Another book review so soon! Yes, I know, but I've been reading loads recently and some of these books are seriously incredible, so I couldn't not share with you what I think of them.
I'm probably a bit late on the band wagon with this one - Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead was originally published in 2012, and Brené Brown has since released Rising Strong in 2015, so I've got a bit of catching up to do! But boy is it a band wagon worth jumping on; there's a buzz online around this book and Brené Brown's work in general, and it's not unwarranted. This is a book that talks about subjects that are pretty brushed under the carpet, played down, held firmly under that stiff upper lip we Brits especially are so good at. But on reading, it definitely leaves you with a sense of - oh thank goodness! It's not just me who feels like this! And it gives you anecdotes and research and tools to dare greatly in your own life without being overly evangelical or cheerleading.
The whole book is full of wonderfully wise insights, as well as Brené Brown's dry humour and own vulnerability, but there are a few key lessons that I took away from reading it that made me think about how I behave and react to situations, and what I can learn from these experiences. So despite the title, I suppose this is less a book review and more my own impressions and thinking about what I read.
The Never-Enough Problem
Brown believes that a culture of scarcity is at the core of many of our issues with vulnerability, along with its siblings shame, comparison and disengagement. We're so accustomed now to feeling and telling ourselves, and telling others, that we or they are not enough. Not good enough. Not clever enough. Not beautiful enough. Not strong enough. Not successful enough. Not thin enough. Not a good enough parent. Not enough sleep. Not enough time. Not enough money. Not lovable enough. Not enough social media followers.
We feel ashamed that we don't meet those standards that society has set for us, that we can't surpass the expectations our families have for us, so we start to believe in this lack of worth. And oh how we compare ourselves to others, setting them on a pedestal of perfection and something to aspire to, even though we can't possibly know the whole truth about their lives. All we see is the beauty, the intelligence, the expensive house, the job promotion, the kids' exam results, the romantic gestures, and we wish we had those things too, and feel even worse about ourselves because there's no way we're good enough to have them.
So then we give up. We stop engaging with our hopes and dreams because they just seem too unattainable. We stop trying so hard because it's not worth bothering. We hide away and make ourselves small so as not to draw attention to our inadequacies. And we come to the place where it is too scary to show our true selves, we're not brave enough to be vulnerable and put ourselves out there again, and the idea of daring greatly brings us out in cold sweats.
I know all these feelings. I've been there, don't that, got the t-shirt. And sometimes that old record still gets stuck, that voice pipes up in my fragile moments, and it can be so easy to spiral into negativity. But I've started to learn on my own what Brown suggests in this book as some ways of reversing this spiral and moving towards acceptance. Gratitude, self-compassion, setting boundaries, redefining our personal sense of success, cultivating connection, and seeking support can all help us rediscover our sense of self and grow our resilience to the demons of shame and comparison. Yes, doing these things asks us to be vulnerable, but knowing where our limits are, sharing honestly, connecting with people who understand us, and finding the right support can be so encouraging and empowering.
Vulnerability is Weakness
Brené Brown says that this is one of the biggest perceptions about vulnerability. But it must also be one of the most widely accepted myths about human emotion ever. We associate being vulnerable with being over-emotional, with fear, shame, grief, and all those feelings we're taught we shouldn't show other people because they're bad. Children are told 'big boys/girls don't cry', admitting to struggling invites pity and contempt, 'I'm fine' has become our default answer even if inside we're falling apart.
In her work, Brown came to the conclusion though that:
However, in order to experience those things we have to open ourselves up to vulnerability, which brings with it "uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure". For an artist of any kind, putting your work out into the world has no guarantee that anyone will like it, or that it will bring you an income, or that people will understand what you're trying to express. But being vulnerable means you do it anyway, in the hope of a positive response, acceptance, and because you have to be true to yourself.
