I recently showed up at a gala event wearing a full-length bright green gown from sustainable fashion provider Fashion Alta Moda. As I walked into Crown Towers, the Formula One celebrations were in full force and I had barely made it in the door before I found myself on a podium adopting my go to power pose from Amy Cuddy.
This wasn’t my first rodeo in terms of attending gala events and yet I found myself unexpectedly fearful.
Fear that I was going to stand out.
Fear that I was going to be too much.
Fear that I wouldn’t fit in.
Alas, the green dress was not the sort of dress that was meant to blend in and so the reality was that I was going to stand out. I had a choice, I could either run from it or embrace it.
I am not normally fearful of standing out and in fact, often go out of my way to wear bright colours in Melbourne where the go-to colour is black. However, I was attending the gala with Nick Hogendijk MAICD who is a corporate partner and was the only person I knew in that room filled with 700+ people mostly dressed in dark colours.
I wanted to fit in, but that would have meant changing who I was to blend in. The reality was that Hexis Quadrant partnered with me because of the work I do in supporting leaders to be who they are, wherever they are. So I had to walk the talk and lean into discomfort.
The stories we tell ourselves.
The story I was telling myself was an old one from my days in Japan in the automotive industry… I should stay under the radar or I would be opening myself up to judgement.
The key is to be aware of the fact that it is perfectly normal for fear to creep in. When our brains perceive danger, it responds to help us stay safe. This is called our fight/flight/freeze response.
The thing is that our brains can get it wrong, as mine did on this occasion – I wasn’t about to walk into the lion’s den and be eaten alive. This event was not a situation to be fearful of.
Princess Kate had worn the same Solace dress the year before and I knew that in order for me to do the dress justice and show up as me, I was going to need to quieten my inner-critic and pull out my inner-queen. I needed to own it. I needed to show up and allow myself to be seen. In doing so, I would be living bravely.
Strong Back. Soft Front. Wild Heart.
As I walked into the ballroom, I recalled the words of Brené Brown – ‘Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart’ from her book, Braving the Wilderness. This concept of Strong Back, Soft Front was originated by Zen Buddhist Roshi Joan Halifax who described it as follows:
“All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love; instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open, representing choiceless compassion. The place in your body where these two meet—strong back and soft front—is the brave, tender ground in which to root our caring deeply.”
Bottom line is that a strong back means being brave and courageous despite all that is going on around you. When we feel safe and grounded within ourselves, we have true belonging – that is that we belong within ourselves. Having a strong back literally provides a secure base to lean into life with a soft front. A soft front means staying tender and open in the face of whatever discomfort is arising, even fear, anger, and hatred.
Learning to be vulnerable (soft front) means being able to express your true feelings, reveal weakness, acknowledge need, consider the possibility you might be wrong, empathise. Learning how to apologize is counterbalanced by learning to stand up for yourself or others or for things you believe in, even if it means losing your standing in the group (strong back).
Jacinda Ardern is a leader who has shown the way for us in this area. She embraced vulnerability and suffering with a strong back and soft front, but most importantly her wild heart meant she embraced these paradoxes demonstrating true belonging which requires both courage and vulnerability.
The problem is vulnerability.
If you are anything like me, vulnerability was the definition of weakness and so I was taught to avoid it at all costs. Too often, when we are not grounded in who we are at our core, we armour up at our front to protect ourselves and avoid vulnerability. These masks that we wear or armour that we use, keep us small and disconnected from ourselves.
Through my work with Brené Brown, I have redefined my narrative around vulnerability in that it is the essential ingredient to living wholeheartedly and courageous leadership. Brown defines vulnerability as “the ability to navigate uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” and emphasises that “it is the birthplace of love, joy, trust, intimacy, and courage—everything that brings meaning to our life.”
So, how do we embrace this concept of Strong Back, Soft Front, Wild Heart?
We must first redefine the concept of vulnerability so that we can change our auto-response to it. Rather than running from it, we can embrace it. Try this practice as a way to open yourself to vulnerability.
RAIN: A Meditative Practice by Tara Brach to Help Open to Vulnerability
- Recognize what is happening (I am noticing a vulnerable feeling of fear, anger, sadness, unworthiness etc. arising)
- Allow the experience to be there as it is (“This belongs.”)
- Investigate with interest and care (I am noticing myself hooking into my not-good-enough story/I feel my body tightening/contracting…)
- Nurture with self-compassion (“I care and am listening.”) Know that you are not alone.
Brene’s words of Strong Back. Soft Heart. Wild Heart reminded me to stand tall, take a deep breath, remove my go-to armour and show up as my unapologetic authentic self knowing I was enough — just as I was.
Be Curious. Be Courageous. Be You.
Embracing vulnerability rather than running from it was the catalyst to a wonderful evening where I connected with men and women alike at a heart and mind level. We spoke about courageous leadership, vulnerability and shame. We explored what it takes to show up as our authentic selves regardless of the clothes we may be wearing, the titles we may be holding or the challenges we may be facing. Not what I was expecting from an awards ceremony for the AACS (Australian Association of Convenience Stores), but it was what I attracted because of how I showed up.
As for the green dress, Tanya Perilli and Fashion Alta Moda nailed the styling again for this evening. It was a beacon of courage and courage is contagious, which was exactly the dress code for this evening.