Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.
As I stare at a blank page at 3 pm, trying to conjure up the thoughts that seemed so captivating at 3 am, I feel a great mixture of emotions about capturing my story. While I love expressing my thoughts on paper, I fear the rejection of putting my heart out into the world. Yet, throughout my life, I have pushed the vulnerability boundaries by always sharing deeply, even though I have learned the hard way that it is not always the best move. As I begin to write, Brené Brown’s words ring in my ears, “Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.”
We judge each other constantly, the way someone dresses, the way they speak, the car they drive, the social media posts they create, like, retweet, etc. Our children grow up with the endless barrage of media images that suggest that if you don’t look like these, you will never be ____ (fill in the blank). There is constant pressure to conform to the peer-driven ‘cool-meter’, fearful of rejection, cyber-bullying, or worse the combination, being called out on social media by some self-appointed judge of ‘cool’. (Even as I type the word ‘cool’ I am sure…the younger set would think this so not cool.) Our world is not a kind and gentle place or a judgment-free zone. So, leading with vulnerability, truth, and heart-on-your-sleeve honesty is not the norm. However, that is how I am hardwired. Not sure why, although I am left curious.
The world is hardwired for judgment.
As I explore the question of why I’m hardwired for vulnerability, memories of my upbringing come flooding in. I realize there were many expectations, some hidden and some blatant, many messages, and always judgments. I was a pleaser, a doer, a prover of worthiness from my earliest memory.
I primarily looked for approval from my father. An Irish-Catholic, second-born son, with a twin sister and two older siblings. When my father was 13 years old, his parents decided, as the second son, he would be the family priest. It was not a calling he felt, especially at the tender age of 13, nor a very happy experience when contrasted with his twin sister’s life of cheerleading, dates, dances, new clothes and shoes and all the “normal” childhood freedoms accorded to teenagers in the early 1940s. Conversely, his older brother felt a deep calling to the priesthood and had to fight to be allowed to go to seminary. In 1943, my father was sent to the junior seminary.
Ironically, that same year his brother announced to his parents at the age of 18, that he was going to enter the seminary to become a Roman Catholic priest. A heated discussion ensued making it clear that, as the eldest son, his predetermined role in life was to carry on the Fitzgerald name. When it was settled, the two Fitzgerald sons were both off to the priesthood. Their mother was resigned to having two sons as priests, and, ultimately she determined that two sons who were priests were eminently better than one: surely she would get her golden ticket into heaven! Or so the story goes. On March 24, 1956, 4 days before his 26th birthday, my father summoned the courage to live his truth instead of his parent’s and he left the seminary.
As I reflect on his story, I realize it explains so much about my father, the way he parented, his commitment to the church, and the way he interacted with the world. When he returned home from the seminary in early 1956, with just the clothes on his back and the small amount of cash he was given for meals on the journey, his mother’s greeting told him all he ever believed about himself,
You might as well take a job at the sawmill picking up chips because you are never going to amount to anything. You were supposed to be a priest!
Despite my father having educational coursework equivalent of a bachelor’s in philosophy and a master’s in theology, his family never treated him as an intelligent promising young man, but rather as the failure his mother considered him to be for having left the seminary. Years later, his seminary education was recognized by Marquette University and he was awarded the degrees but, those accreditations were only paper, he held in his heart what he knew to be true about himself. His fractured nuclear family relationship broke his heart and created a life-longing yearning for a relationship that deep down he did not believe he deserved.
According to my mother’s stories of my early years as the firstborn and only child until the age of 5, I was positively the apple of my father’s eye and he was mine as well. But somewhere along the line, as I grew into my pre-teen and teenage years between us life became complicated. My father became distant and withdrawn, I now recognize it as ‘emotionally unavailable’, and a seed of longing was sown in my heart. Any hugs between my father and me, were initiated by me and awkwardly and quickly released with a few pats on the back, and sometimes a verbal cue to stop, “Ok, Ok, enough.”
My father always minimized my need for affection and tenderness. I cannot count the number of times in my life that I was told, ‘You are too sensitive!’, ‘Lighten up’, “Geez, I’m just teasing, do you have to take everything so personally?” These phrases ring in my ears. His understanding of what that love looked like was gained from his limited experience growing up in a household that was not healthy and a seminary that was even less so. I know my father was trying to be a good father.
I know he loved me. However, I believe his intention can only be fully understood from the perspective of a child who has become a loving parent.
I now realize that he wanted to help me to be the best I could be, but the hurts that were dealt under the disguise of teasing or ‘helpful hints’ and ‘little jabs’ were taken in by me as messages about who he thought I was. He was not able to express praise without a zinger at the end, just as his mother had done to him.
