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Leadership, Life

It’s a Long and Winding Road (Good Enough Series Blog 2)

October 27, 2019, Author: Chris Breen

Just over a year ago I wrote a blog called ‘I am good enough’ in honour of a group of women leaders I had been teaching on a leadership course. In that blog I shared some some of my personal story and my history of not feeling good enough. I interlaced my narrative with some of the ideas and material I have brought to my personal leadership classes. Many people reported that the blog resonated deeply with them…

A series of recent events has drawn me back to the topic of being ‘good enough’ in a powerful and disturbing way. I realised that there are two main reasons why I need to return to the topic and take it even more seriously. I suspect that this revisiting is going to end up as a trilogy of ‘good enough’ blogs!

I think the topic is crucial as I have come to believe that this feeling of not being good enough undermines almost every step we try to take in the world. A seemingly successful man tells me how he can see that he sets himself up for failure by always striving to be the best at everything he does while at the same time taking on more and more challenges. Even when he gets a success he immediately raises the bar for his achievement level. As he talks it is as though I am listening to a younger version of myself speaking! In my leadership classes I often ask participants to take a step forward and say aloud ‘I am Good Enough!’. There is always a palpable hesitation and reluctance in the room. I wonder what the honest response is? Is there anyone out there who can say with 100% certainty that they are good enough? The man who I spoke about earlier in this paragraph admits he probably only feels 50% good enough. The women’s group that started this whole line of thought and writing would also relate to all this. We have a problem!

My second reason lies in the inevitable light cut I have taken across my life history with this theme of ‘good enough’ which does not lay bare the pervasive and lasting nature of its wounding presence.

My previous blog touched on my early successes in mathematics and international athletics. It located my drive to ‘be perfect’ (and hence always ‘not good enough’) from my relationship with my mother who totally dominated my gentle father. Having mentioned this fairly briefly I quickly moved on to discussing ways I had tackled the challenge.

Not so fast!

Last week I was invited to return to the scene of my first athletic success when a neighbour set up a meeting with my arch hurdling opposition from the neighbouring school. We had not seen each other for over 50 years. I decided to honour this seemingly random event and took out my old athletic photos and looked through them. I had a particular goal in mind in trying to locate a particular fantastic photograph that captured the magic of our neck-and-neck races. I could not find that photo, but, in my searching, I was given two great gifts. The first was a large workshop scrapbook which will appear again later in this blog. The other was the opportunity to reflect on another hidden part of the story.

I suffered badly from asthma at primary school to the extent that my annual treat was to be allowed to compete at the annual school sports and then spend two weeks in bed. My parents probably overprotected me (can I blame them?) so I had few friends and did not often play outside. The result was that I was teased for being extremely thin (where are your calves – have they gone out grazing? Show us your London tan! etc.) An all boys school can be terribly cruel. I suspect my later choice of the incredibly physically demanding 400 metres hurdles was in part to get them back and challenge them to do better. However, even when the asthma disappeared at high school and I became an international athlete, I was extremely embarrassed about my physique and seldom took my shirt off – especially not when on the beach!

Academically I was indeed good at mathematics and did come top in the country in the matriculation Advanced Mathematics paper but I was not successful when I applied for a Rhodes Scholarship.  So many not good enough’s had already been accumulated by the time I left school and university.

I married at 24 and had 2 children by the time I was 32. I still drove myself to achieve the targets of excellence I set for myself in all aspects of my life but particularly in my work – initially as a maths and science teacher and later as a university academic in mathematics education. The joy of each achievement only lasted a short while before I upped the stakes and sought new horizons of success. As a school teacher I started the first government school computer club as well separate classes for the gifted which I called ‘The Boredom Club’. This overstretching of my energy resources played itself out at home where, even though I would come home exhausted from the day’s striving, I would set myself the target of being a perfect husband and father with a list of chores that had to be completed each day.

I operated totally from the mind in a problem-solving paradigm. I could not ask for help as it felt this would obviously expose my ‘not good enoughness’I could not make myself vulnerable in love so kept myself at a safe emotional distance from everyone – especially my wife. When I became aware that I was clearly not succeeding in this attempted home perfection, I learnt to become an expert at ducking and diving and making jokes while attempting to avoid being found out (as a failure) or keep the peace and avoid conflict. I can remember those moments of panic when I knew I had forgotten to do something and desperately caste around for a reasonable excuse or someone else to blame (how useful to have young children around to blame…).

When there was no escape and I found myself trapped in a corner with no possibility of disappearing or escaping and the evidence of my most recent failure staring everyone in the face, I took the only means of escape I knew at the time. I launched into an angry tirade of hostility and verbal abuse. In responding in this way, I added shame as an extra layer to my sense of failure.

