GUEST BLOG BY Michelle Johnson-Weider: Embracing Vulnerability

A number of years ago, I fulfilled a long-time dream of signing up for a pottery class. I loved the idea of creating wheel-thrown pottery. I spent so much of my daily life in mental activities that I craved the visceral and embodied. I yearned to sink my hands into a lump of moist raw clay and feel something beautiful spring into life as my fingers pulled forth a unique work of art. 

Have you ever tried to learn wheel throwing? Clay does not yearn to be shaped into something beautiful. It actually prefers to remain a congealed mass or to writhe spasmodically on the wheel like a hostile alien entity.

I sat in the Glen Echo pottery yurt, straddling my pottery wheel and desperately attempting to balance my ungainly lump of clay, while all around me, people who knew what they were doing drew forth masterpieces in an apparent trance of artistry. They were all lovely, supportive people. None of them ever said anything critical to me. On the contrary, they offered advice and told me that they, too, had struggled at first.

I, however, was a miserable mass of self-judgment. I’m really really bad at this. I look like a fool. I feel like an idiot. How can I be so bad? I’m never going to get better! Is everyone watching me? I feel like everyone is watching me. Why is this so hard?

After three classes, my negative internal dialogue won out. I couldn’t face what I perceived as my failure. I skipped one class and then another. I never went back.

I have always regretted dropping out of the pottery class. If I’d spent six week creating misshapen bowls, it would have had no bearing on any other aspect of my life. I just wanted to learn how to use a pottery wheel; I didn’t need to achieve any particular level of skill. I didn’t even know anyone in the class. And yet, I couldn’t handle what I perceived as failing in public. My self-image was too wrapped up in being good at things. I gave up rather than accepting my own vulnerability.

This past February I fulfilled another long-time dream – I signed up for a Korean language class at the Korean Cultural Center in D.C. Back in 2014 I visited South Korea for a week and fell in love with the country and the culture. I want to return with my husband for a longer trip and I feel it is a mark of respect to learn at least a little of the language before going back.

Korean is not an easy language. The Foreign Service Institute ranks it as exceptionally difficult for native English speakers, estimating that 2,200 hours of study are necessary to achieve general professional proficiency in speaking and reading, as opposed to 600 hours for Spanish or 1,100 hours for Russian. Of course, I am not attempting to achieve general professional proficiency. I’d just like to be able to say a few phrases and read street signs.

Nonetheless, about three classes in, I experienced a familiar feeling: I was starting to dread going to class. I mentioned to my husband that the timing of the class was particularly bad. I was so busy right now - perhaps I should drop out and try again in the fall. He looked at me sympathetically, reminding me of how excited I’d been about signing up. What did I have to lose by continuing? Suddenly, I remembered the pottery class and a wave of realization hit me.

I was feeling vulnerable. I was embarrassed by how so many of my classmates seemed to already be excelling, whereas I was struggling. I wanted to be good and yet I felt like a failure. Once again, my performance in the class had no bearing on the rest of my life; however, my self-protective response was to find a way to exit the situation as quickly as possible.

And so I breathed my way through the anxiety. I explained to the professor that I was falling behind and intended to retake the class the next time it was offered, but that in the meantime, I would learn whatever I could. She kindly encouraged me and I kept coming to class. Each time, I experienced fear and shame beforehand. Each time, I felt accomplishment and relief when I persevered. 

Throughout the 12 weeks of the class, I stayed aware of my internal dialogue and gave myself mindful support. It’s okay to be nervous. This is hard. It’s okay to be a beginner. It’s even okay to fall behind. Some people are faster language learners – wouldn’t it be nice to be happy for them? Right now, the goal is to just keep showing up. Showing up is enough. Showing up is within my control. I never learned to sound out Korean letters like the rest of my classmates, but I did attend every class.    

As I write this blog, I am preparing to retake Korean Beginner One. I will be the only returning student in the class. Needless to say, I am feeling some anxiety over restarting. I know that the professor is going to ask everyone to introduce themselves and tell about any prior experience with the language; I’m going to have to announce in front of everyone that I’m taking the class for the second time. Even just writing that makes me feel very vulnerable. But it also feels like progress.

Breathe. Smile at the anxiety; embrace the vulnerability.

Keep showing up.