I think I’ve corrected some erroneous assumptions I’d made about vulnerability:
1) Not all discomfort is a sign of vulnerability.
2) Discomfort itself is not necessarily a sign that I’m on the right path, but sitting with the discomfort before making a change can help me figure out what change to make.
It’s like if my shoes are too tight. I can choose to sit with the discomfort of the shoes, but that won’t likely lead to future growth (except maybe corns). The discomfort is just a sign that something’s off with the fit of my shoes.
More difficult to tell are those situations that are emotionally uncomfortable. I “retired” from providing mother-to-mother breastfeeding support about a year ago because I got to the point where I would get a call or lead a meeting and end up feeling like I had fallen far short of how I wanted to act in those situations. At the time, I attributed this to social anxiety or some personal failing, but yesterday showed me that this might not be true, or at least might not be the whole story.
Twice yesterday I got pulled into breastfeeding conversations, one in person and the other on the phone. I came away from each conversation with that familiar feeling of dis-ease, but I tried to avoid jumping to conclusions and just sit with that discomfort throughout the day. My shoes felt too tight (to continue the shoes analogy), but in what way were they too tight?
Late in the evening, I made a realization: Most of the times I felt uncomfortable providing breastfeeding support I was also being pulled in another direction by my own role as a mother. Yesterday, while I was talking in person, my son was crying to go home, and while I was on the phone, he was trying to get my attention by knocking over the stacks of laundry I’d just folded. Even the very first meeting I led, my daughter had just started using the potty and asked me to take her to the toilet at least six times during the hour-long meeting. She wanted my attention, and she knew that I wouldn’t ignore that request.
My children expressing their needs for connection at the same time I was trying to connect with a new mom about her nursing issues left me feeling overwhelmed. When I provide lactation support, my primary goal is always to connect with the mom and to empower her as a mother; the lactation information is just the vehicle to get me to that connection. But when I feel pulled in two directions, I default to spewing lots of facts and suggestions because I always default to the intellectual side of things. Giving my heart fully in the moment to both my children and the new mother wasn’t possible, so I gave each just a corner of my fragmented attention, which does not, I’ve found, facilitate emotional connection and empowerment.
The discomfort I felt after those two conversations yesterday wasn’t vulnerability; it was dissatisfaction over missing that connection with both the nursing mother and my children. I had two jobs to do, both incredibly important to me, and I was doing both of them poorly.
This discomfort would be fine if it were a sign that I was in my learning zone and with some more time and practice I would feel more adept at juggling the needs of another mother and my children, along with my own desire for connection. Sometimes tight shoes need to be broken in a bit by wearing them while they’re uncomfortable. But that wasn’t the case with my discomfort with breastfeeding help. No matter how much I practiced giving help while ignoring my children, I wasn’t going to learn how to connect with either group. The discomfort wasn’t growing pains; the discomfort signaled my need for a change. That change didn’t have to involve stopping my volunteer activities in that area. Instead, I could have set limits around my volunteering or gotten my kids a sitter or just changed my expectations of either my role as a volunteer or my role as a parent. The value wasn’t in the discomfort itself but rather in sitting with the discomfort, which helped bring my awareness to a general situation that leaves me feeling inadequate and overwhelmed and helped give me insights into how to identify these situations and make changes in the future.
Going back to the tight shoes analogy, the tightness of the shoes itself may have signaled a need for change, but it’s not clear if that change involved going barefoot, putting on thinner socks, getting the same shoes in a size bigger, or going with a different style altogether. Sitting with the discomfort at least for a little while can make it more clear just what type of change is needed.
When have you avoided “jumping to solutions” and just sat with a situation? Have you been surprised at what came up when you didn’t automatically try to make changes in an uncomfortable situation?