Trying to Understand Yourself? Read This Book!

By Holly

“It’s her four-ness,” I say to my husband as we analyze our youngest daughter’s latest emotional outburst. As the angry man in the aisle seat raises his voice while criticizing the flight attendant to her face, I think about an eight’s comfort with conflict (and wish I could rescue the poor woman from his wrath…). When I find myself intellectualizing my emotions once again, I consider my five tendencies.

After studying the Enneagram this summer, number typing is giving me new glasses to wear. A personality framework that some scholars believe originated as early as the 4th century, the Enneagram consists of nine types represented diagrammatically by interconnected points on a circle. I have a thing for ancient wisdom made new, which is exactly what happened when modern psychologists and theologians added their insights to the nine-pointed diagram in recent years, so the Enneagram, unlike other personality tests, has held my attention for entire season.

My usual pattern is to take a personality assessment, research the framework, think about my results for a week and then move on with my life, feeling enlightened but unchanged. But the Enneagram’s complexity and fluidity has helped me understand myself more deeply and feel more compassion toward others, even the angry passenger in 17C.

When I start speaking in numbers, my ten year-old daughter rolls her eyes and moans, “Mom, you’re obsessed!” I share my excitement with a book-loving friend and she says she tried the Enneagram and it was too gray and complicated. At the same time, other friends and family members find it as fascinating and relatable as I do and we have enjoyed lively, Aha! moment conversations filled with numbers throughout these sunny months. And so it is with personality tests: there is no One Size Fits All.

Enter Reading People, Anne Bogel’s new book. In the middle of my nine-pointed summer, I learned about this new book and thought it was as serendipitous as me and Type Five. Anne (perhaps better known as Modern Mrs. Darcy), a lover of books and personality tests (and an Enneagram Type Nine, in case you are wondering), covers various personality frameworks including the Enneagram, Myers-Briggs, Strengthsfinder and more in Reading People. She writes:

“I’ve come to think understanding personality is like holding a good map. That map can’t take you anywhere. It doesn’t change your location; you’re still right where you were before. But the map’s purpose isn’t to move you; it’s to show you the lay of the land. It’s the tool that make it possible for you to get where you want to go.”

Anne recognized the problem of TMI when it comes to personality testing, causing Who-Am-I confusion, paralysis and overwhelm, and she set out to make understanding ourselves more accessible and less intimidating. Alongside her thought-provoking explorations of her favorite tests and theories are vulnerable stories about how she has applied typing to her life. From her journey to unbelief in the old parent-child roll of the dice called “goodness of fit” to her reluctant acceptance that she is more a purveyor of possibilities than layer of plans, we experience the how of personality testing, not just the what in Reading People.

Now I am back to my Enneagram “obsession,” and reading people in numbers. I am also recommending Reading People to anyone interested in learning more about themselves, because while the Enneagram isn’t for everyone, but understanding yourself is.

*You can preorder your copy of Reading People by Anne Bogel before September 19 on Amazon or Indiebound (which is super cool!) and get some pretty cool bonuses! Details here.

Learning to Be Human

By Holly

LaughingRaven / Pixabay

I thought we were going to be the next big thing. Our yin and yang combo of poetry and prose would be the refreshing new blog that changed the world. Surely, we – my dreadlocked poet friend and I – would have thousands of followers and write best-selling books. (The Today Show may or may not have been mentioned.)

And:

Who was I to start a blog?  My formal education was the opposite of literature. Journal writing was my training. Who was I to click “Publish” in this world full of experts and gurus who have already said everything important? What business did I have calling myself a writer? Why would anyone be interested in my small words?

I was both Superwoman and subhuman in my approach to becoming a writer. A moment drenched in energetic self-belief was sure to fade into an episode of self-doubt fierce enough to paralyze. It was a vicious volley of more than, less than, more than, less than.

It is only now, three years later, that powerful adjectives like vicious and subhuman seem accurate descriptors of what went on in my head. At the time, each thought seemed, simply, true. In the brief spans when humility and bravery collided to free me to do the work of writing, I thought my fingers were typing out words despite my polarized self-beliefs. I thought more than served as motivation and less than was something to overcome.

This no longer feels true.

More than/less than is a pattern I can trace across my four decades of being. It shows up most clearly in times of transition or uncertainty. Entries into new things – social circles, college, leadership positions, jobs – swing from grandiose plans to hefty doses of self-doubt. Less than takes up more space in my head and thanks to Brene Brown’s well-known work, I have come to know it as shame – the feeling that we are inherently flawed or unworthy.

But what about the more than feelings? If I had to name them, I would call them the ugly fruit of pride. Until recently.

From TED talks and books, I learned that shame was about inferiority and a lack of worthiness. Friends, wise counselors and the media taught me that I was not alone in wondering if I was enough. So, when I first came across these words penned by shame expert John Bradshaw, I was skeptical:

Toxic shame, with its more-than-human, less-than-human polarization, is either inhuman or dehumanizing. The demand for a false self to cover and hide the authentic self necessitates a life dominated by doing and achievement. Everything depends on performance and achievement rather than on being. 

