You may know Brené Brown from her amazing TED talks about shame and being vulnerable. Or maybe you came across her on Oprah once upon a time, or you read one of her other amazingly powerful books. Or maybe you’ve never heard of her, and it’s possible that you don’t spend as much time as I do trying to fit the pieces of yourself into something resembling a whole. Mazel tov.
For me, however, Brene Brown’s work – as a researcher and author, especially – has always managed to hit just the right balance between “OK: You’ve got some work to do and I’m going to help you figure out how to do it,” and “Please stop talking before you start sounding any more woo woo than you already are”. It’s a fine, fine line, my friends, and for a cynical, optimistic, atheist like me, more often than not books that reside in the ‘self-help’ section of the bookstore are overflowing with the power of the Secret or the Divine or the Inner Goddess or … whatever, and I don’t find those kind of books very helpful. If you do: more power to you. It’s just not what I’m looking for when I’m desperate enough to acknowledge that I’m not holding my shit together as well as I could be: Too high on the mystic, too low on the concrete. Tell me what the hell I should be doing, please? If I wasn’t f-ed up, I wouldn’t be in this part of the store to begin with: I need more than the promises of the Universe to help me get through some of the really rough stuff.
Which is why I think her latest book, Rising Strong, is perhaps her best: it’s filled with realistic examples of the theories she’s discussing, not to mention backed up by actual facts clinical longitudinal social research. (Inner sociology geek girl coming out to play ~ I know nobody else is interested in the numbers, but Brené, I would have sifted through those Appendices with glee, FYI.) And the best part is it isn’t about some abstract concepts that are so difficult to grasp that you would’ve needed your own sociology degree to understand them: No she’s talking about things we all experience, and how to keep moving through them, keep living with them, keep fighting to understand and do your best with them.
Everybody’s dealing with something.
Everybody finds themselves on the losing end of whatever battles they’re fighting, at some point. Big battles (grief, loss, failure), little battles (your kid is staring at you with that look again, and you’re pretty sure you’re going to lose it), and everything in between.
But not everybody knows how to get back up, how to face the hard times and come through them. How to rise (into, through, with) adversity and into strength.
So Brown gives some really great guidelines – not easy guidelines, or simple guidelines, but true and meaningful and realistic ones just the same – for what her research (both personally and professionally) shows about the people who DO manage to get back up again. What do they all have in common? What strategies did they use – do they use – to get through their toughest times? What wisdom do they have to share?
Turns out: Quite a bit.
I got the book through Netgalley, so you can’t see how many things I’ve got highlighted, but trust me: it’s a lot. You’re going to be seeing quite a few more of her quotes floating around Tumblr or Instagram or wherever people are posting their motivational stuff these days. And some of it may make you roll your eyes – I had a few choice instances of this myself, but mostly because it leaned a little bit to heavily into the ‘trust yourself, and other people, and the universe’ territory: I would have liked to read a little bit about what you should do when your trust is misplaced, when you’ve been vulnerable and it hasn’t worked out like someone scripted your therapy session and the person you’re trying to connect to doesn’t pick up all the cues and clues and flat out ‘hey I’m getting hurt over here’ statements you’re throwing at them. Because that’s a thing too, and I do feel like that part of the equation should have been addressed a little bit more clearly, but I also know it’s about you, and not them (even when it really, really feels like it’s about them).
That aside, I enjoyed Brown’s perspective on so many things. When talking about how sanitizing our stories – glossing over the middle part, where all the hard work actually takes place and skipping right to the ‘happy ending’ or redemption or moving on, or whatever – we “strip failure of its real emotional consequences…. scrub the concepts of grit and resilience of the very qualities that make them so important… People who wade into discomfort and vulnerability and tell the truth about their stories are the real badasses.” And they’re the people she uses as models, throughout the book, and – optimally – throughout her life, to show that being brave and courageous is sometimes just a matter of going all in, knowing you will fail, and continuing to do it anyways.
