Vulnerability. That feeling of being completely exposed, clueless, clumsy in front of others. Our kids may be better at vulnerability than we adults are. Growing up requires them (forces them) to learn new skills and experience novel situations all the time. Heck, every school year is like learning the ropes of a new job with a new boss.
Sometimes I forget that feeling vulnerable and unsure is such a regular part of my kids’ lives. Recently I was reminded of this uncomfortable experience in my own life.
An Unexpected Gift
It started positively. An unexpected gift. My sons, Stephen and Daniel, train in To-Shin Do – a defense-oriented martial art that teaches awareness of one’s surroundings and ways to defend oneself if attacked. When my boys venture out some day to travel the world, their To-Shin Do practice is going to help keep my anxiety in check.
I was watching my sons in a To-Shin Do class from the comfortable distance of an extremely poofy couch in the lobby. After the class, the director of the dojo informed me that a student who had begun training had not been able to continue. She had turned her prepayment into a scholarship. The director then told me that this anonymous person had asked that the scholarship be donated to me. Me?!
I’d been watching my kids learn this cool martial art for almost 2 years and had often been curious about training myself. But with 3 children in our family, my own training hadn’t been in the cards financially. My boys had periodically suggested, “You should train here too!” Here was my chance. I was being offered the opportunity to try something amazing, and I had an anonymous benefactor! I didn’t know which was more remarkable.
I was a bit hesitant about the time commitment. And I’m reluctant to say that I was going to miss that soft couch, and the enjoyable conversations I tended to have with other parents watching the To-Shin Do classes. Still, it was a sign of some sort. How could I pass up a sign?
Everyone begins To-Shin Do as a “white belt.” Picture those karate uniforms. Well, mine was all white. Marshmallow came to mind when I looked in the mirror. In To-Shin Do, all ages train together at each level. The first classes were fun and pretty challenging. My initial thought was, this is harder than it looks from the couches. I regretted the comments I’d previously made to my kids on our rides home, “Slow your body down so you won’t hurt the other person.” During my first week of training, I realized just how hard it is to “slow your body down.” I apologized to my kids for coaching them on a sport I’d never done.
A Hard Class
About a month into my training, still wearing my marshmallow attire, I attended a class which included 15 other students (mostly adults), 7 assistants (students further along in the process) and 2 instructors – a large class. As is often the case when I begin something new, the skills I need to practice are not those I initially expect. I had realized over the first month that one of the main lessons I needed work on at To-Shin Do was acknowledging when I didn’t understand something and asking for help. My eternal lesson. But I was attempting to embrace it as much as I could.
On that day, I looked around me. I’d never been in a class this large before. Everyone else had been training longer than me. I quickly made a deal with myself to lower the bar regarding admitting what I didn’t know, just for that day. Additionally there were a number of adults I happened to know observing from the comfy couches. The marshmallow was a bit nervous.
The Dreaded Rolls
Midway through the class, I was feeling pretty good about not calling too much attention to myself when one instructor requested we form 2 lines and do rolls (like partial somersaults) one at a time down the mat. This was not good at all. I’d never been taught to roll. Rolling is awkward in and of itself, but I’d noticed previously that a roll gone bad was likely to end in any number of unfortunate positions.
My first strategy was to move to the end of one line in an attempt to learn by watching. As I observed, I became more concerned. In To-Shin Do you roll over one shoulder, not both like a typical forward roll. My boys had warned me that rolling was hard at first. Great.
Vulnerability in Action
For about a minute I had a mini-battle with myself between just faking it and asking for help. I must add that I found this predicament particularly frustrating because as I’ve mentioned before, I spent my childhood doing gymnastics. This kind of thing usually comes easily to me – or at least that was my view of myself. Because of this I was seriously considering the faking-it route, when I recalled a message from the book I’d been reading, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, by Brené Brown. Brown writes that allowing ourselves to be vulnerable is the route to living fully. It’s something I’ve always wanted my kids to feel comfortable doing, so it was something I needed to practice myself.
I raised my hand and said, “Will you show me how to roll? I haven’t been taught this roll before.” Everyone’s head turned. Surprisingly, a usually patient instructor responded, “Yes you have. I’m sure you have.” It was one of those slow motion moments when you are in the experience but are simultaneously watching yourself from a distance. The watcher-me noticed that everyone was quiet, staring at the interaction between the instructor and me.
Once more I practiced standing up for myself. So much fun.
“No, I’m sure I haven’t learned this roll. I don’t even know how to start it.”
After this, a coach showed the roll (in front of everyone) and I did it, sort of. My roll ended completely sideways, with my feet almost kicking the mirrors at the edge of the mat. Lovely. Then I did another which was only ever-so-slightly better, then another, etc.
You might think that when I reached the end of the mat, I’d nearly mastered the roll and was much relieved. No. Actually by the end of the mat I had decided that, benefactor or no benefactor, I didn’t want to do To-Shin Do anymore. And to make matters worse, I was dizzy from all that rolling.
At the end of the class, I quickly slunk out of the dojo to the privacy of my car thinking I’m glad my boys didn’t see that. But in my car, I again contemplated Brené Brown’s words. She actually would have been proud of me for gracelessly rolling in front of numerous strangers. She would have reminded me that:
Vulnerability is not a weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection. When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make.
Sharing Vulnerability with Others
Brené Brown also would have encouraged me to share this experience with my family. So at the dinner table that evening, I did.
I must say that my kids and Todd were all very sweet about my embarrassing situation. Each one gave me an example of a time they’d felt similarly, and we laughed quite a bit. One son told me that white belt rolls are the hardest ones. The other said that everyone goes sideways when they first try them.
After dinner, we moved to the living room rug and Stephen and Daniel (and Annie who used to take To-Shin Do and hopefully will again someday) helped me practice the over-one-shoulder rolls and even showed me a trick that allows you to roll straight.
On the Other Side
I felt much better after talking to my family. I decided to return to classes the next week, but mostly I was reminded of the parenting message in Daring Greatly. Like Brené Brown states, “I want our home to be a place where we can be our bravest selves and most fearful selves. Where we practice difficult conversations and share our shaming moments from school or work.”
So thanks to an anonymous benefactor, I am not only learning To-Shin Do, but practicing speaking up, getting better at being vulnerable regularly, and connecting with my kids around a sport that we share and in which they have become some of my most helpful teachers. And finally, by showing my kids my struggles, I hope I am reminding them that our home is a place to share theirs.
How do your kids respond when you share your vulnerabilities with them? Leave a comment below!