Brené Brown certainly doesn't need me to hawk her books--she is dizzyingly popular right now. But her latest book has been my favorite by far. It is Rising Strong and deals with how people come back from failure in a creative and healthy way. In some ways, the book covers similar territory as her previous ones, especially Daring Greatly. There are a few basic themes that come up again and again in her research and writing:
- Wholehearted people are able to face their dark places in their lives, because they know deep down that they are worthy of love and belonging.
- Our power comes from living authentically, not from hiding our faults and flaws and hoping nobody notices.
- We can't numb the negative emotions without also numbing the positive ones.
Chapter Six, Sewer Rats and Scofflaws, is funny and profound and is worth the price of the book in itself. In it Brown talks about her own tendency to judge others and stew in her own self-righteousness. She describes an encounter with a boorish roommate at a conference--a conference she didn't even want to speak at in the first place, but felt guilted into saying yes to. (This is an important detail; more later.)
I've said many times that Brené Brown is the older sister I never had. I suspect a lot of us feel that way. Given how much this roommate raised MY hackles, and how cringingly funny Brené's subsequent reactions were, it was clear this chapter could have been written for me. How dare she trash the couch in the hotel! And smoke in the non-smoking section! She might as well have titled the chapter "Sewer Rats and Scofflaws: Listen Up, MaryAnn."
The roommate experience lands her in her therapist's office, who asks her to consider a simple question: Are people basically doing the best they can? And her therapist admits that for her, the answer is yes: while we can always grow and improve as people, and we should, it's possible that the boorish roommate is using the tools and resources she has to try and make her way in the world.
Brown is disgusted with the thought: how can wiping Cinnabon icing on a hotel couch be one's best? (Preach it, sis!) And then she starts asking around, hoping to bolster her own view: Do you think everyone is doing the best they can? She begins to notice that everyone who thinks people aren't doing their best are hard, unequivocal and judgy in their responses. By contrast, here's what she says about the people who believe people are doing their best:
They were slow to answer and seemed almost apologetic, as if they had tried to persuade themselves otherwise, but just couldn’t give up on humanity. They were also careful to explain that it didn’t mean that people can’t grow or change. Still, at any given time, they figured, people are normally doing the best they can with the tools they have.
...Every participant who answered “yes” was in the [research] group of people who I had identified as wholehearted— people who are willing to be vulnerable and who believe in their self-worth. They offered examples of situations where they made mistakes or didn’t show up as their best selves, but rather than pointing out how they could and should have done better, they explained that, while falling short, their intentions were good and they were trying.
In short, Brown realized that the people who were willing to extend grace (my language) to their fellow human beings--and to themselves--seemed happier, better adjusted and wholehearted. It almost didn't matter whether people really were doing their best--treating them as if they were, deciding to view life that way, led to better outcomes. By contrast:
Self-righteousness starts with the belief that I’m better than other people, and it always ends with me being my very worst self and thinking, I’m not good enough.
Now, Brown is clear that just because people may be doing their best doesn't mean you must let them walk all over you. You need a combination of boundaries, integrity and generosity (what she calls living BIG) in order to deal with people whose "best" is in some way harmful to you. Remember when I said she was feeling resentful about having been guilted into doing this conference in the first place? She set herself up for the self-righteous loop she got stuck in by not practicing self-care, by not setting good boundaries.
This chapter spoke to me because like Brené Brown I'm a recovering perfectionist, and perfectionists are all about the Not Good Enough that then gets projected onto everyone else. But I've also been struck by how much this dynamic is reflected in how we treat one another these days, particularly online. Since reading this chapter, I've realized that virtually every snarky, vicious, graceless comment can be traced to this same self-righteousness. I refuse to give the negativity a signal boost, but look for yourself.
It makes me wonder, are these Judgy Judgersons as pinched and self-righteous in real life, with their spouses and children and coworkers and aging parents, or have they found a convenient outlet for their negativity? After all, if all you have is a name and a thumbnail, you can project all kinds of evil intent on them.
The good news is, if self-righteousness can get you into a death spiral of "I'm not good enough, nobody's good enough," then whole-heartedness can get you into a "life spiral." (I just made that term up.) But making a conscious decision to give people the benefit of the doubt helps us treat ourselves more graciously, which then extends back to others, and on and on in a positive way.
What do you think? Have you read the book?
Image is from Rising Strong.