In his inauguration speech Nelson Mandela quoted from Marianne Williamson’s ‘A Return to Love’:
‘Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world.’
The point Mandela was making is that there is actually nothing stopping each and every one of us making our mark as he did on the world. But the fear of letting our innate light shine brightly holds us back. Society has made up all kinds of rules and expectations about how we behave. Some useful and others less so but we absorb them from such a young age and so deeply that we are often not even aware of them. Abiding by them seems as obvious as understanding the implications of gravity.
As a girl brought up in a very traditional community in the 50s and 60s I heard from every side that I must be good and to fit in with the expectations of that era and that place. I was in any case very shy, terrified of rejection and longing to belong. I made sure that what I said and did would not attract any unwanted attention. I got good at playing the game of saying just enough but not too much, and of not looking too clever or opinionated. And crucially, I did not even see the game I was playing. I thought it was the real me.
The analogy of peeling layers off an onion is often used to describe the voyage of self discovery. I didn’t see that the fear of the real me being visible still had me playing small until several other layers had gone. I had to let go of the conviction I was broken, grasp that I had clarity of mind available at any moment and appreciate that I did know how to connect with people after all. I’d fooled myself and others by building a nice tough shell of ‘professional competence’ I could tuck myself away into. Hardly anyone saw me without it – I hardly saw myself without it. And I had been well on the way to building the shell of being a professional competent coach and trainer too.
But on a coach training course last year with Jack Pransky, having peeled off the other layers, I suddenly saw what I had inadvertently been up to. We were learning that being a good coach is about being yourself without a shell. People shine when they step out of the shells of their old ways of seeing the world. Our role as coaches is to tempt people out and into the light. We’re not going to succeed at that if we are still tucked inside our own. Influencing people means connecting with them deeply and just as knights had to take their armour off to woo their fair maidens, we can only do that when we let our shell fall away.
In the course of deepening my understanding about how we are only ever experiencing or thinking in the moment, I had already realised that much of the time we don’t even know what that thinking is. The insight I had was that I had been fearing of what might happen if I put my had over the parapet, but now saw that the cannon balls I might face were pure figments of my imagination. And I also now see that what I had sometimes said to fellow campaigners: ‘If we are not attracting criticism we are being too wishy washy,’ was true for me too. The phrase: ‘There’s no failure, only feedback,’ resonated more deeply with me. I saw my fear of visibility for what it was: a very old, encrusted story, and I was immediately rather bored with it.
By definition the most successful campaigners and activists have been visible. Yes, of course they are supported by others beavering away behind the scenes, but in whatever role we act, we want to be full out and fearless, not minding the attention or criticism it may attract. And knowing what I now do about our actions, we are doing what we can in the moment to feel better about the feelings we are experiencing. Of course, I listen to criticism and evaluate clearly whether there is useful feedback or something to learn, but it’s not about me.
Being more visible is still sometimes a bit scary, but it is exciting too, and so useful to remember the rest of Marianne Williamson’s quote:
“As we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”