When it became clear that my marriage was in serious straits, I started seeing a therapist. Early in this journey, I reported a dream of staying up all night trying to keep a small flame in my palms alight. It was a terrifying and exhausting dream as I felt that this flame represented my soul and that it was in danger of being extinguished. I knew with certainty that its protection was the most important challenge of my life.

I remember a therapy session at that time where I was asked to identify strong male figures in my life that might act as a model and inspiration for my journey. I remember not being able to think of anyone. I was tentatively thinking of choosing a friend to meet the task but grasped the suggestion that I could take some time to think during the intervening week.

A day later I was sorting through some old pictures and I came across an image of me going over a hurdle and I laughed. I could see in my face all the power of a strong, grounded adult male figure. There was no need for me to look outside for masculine inspiration was already alive and well and neglected – inside me!

This part of the journey happened in my early 40’s and I was strongly drawn to the work of Robert Bly, James Hillman, Michael Meade and Malidoma Some in their work with men. I started listening to their workshops on tapes as well as reading poetry -inspired by their collection The Rag and Bone Shop of the Heart. I was even able to attend a course run by James Hillman at Schumacher College.

This deep inner work occurred in time to save my soul but sadly not my marriage of 18 years – yet another failure as I had sworn to myself when my parents got divorced that that would never happen to me!

Fast forward to my 60th year. At one level all looks great. I am reaping the rewards of that deep work in my 40’s. I have happily remarried. I seem to be a successful academic who is ending his three year term of office as President of the largest international research community in mathematics education.

This academic part looks a safe haven of certain good enoughness but it isn’t! Over the 26 years at UCT I have won the Distinguished Teacher Award which showed everyone I could teach, but I have to struggle to feel good enough as an academic where the only thing that really matters is one’s research output. I do not easily fit in as I am following my own path. I have consciously chosen not to do a PhD. I write my journal articles in the first person and not in the expected third person. I am interested in expanding the possibilities of classroom teaching so I research my own practice using a grounded theory approach. When I put my whole heart and soul into my first article for an international journal I tentatively asked a colleague for comments. His dismissive reply was that he could not comment because it did not fit into any existing theoretical paradigm. I regularly found myself getting the lowest research budget in the department because, although I published copiously and I was President of the largest international research community in the field, it wasn’t in ‘proper journals ‘.

My general ‘good enough’ work that I thought was so successful (and finished!) back in my 40’s has only just scratched the surface. I have become much better at holding back and stopping that volatile part of me from exploding. However, inwardly I still panic when things are not going smoothly. I still berate myself when I make mistakes like setting off the alarm or losing my keys. I still find it hard to stand my ground and set boundaries. I carry a lot of frustration and dis-ease.

Then life struck again!

Somehow I let myself get talked into signing on for a series of Moving Art workshops. Let me get this straight. I am not an Arts and Crafts man. In my 40’s I could not dance. Now at 60 I have rehabilitated myself a bit thanks to my wife but she is the expert and in lessons it is clear I am the one who is ‘not good enough’!  I discover at the first Moving Art session that I will be one of only two men in a group of 24 participants. We will meet weekly for 2 months and dance and do artwork while talking and explore our inner stressful selves. I clearly remember the discomfort, horror and panic of the first session clearly. I think I spent the whole session trying to think of valid reasons to withdraw…

The large workshop scrapbook that I discovered when looking for that athletics photo comes from this Moving Art  course. I can see that one of our first tasks was to paste a collage on the above cover. The result is a very positive collection of pictures from my athletic days juxtaposed with greens and blues of nature. I am clearly not ready to share my reality with this group and make myself vulnerable. The title page of the scrapbook shows that a rather self-satisfied outer persona being presented to the group.

The next page shows this outer portrayal of confidence continuing. I have posted yet another picture of me in action hurdling pasted opposite Rainer Maria Rilke’s poem that ends with the words ‘winning does not tempt that man. This is how he grows: by being defeated, decisively, by constantly greater beings’ (ironically I am of course winning in that athletics photo!)

After two pages of detour pictures of a gorilla and a bee, come two very poignant pages.

The first stays true to my bold self-congratulatory aim of celebrating the ‘lush and fluid garden of my life’ and itemises all my successes and joys.

The facing page dives in deep and is headed ‘Pain and shadow side’. As I read this now, I am surprised to discover and remember that, for my successful adult 60 year old self, the very first item listed is ‘never being/feeling good enough’. I had somehow managed to block out how much this feeling was still with me 20 years after believing I had completed my ‘good enough’ work in my 40’s!

