I still remember the shame of getting back my very first draft for a Greater Good article from the editor and seeing it filled with red ink. Immediately, my mind went to the worst-case scenarios: My editor thinks I’m stupid; I’ll never be a writer; I’m not good enough. I was almost ready to quit on the spot.
Fortunately for me, I swallowed my pride, talked to my editor about my fears, and got a compassionate response in return—as well as some helpful criticism. Still, the internal concern of not being good enough haunts me, sometimes making me fearful of being found out or causing me to lash out at those who try to help. It’s a lifelong struggle.
According to Brené Brown, a researcher at the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work, this is a common, human response to the pain and fear of shame. Too often, we learn shame-based messages in childhood and they follow us around, coloring the way we see the world. Our desire to push shame away can make us want to run and hide or blame others for our bad feelings—a kind of fight or flight response to the “danger” we feel from difficult emotions. Her new book, Rising Strong, is meant to provide a pathway away from shame and toward more compassionate, wise ways to respond to our pain.
Brown’s two previous books—The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly—seemed to hit a cultural nerve, as did her incredibly popular TED talk on shame and vulnerability. In her books and public appearances, she’s encouraged people to be their true, imperfect selves and not be afraid to take risks. Her newest book adds to the discussion, focusing more on how we can use attention and curiosity to help us understand when we are acting from a place of shame and on how to pick up the pieces when we have emotional setbacks.
Brown calls herself a researcher/storyteller, in part to emphasize the neuroscience that shows all humans are storytellers—because our brains are constantly working to put together narratives that explain our experiences. Her research, involving countless hours conducting interviews with people sharing stories about shame, has helped her develop her own compelling narrative of how people deal emotionally, cognitively, and behaviorally with shame and other difficult emotions. Though the book may lack in research details—which, personally, I would have liked to see—it makes up for in inspired storytelling.
Brown’s says there are three basic steps to handling emotional setbacks:
- Reckoning: recognizing when you are having an emotional reaction and getting curious about it so that you can explore it more fully.
- Rumbling: paying closer attention to the stories you tell yourself to explain your difficult emotions—stories like, someone else is to blame for how I feel, or I’m unworthy, etc.—and learning to separate truth from fiction so you can own your stories and speak truth to others.
- Revolution: taking what you’ve learned about yourself to change how you engage with others, so you can hopefully help transform your work and life to have more connection, creativity, and safety to be your authentic self.
Brown spends most of the book providing examples of common emotionally-charged experiences—like feeling disconnected from one’s spouse or failing at a work project—and exploring the types of emotions and stories these experiences stimulate within us. By sharing honest accounts of her own struggles, as well as those of others she’s interviewed, she demonstrates how self-awareness and compassion for ourselves can help us respond to situations with honesty and insight rather than fear. The alternative, she argues, is to ignore what’s happening inside of us, denying ourselves an important part of the human experience.
“We own our stories so we don’t spend our lives being defined by them or denying them,” she writes. “And while the journey is long and difficult at times, it is the path to living a more whole-hearted life.”
Of course, most of us aren’t consciously dishonest with ourselves—these defensive reactions largely happen below our awareness. According to Brown, we disconnect from difficult emotions because we’ve been trained to discount them or because they are too painful to confront. But, the down side of ignoring our emotions and the stories they generate is not learning from them. And, that can make you stuck in maladaptive patterns of behavior, like lashing out at others, blaming them for your pain.
“Blame…is simply a quick, broad-brush way to off-load anger, fear, shame, or discomfort,” writes Brown. “We think we’ll feel better after pointing a finger at someone or something, but nothing changes.”
To pay attention and “rumble” with our stories, Brown suggests things like mindfulness meditation, for increasing awareness and nonjudgmental attitudes toward your thoughts and emotions, or free writing/journaling, to help you get in touch with your experience. By learning to be curious about our uncensored selves, she argues, we can stop from acting out in ways that are hurtful to others or just plain counterproductive. She writes:
The goal of the rumble is to get honest about the stories we’re making up about our struggles, to revisit, challenge, and reality-check these narratives as we dig into topics such as boundaries, shame, blame, resentment, heartbreak, generosity, and forgiveness. Rumbling with these topics and moving from our first responses to a deeper understanding of our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors gives birth to key learnings about who we are and how we engage with others.
This becomes even more important when we feel we are in a “one down” position—i.e. with bosses—because too often we end up paying difficult emotions forward by shaming someone else whom we have power over, such as a child or employee. It’s important to catch ourselves so we can avoid creating cycles of shame that keep getting passed along.
Still, that doesn’t mean stuffing down emotions by ignoring them or drowning them in alcohol or drugs. Instead, Brown suggests, we need to bravely face them in order to understand the way they work in our lives. Emotions are an important indicator of our internal reality, she writes, and we can’t discount the negative ones without also wiping out the positive ones.
“We are wired to be emotional beings,” she writes, “When that part of us is shut down, we’re not whole.”
But what do you do when someone really is hurting you? Brown suggests that knowing yourself is still the best defense, and that boundaries are helpful for preventing someone walking all over you. Still, we need to understand that most people are doing the best they can…even if what they’re doing seems harmful to themselves or others. Too often, our instincts are to lash out or run away, and we end up missing that important part of the equation.
“When we combine the courage to make clear what works for us and what doesn’t with the compassion to assume people are doing their best, our lives change,” writes Brown.
Of course, that doesn’t mean it isn’t hard. The heartbreak from loss of love and the resulting grief is particularly challenging, writes Brown, because it can feel deep and impenetrable. But, she chides against people wanting “easy and quick answers to complex struggles.” It takes courage to feel your pain, recognize what it is, reach out to others, and be vulnerable; but, if you practice doing this incrementally, it can really make a difference in how you engage with others in the long run.
“The process may be a series of incremental changes, but when the process becomes a practice—a way of engaging with the world—there’s no doubt that it ignites revolutionary change,” she writes.
In fact, if we all confessed our concerns about our perceived flaws and took the risk of being vulnerable with others, it would probably increase the sense of our shared humanity and lead to more connection, a sense of safety, the freedom to be creative, and more harmonious relationships in our homes, our workplaces, and our communities. That really would be a revolution.