So much of what Brown discusses struck some really personal chords with me – Did you know caretaking can be an addiction too? Did you know that even when you know the pitfalls are coming, because you are brilliant and knowledgeable and do this for a freaking living, you aren’t going to be able to avoid them, because you are also human? (And that knowing you are human is still not going to be enough to make you feel OK with not avoiding the things in the first place, but that’s hubris, and ego, and the opposite of vulnerability and growth.) Did you know that writing is a super valid tool for getting through the tough stuff? (Oh, blog: I’m so sorry. I’m trying.) Did you know that sometimes the biggest obstacle is the story you’ve created in your mind about what’s happening, as opposed to what’s actually happening, and that communicating that story – to someone trustworthy, of course – can save you heaps of trouble in the long run? Did you know that there are real gender biases that contribute to how people are allowed/feel allowed to have/express emotions, and that that is bullshit? Did you know that it’s super hard to believe that people are trying their best, and that you can still be disappointed when that best doesn’t meet your needs and expectations? (And that the key to not resenting those people is establishing realistic and reasonable – and reinforce-able – boundaries?)
Generosity is not a free pass for people to take advantage of us, or treat us unfairly, or be purposefully disrespectful and mean. … What boundaries to I need to put in place so I can work from a place of integrity and extend the most generous interpretations of the intentions, words, and actions of others?… Can you be kind and respectful to your friend if he or she is hurting you? The answer is no, and this leads to a couple of choices: The easy solution is to be unkind and disrespectful back, or to walk away. The courageous answer is to look at this friend and say, “I care about you and I’m sorry that you’re going through a hard time. But I need to talk to you about what’s okay and what’s not okay.
(That last bit was some advice to her kids about being generous, but I think, with a little tweak here and there, still very applicable to adult relationships.)
Sure, she sometimes uses coded language that’s too – kitschy, twee, therapy-ish, I don’t know: too something, and I really, really wish she could’ve come up with a better word than Rumble for the period of facing and figuring out your issues, but I also couldn’t come up with a better alternative, so, I’m just going to gloss over that in my mind. Because for every time I thought: ‘Well, maybe that’s a step too far,’ there were at least five times I thought ‘Holy Shit, is this woman reading my mind? Was she my last therapist in disguise or something??’
Because yes, I either am the person or know the people that she’s talking about here. Because she’s talking about all of us, in different ways. People who use addictions to numb their feelings, rather than having to deal with them. People who are grieving, and stumbling their way through. People who are grieving, but are stuck. People who over-function (Hello! I’m NTE: over-functioning adult child of alcoholics here!) and under-function; people who fall into the patterns of their childhood and never look back. People who break the patterns of their childhood and feel self-righteous about it. People who use anger, judging, blame, over-scheduling, etc as a means to avoid facing their feelings. People who can only wait for help to arrive, and people who’d struggle to say the word ‘water’ if their face was on fire. (Come to think of it: everyone would struggle to say anything if their face was on fire, but you get my point.)
It’s all of us. Getting through the shitty days, and modeling it for each other and our kids and ourselves. And boy, is this a case of the right book at the right time, for me. Highly, highly recommend, if you take your self-help with a dose of humor and a lot less Hallelujah then you might normally find.
Now, this last bit is out of context for the review, but I’m going to BLOW IT UP AND PUT IT ON MY FACEBOOK PAGE AS THE FREAKING PROFILE PICTURE because I Can. Not. with the Mom-Shaming crap. I DO NOT CARE HOW YOU FEED YOUR BABY; You should not care how anybody else feeds their baby. Is their baby getting fed? Yes? Then stay in your own lane, ladies, and let everybody do their own thing.
Great mothers know that they are worthy of love and belonging, and as a result they raise children who know they are worthy of the same thing. Shaming other mothers is not one of the million ways to be a great mom.
Also: life goals – Raise kids who know they are worthy of love and belonging. Even if they’re not your own.