My first job after college was as a research assistant in a psychiatric research clinic. Part of my job was to conduct assessments of potential participants in our studies on major depression and anxiety.
In psychiatry and psychology, since we lack reliable biometrics (for now), we’re reliant on self-report to get an assessment of your symptoms. Which is a no-good-very-bad way to assess things, especially with someone you just met. And especially when you’re 21 and they’re 45.
Imagine being asked the following by a 21-year-old, fresh out of college:
“Have you felt sad, down, or blue?”
“Do you find you’ve lost pleasure in things?”
“Do you have thoughts of hurting yourself?”
“Are you having any issues with intimacy?”
You don’t need a Ph.D. to see why telling a 21-year-old you just met 20 minutes ago about your sex life and suicide ideation is a lost cause.
And yet – many people did tell me.
They told me more than I asked. Stories and context and layers came out. I learned about self-harm, trauma, phobias, child abuse, rape, sexual assault, erectile dysfunction, suicide attempts, and more. Always followed by this statement: I haven’t even told my family this. No one knows.
It’s easier to tell things to strangers.
More recently, I noticed this same pattern in discussions about our dreams. This struck me as odd seeing as suicide, erectile dysfunction, and sexual assault carry an immense social and societal stigma, whereas dreams presumably do not.
Except I discovered – they do.
Sharing our dreams carries shame.
Shame about the content of the dream. Shame about possessing the dream. Shame about our inability to fulfill, begin, or finish the dream.
It’s that last point that struck me most. I suspected fear of mockery, dismissal, judgment, minimization, and rejection.
I did not expect the secrecy. We carry our dreams in secret. Hold them tight to our chest. And tell no one.
In speaking to hundreds of people about their dreams lately, and taking a formal poll – I discovered that the thing that holds us back from sharing is the shame of follow-through.
The fear of being on the hook.
Once you tell someone, then there’s a Real No Kidding expectation for you to do something about it.
Because if you see that person again, they will ask you, “How’s the book going?” and you will have to say, “I haven’t worked on it at all since I last saw you.”
I wondered why full-grown adults in their 30s, 40s, 50s, and 60s felt comfortable telling me their secrets back in the psych clinic. I thought maybe it was because I was exceptionally great at my job and had nailed the affect and dispositional aspect of securing trust with participants.
It had nothing to do with me.
And everything to do with shame and accountability. If you’re never going to see me again, you don’t risk being asked, “How are you? Are you still cutting yourself? Still throwing up your food? Where are you hiding that gun you told me about?”
With a stranger, you can release the tension of your secret without any accountability.
You aren’t on the hook. You don’t have to do anything about it.
We are terrified of making our dreams come true.
Quitting your job and moving to Bali is not what I’m talking about. That’s not a dream, that’s the plot of Eat Pray Love. And that wasn’t a dream either, that was a healing journey. Her dream was to be a writer and to be free from social convention and an oppressive marriage.
I’m talking about the 67-year-old who works as a recruiter, didn’t quit anything, supports herself, and sets her own hours – but her passion is music. And she regularly goes to her husband’s studio to help with production and gets to listen in on her son who is also in the industry. Her dream was not to be on stage, just to be surrounded by music – and so she is.
I’m talking about the 33-year-old who finally admitted she didn’t want to be in the C-suite (she was damn close, at a major publicly traded company) and desired nights at home covered in spit-up with her two amazing kids, working her butt off as a caregiver and relishing in the joy of her quotidian life.
I’m talking about the CTO who writes poetry. He didn’t quit his job. He didn’t publish his poems. He has no interest in being A Professional Poet. He writes poetry because he is a poet. And he shares his poems on Instagram Stories. He loves tech. He is an engineer. You can be both things.
Each of these people is doing.
And doing requires defining.
And defining requires telling because none of this is possible in isolation. It happens in community with others who support you and keep you on the hook – not with shame, but with encouragement + recognition. Recognition that this isn’t linear, there are many paths forward, and most of the time you’ll get it wrong before you get it right.
That recognition only happens in connection with those who are willing to lean into the vulnerability of their own dreams (you can find some here ).
Kristin Hatcher (my Brainstorm Road co-founder and writer extraordinaire) and I are assembling a list of 1,000 dream projects for a (ahem) dream project we’re working on.
You can add yours here (anonymously).
Then, you will be able to say at least one person knows about your dreams, the most important one: YOU.
PS: The dreams coming in are amazing. Everything from cleaning out my hard drive and learning to make Kombucha to writing a musical about my grandmother’s life and painting daily.
I love you guys so much. This is exquisite. I’m not sure there is anything more personal than sharing your dreams and we are in awe and admiration of those who reveal what’s in their heart.
Please and thank you.
(The poll has three questions and will take you less than two minutes. If you’re open to expanding on what you share, enter your email. If you’re not, just declare your dream in writing and hit “submit.”)