Thursday, 2 May 2013

Masking Vulnerability - Mask 1 - Foreboding Joy

I am probably pretty late to the party on this one but recently, through my therapist, I have been introduced to the writings and talks of BrenĂ© Brown,  Ph.D. and Licensed Master Social Worker.  She is currently a research professor at the University of Houston, Graduate College of Social Work and has spent the last ten years researching and sharing her findings surrounding vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. 
When I mentioned Brown to a friend of mine yesterday, and how I thought I might really benefit from reading her work, she exclaimed, " I KNOW! I just picked up two of her books from the library!" To which I responded--"SERIOUSLY??? I just ordered two of her books from Chapters!!!!"  ( Yes we talk like this sometimes.  I believe everyone should have one friend that you can get incredibly animated with, regardless of whether you are excited or feeling completely superior over others).  
Back to what I really wanted to look at.....
The Actual Pastor refers to Brown's three masks of vulnerability and I wanted to look at them one at a time.  The first one is Foreboding Joy.  Brown writes

“When we lose the ability or willingness to be vulnerable, joy becomes something we approach with deep foreboding… Joy can feel like a setup. We wake up in the morning and think, Work is going well. Everyone in this family is healthy. No major crises are happening. The house is still standing. I’m working out and feeling good. Oh, shit. This is bad. This is really bad. Disaster must be lurking around the corner.”
This mask feels very familiar.  My youngest son has a life threatening allergy to peanuts.  He doesn't get a runny nose or a few hives....his throat swells up so much he will suffocate and die.  As a result, he carries two epi pens with him at all times.  Every time the bus pulls away with him on it I get a sense of cold water running through my veins and my internal voice starts rapid fire catastrophysing.  What if someone ate peanut butter on toast and touches him and the bus driver doesn't notice and he dies and I don't even check my cel phone for hours and never get the message and he was all alone and scared and .....  My son is almost 9 and to date, we have NEVER had to use an epi pen..  My spouse and I have also NEVER gotten a baby sitter for him other than his big brother or other family members and even then, only rarely. The only reason we feel comfortable leaving him with his big brother is because he has his Standard First Aid and CPR certification.  Frankly, my youngest is probably SAFER with his brother than with me--who does not have ANY of this training. (Ok so here is where I am taking slow breaths through my nose and letting them out my mouth --- anxiety just thinking about this will debilitate me right now if I let it.  I have the little pin prickly feeling all over my skin.  Deep breaths......) 
While you may be able to stretch yourself enough to think that a life threatening allergy may justify some angst....I also realized lately that because nothing has happened to my youngest with his allergies EVEN THOUGH I worry every is BECAUSE I worry he has been fine.  Worrying about him has almost become a talisman of protection against harm.  How is THAT for twisted thinking?
I can also my mind...the sound of either of my boy's neck's breaking from falling over the railing in our house. 
Or falling off the top of a bunk bed. 
When our families lives are all running normally --- I figure it is time for a crisis from someone-- and the longer there is no death/divorce/etc.  the worse I think it is going to be when it happens.  I cannot allow myself the moments of joy in my life because I feel like that is just asking for trouble.
Brown calls these moments rehearsing tragedy and says "When we spend our lives pushing away vulnerability, we can’t hold space open for the uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure of joy. For many of us, there’s even physiological response – a “coming out of our skin” feeling. We’re desperate for more joy, but at the same time, we can’t tolerate the vulnerability.” 

So how do I begin to pry at this mask?  It has been on for as long as I can remember and feels very much like a second skin.  Taking it off would be VERY VERY uncomfortable because it means opening myself up to being vulnerable.  This is a very big step.

The masks I wear have served me well, my therapist has pointed out to me.  They allowed me to move forward from a divorce 6 months into my first marriage (four months into my pregnancy), they helped me successfully navigate single motherhood as a full-time student while losing my house, and they allow me to keep most people at arms length.  My therapist tells me it is my choice.  I can be her or I can try to be something better.  I am skeptical, but our more recent sessions have proved very emotional and she has seen this as progress (while I see it as a free fall into vulnerability, chaos and lack of control).

But....I am committed to trying to be something else (I'll work on replacing the words "something else" with "something better" ...just not sure I believe it yet..but one step at a time.)

The mask in the picture belonged to my dad who passed away in 2010.  He bid on it in an auction on TV a million years ago--as a joke--and to his surprise--he was the only one who bid, so he won it! (I heard this story after he died, and if he was here today I would love to say "Seriously?  You were surprised you were the only one that bid?")   Needless to say, both my mom---and later my stepmom--- made him keep it at his office....where I occasionally visited him.  It is probably the strongest association I have with my dad at "work".  After he passed, Freddy came to live at my house and now rules over the "man cave" that is our basement.  He is a great representation of vulnerability because looking at him immediately takes me back to my childhood where Dad was always right and you had no worries except what to watch for Saturday cartoons and how long it was until Christmas.......

Tapping into that time, when you RAN everywhere...didn't care what you hair looked like...and experienced true JOY--without worrying you would have to pay for it down the road --might be a good place to go next.

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