An introduction to Brene Brown…in case you haven’t met her.
You can’t give children what you don’t have yourself,” says Brené Brown. “No matter how much importance you place on it.” For instance, you can’t raise children to be more resilient to shame than you are yourself. “I can encourage my daughter to love her body,” she says, “but what really matters are the observations she makes about my relationship with my own body. Damn it. So the question isn’t so much, ‘Are you parenting the right way?’ as it is, ‘Are you the adult you want your child to grow up to be?’”
Brown, a Texan academic turned bestselling author, wife, daughter, sister and mother of two, came to prominence after recording a Ted talk in which she argued that to live a full life requires courage – and showing courage means doing things that make you feel vulnerable. It quickly became one of the most successful Ted talks of all time: more than 10 million people have seen it online and shared her message that we should stop worrying about being perfect, accept ourselves as we are, and engage meaningfully with one another.
To a cynical British ear, this may sound embarrassingly new age, but Brown’s Ted talk has been embraced by the American military and she’s in huge demand as a speaker at global corporations. Neither is she a model of perfection: in a video call from her home in Houston, Brown tells me that she flips people off when she’s driving and would instinctively rather punch somebody than make herself vulnerable. But her academic research showed that the shaming culture we live in makes it harder than ever to show courage and be vulnerable – and somebody had to speak out. “People are sick and tired of being afraid all the time. People want to be brave again. So the message is, do it! Get your courage on, but be clear that it won’t be easy. It’s going to feel like shit.”
Researching her latest book, Brown carried out formal academic interviews with 1,280 people. “One of the most powerful experiences I had was asking middle-school children the difference between belonging and fitting in. They said, fitting in is when you want to be part of something and belonging is when people want you just as you are. I get to be me if I belong and I have to be like you to fit in. What was shocking was when they said, ‘Miss, it’s really hard not to belong at school, but nothing is as painful as not belonging at home.’”
Without meaning to, parents cause that pain when they allow children to sense the disappointment, embarrassment or indifference they feel towards them. That is something Brown believes we can all learn to minimise, by fighting against the shaming culture we inhabit and teaching children resilience.
We live in a culture with a strong sense of scarcity. “We wake up in the morning and we say, ‘I didn’t get enough sleep.’ And we hit the pillow saying, ‘I didn’t get enough done.’” We’re never thin enough, extraordinary enough or good enough – until we decide that we are. “For me,” says Brown, “the opposite of scarcity is not abundance. It’s enough. I’m enough. My kids are enough.”
If we really believe this, we stop trying to fix everything for them. “If one of my kids is struggling, it feels excruciating to let them go to school and figure it out for themselves. Hope is a function of struggle. People with the highest hopefulness have the knowledge that they can move through adversity. When we take adversity from our children, we diminish their capacity for hope.
“It’s tough to step back. I would much rather intervene and fix things myself. If they’re struggling with a teacher, I can whip out an email and it’s pretty impressive and it takes five minutes. But to sit down and talk to Ellen and let her write the email and proof it with her and talk about how to structure it – that is going to take 45 minutes.”
When time itself feels scarce, the temptation is to take the easy, quick option. But Brown describes these everyday opportunities for loving intervention as Sliding Doors moments (after the film) – opportunities we either seize or deliberately avoid. We can avoid them occasionally, but do it too often and relationships suffer, not just between parent and child but between couples.
“If you are always choosing to turn away, then trust erodes in a relationship – very gradually, very slowly. When the people we love stop paying attention, trust begins to slip away and hurt starts seeping in. Disengagement triggers shame and our greatest fears – the fears of being abandoned, unworthy and unloveable. What can make this covert betrayal so much more dangerous than something like an affair is that we can’t point to the source of our pain – there’s no event, no obvious evidence of brokenness.”
To seize every opportunity to show loving commitment would be shattering, wouldn’t it? Who, really, has the time? And what if the other person doesn’t let you even try? One of Brown’s most appealing qualities is that she openly admits to failing frequently at what she encourages others to do – but keeps trying anyway.
Showing courage, in the name of meaningful relationships, is hard work. “And we don’t do it perfectly,” Brown says. “When we don’t, we apologise and make amends.” People who don’t have the capacity to apologise, she contends, are normally people who never saw their parents apologise, and grew up in an environment that relied on shame rather than guilt. In guilt, we feel that we have done something bad. With shame, we feel we are bad. “Guilt is just as powerful, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive. Shame erodes our courage and fuels disengagement.”
Happily, her husband Steve, a paediatrician, understands her work and they usually support each other. But arguments are inevitable. “We disagree in front of the children, but a lot of times we will say, ‘Your dad and I need to talk to each other right now’, and ask for some space. We are comfortable to say we are having difficulty.”
Does that worry the children?
“I asked Ellen that the other day, when [Steve and I] were having a little cold war, and she said, ‘No, I know you will use your words to work it out.’ In fact, I think it can be scary for people who never see their parents argue.”
When her daughter was much younger, Brown found herself renegotiating family culture with her own father. “Ellen was three or four. We were in my dad’s house and I said ‘It’s time to turn off the TV’, and she said she didn’t want to. And my dad bristled. I was not raised like that! From him, I’d have got a look that might mean a spanking. But I said to her, ‘I understand you want to watch Dora the Explorer’, and so on, and my dad said, ‘Dammit, what are you raising, a hostage negotiator?’ But the next day I went to see my dad again and I saw him trying to do it. He said to her, ‘You have a couple of choices …
“So family culture is not just about parents. It’s also grandparents. They matter hugely. We have to talk with them and ask them to avoid saying things like ‘shame on you’, but without that being received as a criticism of how we were raised ourselves. I have a picture of my grandmother when she was heavily pregnant, with a cigarette and an ashtray on her belly. I don’t blame her, any more than I blame my parents for not explaining the difference between shame and guilt.”
Originally posted in The Guardian.