Can you seek out something that makes you uncomfortable?
Last June I had the privilege of coordinating the Local Author’s tent at the Nantucket Book Festival. While this is an event that brings in bestselling authors and high-profile personalities to sit in conversation with them, the Local Authors tent is a hidden gem within the larger festival that welcomes writers who are just starting out, self-published or operating outside the traditional publishing world.
Unlike the “main stage” guests, the local authors handle their own travel, bring and sell their own books and are not typically given any special promotion or spotlighting.
The comradery that happens under the tent is really wonderful. Some authors have been coming year after year and know the drill. Others are participating for the first time. The writers swap books and stories, and they talk about what they are writing next and why they got into writing.
There was a young woman in the tent this year that had self-published a book titled Are You Drowning? The title reminded me of my final few months in New York when I was broke and discouraged and not sure what to do. I specifically remembered being slumped over on the couch in my therapist’s office saying I felt like I was caught in a riptide. I felt like I was drowning.
As things were wrapping up under the tent and authors were packing up, I snuck over to the young woman to buy a copy of her book and asked if she would sign it for me. She was so grateful and gracious, and I looked forward to reading it at some point when the summer was over, and I had time. Well that “some point” was last month when I finally pulled it from my bookshelf. I smiled as I read the message she inscribed for me.
“To Janet, Thank you so much for all your work for the Nantucket Book Festival! Never, never, never give up.” Still smiling, I turned the book over to read the summary on the back. My smile faded as I read that she is a New England writer who wants to help people “find their true identity, worth, purpose, and freedom like she did in Christ.”
I’m not proud of this, but my immediate reaction was, “Ugh. Is this going to be all “Jesus-y?”
I have and have had friends with all kinds of faiths, and it has never been a barrier to friendship. I respect anyone whose identity is tied to belief in a higher power, and a part of me is envious of their clarity and trust. But being a lapsed Catholic, who has yet to find a replacement faith, I feared this book would be endlessly “preachy” or try to sell me on Christianity.
But I also remembered the earnest young woman I met last June and how excited she was that I chose to buy her book among all the others on sale. I felt it was only fair to give it a shot.
The book starts with a time when the writer was swimming in the ocean and learning how to survive a riptide. You can’t fight the current; you must surrender and trust you’ll end up on shore.
She uses this experience as a metaphor to describe how she tried to bounce back after she suffered a freak accident in her freshman year of college that left her with a debilitating head injury. She swims and swims but keeps getting pulled back out by the current.
While I didn’t relate very much to the frequent bible quotes and references to her faith in Christ, I absolutely connected with how she demanded way more of herself than she was able to give. I understood her frustration at trying her hardest and still falling short of her expectations. I related to feeling like a burden to those around her when she faced a setback and not worthy of the emotional and financial support that she desperately needed.
For all the parts that weren’t relatable to me, I’m grateful to the writer for sharing her experience so candidly. She is doing what she can to help others. And when I re-read her note to me and the summary on the back cover, I interpreted it differently. The first time, I thought she was implying that our true identity can only be found in Christ.” What she actually wrote and what I saw more clearly was that she helps people find themselves similar to how she found herself in Christ.
To be fair, I haven’t reached out to her for clarification on what she meant. My point is that by being a little less judgmental and a little more curious, I was able to welcome different understandings of something that initially seemed black and white.
Something I learned in my coaching training that was an “ah-ha" moment was when we discussed the difference between agreement and acknowledgement. Agreeing with someone means you have a shared value, opinion, or perspective. Acknowledging someone means you have heard and understood where they are coming from, regardless of whether you agree or not.
As a coach, it’s not my job to always agree with a client or get them to agree with me. It’s my job to understand where they are coming from and acknowledge how they feel. I’ve worked with clients that have views and goals that I don’t agree with. And that’s okay. Short of anything criminal or harmful, it’s not my place to change their hearts and minds. I’m just here to help them be honest with themselves about what they want. And if that differs from my values and opinions...so what?
If you are up for a challenge, find a podcast, tv show, article or book that features someone with a value or opinion that makes you uncomfortable. It doesn’t need to be wildly triggering or something that will harm or traumatize you. Just look for something that activates your inner cynic. Something that makes you crinkle your nose or furrow your eyebrows. As best you can, just take in the information and sit with it. Try to find yourself or someone you care about in the story.
I’ve by no means perfected this skill, but practice has paid off in the form of more compassion and curiosity and less judgement and cynicism. Being able to consume a thought, an idea or a perspective that I’m uncomfortable with has, at a minimum, made me less reactive and stressed, and at best, it's helped me find some wisdom hidden in something I would have otherwise dismissed.
In this case, by watching this young woman’s journey from self-punishment to self-compassion, I was reminded to be nicer to myself and keep my expectations in check.
If you are willing to go a tad deeper and get a little more uncomfortable... Ask yourself why something makes you cringe or look away. This can get into territory that goes beyond life coaching and ventures into the world of therapy, so take care of yourself.
Years ago, I was in a professional development seminar where the trainer asked us to think of someone we know personally that we don’t like. He then told us to write down what parts of ourselves we saw in the other person. That was 10 years ago, and, to this day, I can still remember the person I thought of and what parts of myself I saw in them.
When you are reading, watching or experiencing something that makes you uncomfortable, be brave enough to ask yourself, “What of myself am I seeing in this thing that I don’t like?” You may be surprised by what you discover about yourself.
If you are ready to wander into this territory, here are a couple podcasts that challenged me to lower my mental and emotional defenses and just listen. They aren’t directed forwards any specific belief system or either end of the political spectrum.
If you want my copy of Are You Drowning, contact me, and I’ll mail you my copy.