Later this week I am appearing on Mike Burke’s podcast “Always in Pursuit.” To accompany the podcast, I wrote this guest post for his blog. It is repeated here in its entirety, but be sure to check out Always in Pursuit for much more on these themes.
I’m going to venture a guess. Each day when you prepare for work, you strap on metaphorical armor. You’ve been at this a while and have developed a battle-hardened persona. You project confidence, ambition, and a relentless focus on success and mission accomplishment. You shrug off setbacks, roll with the punches, and laugh with your peers.
But underneath beneath that armor lies something you would never dare reveal: a self sometimes haunted by uncertainty and self-doubt. You carry wounds: scars from old failures, a lingering sense of shame, the trauma of broken relationships or abuse or catastrophe, the restless fear that you don’t have what it takes. These feelings might dominate your daily inner life or just drop by occasionally like an unwelcome guest, but they’re never entirely absent.
The details will vary, of course. We each walk our own journey. Some people seem immune to self-doubt. But we are all human, and for most people, that means we live with a shadow side that we fear revealing to the world.
Joseph Campbell taught us that every story is a variant on the same old myth: in our innocence we set out into a world that is strange and sometimes wonderful and often brutal. We face great peril, escape traps, and fight dragons, but our greatest battle is a confrontation with ourselves. At the heart of that journey lies what Campbell called “the innermost cave,” the place we most dread to go. It is the place we must finally enter if we are to ever grow into our truest, noblest selves. Think Luke Skywalker coming face to face with himself in Darth Vader’s mask in a vision on Dagobagh, or Frodo staring into the fires of Mt. Doom, facing his moment of ultimate temptation.
I want to issue you a challenge: you need to go there. You need to enter your innermost cave and then come back to tell the story.
If that admonition evokes terror, I understand. Five years ago, I went through a scorching season of personal breakdown. I had walked away from a promising trajectory as an Air Force pilot to pursue a passionate dream that combined innovation and education. The nonprofit I founded crashed and burned after a year and a half of wholehearted, nonstop work. My PhD research agenda collapsed, and I found myself feeling alone, having lost the faith of nearly everyone whose support I needed. Health problems surfaced and my mental health frayed. I became badly burned out but couldn’t get out from under the weight of my responsibilities. It took me a couple years to find a way through the ensuing dark night of the soul.
I eventually found my way into my innermost cave, where I began writing. I wrote dozens of pages of journal entries—raw, honest, vulnerable reflections on aspects of failure and its aftermath. I wrote about emotions like fear, anger, and disappointment. As time went by and I found my feet again, I wrote about the halting, uncertain journey back to health and renewed strength. Somewhere in there, I realized I had enough material for a book. I turned these reflections into Eating Glass: The Inner Journey Through Failure and Renewal. I thought the book could help others who were struggling in the aftermath of a failure experience.
That was when the magnitude of my choice became apparent. Do I tell this story? Do I dare reveal my self-doubt and weakness to the world? How would I ever survive this? I felt visceral, white-knuckled, paralyzing fear.
Which brings us back to you and your story.
Why we fear vulnerability
Most of us are afraid to disclose our hardest life experiences. I believe we gain power over things by giving them names, so let’s inventory some of these fears. These fears are understandable but they are largely bullshit. As we go, let’s reframe each one properly.
- I will be seen as weak. We imagine that others will never respect us again if we show the slightest crack in our facade of strength and confidence. REFRAME: It takes strength and self-confidence to show vulnerability. We respect authentic leaders who are brave enough to reveal themselves.
- I will be seen as strange. Nobody else feels this way. We think maybe we are uniquely screwed up. Surely normal people do not struggle like we do. REFRAME: Everybody has aspects of themselves, and stories from their past, that they fear to reveal. When people speak in vulnerability, their words resonate because we see ourselves.
- My story isn’t nearly as bad as what (insert name) suffered. We should shrug off our hardships and failures because they pale beside what others suffer. REFRAME: There is no room for comparison. Nobody should gatekeep each other’s deepest lived experiences. We all feel the whole range of human emotions, from soaring joy to deep despair. We each have our own story, and it’s ours to tell.
