeping like a baby,” he says. “And nobody ever come to me and said, ‘Aw, you big crybaby.’ “

Fox himself transformed his relationship with his son, Roger, before putting Nuer’s work into motion with his staff.

I’m so grateful my son did not have to wait till he was 40-something years old to have the experience of being able to question his own habits and his own way of thinking about things,” Fox says. “My son is a beautiful human being, and I cannot get enough of being around him.

I am constantly amazed by how much more we can achieve, and how much stronger we are, when we are vulnerable than when we are closed off. Thanks to one of my clients, a man among many dealing with old messages around toughness and self-reliance, for pointing me at this article.

Facing (bodying) the fragility of life

Image by eklektik2xs on FlickrToday I returned to my other job after two weeks away, and discovered that one of my coworkers – a gentle, pleasant soul I did not know well after a month and change at the company, but whom I’d decided I liked – had died over the weekend. He was climbing with friends near a waterfall in the White Mountains, and fell 40 feet. He was 29 years old.

It is hard to know what to do in the face of such shocking news. I came into work this morning and one of my supervisors took me aside to tell me about it, which he did, sensitively and quietly, as I have observed to be his way. I noticed that he hadn’t shaved today. When he said the name, I had trouble placing it; I am still learning everyone in the office. But a brief description made it clear, and I found myself struck by a strange and nonspecific sadness, nearly the same feeling as I’d had after the Sandy Hook shootings: a shock and slowness and weight of grief over sudden death that could have been prevented, but that isn’t that close. And in this case, the strange regret – guilt? – that I never got to know him well, that now I never will. I’ve been near tears several times today, but never all the way to breaking. Some part of me seems to say, What right do you have?

The office is subdued, though the QA team still chats about random geekery, the engineers still play video games at lunch. One coworker with whom I work closely has tired eyes this morning, and is the second unshaven face I see. The stoic and kind manager who works at the desk behind me looks like he has been crying, and brings extra chocolate for the edge of his desk. He doesn’t quite make eye contact with me. We joke that there’s very little that dark chocolate sea salt caramels can’t fix, but the unspoken, more bitter than the chocolate, rings out.

Flowers arrive and fill my nose with a lilly smell I can’t abide, and his boss and I start a small shrine amid the team. Last night, before I came back, a few people went out for drinks, apparently until late, to raise a glass and remember. It is unclear what else we are supposed to do.

Move slowly, keep up the good work, and remember seems to be the answer so far. I want somehow to reach out, to let people know they can talk to me if they want, confidentially, that I’m trained for this. But like everyone else, I don’t know what’s appropriate. How do we listen to ourselves, to each other, after such a loss?

[Rerun] Things Without (Shame)

I recently discovered the wonderful little comic, Things Without Arms and Without Legs (A Comic About Creatures Who Are Kind), and it delights me.

But as adorable and lovely as they are all on their own, I was especially taken when I found this old post, about some favorite topics of mine: vulnerability and shame.

Dear Things,” begins this post, which addresses the creatures directly and seeks to know what it is that their creator likes so much about them.  

You don’t carry shame. Shame that slowly steel the stars, creeping up like pollution and city lights. Stars diminishing in number, the weakest lights smothered first, then a narrowing field of the brightest lights, and maybe the smog will take them too.

Things, you don’t carry shame. Sometimes you feel guilt, but that is different. Sometimes guilt can face the risk of turning into shame and presses against you, but it is a puzzling thing to be looked at, to be asked questions, treated firmly and kindly and put down. There is no shame in worry, no shame in vulnerability, just an open, natural questioning. For you, shame is not a natural piece of star stealing virtue. Even shame is something you look at without shame.

The post then links to this wonderful video by Ze Frank:

And of course, in the end, it all comes back to Brene Brown.

Many layers of linkage for a Monday.  Enjoy, everyone, and come back here and tell me about your experiences with guilt, shame, and vulnerability.

Working with love

Image by Candida Performa on Flickr

Image by Candida Performa on Flickr

Given that I work with individuals most of the time and my work tends to involve a massage table and touch, it’s probably hard to imagine how I work with couples or groups. But given that I also sometimes work with sexuality, I do sometimes have the occasion to work with couples who need help sorting out their relationships.

If there’s one thing I’ve observed about relationships, it’s the same thing I’ve learned about individuals: awareness heals. When a person becomes aware of one’s own habits – not just intellectually, in that “Yeah, I know I do that…” kind of way, but in a visceral, slowed-down, embodied way that allows them to notice it as it is happening, that is what can effect real change. When a person can feel a familiar emotion arising, and begins to ready the familiar reaction: the snipe in anger at your partner’s comment, the defensive posture, the eyeroll of contempt – and stop, feel the emotion move through, breathe, and make a different choice…that’s when true communication can occur.

Another thing I’ve learned from the training and used since: change happens in the relationship. What does this mean? Simply that what was wounded between two people, can only be healed in a relational context. Neither wounding nor healing happens in a vacuum. Sometimes, the wound has to be healed with a surrogate, like a therapist or other healer, or a friend, or another partner. If a relationship is abusive, for example, the abused partner will need to seek healing elsewhere than in that relationship. But it is still most likely that healing will occur with the help of another person, just as repeated wounding will often happen when an abused person enters another relationship. Those wounds happened in relationship, and express themselves again in relationship.

