We are a lot like lobsters. Lobsters have a hard exoskeleton, which they must shed several times in order to grow into a mature lobster. Because of the hard shell, the only way for the lobster to grow up is to shed its exoskeleton each time it outgrows it. Between the time it sheds its old exoskeleton and the time the new one grows into a hard shell, the lobster is extremely vulnerable to being eaten by predators.
As humans, we need to shed our old behaviors and old ways of thinking in order to grow. Although we may not be in physical danger when we let down our old defensive ways of being, it usually feels very frightening and dangerous.
The reality is that the more we allow ourselves to fully experience all our fears, anger, shame, frustration, anxiety, sadness, and other uncomfortable emotions, the more comfortable we become with ourselves and the more open and vulnerable we become. The more open and vulnerable we become, the more resilient and strong we become. The more resilient and strong we become, the more we can make ourselves even more open and vulnerable. With that comes a newfound self-acceptance, self-compassion, and self-valuing.
A sizable proportion of us grew up in very disfunctional families where we were victims of some type of abuse. Personally, I was the victim of relentless emotional abuse by my mother. As a child, the only defense I had was to wall myself off from my feelings. It was too emotionally painful to feel my feelings. I did what I had to do to survive; I suppressed all my feelings, but it didn’t work—I was an extremely unhappy kid. That extreme emotional suppression probably contributed to the development of my various lifelong chronic medical conditions. As a young adult, that emotional suppression prevented me from developing any type of intimate relationships. True intimacy with others is impossible if we are afraid to be intimate with our own feelings.
I have spent my entire adult life trying to shed my old shell, which stopped serving its purpose by late adolescence. Very gradually, as I began to take more and more risks, allowing myself to own my feelings and allowing myself to be seen feeling my feelings, I began to experience a brand new aliveness. For example, in situations where I used to get defensive, I am now able to allow myself to feel hurt or to feel whatever the previously suppressed emotion is in that moment. The result is a new feeling that I am perfectly OK, just the way I am. Logically, I knew that was true decades ago, but back then, it was just a construct; I didn’t really feel it the way I do now.
Shedding our obsolete shells and making ourselves open and vulnerable is a lifelong process, which requires a commitment to the development of self-forgiveness and self-compassion. Because this process is long and tedious, it is extremely important to surround ourselves with people who love and accept us, despite our flaws.
The two courses I co-teach at College of Marin in Kentfield, California have been helping others to grow in this way. The courses are: Loving Self Care Through Mindful Biology and Become Who You Really Are.