One of my favourite classes in elementary school was art. I loved the smell of the paints and the glue (and yes, the taste of the glue too). I loved the coloured paper and the textured materials like felt, wool and ribbon. I loved the pipe cleaners and the scissors, the beads, the tissue paper, the googly eyes and the glitter. Most of all, I loved the feeling of limitless potential I saw in a pile of art supplies. I’d sit in front of a new assortment of goodies and feel like I was beginning the most exciting adventure of my life.
Only recently I realized that instead of excitement, these same supplies now give me heart palpitations and shortness in breath. I feel panicky at the mere mention of making things. Whenever I'm invited to participate in some craft-making, I can feel myself contract and get defensive. I’ll say things like I don't have time for this. And then I’ll get crusty and judgemental...what’s the purpose of this crap when it’s done? I don’t want my house cluttered with it. And then moralizing...and it all just ends up in the landfill. It’s environmentally unfriendly!
What happened? Where did the adventure girl go?
I have been devouring two of Brené Brown’s books, The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly. Brené Brown is a shame and vulnerability researcher and her work couldn’t have come at a better time for me personally, but for all of us as we struggle collectively with feeling worthy of love and belonging...which she has shown, directly affects our ability to connect, create and thrive.
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené outlines 10 guideposts for what she calls Wholehearted Living - engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. She has discovered that the one difference between people she describes as living wholeheartedly and those who are not, is that the Wholehearted believe they are worthy of love and belonging. That’s it! That's all! They BELIEVE it!
The insights received reading these guideposts have been profound but when I got to Guidepost #7, my DNA started unravelling... Cultivating Play and Rest: Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-Worth. And when I read that play is purposeless AND essential...my heart stopped. What?!?
Purposeless and essential?!
Brené writes, In today’s culture – where our self-worth is tied to our net worth, and we base our worthiness on our level of productivity – spending time doing purposeless activities is rare. In fact, for many of us it sounds like an anxiety attack waiting to happen.
We’ve got so much to do and so little time that the idea of spending time doing anything unrelated to the to-do list actually creates stress. We convince ourselves that playing is a waste of precious time. We even convince ourselves that sleep is a terrible use of our time.
Brené explains that play is not an option when it comes to wholehearted living. It's essential. In fact, the opposite of play is depression.
When it comes to rest, I am all in. I know how much healthier physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually I am when I get enough rest. But play? Play is for children! ...who have time because they don’t have to do important adult things like making money. Play feels silly, frivolous, foolish...and vulnerable. (enter Ms. Crusty)
What about the $30,000 spent on my Bachelor of Education degree systematically training me to view drama, art and music (and my own inner child) through measurable learning outcomes and provincial curriculum mandates? Purpose, purpose, purpose!
If it doesn’t have purpose, what does the experience of play offer?
Brené answers this: Basically, we play for the sake of play. We do it because it’s fun and we want to.
FUN. Oh my god. When I'm feeling focussed and driven, there’s no feeling in the world more impossible than fun!
So I started thinking about fun and what is fun for me...like laughing so hard I have trouble breathing and almost pee my pants. Why is this fun? How do I know it's fun?
I realized fun has to do with allowing myself to experience sensations in my body. Fun is a feeling. And to feel it I actually have to be open and vulnerable enough to allow the sensations. I have to be open to the sensation of pleasure.
Why on earth wouldn't we be open to pleasure???
Pain and pleasure follow the same circuits in the nervous system. If you block pain, you also block pleasure. So opening the valves for pleasure and fun?...means also opening them to pain. And what is the one, most painful feeling that we all want to avoid? ...SHAME.
Brené defines shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. She also says of shame:
1. We all have it. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. The only people who don’t experience shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection.
2. We’re all afraid to talk about shame.
3. The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives.
Shame is basically the fear of being unlovable – it’s the total opposite of owning our story and feeling worthy.
So how did cutting and pasting become attached to my worth and tied down in shame?
One particularly memorable attempt somewhere along this process was about 20 years ago. I painted a picture for my then boyfriend. I struggled the whole time, moving between enjoying painting for its own sake, and intense insecurity and judgement as I imagined his reaction to it. It didn’t occur to me that painting FOR HIM created a conflict. The unconscious agenda behind my "gift" was that his liking the painting equated to him liking me...proving that I’m likeable...and therefore worthy of love and belonging. This circuitous routine never works but is a favoured approach of the NOT wholehearted...(many of us who struggle tobelieve we are worthy of love and belonging, and are compulsively hungering for it and seeking it from others). There was a lot invested in his liking this painting.
When I gave him the finished labour of love, I might as well have been standing on the stage of a talent show in front of a panel of judges...and a live audience...internationally televised ...naked. It was terrifying. The more he examined it, the more overwhelmed I felt.
He seemed to really like it. And the strangest thing was that the more he expressed his appreciation of it, the worse I felt. It was like my nervous system which was braced for criticism, had no context for the pleasurable sensations that arose in response to (my painting) being seen, admired and loved...and to that taboo feeling...pride. My body was flooded with these overwhelming feelings. I felt insane with vulnerability. So I did the only thing that came to me. Much to both our surprise and horror, I ripped the painting out of his hands and threw it out the nearby window. We were both stunned. And confused.
You’ve heard of fight or flight reactions to fear? And perhaps you’ve heard that faint and freeze are reactions as well. Well I’d like to add fling to that list, as a reaction to the fear of pleasure. Yes, the fear of pleasure. I flung that painting to release myself from the intensity of my own vulnerable feelings. And it worked in the short run. It immediately stemmed the flow of compliments which relaxed my nervous system. But the experience only highlighted my previously hidden CRAZY...my shame...my NOT wholehearted perspective. Backfire!!
It's taken me until now to understand that loving my imperfections and my CRAZY are what actually allow me to have fun, connect with others, create, and have deep compassion. And I feel like I'm in kindergarten...at the beginning of this understanding. Brené says that in order to survive, shame needs 3 things...secrecy, silence and judgement. And the antidote to shame? Empathy. Somebody else's empathy is good but my own is essential.
We need to understand that creating is a very vulnerable experience. As Brené says, vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. It's not weakness. Vulnerability is emotional risk, exposure, uncertainty. And it is our most accurate measurement of courage.
Vulnerability is a very raw feeling, so if it’s been a while since you’ve played and had fun doing dangerous things like playing make-believe, dressing up, singing, and arts and crafts, be ready... it may be wild and messy and CRAZY. Be gentle, empathetic and compassionate with your inner child. Keep going. You are worthy of love and belonging.
And so am I. So I’m off to paste dried macaroni and bits of carpet to coloured paper using excessive glue and gobs of glitter. For myself! Just for the fun of it! Armed with loads of empathy and compassion...especially for Ms. Crusty. And I’m opening my windows just in case.