"Vulnerability is actually the courage to show up and be seen." Brené Brown
It's only Monday, and I've already been positively challenged twice. The first time was when I realised how uncomfortable it is for me to share my feelings. The second time was when I listened to someone talk about the impact that Michelle Obama speech had on her.
And both are related.
So, let's talk a bit about the first challenge. I've always known I was a private person. The quiet child, the one who reads a lot, the one who chooses silence and observation, the one who doesn't reveal much about her internal life. It probably comes from having had to share my room with my siblings until I was 18. The yearn for privacy and autonomy that comes with it. It also probably comes from the fear of being judged for the ridiculousness of that internal life.
It probably comes from a lot of different places, but the fact is, I'm a listener. I love asking weird questions. I'm fascinated by the stories of others.
My job as a design researcher means that I spend a lot of time listening to people. And I'm looking for that empathy. I want to connect with their experiences, and I want to make them feel truly heard. But somehow, tonight, (I joined this brilliant workshop on empathy skills), it was my turn to be heard. And I realised I didn't like the feeling of being heard. It felt that my truth, which I so rarely share, was suddenly being seen by another person, and with too much lucidity (the person I was sharing with was a brilliant listener). So for some reason, what should have felt like a moment of clarity felt like terribly hard work.
When I'm doing research with people, I sometimes spend half a day, sometimes a whole day with them, uncovering their story. This experience was a nice reminder of how generous the people I encounter during ethnographic research really are. Laying out your vulnerabilities in the open for others to see is a hell of lot harder than jumping in a freezing outdoor pool, as I did earlier today.
This brings me to my second challenge. At that same empathy workshop (which I really recommend) I listened to (this was my more comfortable space, listening) a woman telling me how much the reactions bringing down Trumps' attacks on women have affected her. She talked about a sense of relief and empowerment in finally being able to speak up and express discomfort and anger without having to justify or question these feelings. And she talked about Michelle Obama's speech as a catalyst for this sense of empowerment.
Very few times in my life have I experienced real leadership. In fact, I don't think I have at all. What Michelle Obama did was that she fearlessly, and in the most dignified way, shared some of her core feelings. And by doing so, she connected to the core feelings of so many women (and men). She allowed her vulnerability to shine through and helped to legitimise our discomfort and anger in the face of both micro- and macro-aggressions against women.
And re-watching that speech, I learned a thing or two about leadership: it takes strength to be vulnerable in public, but being vulnerable in public is necessary to connecting with and empowering a crowd.
I guess I still have a lot of work to do!
I wrote this blog a year and a month ago, as I was turning 30. Some reflection on the healing power of storytelling.
I don’t know if it’s a syndrome that strikes all humans, but turning 30 made me want to write more. It made me want to write more about myself. About parts of myself I have never shared. One of the reasons why I have this urge might simply be that I need to get these things out of my system to keep growing as a person. Another reason might be that I feel the need to make sense of me. Who I am, where I come from, why am I here. The usual self-indulgent existential crap.
Now, a few days before I turned 30 years old, this essay, entitled “I am not a story”, by British philosopher Galen Strawson appeared on various social media, and persisted to remind me of its existence until today, when I finally took the time to read it. It couldn’t be better timing, because that essay is explores, or rather, dismisses the idea promoted by thinkers he bundles up together as “narrativists” that ‘each of us constructs and lives a “narrative”, and that ‘this narrative is us’ (Oliver Sachs). Instead, he says, we experience life in non-linear, fragmented ways. Life is a collection of moments that don’t make sequential sense, and assuming otherwise is dangerous, because it is “a recipe for inauthenticity”. To paraphrase, storifying yourself is a lie. I guess it’s true. And you just have to look at social media to realise that. When you make a story, all the things you leave out are almost as important as what you put in. Not just all the things you leave out, but also all the things you glorify. All the things you find pretty words or images for.
But what this argument dismisses is that some lives are so fucked up that they need story. They need narrative. They need meaning. I agree that you are not your story. You cannot be reduced to a story. But you can use story to find sense.
Over the last few months, I have worked on a participatory storytelling project with people who have experienced homelessness, abuse, addiction, prison… In short, people who have had really tough lives. Who have survived so much that I found it hard to believe they were standing in front of me. Not only standing in front of me, but also smiling, being human, being kind, and generously sharing the insight they have on their past.
