Dropping the Shield

Q & A with Kasey Bergh 

If you were to give a name to your shield, what would it be?

Self-protection from fear of rejection

How did that shield serve you?

I felt that I needed to protect myself as far back as grade school when I saw the other girls as being so petite, and I hated being different. You see, by 9th grade I was 5’9”, and then I grew almost another inch that year. It’s funny when I look back now, but even as an adult I was still protecting myself from the 8th grade kids who can sure come off as mean.   Like most kids, I wanted to connect and have friends. But the reactions I felt that I got resulted in decades of me hating my body and myself. By adopting perfection for my outward-facing side I felt like I could be more accepted. I knew I couldn’t do anything about my height, but I could make sure no one could criticize anything else about my self-presentation. And that helped me cope.

To mask my self-loathing and feelings of insecurity, over time I built a shell of absolute perfection. I started dressing perfectly, with hair, accessories, shoes, makeup and nails to match.

But what never occurred to me was that I would be perceived as an ice queen, unreachable and unapproachable. All I wanted was for people to be close and to connect with them. But my approach was pushing them away.

And it is no surprise, reflecting back. At one point about10 years ago I took a class on the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” One of the exercises was to write down our principles. I realized at that moment that I had none, except trying to make other people happy.

Is there an experience in your life or moment when you decided it was time to let your shield down?

I started lowering my shield as far back as college where I finally had a chance to reinvent myself.  There were no old judgements to escape from the kids I’d been in school with from kindergarten to high school graduation.  Now I could be whoever I wanted to be!  I was still super shy inside but I’d start talking to people in class or ones I’d see on my daily walks to class etc.

In my 20s and 30s I got involved with fashion, coordinating fashion shows, joining The Fashion Group of St. Louis and working at a modeling agency. I was scared to death on the inside but forged ahead. I laugh when I think about how long it would take me to put together the most perfect outfit for a fashion show I was going to attend..more than a week I’m sure!

I remember the first time I presented one of my own shows and I apologized to the audience for feeling unsure of myself.  I ended up presenting to so many different groups with so many mishaps along the way, my confidence grew to where I would say, and still do, that I could speak to a full stadium with no fear.

As a result, I grew professionally during those years.  While I was doing my fashion shows and had joined the Fashion Group, I became so well known and respected that one woman gave me all her clients when she went to work at Saks 5th Avenue as their Fashion Director.  I was also asked to write the fashion column for a local publication.  The cherry on the sundae was when the owner of a local, but powerful modeling agency called me out of the blue to ask me to work for her!!

One of the strategies that has helped me break through my need to be perfect is introspection, driven by therapy and reading the works of provocative thinkers who helped me reflect on the choices I made. Some of my early, and current favorites, are “Awareness”  by Anthony de Mello, “Change Your Thoughts, Change Your Life” by Wayne Dyer and “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz.

But it wasn’t until I was 56 years old that I made the ultimate move and decided to drop the perfection shield and to simply love myself.

What experiences unfolded for you after you were able to drop your shield?

Throughout the years of dropping my shield of perfection, I was better able to face the surprises life throws at us.

More than 30 years ago I faced a serious health crisis that resulted in my sister giving me the gift of life with one of her kidneys on July 14, 1995. I had a very hard time dealing with kidney disease; it revealed my body was weak when I thought of myself as young and strong. Fast forward 22 years later, and I required a second kidney. This time, though, I took control and did a tremendous amount of research, so I was calmer and more prepared.  Still I wasn’t prepared for two years of dialysis, hooked up 4 times a week to a machine that cleaned my blood.  That required its own growth!

This past April I received another gift of a kidney, this time from my new husband (more about him later). Now, I am dealing with an unexpected health situation as a result of that surgery, and I am facing it by taking control, asking questions, and identifying experts who can help me make my own decisions.