…the hurts that were dealt under the disguise of teasing or ‘helpful hints’ and ‘little jabs’ were taken in by me as messages about who he thought I was.
Looking back over the childhood of my 3 grown sons, I see my rejection of my father’s distant parenting style. I remember distinctly my strong desire to remain connected with each of my sons in a real way, not in an overbearing controlling way but in a deeply emotional “I love you, no matter what” way. The kind of love that says, I will run in front of a train to protect you. A demonstrative, strong love. My desire to build a strong bond with my sons appears to have succeeded because they are quick with a hug and a ready smile. They are warm and engaging people. I feel their love when they call me to share an experience they had or a memory that popped up, or they need cooking advice.
While the easy love created with my sons brings me great joy, I also see the weeds of criticism that unwittingly grew and sadly, became a part of my parenting. Today, I am mindful of the ways that my unconscious parenting sowed the seeds of self-doubt and gave birth to their inner critic. For example, the regular feedback I gave in the form of “suggestions for improvement” failed to truly accept them as they were. By always having ready suggestions for what they produced, how they dressed, what they said, or how they did a job, I was doing what had been done to me, in the name of love.
I am heartbroken when I think of it in this light because the sting of my father’s words has always stayed with me. I am reminded of that quote from Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice, “For the sins of your Fathers you, though guiltless, must suffer.” But the truth is, it is a multi-generational passing along of unconscious parenting. It is only in the rear-view mirror that we can unravel each thread in the fabric that created who we are and who we raised our children to become.
It is only in the rear-view mirror that we can unravel each thread in the fabric that created who we are and who we raised our children to become.
I am connected to my sons in a way that I did not have the chance to experience with my father or to heal before his death at age 60. They know that they are loved. However, I must acknowledge a difficult truth, the critical voice that has ruled my life, repeatedly sending me searching for a way to be “worthy” has impacted my sons. This makes me incredibly sad, but I am learning to accept my imperfections and to forgive my shortcomings as a parent. I hope that by leading with this example of self-compassion I will help my sons to heal the wounds I unintentionally inflicted, while simultaneously, or eventually, creating an opportunity for a deeper understanding and a greater bond between us. It is also my hope that, with each of my sons, we can each recognize and accept our loving intent and our undeniable humanness as parent and child, before they become parents. I hold a greater hope that their children will have a dramatically different emotional childhood than their grandparents and their great grandparents.
Today I choose, consciously, to lead with vulnerability despite the risks to my heart because I want my life to be filled with the deep, real, and heartfelt connections that are created when we allow ourselves to be seen, warts and all.
In my past, I was open and vulnerable by instinct. Today I choose, consciously, to lead with vulnerability despite the risks to my heart because I want my life to be filled with the deep, real, and heartfelt connections that are created when we allow ourselves to be seen, warts and all. I am grateful that I can now see how my father’s teasing jabs and zingers were not about who he thought I was, but rather, who he thought he was. It has taken therapy, meditation, writing and focused self-talk not to allow the unworthy, insecure little girl to get swept away in that hurt. It has taken me years to realize that my sensitivity is not a weakness. My willingness to put myself out there is truly a gift. It is only in accepting myself that I am also able to recognize and accept the gifts of others, understanding that their feelings belong to them and mine to me.
Where are you on the journey of deep acceptance? Are you able to identify those phrases from childhood that ring in your ears and realize they are truly your gifts? Are you able to risk vulnerability to experience a true connection?
Interesting insight into yourself.
I believe you have done a good job with your children anyway and you have nothing to blame yourself for. The relationship between parents and children is always difficult and it is not the outward manifestations of affection that let you fully understand what you think and want.
My point of view has always been that directing a child to a specific school education or life and work choices is not a good method. There is a limit to parenting: if you have to be very careful in childhood and adolescence, at some point parents will have to begin to take into consideration the idea of detachment and the possibility that the child will start organizing himself and learn to take decisions alone, starting from the simplest and most trivial things, to becoming an independent person. But to be autonomous, the child needs the help of parents who must encourage and not stop this form of separation, independence, self-management skills but also self-determination, letting the child make his decisions, make his choices and take all the responsibilities of them.
Detachment is therefore the moment when a child decides to make his own life, to walk with his own legs, without the help of his parents. And at this stage the choices that the child can make are the choices he / she feels inside, that belong to him, that come spontaneous to him as natural, must not be the choices that parents expect him to do.
Parents have a sacrosanct duty to follow and monitor, with due caution, the life of their child, taking care that it does not run irreparable risks or make ill-considered choices, but beyond this limit the parent can no longer intrude and must maintain respect for the individuality of the child.
