You know I am a HUGE fan of Brene Brown. I absolutely LOVED The Gifts of Imperfection and Daring Greatly (you can read my review of the latter here). So I was anxiously (mindfully) awaiting the release of her latest book, Rising Strong. It didn’t disappoint.
What I love most about Brown’s work is how honest and open she is about her own struggles with perfectionism and boundaries and resentment and self-worth. It is SO REASSURING to know that the person who LITERALLY WROTE THE BOOK on shame and vulnerability still gets thrown for a loop when she dares greatly and falls down in the arena. And it’s truly a gift for us that she has now written the book about how she gets back up when she falls.
The title of Daring Greatly comes from a speech given by Teddy Roosevelt, called Citizenship in a Republic, delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910:
“It is not the critic who counts;
not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles,
or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena,
whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood;
who strives valiantly;
who errs, who comes short again and again,
because there is no effort without error and shortcoming;
but who does actually strive to do the deeds;
who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions;
who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement,
and who at the worst, if he fails,
at least fails while
Brown writes that we’re in a bit of a cultural phase right now where we celebrate stories of failure, but in a way that’s all toughness and grit and somehow skips over the all-important “messy middle” of the story: “I was in the middle of my great life, and then, bam, I got knocked down. But I crawled my way up, and look at me now!”
That’s wonderful, but seriously, HOW DID YOU DO THAT?
That’s what Brown teaches us how to do in Rising Strong. She takes us into the messy middle — the all-important, tension-filled, and dramatic Act Two of the hero’s journey.
There’s a lot of awesomeness in this book. Here’s my attempt to summarize the essence of the awesome:
10 Important Lessons for Your Life Journey
1. We will ALL have “facedown in the arena” moments. And dammit, arenas are everywhere.
If you’re going to actually get out of bed each day and live, you’re going to, at some point, experience failure. If you step into the arena, you’re going to get knocked down.
While an arena makes us think of SOMETHING HUGE AND GLORIOUS (like competing in the Olympics or giving a TED Talk), arenas are everywhere. We’re in an arena any time we show up, engage, and, as contestants on The Bachelor do each week, “put ourselves out there.” (Hopefully for the right reasons.)
Brown tells us that a tough moment of parenting is an arena. An argument with your spouse is an arena.
Arenas are everywhere. So we WILL experience failure and heartbreak. Just ask the Bachelor contestants.
2. We must wade into discomfort. Without wearing those ridiculous wading pants.
Emotions can be messy and awkward. Brown writes that our culture is a bit “emotion phobic” — we get really uncomfortable talking about our feelings or sitting with someone else’s feelings.
Basically, we need to get over that shit. In fact, we need to wade into the messy shit of emotion if we want to move forward with understanding and experience growth. We need to get curious about our feelings. We need to know what we are feeling when we are feeling it.
We can’t sanitize this process. We can’t disengage from or deny our emotions.
The problem, Brown tells is, is that “most of us were never taught how to hold discomfort, sit with it, or communicate it, only how to discharge or dump it, or pretend it’s not happening.”
How do we do that? See #10.
3. Everyone’s hard is hard. No more Suffering Olympics.
You know I’m a science–logic–left-brain person. If there were an equation to measure suffering, I would give it to you.
But there’s not.
Everyone’s hard is hard. Pain is pain, whether it’s because your daughter just called you the worst mommy in the history of mommies or you are in the midst of a deadly tragedy.
There’s no need to ration our empathy, either.
Brown puts it beautifully: “The refugee in Syria doesn’t benefit more if you conserve your kindness only for her and withhold it from your neighbor who’s going through a divorce.”
4. You may not have signed up for the hero’s journey, but you are on it. So own it.
We are storytelling mammals. That’s how we make sense of our lives. Humans have told myths for thousands of years, and as religious scholar Karen Armstrong tells us, a myth is something that happened once, but also happens all the time.
Which is why most myths (including religious myths, campfire tales, Disney movies, and popular novels) follow the same pattern:
1. The call to adventure: It’s fun at first, but then Houston, we have a problem….
2. The realization: The only way to solve the problem is THE REALLY HARD WAY. Yep, go into that dark cave. Face your father/Vader/Oz/Voldemort issues. No waders.
3. The return: Share the magical elixir (the force, ruby slippers, etc.) you discovered in the dark cave.
Whether you realize it or not, you are living the hero’s journey.
Who is the author of your story? YOU are.
But there’s another problem…
5. You are a conspiracy theorist. (But you already suspected that, right?)
As you write the first draft of your story, you lack a lot of important information. So you just make shit up. You tell stories that protect your ego and feel familiar and safe.
Brown asks, “What do we call a story that’s based on limited real data and imagined data and blended into a coherent, emotionally satisfying version of reality? A conspiracy theory.”
So you continually need to investigate the story you are making up as you narrate your life journey. Did your boss give you that extra assignment because she’s a control-freak who likes to make you miserable because she’s jealous that you have a family and she doesn’t? Or did she give you that extra assignment because she is confident in your ability and knows you will do an amazing job?
