It’s been just over 10 years since I stepped onto a TEDx stage. I felt awfully snazzy for being included; even more so in the vintage dress and shiny new shoes I got for the event.
For months now, I’ve been thinking that 10 years would be a nice time to review the video of 10 minutes that truly changed my life – no hyperbole… except that it was the whole 10 minutes that changed my life.
As is true of so many life-changing experiences, the actual pivot point, the true point of change-catalyzation, was only a few seconds long.
Despite the brevity of this big upset, I kept not re-watching the talk.
Oh, I sent it to a couple of clients as a relevant stir to our coaching.
I received a random text from a third client saying she had run across it and appreciated what she saw there.
But pulling it up and letting it run through?
Ten years later and I still notice resistance to that rightward-pointing triangle below the video’s opening frame.
Ten years later and I still feel a little ping in my chest and swirl in my stomach as I hear the opening applause and then my tentative voice start up.
Ten years later and I still feel a swirl of shame as I remember the subtle ways that I got in my own way of being more fully prepared, of having a more polished talk, of making the most of the rare opportunity of a TEDx Talk.
Why all of this discomfort, you may be asking? Well, that question will answer itself at almost exactly the midway point of my 10-minute talk. Let’s do this:
Decade-Distance Ah-Hah #1: My own self-criticism was a given; the enormity of the flub was what made it a beneficial experience.
I could have done this talk word-for-word to what I wrote and I would still be judging my performance a decade later. Only, instead of the most obvious trip-up – the brain glitch in the middle – I would be more focused on how I could have refined my focus more, practiced more times in front of people, cut a couple of dumb jokes.
That is: When perfectionism is stirred in me, it will find something to focus on. There is no perfect enough for perfectionism.
Thing is, if I had done it all seemingly-perfectly, I wouldn’t have gotten any of the good stuff out of this talk. Oddly, I likely would have a more sheepish relationship with it instead of seeing it as a resource for myself and my clients.
It was in the quiet crash in the middle that the audience really leaned into the talk; it was then that I finally felt them with me – rooting for me, even.
It was that brain glitch that sent me offstage so filled with adrenaline and shame that I could no longer deny the reality of – and the real damage caused by – my perfectionist drivers.
Decade-Distance Ah-Hah #2: People’s commentary is always about themselves.
I know this but I have to relearn it with some frequency.
In this case, most people who have given me feedback say that I looked cool, that they’re impressed by how I held it together. I used to think that they were commending me on my performance but I realize now that what they’re really commenting on is the gap between how they feel imagining themselves in my position and how I appeared on the recording.
Similarly, the one person who told me that she was surprised that I would show the video to people wasn’t really commenting on my foolishness (or bravery?) but, rather, that she felt so uncomfortable imagining herself in my place that she would do her best to bury the video for good.
That is, people’s reactions to this talk are a blend of the assumptions they’re making about themselves, the assumptions they’re making about me, and their own values/priorities about how they show up in the world. Also: All of this is likely happening on an unconscious level.
Same-same with other brands of opinions we have about each other.
Decade-Distance Ah-Hah #3: A trait that I consider(ed) to be wholly problematic is actually what lead me to look so calm when my legs were literally quivering from adrenaline.
Like a lot of (most?) people, I have early-childhood training that taught me to keep as cool a façade as possible. Not flinching when someone looked like they were going to hit you was considered to be deeply admirable in my teen friend group, for example. And I was good at not flinching.
I’ve come to see this quality in me as what I call Lint in the Velcro – ideas that cling to us without being in alignment with our core values. (Think about a criticism you have of your own body and then whether you’re philosophically-aligned with criticizing bodies in that way, for example. If you noticed a disparity, you’re seeing a linty value in action.) To never flinch – emotional stoicism – isn’t in alignment for me. Transparency and vulnerability are.
Part of this ah-hah is realizing that while I’m great at catching where coaching clients are locking away a part of themselves as bad (and then helping them put that quality, instead, on a spectrum of helpful to unhelpful expressions), I long ago locked away stoicism in the dungeon of my emotional being.
And yet stoicism sure was a life raft 10 years ago on that stage…
Toward the end of the video, I give a little nod off to my side. I was looking at a kid from the hosting elementary school who was holding a “TIME’S UP!!” sign and jumping up and down wildly because my brain glitch had thrown off the schedule by 30 seconds and the kid was serious about his job.
I managed to make it to the end of the talk though the kid’s frantic jumping mirrored the frantic part of me that just wanted to disappear into a hole.
I managed to wobble my way offstage in my talk-saving red pumps and, much to the disappointment of the crowd when I emerged in time for an intermission, back into my pink Adidas. I no longer trusted myself on heels, though.
I managed to keep playing it cool until the rest of the presentations were over and I could slink away between the final applause and the community dinner that was meant to be a celebration but I could then only feel as a mockery of my failing.
A few weeks later, I got an email from the organizer who said they would cut out the brain glitch in post-production and, despite the churn that has never fully settled, I asked them to leave it. I couldn’t very well have a talk out there about authenticity when I agreed to eliminate the most authentic moment I had on that stage.
Decade-Distance Ah-Hah #4: Often, the words come before the depth of understanding.
The integrity of leaving that glitch in the uploaded video was, indeed, a part of my insistence that they not edit.
The other part was something that part of me knew even while another part of me fought the knowing: Not hiding those few seconds of video was critically important to healing from the shame I felt.
Similarly, I heard this knowing/not knowing dynamic in the part of the talk where I address people-pleasing as though it was a healed thing in me 10 years ago. Like perfectionism (because people-pleasing and perfectionism are inextricably intertwined in me, as they are in many people), people-pleasing has gone from being a guiding driver in me to a sneaky influencer, creepy around the shadowy nooks of my psyche, looking for side doors into my behaviors.
And it still finds them.
Yet I’ve come a long way from that 34-year-old on the TEDx stage, the one who was learning to be more overtly herself, and now have expanded my perspective enough to see that this will be a learning of a lifetime, not a season.
Which leads me to:
Decade-Distance Ah-Hah #5: Healing isn’t a destination.
Fifth ah-hah, third on the list of thing I’ll keep relearning in this lifetime.
Neither recovering from perfectionism (and the wounds that implanted those ideas in the first place) nor recovering from the shame I felt stemming from those 30ish seconds on stage are things that will get checked off of some mythical To Heal From list.
Nor will I – or you – fully check off any other consequential and painful experience.
Waiting for the feeling of completion can get in the way of both shifting our relationship with those experiences and seeing how much healing we have done.
Instead, I can give myself a pat on the back (which I did, quite literally, as I wrote this sentence) for how far I have come in this very fast, very long decade.
Instead, I can practice being compassionate with the lingering pain, with the tender scar tissue on my emotional self, and treat that part of me with gentleness – the emotional version of a soft touch while examining the wound and a kiss on the bandage once applied.