More than and less than human? And more than as shame?  I wasn’t so sure.

Looking back at my writing journey from this point in time, I feel sure of this: Authentic words come in the space between grandiosity and self-doubt, not despite them, like I once believed. For me, writing is not an act of overcoming unhelpful beliefs about myself. I do not spend time convincing myself that I will never be on air with Matt Lauer, nor do I positive self-talk myself into believing my typed words will matter. Where I thrive is in a space of surrender, not battle, and I find that space somewhere between more than and less than. I enter it open, curious, unsure about outcomes and with utter reliance on a power greater than myself. This truth leads me closer to a belief in Bradshaw’s words about shame: if being human is finding, embracing and living as our authentic selves, then anything that prevents us from doing this is not human.

Another certainty: I needed to believe I could do Big Things, that I could change the world with my words, because this was my path to worthiness. Such success would be proof that my humanness was not as flawed as I feared it could be. Ambitious goals can look a lot like dreams – even to ourselves – but a plan born from our own self-worth questions is more than thinking that distracts us from the work we are meant to do.

Shame wears many masks.

These days, I try out my growing belief in Bradshaw’s words with a prayer. It sounds something like this, “God, help me find the space between. Help me stay human.” I pray it in on my way to an uncomfortable social situation, before I speak in a work meeting, as I sit down to write a blog post. God, keep me human. With this prayer, I become more aware of my mind’s tendency toward extremes, I see my shame disguised as pride or dreams. I listen more, and better. With this prayer, I relax into the surrender that is being human.

Why It’s So Hard to Be Where We Are

By Holly

While traveling, I dream of home; at home, I imagine places I would rather be.

Anyone else have this problem?

Being where we are can be our greatest struggle. 

Over the past 3 weeks, I have spent over 40 hours in the air, slept in 4 time zones and wandered through 5 states. I traveled for business, vacation and a memorial service; I went places both alone and with my family. While working in San Antonio, I missed driving my daughters from my house to school. On vacation in Hawaii, I was homesick for my morning cup of tea, home-brewed in my ceramic hand-warmer mug. And somewhere around day 10 of restaurant eating, all I wanted was to cook a simple, healthy meal in my own kitchen. How can it be, that as we live out the extraordinary lives we long for, we crave what is quite ordinary?

When I arrived home in Seattle, a local journalist reported that we have experienced exactly 3 sunny days in the past 5 months. I scroll the forecast on my phone: all I see is rain. I dream of living in a sunny place. We watch the movie Moana; I am filled with a desire to return to Hawaii. When I return to my ordinary things, why isn’t it enough?

I can point my finger at virtues like contentment, gratitude, positivity or presence, and conclude that if I could just be better at one or more of these I would be better at being where I am. It is an answer that holds truth and can be helpful. But it is also incomplete.

We struggle to fully inhabit our earthly experiences because the human heart was created for more. We were made for longing.

In a discussion about why we love fairy tales and legends, Timothy Keller argues:

“…deep in the human heart there are these desires – to experience the supernatural, to escape death, to know love that we can never lose, to not age but live long enough to realize our creative dreams, to fly, to communicate with nonhuman beings, to triumph over evil.”

Deep in our hearts lies an ache for more than what we are living now.

When I miss my cup of tea or what the Hawaiian sun feels like on my face, it is a call to pay attention, not to scold myself for my lack of presence or failure to be content. There is something deeper going on in me. Something that was meant to be. Keller captures it well:

“Our hearts sense that even though the stories themselves aren’t true, the underlying realities behind the stories are somehow true or ought to be.”

What we strive for in presence is freedom from distraction, not desire. It is both what we miss while we are away and what we long for while we are home that make us who we are. Because what we long for represents what we know ought to be true. In other words: eternity.

We cannot be 100% where we are because of who we are: humans with hearts created for eternity.

What Happens When We Actually Listen?

By Holly

sbroady / Pixabay

When others repeatedly tell you that you are good at something throughout your life, strange things can happen. Of course, the door to the ego opens wide and it can go to your head.  More likely, the praise ends up buried in a mental compartment labeled something like “already good at – just like everyone else – so I don’t need to work on it.

We normalize our strengths and work on our weaknesses while the reverse would be much more helpful. This is what I did with listening.  Friends, family, teachers and coworkers told me I was good at it; therefore, becoming a better listener never made my list of self-improvement goals.

It was an unlikely event that changed this – dinner with friends at one of my favorite Asian restaurants on a rainy Saturday night. It was the kind of evening that you look forward to for weeks because you will be with some of your favorite people sharing wonderful food and adult conversation while the kids stay home.

As we slid into the ornately carved wood booth, my mood shifted to unusually light and happy. My typical reserved nature was overshadowed by an impatient desire to be the one talking. There were things I wanted to say, and, with conversation flowing steadily among four couples, it was hard to get a word in. Laughter, stories and a scrumptious family-style meal filled the table, time passed quickly, and goodbye hugs were exchanged with satisfied, mutual fullness.

