Last weekend, Sheryl Sandberg, the chief operating officer of Facebook and author of “Lean In,” delivered the commencement speech at the University of California, Berkeley.
She told the graduates “The easy days ahead of you will be easy. It is the hard days – the times that challenge you to your very core – that will determine who you are. You will be defined not just by what you achieve, but by how you survive.”
Sheryl Sandberg’s UC Berkeley Commencement Keynote Speech last weekend
She shared some of her experience “One year and 13 days ago, I lost my husband, Dave. His death was sudden and unexpected.
As I stand here today, … two things are true. I have a huge reservoir of sadness that is with me always – right here, where I can touch it. I never knew I could cry so often – or so much.
But I am also aware that I am walking without pain. For the first time, I am grateful for each breath in and out – grateful for the gift of life itself.“
She reminded them … “Anchored deep within you is the ability to learn and grow. You are not born with a fixed amount of resilience. Like a muscle, you can build it up, draw on it when you need it. In that process you will figure out who you really are – and you just might become the very best version of yourself.”
This week I was in conversation with a client who has faced more hard days than most people I know. Time and again he has come to the brink of the precipice and looked over … and there have been moments when I’ve wondered whether he’d have the courage and resilience to choose to stay here in our world. But he’s been doing the work of uncoupling who he really is at his core, from all those messages he picked up from his family as a kid, and over the five decades of his life from wider society.
He’s been doing what Sheryl Sandberg invited those graduates to do – learning, and growing, and becoming the very best version of him … at least the best version that’s possible today!
Here’s some of what he said in our conversation “When I am in that place of trust, surrender, acceptance and listening, I don’t have fear. But when I’m not listening, I notice I often find myself in resistance to and rejection of what’s happening in my life, and then I go into crippling fear and freeze. Once I’m there, I can’t mentally change things – I can’t just talk myself out of the fear, or think it away. I have to make space to be quiet and listen for the words that are like an ice-pick for the freezing … breaking it apart. Sometimes they’ve come to me directly, other times those ice-pick words come to me through the voices of others.”
I am SO appreciative of his courage and his commitment to pausing and listening – especially when those parts of him shouting most loudly were those inconvenient and uncomfortable parts. The parts we often judge as BIG mistakes!
Often, when we’ve been on the personal growth path for a while and know the value of things like trust, surrender, acceptance and listening, it can be jarring when parts of us show up in ways that we label as resistance to, or rejection of, what’s happening in our lives.
When these impulses toward resistance or rejection are really strong, we can find ourselves hijacked into acting out of old patterns. It’s what Dan Siegel calls “flipping our lids”. Sometimes we make choices that lead to our acting out and pushing back, in other situations we may choose to shrink back from life and keep ourselves small. Either way, it doesn’t take long for us to begin judging (and sometimes shaming) ourselves for these choices, pushing ourselves to be ‘better’, or stronger, and acting in ways that we consider more ‘enlightened’.
The ability Sheryl Sandberg spoke of to learn, grow, and become the best versions of ourselves is anchored deep in us. AND, the impact of our biology and conditioning is also deeply embedded. We care, and see the possibilities before us clearly. And it’s painful when those less than perfect parts of us show up. It’s easy to judge ourselves when we don’t achieve the high expectations we hold. And when we’ve missed that mark, either drive ourselves harder, or to try to shut down or push the parts of us we feel ashamed of back into the shadows.
But here’s the thing I’m learning, and reminded my client of this week. What if we didn’t make the resistance and rejection wrong? How might our lives be different if, when we noticed these old patterns, we became curious about what was happening – pausing, taking a breath, and listening more deeply?
What if we recognized this as coming from parts of us that have been violated in the past, and are now risking speaking up? Can you imagine how our relationships with ourselves might change if instead of repeating that old pattern of violation ourselves, we really heard what it was they were afraid of, and what they needed?
What if, after hearing them, you let them know how understandable (given your/their history and experience of violation) their impulse of resistance and rejection was? Are you able to feel how different it might be for those parts of us to (perhaps for the first time) feel deeply witnessed and supported in this way?
What if you continued this conversation by letting them know how sorry you are for the pain of their past experience, reassuring them that you see them and are standing for them here now? And then reminded them of your commitment to be with them even though life is sometimes really painful; that you intend to grow your capacity to hold and stand with them – not only in the delightful, but also in the sucky or scary parts of life.
What do you think might happen? Don’t you think those parts that have needed to be so vigilant, trying to protect themselves by resisting or rejecting whatever was happening, might take a deep breath and relax – at least a bit?
And what then? Having been heard and felt soothed, don’t you think it’s far more likely that those parts you’ve been in conversation with will feel safer and more open to possibility? Perhaps like my client, to allowing in the words, or accessing the insight that could act like an ice pick, breaking up the fear he’d felt frozen in.
This isn’t a magic wand to make everything ‘nice’ – no rainbows and unicorns here – this is respectful resilience building. Like Sheryl Sandberg, feelings of sadness may continue to wash over you. At the same time, you’ll likely also be able to feel more grateful for the gift of life, and freer to take the action, or try out creating a new pattern – that next step in being today’s best version of you. I’d love to hear how it goes!
Sheryl Sandberg reminded those graduates that there were times when “friends and family were so loving, and they carried us – quite literally, at times.” If you’ve community of support around you on this journey, you know how powerful a gift that is. And, sometimes we can feel the desire for more (or a different kind of) support than currently exists in our lives. If you’re wondering if that kind of kindred-spirited community might exist for you here, I hope you’ll risk reaching out and exploring that possibility – being sure to check in first with any parts of you that might be feeling any resistance to, or rejection of, that idea!