Of course not all the stories made narrative, sequential sense. In some cases, a decade would go unmentioned, as if it generated no meaningful facts or events to cling onto. But that’s not the point. Memory is not the point. Fact is not the point. The point is that sometimes, finding your narrative is part of healing.
After having spent days meeting and listening to 12 people who have experienced, or are experiencing these issues, we held an event, where we shared their stories with other people who have gone through similar experiences, as well as people who deliver and commission homelessness, probation, addiction or mental health services. After the event, we interviewed Tex, one of the participants who had shared his own story with us. He said:
“I’ve come to realise that the majority of us had the same experiences in childhood that have led us on the path we are today.”
Often, going back to this childhood trauma, and understanding why or how that trauma sent you down a certain path was the first step to recovering, to start “living your truth”. Telling your life story is incredibly hard, and it’s imperfect. But it’s also bloody helpful.
“I don’t mind sharing my truth with whoever. Because I’ve realised that without confronting my truth… life seems worthless to me… I don’t think I’m on the planet to lie… I’m sticking by my truth. The large majority of my life has been based on lies, having to pretend to suit certain environments, to please certain people. No more. I shall be myself.”
“Imagine that, in the space of a year, you become unrecognizable to those around you and to yourself. You look in the mirror, but the person staring back at you is a stranger. You endure the stares of pity from those who knew you before your illness, fully aware that they believe you have ‘let yourself go’ or otherwise allowed this to happen to your body. Strangers and new friends only know you this way, and think you’re a fat, minging, moaning, disabled hag with a beard and scraggy hair and always have been this way.”
As part of a piece of research about people’s expectations for the future of healthcare in the UK, I recently visited a woman called Abbie* in her home, in the North of England. Abbie has four children, a great sense of humour, and a loving husband. She also has a rare and little-known illness called Cushing’s syndrome. Abbie’s illness is associated with high rates of mortality, and has, over the last few years, caused a drastic change in her physical appearance and her mobility.
The quote above is an extract from a little booklet Abbie has put together for friends and family. In it, she explains her condition and her symptoms, with a great dose of wit and honesty. She also writes about the emotional impact the illness has had on her. She writes about having to adapt to her new body. She writes about seeing a change in how other people perceive her. She writes about being acutely aware of her own mortality, while trying as hard as she can to carry on as normal. Mostly, she expresses a need to not be judged.
After years of battling through misdiagnosis, painful medical exams, and conflictual relationships with doctors, Abbie has decided she needed to tell and share her story, in her own words. The reason why I find Abbie’s booklet touching is that she doesn’t talk about what is right or wrong with the NHS, or about how the rareness of her condition sets her apart from others. She talks about life, death, and love. She talks about what makes us human, and what is common to all of us. She gives people around her a tool to connect with her deepest self, beyond the external manifestations of her illness, and provides guidance to those who are not sure how to support her.
To me, Abbie’s booklet is an example of the power of storytelling.
Indeed, if you are vaguely human, the likelihood is that, reading that paragraph, you felt a connection, you searched for times where you have felt this way, or tried to project what it would be like to feel this way. You might have had a faint sense that the situation was unfair and things needed to change. Or, if you are of the inquisitive kind, you’ve wanted to know more and understand the context. Either way, you’ve accepted Abbie’s invitation to step away from your current reality and “imagine that…”
“Imagining that…” is exactly what we support public sector leaders to do, whether we are designing new kinds of hospitals to respond to the population’s changing needs; reinventing mental health services so that they focus less on the illness and more on the wellness; or transforming the way schools engage with students and their communities. Of course, we go beyond the “imagine that…” stage, and help make those visions happen in real life as well.But innovation often starts with a shift in mindset. And storytelling is a wonderful tool to help us do that, for the following reasons, which Abbie’s booklet illustrates so well:
Stories make people care – they can be used to generate empathy or mobilise people;
Stories break down barriers – they can flatten hierarchies, and bring people together;
Stories help people comprehend – they can illustrate complex issues, and provide structure and meaning to an otherwise chaotic reality;
Stories help people suspend disbelief – they can prompt new ways of seeing, encourage creative thinking, and blow away pessimism;
Stories are empowering – they can help make those who tell them feel ownership over the need to make change happen.