Loving one’s own son / daughter does not only mean taking care of him / her for everything, it means having the courage to let them go, to let him make his choices even if they seem (and most of the time they are) wrong for the parents, mistakes will help him to understand and grow, good advice does not always make the experience he needs to mature in the field, making mistakes, feeling the faults and the sense of responsibility, so that they can learn not to do them again, and so they can make more prudent and cautious choices when grown up.
The parent’s task is to give his help, within the limits of his possibilities, and as long as he remains alive, even when he thinks he has made a mistake leaving so much autonomy of choice for his children.
Thank you for your thoughtful reply. I agree completely. Parenthood is a process of letting go with the ultimate goal of supporting your children through their own process of self-discovery to an autonomous and fulfilled life of their own.
I remember having a discussion with my eldest son right around the age of 20-21 about what it meant when we had a discussion about his life and I offered a point of view or a thought about his next step. I explained that, from the moment they laid you in my arms, I loved you enough to run in front of a speeding train to protect you. As you are now a young man, I realize that it would be a rare circumstance when you would need my protection, but it does not dimish my love for you. As a child, we gave you limited freedoms to protect you, gradually expanding the scope of your freedom, aloowing you to make mistakes, experiment, and grow through experiencing the consequences of your choices so that one day you would be able to navigate whatever came your way, with confidence. Now, when we speak all I require is the respect that my love and caring for you has earned and the acknowledgement that I have been on this earth a few more years than you so I might have some wisdom to add to your discernment. All you need to say is “I’ll consider it.” and then go make your own choice. I support whatever you decide. It was then that our relationship changed and it has been a great evolution that I cherish as his mom.
What a powerful unveiling. I was nodding along with intense memory and deep sadness as I read this. “I was a pleaser, a doer, a prover of worthiness from my earliest memory.” Me too, and for the same reason you identified: a wounded parent trying to prove their own worth. In my case, it was my mom. I remember from an early age the expression my mom used: “You can do better.” Then, as an adult, when the screenplay I wrote placed in the top four of a prestigious contest, she remarked “I never knew you had it in you.”
Indeed “…repeatedly sending me searching for a way to be worthy.” It was only near the last year’s of her life when she unexpectedly revealed the horrible pain that had been inflicted upon her as a young woman that her behavior as a mom, like your dad’s, made sense. At that moment I understood and felt a weight about myself begin to lift. It’s still lifting…. She did the best she could based on how she had been raised.
One last thought. I have struggled mightily with religion my entire life, and your one sentence – “but rather as the failure his mother considered him to be for having left the seminar” – encapsulates why. How can people who profess to believe in God – in Jesus and his teachings, and his apostles’ teachings – behave this way? How do you make sense of that contradiction? I’ve never been able to.
Anyway, thank you for your vulnerability. This was a painful read for me – and probably painful for you to write at moments – but so worth the time.
Thank you for sharing your heart and your story with me. As you said, it is difficult to read and it was difficult and scary to put out into the world. I am glad that it spoke to you and sorry that you had all of the background to feel the depth of the emotion within as you read.
I think it is a good processing mechanism to get it out into words instead of just deep wounds that are left to fester, but not easy. I’m not sure if you feel this way but I really resonated with the description of the creative process given by the author of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert in her 2009 TedTalk. If you missed it, I highly recommend it. But the gist is that our creative genius is a spirit that passes through us it is not born in us. With that said, as I sat down to write this I had no pre-disposition to write an essay about my father or my childhood at all. It just poured out – or through me, just continue the analogy. I can honestly say that now, it is gone from me as if I poured the ink onto the page and it took with it the pain that I had been unknowingly carrying. I feel distance and perspective and when I reread it – although I recognize my words, as the author, it feels foreign…
Jeff, I value your perspective and I am humbled that my work was able to connect with you on such a deep level. Thank you.
On your question about religion…I will confess throughout my years I, too, have struggled with the exact issue you mention. At times like those, I go back to something my father said that really stuck with me. He was many things to me and we struggled emotionally, but by his example, he truly had the greatest impact on how I live my life today in three areas: my writing, my singing, and my spiritual life. He was a deeply spiritual man, a prolific letter-writer that was never published, and he had an amazing voice that was more prayer than any singer I have heard. What he always said to me was this, “The divinity of the Catholic Church is evidenced by the survival of the humanity of the Catholic Church over the last 2000 years. Catherine Anne, (as he always called me) priests are no different than you an me, they put their pants on one leg at a time and they are human beings that sin just like all of us.” Armed with that, in times when I am discouraged or questioning, I go back to the same thing; no human being will steal the practice of my faith from me, nor will they break my trust in God. I am at home in prayer and at mass, because it is familiar, it is what we did as a family and I have found great connection with my maker in some very difficult times throughout my life. Now, does that mean that I believe and accept every decision or decree that comes from Rome or from any priest who speaks as if he has a greater understanding of God than I do as a parishioner? Absolutely not. I believe, as St Thomas Aquinus wrote, in the forming of personal conscience. No one will take responsibility for my actions when I meet my maker, but me. Therefore, it is my obligation to not follow blindly but to process and form my own decisions and do what is right according to my moral core. And the broken, who have led followers while living a double life…well, it is not mine to judge but to allow our creator, who I believe is all-knowing, to mete out their eternal destiny.
