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Are You Wisely Foolish?

Getting Beyond the Embarassment that Holds You Back

by Deah Curry, PhD


On a bright spring day, dressed in her business best, Leslie rode the bus to a new dream contract job giving presentations about cultural diversity to major corporations. Taking the stage in a room of 200 waiting employees, she heard chuckles and whispers -- and realized she was stark naked. Feeling scared, confused, and embarrassed, she woke up.

Many of us have the naked in public dream when we feel like we’ve done something foolish, or feel we’re about to. Dread of public ridicule is one of the top confidence deflaters and emotional stressors for people in all walks of life. It was so bad for me early in my career, that I felt completely unconscious and out of my body as I taught my first college class. I was so intent on doing it perfectly that it was a challenge to even talk coherently.

Few of us consider that it may sometimes be wise to be foolish. Although these sound like opposites, being wise and being foolish have common roots: being willing to be open, flexible, exploratory, and suspending judgment and disbelief. Resilience -- the basic trait needed for good mental health and emotional strength -- grows from taking small risks even when we feel foolish. In time the benefits become bigger as we face our fears of looking foolish.

The Embarrassment Legacy

Getting embarrassed when we make mistakes is a universal human emotion. We all have a need to feel competent and to be acknowledged as such. Likewise, we all have the desire to feel at least good enough to get by without hurtful or shaming responses from others. Caring more for the good opinion of others is a good way to get stuck, however, because we have no control over their opinions. Relinquishing the unrealistic need for approval can lead to wonderful moments of newly awakening intrinsic wisdom.

Some of us, though, struggle with a lingering legacy of learned hypersensitivity to ridicule due to emotionally abusive treatment from parents, teachers, coaches, or siblings. We go through life expecting to be profoundly embarrassed for the least misstep, and striving to avoid that at all costs. Unfortunately, this coping strategy is self-defeating and damages self-esteem. Expecting embarrassment serves to prevent us from engaging fully in the activities that would ultimately gain us wisdom and increase our confidence.

It’s in the process of risking looking foolish that we face fears, experience courage, and shift false assumptions and narrow perspectives. Experiencing and succeeding in taking calculated risks is the soil in which wisdom grows. Although I wouldn’t have believed it possible 18 years ago, I no longer feel emotionally naked in front of a classroom. Showing up every day and being openly authentic moved me beyond my fear of ridicule and sense of embarrassment.

When to be Foolish

Clearly, there’s a difference between suspending judgment while being open and exploratory -- the beginner’s mind approach -- and being irrationally incautious, irresponsible, and controlled by faulty beliefs, which is the more common meaning conveyed by the word foolish. Many clients I coach start from the position of putting more energy into arguing for their limitations than exploring what it might be like without them because they are reluctant to do something deemed foolish and risk feeling embarrassed. And that approach simply holds them back from the success they have earned, and from the experiences that lead to developing wisdom.

After having the embarrassing naked-in-public dream for three weeks in a row, Leslie decided she needed to confront something she was ashamed of. She knew shame was holding her back professionally, making her fearful of being ridiculed and rejected. As a solopreneur -- a person in business for herself with no employees -- Leslie needed a confident public face, and to feel comfortable talking about herself and her work.

Taking small social risks taught Leslie that nothing terrible happens when she’s open. Giving up her tightly held notions of the “right way” to talk about her work made her seem more flexible, and more attractive to companies that would potentially hire her services. Empowered by the confidence that came from these experiences, she began to venture out of her comfort zone to explore new ways of marketing and presenting her work.

As Leslie learned, the time to be wisely foolish is when what you’ve been doing isn’t working the way you’d like. Often this signals a stuck mindset, a failure to be in the exploratory mode that can capture possibilities as they arise. When feeling stuck, returning to a beginner’s mind is wise -- that by-passes the belief that we can’t be seen not knowing what to do, and the expectation that we don’t make mistakes. The wise beginner can ask questions, gather new information, learn new skills, and try different strategies without getting trapped in embarrassment.

The Wisdom of the Fool

In Tarot, the Fool symbolizes the idealistic one setting out on a journey, full of hope and open to whatever experiences come her way. The Fool is never stuck or embarrassed, because s/he doesn’t even consider that s/he’ll make a mistake. Unshakable optimism is the message as the card reminds us that we must be ready to step off the cliff with complete confidence, and trust that we’ll land safely enough to continue the journey.


Holding beginner’s mind as a conscious mindset in the face of embarrassment allows us to learn from our mistakes than from our successes – sometimes even more than from our successes. This is the first step in being wisely foolish. Once you’ve taken the leap a few times, it begins to feel more natural and empowering. Soon you’ll be able to take more of those little risks that grow into bigger accomplishments. And all from that first simple optimistic step into the unknown. This is the wisdom of the Fool.

With 18 years’ as a psychotherapist, I have many therapeutic coaching approaches that help you face embarrassment in empowering ways, and take careful risks. Whether using Tarot to guide you, or other techniques, I can help you achieve the insights of beginner’s mind and the optimistic confidence of the Wise Fool. For information, appointments, and Kirkland WA office location, send email to DrDeah@deahcurry.net or call 425-814-9083. See www.InnerJourneyWork.com, www.DeahCurry.net .


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