About 15 years ago, my now ex-husband, suddenly wanted a divorce. I was taken completely by surprise and went through all sorts of feelings of pain and abandonment. But, on my journey, I had the presence of mind to tell him that I knew at some point I would thank him for taking the initiative, which I did about a year later. In fact, not long ago I sent him a card thanking him for asking me to dance all those many years ago, because when I take the long view, I see that he really did enrich my life.

In 2012, I was out of town on a work trip and decided to spend the first few days visiting a girlfriend.  The plan was, at the end of the week, to meet up with work colleagues for a large, community, volunteer event we were holding for our company. The main people I was supposed to meet were still stuck at home due to weather which led me to a sense of frustration since my friend had just dropped me off.  But I kept trying to connect to no avail, then sending one last text to a man from work who I thought for certain would be there. I typed his number incorrectly without realizing it and got a text back from a totally different man, that started a back and forth, revealing points of interest, from books to music, career choices and the fact that we were 30 years apart in age.  We texted and emailed for days.

Ultimately, we met in person to continue the conversation, which we planned, would be a sort of coaching session for me to help him with career choices. Through more of the synchronicity that was now part of our connection, we ended up falling in love and and in spite of our age difference, began a life together.

You can imagine how that challenged my own stereotypes of appropriateness, and how afraid I was of what others would think about me. They would assume he was my son.

We’ve now been married for four years, and I can tell you, yes people still do assume that. But I examined my own feelings, taking them on as a growth challenge and I no longer worry about it. I’m so happy with my decision.

And to my delight when I found I needed another kidney, he stepped up and offered his. A gift of life for the second time!

When it came time for me to go on dialysis two years ago, I had to give up my wonderful job to get long-term disability benefits as I could no longer work. My job was my identity in the community. I went through all the stages of grief to get to where I am today. When I was notified of having to relinquish my position, I told my HR guy that although I had to lose my job, I had a vision of becoming a speaker to share what I have learned with others, and today I am beginning to reach others through speaking and coaching.

Now with the perspective of mid-life wisdom, is there a time looking back you would have done it differently?

Absolutely. As I’ve said, in high school I hated being tall, so I avoided the things that people expected of tall girls – like basketball and volleyball. Instead, I became a swimmer. I’m essentially an extrovert so an individual sport like swimming probably wasn’t the best choice for me; I would have been much better with the camaraderie of a team sport. I think that would have changed my perspective and I could have made the kind of interpersonal connections I sought, and that I needed.

I worked for 22 years at a wonderful company and for most of the time I was seen as outgoing, but it was controlled behind my shield. I think I would have accomplished even more and would have been seen as a valued member of a collaborative if I had not spent so much time hiding behind that shield.

Is there something you want to inspire or encourage others to do, see, feel, be to be brave enough to let their shield down?

The first step to letting your shield down is to build self-awareness driven by a sense of curiosity – about the world and especially about yourself. This comes from stillness and quiet.  Don’t get distracted by your busy life and spend all your time being outwardly focused.

The Untethered Soul by Michael Singer teaches you how to hear the voice in your head, which we all know is our worst critic. He says that if you were sitting next to someone who said the things to you that your inner voice does, you’d throw them out. But yet, we listen to that voice. Recognize it and stop listening!

There are tremendous tools that can help you get to know yourself. For example, one way to delve into self-awareness is to take the Enneagram Test. It’s free, and there is great info on interpreting your results. Another source of personal insight is the Myers Briggs Personality Assessment.

I also highly recommend reading Loving What Is by Byron Katie, and follow up with “The Work” she recommends, either alone or with a practitioner. She teaches us how to recognize when we might feel irritated by others that it is really all about us.

Finally, listen or read the mirror work by Louise Hay where she challenges us to look in the mirror, deep into our own eyes and say “I love you.” It makes my stomach churn, but I’ve found that is an imperative to dropping my shield.

We live a richer and fuller life when we are able to live without a shield. The most valuable lesson I’ve learned is that we have to love ourselves first and foremost. Otherwise we’re putting a bandage on a tumor and hoping it resolves itself. It won’t, trust me.

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