Find Your Own Safe Space


When Ocean Vuong learned that his uncle had died, he took a long walk through the streets of New York City. His uncle whose death was a suicide was only three years older than Vuong; the two had been close. As Vuong walked, he noticed something, which he explained in an interview with Krista Tippet, host of NPR’s On Being.

“I kept seeing these fire escapes. And I said, what happens if we had that? What is the linguistic existence of a fire escape, that we can give ourselves permission to say, ‘Are you really OK? I know we’re talking, but, you want to step out on the fire escape, and you can tell me the truth?’”

Vuong, an author, poet, and MacArthur fellow, relates this concept to hide our sense of vulnerability. That is, if you are feeling low or depressed, you hide it rather than reveal it. “I think we’ve built shame into vulnerability, and we’ve sealed it off in our culture — ‘Not at the table. Not at the dinner table. Don’t say this here… This is not cocktail conversation.’” Vong adds, “We police access to ourselves. And the great loss is that we can move through our whole lives, picking up phones and talking to our most beloveds, and yet, still not know who they are. Our ‘how are you’ has failed us. And we have to find something else.”

Vuong, who immigrated from Vietnam as a child, is touching on a very private topic. Marshall Goldsmith, the world’s leading executive coach and best-selling author, speaks of the concept of being on stage, that is, always being upbeat. It is true for coaches with their clients as well as for executives being coached. We know how to put up a good front. As business people, this is fine; it is standard practice among professionals.

Isolation

At the same time, if we keep our vulnerability bottled inside and tell no one, we induce isolation. We cut ourselves off from sources of comfort, solace and counsel. We gradually withdraw into a kind of shelter of our own making. We may trick ourselves into believing we are protecting ourselves when in reality, we may be imprisoning our true selves.

My colleague Terry Jackson Ph.D., a change management consultant and executive coach, likes to say that we all need hope. Hope is foundational to our ability to look beyond our present circumstances. Without hope, there is only darkness. With hope, there can be light, even if it too may not be as bright as we would like it. If we shelter our inner selves from others too much, we also rob ourselves of finding hope, the kind that comes from knowing that we are not alone.

It is not easy to reveal one’s vulnerabilities. That’s why you need a “fire escape.” For Vuong, a writer, the fire escape is a linguist metaphor for “being off stage.” What is required is trust and bravery. You need to trust the person with whom you share your story. And you need to be brave about what you will share. 

Be of service

This sharing is an opportunity for others to serve us. As Terry Jackson says, service is our true purpose. While we think of helping others, we can expect the same from others. Give them a chance to serve us. In time we can do the same. Service enables us to fulfill the needs of others and at the same time fulfill our purpose.

And so, we must find our fire escapes, a place to be ourselves, openly, honestly, and hopefully.

Note: Ocean Vuong first described the fire escape metaphor in an essay for Rumpus titled “The Weight of Our Living: On Hope, Fire Escapes, and Visible Desperation.”

First posted on Forbes.com 3/17/21