- I don’t have enough talent to tell my story. We worry about our lack of artistic abilities. We fear we won’t do the story justice. It will be dull, lifeless, and not worth anyone’s time. REFRAME: When we share from a place of vulnerability, talent barely matters. What connects with an audience is authenticity. We feel in our guts when someone speaks from a place of vulnerability. That is what breathes life into your story.
- Telling my story will damage my professional reputation. This might be the heart of our fear. If others see us as we really are, we will lose their love and respect. REFRAME: If somebody loses respect for you because you tell your authentic story, you probably don’t want to work with them anyway. The best leaders have empathy and high emotional intelligence. By confidently embracing your story, you exhibit those traits. Good leaders will see and respect that.
The need to own your story
When you enter the innermost cave and come face-to-face with yourself, you realize that you have a story to tell. Maybe it’s a journey through the dark night of combat and then swimming back up to the light. Wrestling in the dark with the demon of addiction. Childhood scars that still haunt you. A broken relationship and the disorienting years that followed. A professional failure that left you questioning your own leadership ability.
Many of us spend years hiding from our own stories. We run the opposite direction from our innermost cave, like Jonah fleeing God’s imperative to go Ninevah. No matter how far or how fast we run, we can never outrun ourselves. That shadow eats at us from within. It affects our health. Our families. Our leadership. At some point, we will face a reckoning. Out of the depths some great whale will swallow us whole and drag us beneath the waters to that place we fear to go.
But here’s the thing: when you find the courage to enter that innermost cave (whether by choice or because you no longer have a choice), that encounter can change your life. It can begin a transformation within you. And when you go back out into the world and tell your story, you can bring that restorative, transformational power to other people. You will shine with a dark and mysterious luminosity.
Telling my story was one of the most powerful experiences of my life. Now I actively look for opportunities to share my story and help others tell theirs. That is why it was such a pleasure to join Mike Burke on the Always in Pursuit podcast this week (link forthcoming).
Here are just a few of the benefits that authentic storytelling brings:
- You break the chains of fear. Only after I released my book did I realize the full extent to which fear had defined my life. I was terrified of my own story and how it might be perceived. Once I committed to owning that story, and the first supportive comments poured in, the relief was indescribable. Just as darkness cannot tolerate light, your fear of being revealed cannot survive openness and authenticity.
- You become integrated and whole, enabling future growth. So many of us are “stuck” in a life situation we can’t move past. Our souls are divided. When we own and tell our stories, we find wholeness. That split self becomes one, maybe for the first time in our lives. We grow deeper into our truest selves, and we now have the ability to keep growing and flourishing… to be always in pursuit.
- You have a basis for healing relationships. The same “stuckness” in our own souls can also impair our relationships. As we own our stories and gain comfort sharing them, it enables to us to have hard but necessary conversations with others. It helps us take responsibility and, when necessary, say “I’m sorry.” Not every relationship can be healed, but some can… or at least be put to rest.
- You can help others navigate their own life experiences. When you share in authenticity, you discover that so many people around you harbor their own private stories. Your courage and authenticity opens space for them to share. You can become a source of encouragement and strength and inspiration, which is perhaps the richest form of leadership.
- You develop empathy for others. As you grapple with your own journey, you gain empathy for others who are on their own journeys. That empathy can only make you a wiser and more thoughtful leader.
- You develop new relationships. Real conversations are rare in today’s world. Your willingness to go deep opens up a rare space in which real connection can happen and real relationships can be built.
- You help build community in a world that sorely needs it. We live in an age of toxic individualism, loneliness, and despair. The world needs healing and repair, and that has to begin in community—with authentic connection between human beings. The relationships you form through telling your story provide a solid foundation on which to build.
Owning and telling our stories is not easy. It often takes time, effort, and help from other people to untangle our own life experiences and find the essence of our stories. Entering our innermost cave might be the scariest experience of our lives, and telling that story to others might be even more frightening yet.
But it was for good reason that Joseph Campbell saw this mythic quest as the beating heart of human existence. This is the universal story, the story of what it means to be a human being.
Do the work. Enter the innermost cave. Discover your story, and when you do, take courage and tell your story to others. That is the first step towards the healing and building that we, our country, and our world so desperately need.