The best-case scenario is when the wounds incurred during a relationship can be healed within that same relationship, bringing wholeness and depth to that relationship’s story. When I work with couples, this is what I endeavor to do. As with all of my work, I help them tune in to their bodies: their posture, their breath, their physical sensations. I help them locate their feelings in their bodies, and often, this brings emotions to the surface, allowing them some release. I notice their gestural language, how they sit in the room, how they look or don’t look at each other. If and when it seems appropriate, I help them use touch to make contact with each other, to talk openly, to invite vulnerability. Most of all, I want to help them become aware of the patterns that have gotten to this place, find them in their bodies, and find a way to move out of them into something unfamiliar, unhabituated. To get in touch with each other in a new way, the way that is about what is true now, and what is possible, rather than about how they hurt each other in the past.

If traditional couples therapy hasn’t been working for you, please feel free to contact me, and dare to find a new relationship with someone you’ve known for years.

Things Without (Shame)

I recently discovered the wonderful little comic, Things Without Arms and Without Legs (A Comic About Creatures Who Are Kind), and it delights me.

But as adorable and lovely as they are all on their own, I was especially taken when I found this old post, about some favorite topics of mine: vulnerability and shame.

Dear Things,” begins this post, which addresses the creatures directly and seeks to know what it is that their creator likes so much about them.  

You don’t carry shame. Shame that slowly steel the stars, creeping up like pollution and city lights. Stars diminishing in number, the weakest lights smothered first, then a narrowing field of the brightest lights, and maybe the smog will take them too.

Things, you don’t carry shame. Sometimes you feel guilt, but that is different. Sometimes guilt can face the risk of turning into shame and presses against you, but it is a puzzling thing to be looked at, to be asked questions, treated firmly and kindly and put down. There is no shame in worry, no shame in vulnerability, just an open, natural questioning. For you, shame is not a natural piece of star stealing virtue. Even shame is something you look at without shame.

The post then links to this wonderful video by Ze Frank:

And of course, in the end, it all comes back to Brene Brown.

Many layers of linkage for a Friday.  Enjoy, everyone, and come back here and tell me about your experiences with guilt, shame, and vulnerability.

Vulnerability and shame

silhouette-41879_640Last week, I saw a client for the first time, and she had a profound experience on the table.  Afterwards, she asked me what she could expect to get out of this work, and I answered as best I could.  In the moment, though, I was thinking: how could she not see?

That client hasn’t yet been back, and I’ve wondered why.  But it may have to do with something another client said to me recently.

He had rescheduled his session and told me that he had a lot of busy-ness coming up and would have to get back to me.  It sounded stressful, and so I wrote, as I tend to, “Be gentle with yourself.”

To which he responded, “Be gentle with myself?  Seriously?”

My mentor, Joan Brooks, gave me a great insight the other day – or rather, reminded me of something I’d known, but that wasn’t at the front of my mind.  I’ve experienced it powerfully myself, especially during the training, when everyone was being all touchy-feely, and my first response was to be incredibly suspicious.

And it’s this: the powerful connection between vulnerability and shame.

If you have a chance, do click either or both of those links and listen to the magnificent Brené Brown talk about these topics.  She is astonishing, and the work she is doing is clearly hitting home in a big way for a lot of people, judging by the more than 8 million views.

In brief, though: most people equate vulnerability with weakness when they see it in themselves.  Odd, though, as Brown points out: most people see it as courage when others show vulnerability.

So what is that all about?  Well, a great many of us are socialized to feel shame when we feel vulnerable.  Having feelings – or rather, showing them – is a weakness.  Taking emotional risks, being uncertain, being open to others – all of these are seen as shameful.  It’s not really our parents’ fault: it’s the world they grew up in, too.  Don’t do that, you’ll get hurtPlay it safe.  Keep your head down. Don’t make a spectacle of yourself, and so on.  What happened to you the first time you opened your heart to a lover?  The first time you got up to speak in front of people, or asked someone on a date?  The first time you did an experiment, made a piece of art, tried a new sport, wrote a story and shared it?  What happens to you at that moment of emotional risk can be its own brilliant reward…or it can be a profound opportunity for shame.

And when people are reminded of that shame, even if the vulnerability and openness feels good in the moment – they tend to close down afterward.  It’s the rubber band effect, as Joan says: they’ve stretched, and now it’s uncomfortable.

I know this feeling well.  I grew up learning how to be silent, and eventually, how to be hard.  As with most sensitive people, I had a crunchy exterior that concealed a squishy candy center, as it were.  But it took many years for me not just to be able to take some of those defenses down, but to see my sensitivity as a strength.  Later in the training, as I’ve written elsewhere, “it occurred to me, with a painful shock: somehow I had been taught to fear genuine kindness, to be suspicious of sentiment, to believe that if it wasn’t genuine poetry, it wasn’t genuine feeling.  When, I wondered, did I become so infected with irony that I couldn’t receive uncomplicated love?”

Be gentle with myself?  Seriously?

I’m still working on this, and it behooves me to remember that others are, too.  If this resonates – or doesn’t – I welcome your comments as usual.