You’ll probably be surprised, when you start to get curious about the stories you tell yourself, at how much of your Sturm und Drang is literally in your head. Fact check your stories.
6. We are all doing the best we can. No, really, WE ARE ALL DOING THE BEST WE CAN.
We’re so quick to judge others, but how much better would life be if we always made the most generous assumption about another person’s actions?
In the example above, perhaps you might wonder if your boss, not having children herself, doesn’t fully understand how much pressure she’s putting on you in addition to the demands of your family. You might realize that you have never opened up to her about your family’s needs.
It can be a lot more emotionally satisfying (see #5) to assume that other people are “sewer rats and scofflaws,” as Brown initially refers to them, or to judge others as insensitive or needy. But Brown’s husband shared this powerful insight with her,
All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is, and not what should or could be.”
Do some people somtimes act in ways that are intentionally mean? Yes. Are they doing the best they can with the tools they have available to them? YES.
The Buddha taught that unkind acts stem from ignorance — from not seeing how we are all connected and how our unskillful acts ultimately hurt us, too. This isn’t to say that we simply pity others, or allow others to “get away” with inappropriate behavior. Brown says we can “[h]old people accountable for their actions in a way that acknowledges their humanity.”
I couldn’t have said it better myself.
It also helps to…
7. Know whose opinions matter. (Luckily, it’s a REALLY short list).
It’s often the comments, advice, and opinions of others that trigger our shame. It’s a lot easier to stand on the sidelines and, as Roosevelt wrote, point out where the woman in the arena is stumbling or how she could have done it better.
And when the critic does that, it hurts. Someone once commented on a post I wrote (in which I admitted to losing my cool with my kids after a shitstorm week of solo-parenting) that I was not a very good mother and clearly needed more than mindfulness to help me. And holy buckets, that comment STUNG. As Brown writes, when people want to shame women, they go after our appearance or our mothering (our two biggest shame triggers).
That comment brought up all my insecurities about parenting. But I should have realized that that woman was NOT on my list.
Brown writes that you should have a list — NO BIGGER THAN A SMALL POST-IT NOTE — of the people whose opinions truly matter. People who will give you advice and feedback that comes from a place of love and support. People who will be honest, and who will say things you may not want to hear, but they will do it to build you up and make you a better person.
And when someone offers a comment like the woman above, you can simply say, “Thanks for your feedback. But you’re not on my list.”
8. Know your boundaries. Know your NO.
Be kind to others. Be generous with your assumptions. But that doesn’t mean you let people walk all over you. Know where your NO is. And let others know it, too.
People will treat you the way you treat yourself.
9. Check your expectations. In fact, just ditch them at the coat-check and go enjoy the party.
So much suffering comes from our expectations. I always think of Clark Griswold when I think of expectations. When you dream up the IDEAL, WONDERFUL, AWESOME, PERFECT FAMILY VACATION, you will be disappointed.
This doesn’t mean you don’t have standards or goals. It means you need to be flexible. You have an intention for the day, or the vacation, to look like this, but then shit happens and you need to adjust. The more rigid your expectations had been, the more you will suffer as reality looks less and less like the image in your head.
For example, on our family road trip to South Dakota in July, we visited Mt. Rushmore. The kids thought it was amazing and we watched some phenomenal Native American dance performances. Then we went to our car to leave.
Five hours later, we left:
But we adjusted to the new adventure the day had in store for us…. and look at those smiles!
First ride in a tow truck. #roadtrip A photo posted by Sarah Rudell Beach (@sarahrudellbeach) on
10. When it comes down to it, it’s all about mindfulness. For realz.
So how do we get curious about our stories, become aware of our emotions, and fact-check the crazy conspiracy theories in our heads?
We can practice MINDFULNESS.
The more I read about positive psychology, the more everything seems to come back to this fundamental practice.
Mindfulness, though it’s often portrayed as simply a form of relaxation, provides us with valuable insight into the workings of our mind. It teaches us to recognize our emotions and investigate them for what they are. It gives us the choice to respond to situations, based on reflection, rather than reacting based on ingrained habits and incomplete stories.
And mindfulness is an innate human capacity.
I mean, what do all those heroes really find in the dark cave? The Force, magic, the ability to return home or to the Shire — they were all things the hero already possessed. It’s while on the journey that they discover what Joseph Campbell called the “Imperishable, miraculous energy-substance” within.
You already possess the ability to pay attention and hold yourself with compassion. But you may need to wade into the mess to discover this ultimate boon.
Luke and Frodo and Dorothy and Harry all fell down, and then they had to reckon and rumble with the discomfort, work through their story, find their trusted guides, and battle their demons in order return transformed.
Now it’s your turn, young Padawan.
arena photo credit: The Roman Odeon in Troy IX via photopin (license)
Star Wars photo credit: Revenge Of Return Of The Jedi via photopin (license)
post-it photo credit: stickynote via photopin (license)