On the way home, a familiar restlessness swept through my mind. I replayed the evening, wondering why I had been so focused on what I wanted to say. I recalled a specific moment – holding my drink in the air as shapeless words floated around it – when I appeared to be listening to a story but I was really listening for a space to tell one of my own.

And that was when it hit me:  We can listen for or listen to. I am pretty good at listening for things, and not just for my turn to talk. In a single day, I catch myself listening for what I expect my daughter to say when I ask her why her clothes carpet her bedroom floor, confirmation of the stories I make up about myself, criticism from a colleague, bickering sisters, grumpy cashiers and judgmental moms.

In The Listening Life, author Adam McHugh puts it this way: “In listening for, we are listening like a prosecuting attorney, trying to uncover a hidden motivation, catch the person in a contradiction or find something to confirm our suspicions. We are setting the trap, posed to say “aha!” at any second.”

It’s not hard to find what we listen for.  But what will we find if we listen to?

A couple of years have passed since that lovely dinner that changed my relationship with listening. Through trying and failing and trying again, I am paying attention to how I listen and learning what happens when I listen to:

Someone I find hard to love says something hard to hear. In my head, I roll my eyes, I criticize. Something stills me just enough to listen more, to listen to. Buried beneath his rough words hides a precious dream. My judging heart turns soft.

Listen to, it connects who you are to who you want to be.

     A group of friends is set to gather at my house.  A few people cancel.  I wonder why they’re not showing up; stories of being not-good-enough speed through my mind.  I pick up my phone again to glance at a text and read the words on the screen , instead of the ones inside my head.

 Listen to what IS, instead of for what may or may not be. 

     I show up at the gym with a goal in mind: calories to burn. I am determined. Halfway through the elliptical, the right side of my body screams, “stop.” With one foot on the machine, I pause. My number of calories seems more important than my pain, so I go on. Two days of fatigue and irritability follow.

Listen to your body.  It has something to say.

     I hear birds sing a winter morning into light. Later, a fog horn calls to life beyond land. Still later, the hum of my empty home’s furnace preparing for my family’s return.

Listen to your places, they speak the language of your heart.

     I interrupt my husband – again. I wonder what he was going to say as my mouth keeps moving. I’ve run over his words with some of my own; a faint, familiar emptiness sets in: a moment lost.

Listen, for fullness.

     Something triggers pain from the past. Suddenly, today is yesterday. I am who I used to be.  But, when I listen to what is happening now – words spoken from loved ones who are trying and changing, fresh silences born out of healing, sounds of this year’s rains tapping taller, stronger lodgepole pines – it brings me back into presence.

Listen to now.

What will you listen to?

At Christmas, We Fight

By Holly

Pezibear / Pixabay

On the shores of the Puget Sound, in a quaint coffee shop called The Jewel Box, I spend December Mondays reading Timothy Keller’s Hidden Christmas with friends.  We wrestle new insights about the birth of Jesus.  We admit our reluctance to accept the darkness in all of humankind.  Most importantly, we carve a humble slice of time to shift from holiday mode to Christmas meaning.

I feel the collective fight of the holiday season.  We fight to hold space that honors the how and why of Christmas, to occupy that sacred space with friends and family, with silence and time.

On unusually wintry Pacific Northwest nights, I slide into cold sheets and feel my heart make an uncharacteristic turn toward repentance.  Pride, control and judgment surface.  In the darkness, I see myself more clearly.  I fade as the flame-lit furnace kicks on, singing me to sleep.  

We fight for hearts that are more divine than human.

The fragility of things that once seemed stable – finances, careers, health – is brought to light as a light snow falls, vanishes.  As I feel my way through uncertainty, I understand why God told the Israelites to remember.  I remember things that seemed impossible years ago – dreams, longings, needs – and the ways God turned them into miracles I live with now.

 We fight to be people who see the future in miracles.

And none of this comes naturally.

There are things we fight against, too.

Another trip to the mall, stockings waiting to be filled, bank accounts taking their annual dip…  and anxiety rises deep within me.  I pray for freedom from the urge to numb my overwhelm with control.

We fight against self-reliance.

As one more pocket on the advent calendar is emptied, I taste the confusing mix of familiar feelings that arrive at the end of a year.  I want to rush ahead and meet the “new” of a New Year.  At the same time, I am weighed down with fear.  Another 365 days are gone.  Did I spend them well?  Was I enough?

We fight against the vortex of the past and the pull of the future.

We fight for things that are not natural and against those that are.

And in the battle, this battle for good, I can easily miss this:  it’s not about what I am fighting for or against.  It’s about the fight itself.  That we are all in it.  And that every single one of us, no matter how hard we try each day, how much faith we embody or how much good we do, needs to be rescued from the fight.

And, this, this is the meaning, the necessity, of Christmas:  Rescue already came.  Because God knew we all need it.

I imagine that newborn baby boy in the manger.  I see a fighter.