I hope I didn’t offend, Catherine. Religion aside, I’m a firm believer in a higher power. I don’t know how anyone can look up in the night sky or walk through a forest and not believe in one.
You absolutely did not offend me in any way. I have struggled many times with the hypocrisy of the Church. I hope my response did not sound like I was offended. Forgive me if it did. I actually was trying to say that questioning is the correct response to all that is formal religion. Humans mess this stuff up on the regular! :-))
OK, just checking! Thanks for dialoguing, Catherine.
Thank you, Jeff!
I always thought of my parents as kids raising kids. It must have been hard for them, yet I learned a lot from them. Great storytelling Catherine
Thank you Larry. I am happy that you enjoyed it. 🙂 I agree – on some level all of us – no matter what age we begin parenting – are kids raising kids!
Catherine, such a beautiful demonstration of personal responsibility. Thank you!
Thank you, Wendy! It means a great deal to me to know that my story resonated with you.
Oh, what a beautiful and honest reflection that resonates powerfully with me, Catherine.
I was raised by a mother who exhibited mental illness (undiagnosed, of course). I, like you, broke the cycle for the most part with my daughter and son, but I know I wasn’t even close to perfect as a mother. Being able to have honest conversations with both my children about my challenges and about their grandmother continues to open up new pathways of deeper connection. Wholehearted living means owning all of ourselves, the words we have spoken and the deeds we have done. I know I can only heal from the inside out-continue to shed interior limiting beliefs as these surface, emotional content I have not yet processed through my heart, and keep sharing who I am fully human-perfectly imperfect.
I, like you, live my life with a great deal of vulnerability and in many cases a radical honesty about myself-my humanity. Connecting with the inner witness consciousness, what I like calling the “inner fly on the wall” who quietly watches without judgment has been life-changing-as have all the countless hours of therapy, body work, workshops, books read, tapes/CD’s listened to, metaphysical movies, and watching/listening to hours of Dr. Wayne Dyer, Louise Hay, Eckhart Tolle, etc… and I ADORE Brene Brown!! Within the last two years I’ve experienced another deeper transformation of valuing myself at my very core-in a way that’s unshakeable. And No One can cruelly bully me the way my mother did. She holds the trophy in that department. Her recent death brought a freedom, relief, and peace to my life that has deepened my compassion, forgiveness, awareness, and grace. I, like you with your dad, realized that she loathed herself, not me. She was loved in the larger community. She shape-shifted in ways that other people will not ever understand what I experienced in her presence. I accept that. I also know my truth, my lived experiences, and all the wisdom I’ve gleaned about healing, transformation, being human, and living free in heart, mind, body, and soul. My children are adults now and my greatest wish is that they break free of any limiting beliefs inside of their minds and courageously live their lives true to their passions. I love both of them unconditionally and know I can now only model and “Be the change I wish to see in the world.” and for them to see that, experience this!
Thank you for your meaningful, heartfelt and honest essay. I appreciate you and celebrate your journey to be fully yourself-vulnerable and brave.
Thank you for your kind and supportive comments. I appreciate your heartfelt sharing. I especially liked your statement about the hope to “open up new pathways of deeper connection.” with your children and “Wholehearted living means owning all of ourselves…” so true!
I am learning how to walk this path of acceptance and self-compassion, hopefully I will crest the hill soon and it will feel more natural and less like a moment by moment walk up a rocky mountain without the cardio conditioning necessary! :-)) I am hopeful that with enough practice this will become less strenuous!
You wear vulnerability beautifully, Catherine. Thank you for sharing your stories of past and present and inviting personal inquiry. My experience is that the more vulnerable I’ve become, the greater my sense of human connection.
Vicki- Thank you for your support in stepping firmly into my own truth and having the strength/resilience to be able to share it. You are a gift to me!
Catherine I think the process of growing up, and then, trying to be the best parent in the world, is tough work. It’s interesting to me to see a lot of writers here digging up their childhood days. I did the same thing and like you, felt hesitant to share for fear of judgement.
You did a good job. All around and I’m positive your sons know how much you love them.
Thank you, Laurie. It is scary to share deeply on public platform but I believe that in sharing we reveal our common humanity.