To expose our wounds to people we care about – the icky stuff, the ego stuff, the personal growth edges we’re working on that we haven’t yet mastered – is super vulnerable. Letting others see our “big ugly tails” (hat tip to my dear friend Amy Ahlers, who has seen my big ugly tail and trusted me enough to let me see hers) tends to trigger all our core fears of rejection and abandonment, of withdrawal of love. But to bear witness to someone’s wound is a privilege and an opportunity to deepen the relationship beyond the idealistic views we might have of each other into the real truth of both our light and our shadows.
This doesn’t mean it’s anyone else’s job to baby our “owies.” But when we’ve exposed our vulnerable wounds to those we care about – and asked, but not expected them to tread gently around our wounds, we have a choice. We can poke needles into each other’s wounds – because now we know them and dang it, it’s their dark stuff to work on. Or we can choose to put salve on the wounds of those we love – not codependent salve that enables the wound, but more like a gentle touch with lavender oil to make something stinky smell a bit sweeter and to acknowledge the vulnerability and handle it gently.
When we have been vulnerable enough to expose those wounds – and own them – and when we then ask those we love to be gentle with our wounds – and they choose to do so – it starts to feel like love. As Brené Brown writes about in her New York Times bestseller Daring Greatly, intimacy is like a jar of marbles. (I wrote about this analogy in more depth here).
The more we expose our vulnerabilities – and someone handles our sensitive spots gently, the more marbles we gather in the jar. Trust grows as the jar becomes more full of marbles. But when someone betrays that trust or chooses to stick needles in the wounds of our vulnerability, we lose marbles in the jar. If someone uses our vulnerability against us, we may feel like dumping out the whole jar of marbles. Over time, the strength of the relationship is based on how many marbles are in the jar.
In a perfect world, we’d all be able to grow past our big ugly tails. But we’re destined to be human this go around, and our dark stuff ain’t going away. Part of what I love about my closest friends is that they’ve all done enough personal growth work that they’re mostly aware of their big ugly tails and are actively working on addressing them. It’s those who are blind to their big ugly tails who can be challenging to be in relationship with – and we must have compassion for those who are still blind.
But big ugly tails are so easy to judge – both in someone else and in ourselves. When someone else shines a light on our big ugly tails, we may be tempted to run the other direction because it can hurt to look at how blind we’ve been to our big ugly tails. If someone sends us the message that we have an unseen big ugly tail, we may be tempted to kill the messenger.
The opposite is also true. If we illuminate a big ugly tail of someone else, we may be tempted to judge that person, to think less, to criticize, to demean, even to reject the person whose big ugly tail we’ve seen. But wouldn’t it be kinder if we treated them gently and with compassion?
When someone exposes his or her big ugly tail to you, or when you see your own, this calls for a big, beautiful dose of love, kindness, and abundant compassion. Beating yourself up – or going on the attack with the person whose big ugly tail you’ve witnessed – only deepens the vulnerable wound and leads to fewer marbles in the jar. Instead, seeing big ugly tails – in others or in ourselves – is an opportunity to deepen trust and intimacy with others – and learn how to unconditionally love and accept ourselves, even those parts of ourselves that lead us to feel the poisonous emotion of shame, which not only poisons our minds – it poisons every cell in our bodies by signaling threat emotions in our amygdalas which, as I describe in Mind Over Medicine, deactivates self-repair mechanisms in our bodies.
If, instead of judging ourselves and others, we can find compassion for the ugly parts in ourselves and each other, we can start to feel more love and intimacy, and these emotions calm our amygdalas, activating the body’s self-repair mechanisms and optimizing the body’s ability to do what it does best – heal itself.
When your big ugly tails are illuminated, there’s nothing you have to do to “fix” them. Big ugly tails do the most damage when we’re blind to them, and they can inadvertently swat around and hurt people without our awareness. We may leave shrapnel in the wake of our big ugly tails, and once you realize this, you may feel even more motivated to hate your big ugly tail, rather than treat it with loving compassion.
But here’s the thing. Once we see our big ugly tails, they automatically start to shrink in the light. Like spooky shadows that disappear when the floodlights flip on, our big ugly tails, once seen, start healing themselves, just like our bodies do when we feel loved and accepted, in spite of our darkness.
I don’t think I’ve been gentle enough around other people’s vulnerable wounds – because my big ugly tail is that I have a tendency to get all self-righteous, to make myself “superior” to people once I’ve seen their big ugly tails. I make myself “right” and others “wrong” and then my ego (I call her Victoria Rochester) convinces me that I shouldn’t have to walk on eggshells around someone else’s stinky wound.
But sometimes walking on eggshells around someone’s raw wound is the perfect opportunity to practice compassion and to demonstrate love.
And that’s my stuff to work on. Maybe someone could put lavender oil on it for me, even if it’s just me being compassionate with this side of myself I’m not so proud of. At least the lights are on, and I’m no longer blind to how I created my own suffering for many years.
Has your big ugly tail been illuminated? And if so, are you being compassionate towards it? Are you kind when you see other peoples’ big ugly tails? Tell us what you think in the comments below.
P.S. You won’t want to miss Brené Brown and I in our FREE telejam talking about how embracing your imperfections, being authentic, and exposing your truth can optimize your health, your relationships, and your life. Sign up here to access the recording.
Illuminating my tail – and maybe yours – with love,
Lissa Rankin Lissa Rankin, MD is a mind-body medicine physician, founder of the Whole Health Medicine Institute training program for physicians and other health care providers, and the New York Times bestselling author of Mind Over Medicine: Scientific Proof That You Can Heal Yourself. She is on a grass roots mission to heal health care, while empowering you to heal yourself. Lissa blogs at LissaRankin.com and also created two online communities - HealHealthCareNow.com and OwningPink.com. She is also the author of two other books, a professional artist, an amateur ski bum, and an avid hiker. Lissa lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and daughter.