The culmination of the workshop was the design and development of a personal dance. I turn the page and see that all thoughts of celebration are gone and the starting focus for my dance is ‘not good enough’. I see that my design preparation calls on my athletic days to find a way to rise up and stand my ground. I have also somehow co-opted the energies of the gorilla (nobility) and the buffalo (strong resource for standing one’s ground and saying no) as support for inspiration to tackle the theme.

My intention for the outcome of the dance is clearly stated.

We have to practice the dance in front of each other and our teacher and allow it to grow and develop and change. This is really hard. The women take no prisoners in going straight to the vulnerable places and asking questions. It is entirely appropriate but is very new to me and there is nowhere to hide – especially as movement seems to expose everything that my mind could so successfully hide. Each time I have to show my evolving dance is an ordeal and I am counting the days until the programme is over. We get to choose our own music and bring this in to support our movements..

Then our teacher drops the bombshell. We will not be doing our final dances in front of each other! She has organised for us to give two shows on consecutive nights where we will dance in front of friends and interested strangers. Wonderful panic strikes again, but I am determined (aren’t I?).

We have to describe our dance in a programme. I write the following. My dance tells of one man’s battle to cope with long-internalised messages of not being ‘good enough’ or ‘it’s all your fault’. After yet another panic attack, as the terrified dancer I emerge from the exhaustion of an out-of-control angry outburst to draw energy from an earlier hurdling lifetime. I reconnect with then yin and yang of the different parts of my being and quietly enter the powerful and grounded energy of the buffalo.

The first evening comes and somehow I get up and perform my dance in front of everyone!

My nerves are initially out of control and it is a huge challenge to show up and take the first step. However, standing my ground at the end of dance and receiving the applause is an amazing moment. I feel a huge inner shift that comes from having faced this fear and shared my vulnerability with so many people. In that moment, I really do feel ‘good enough’!

That first evening ends with a new gift (and challenge) from the gods. One of my fellow-dancers has included a tango-inspired piece in her dance. On that first night her partner had been a tango teacher. At the end of the show, she came to me very worried and said the tango teacher had just told her that he was not going to be there the next evening. She was without a partner. To my horror she asked me to take his place. I gulped and drew on the new me (on an adrenaline high after that evening’s dance?) and said yes and we agreed to arrive early the next afternoon before the show to practice so I could learn my steps and cues.

When we arrived there was a wonderful moment when our teacher saw us and asked what we were doing. When she heard that the tango teacher was not going to be there for the performance she looked at me and then turned to my friend and suggested that she should rather use another dancing friend who was going to be watching that night. My friend was wonderful and totally killed that ‘not good enough’ moment. ‘No, I want to dance with Chris. We will be fine.’

And we were!

Reading the scrapbook and watching the videos take me back to the depth of that Moving Art work and the courage I had to find to take my place with these dancers and be seen in full vulnerability. I can also relive the strength I felt for having faced this fear. (And as I write this I notice the internal whispers about my mistakes and faults ad how my dances could have been better…)

This strength played itself out when that same year I handed in my resignation and took early retirement from the university. I realised that I was tired of doubting my value as an academic and giving too much airtime and credibility in my thoughts to those colleagues who dismissed my academic credentials. I had started teaching the topic of Personal Leadership at the Business School in my spare time and believed I could earn enough to get by as a free lance teacher.

The Moving Art dance experience emboldened me and I wanted to lay this academic excellence issue to rest once and for all before I left. I applied for and received a prestigious National Research Foundation as a recognised researcher. My rating as a research academic was as high or higher than anyone else in the department! I also wanted to leave the university with my head held high and not seemingly with my tail between my legs so, instead of settling for the usual awkward staffroom farewell, I threw a big farewell party attended by past students as well as colleagues with food and Zimbabwean music and with the walls of the quad where the party was held adorned with pictures and papers and news articles from my 26 years at UCT.

(and I work really hard at not giving energy to the tiny internal whisper that says I am leaving as only an Associate Professor and not as a full Professor and that early retirement is basically just giving up and quitting because the going is too tough for me…)

In ending this particular blog, I am drawn to the words of Confucius who said ‘Never give a sword to a man who can’t dance’. The journey I have described in this piece of writing starting with the discovery of a picture of myself in action in the hurdles as a beautiful image and model for strong masculine energy in my life. It took an unexpected turn towards dance as a means of emancipation. I want to follow up on this theme of dancing and masculine energy in my next blog on this ‘good enough’ topic.

In the mean time I want to make sure that this serious quest does not become a burden in my life. I want to heed the words of Alan Watts when he says that the whole point of life is to sing and dance while the music is being played!