One passage in the chapter on vulnerability myths that particularly struck me shares responses from research participants to the question of what vulnerability looks and feels like. The overall conclusion, based on numerous examples given? "Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage." (p.37) Not one of the answers people gave sounded like something that would be acknowledged as a weakness. Yes, they were all risky, had uncertain outcomes, and were emotionally exposing, but not weak.
Now, I love a bit of linguistic analysis, and Brown shares the etymology of both vulnerability and weakness. The former meaning capable of being wounded or open to attack, and the latter being the inability to withstand attack - very different concepts. Being open to attack doesn't necessarily mean we're going to succumb to the wound, but it does mean we've set out in the knowledge that it could happen despite our best intentions. Being vulnerable in itself provides some protection against the reactions and responses of others. If we go into a tough conversation knowing that we're sharing the truth of our situation, if the other person doesn't respond as we might hope, at least we can say honestly that we tried. If we say to our boss that we're suffering with stress and depression and is there anything they can do to support us, and they say no and threaten disciplinary action because of our unstable emotional state, we can make our own decision to resign in order to remove ourselves from an unaccepting and unacceptable situation. (True story)
The Vulnerability Paradox - You show me yours, but you're not seeing mine
This really seems to sum up the place we're currently in as a society. We're more aware now of movements towards whole-hearted living, and authenticity, and standing up for ourselves, but the majority of us aren't quite ready to cross that line and join the avant-garde, those who have already stepped out and declared themselves. We see people, like Brené Brown herself, talking about experiences in their own lives that have been traumatic, or life-changing in the most extreme ways, or breakdowns ("spiritual awakenings"), or lessons they've learned, and we applaud their bravery. We think how incredible these people are to have lived through such tough times and come out the other side stronger, and are prepared to stand up and talk about those experiences frankly and publicly. We even feel we can relate to their story having been through similar things ourselves. But actually get up and tell our own stories? Nuh-uh, no way, not a chance, far too scary! Admit to our boss that we're struggling with stress or depression or difficult family circumstances - a sure-fire way to pitying looks, no chance of promotion, or even dismissal. Tell our children how we were bullied at their age and how it made us feel - but we're the grown-ups and are supposed to be strong. Tell someone you love them first - oh god but what if they don't say it back?!
Seeing and hearing people sharing their truth and their vulnerability can help foster the sense of belonging and engagement that Brown says is important in developing resilience to shame, but there's still more for us to do here I think. And it's not about adopting a mentality of letting it all hang out - here I am, take me or leave me - this is just one tactic in the armoury against showing our vulnerable side that Brown talks about in the book. Perhaps instead it starts with a knowing nod or a smile to someone you see dealing with what you've struggled with, a quiet conversation to say I understand, I've been there too. Maybe then it grows into a talk with your parents about how their attitudes affected your upbringing and self-esteem, or that meeting with your boss about how you don't feel you're coping. And eventually, hopefully, we reach a point where we can let go of worrying about what others think, of perfectionism, of self-doubt and comparison, and say - OK, here I am, this is me in all my vulnerable truth, and I'm good with that.
Brown talks about courage throughout the book, about being brave enough - daring greatly - to be vulnerable and to live authentically, but it's actually a quote from her 2010 TED talk that struck the strongest chord with me. Brown says that the definition of courage is telling the story of who you are with your whole heart. And if your heart doesn't feel worthy, loved, engaged and resilient then you can't tell that whole story. But if you do feel - know, even - that you are enough, that you belong to something bigger than yourself, that you are supported and encouraged to make mistakes and learn from them, then you can step out into the arena and be yourself. Yes, there may be anxiety or fear, but if that step comes from a place of truth, of authenticity, of vulnerability and willingness to open yourself up without shame, that is when you are truly living courageously. Brave is my guiding word for this year, so finding this definition that makes so much sense has really given me an impetus to embrace an even more whole-hearted approach in the coming months - and I intend to share the journey with you, vulnerability and all!
Have you read Daring Greatly? What did you take from it that has taught you something about yourself or given you something to work from? If you feel brave enough to share, I'd love to hear your stories.