Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance from the relationship.”
– Dr. Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW
I asked a good friend recently to name authors who inspire him. Dr. Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW topped the list. She’s a research professor at the University of Houston who started her academic journey with a quest to answer two questions: “What is the anatomy of human connection, and how does it work?” Her research quickly surfaced a need to understand vulnerability and its role in forging meaningful connection. It also led her to study the nature and impact of shame given its corrosive impact on vulnerability. Two powerful Ted Talks explore these topics:
Having watched these YouTube videos, I opted to check out three of her books. I highly recommend each of them. To whet your appetite, I’ll provide a brief introduction here.
In her 2010 book The Gifts of Imperfection, Dr. Brown describes practices that enable readers to “let go of who you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are.” Based on her research, the people who consciously and courageously engage in “wholehearted living” adhere to the following 10 guideposts (as quoted from the book):
- Cultivating authenticity: Letting go of what other people think
- Cultivating compassion: Letting go of perfectionism
- Cultivating a resilient spirit: Letting go of numbing and powerlessness
- Cultivating gratitude and joy: Letting go of scarcity and fear of the dark
- Cultivating intuition and trusting faith: Letting go of the need for certainty
- Cultivating creativity: Letting go of comparison
- Cultivating play and rest: Letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth
- Cultivating calm and stillness: Letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle
- Cultivating meaningful work: Letting go of self-doubt and “supposed to”
- Cultivating laughter, song, and dance: Letting go of being “cool” and always in control
Each of these guideposts represents a practice that must be nurtured on a daily basis. Based on my experience, some integrate more easily into our habits and rituals than others.
In her 2012 book Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown looks at the principal impediment to wholehearted living – SHAME. She defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Shame preys on our self-worth and thwarts our ability to be authentic, to open ourselves up to others in nurturing relationships, and to persevere in the wake of adversity, set-backs, or disappointments. It gains power over us when it is shrouded in secrecy.
Dr. Linda Hartling, PhD describes three common strategies in response to shame: (i) Moving away by withdrawing; (ii) Moving toward by seeking to appease and please; and, (iii) Moving against by attempting to gain control over others or the situation. Each of these strategies has the capacity to damage connection and corrodes self-worth. Per Dr. Brown, the antidote is a practice of shame resilience that helps us move through the experience with our values, self-esteem, and relationships intact. This practice entails:
- Noticing the feeling of shame as it occurs and understanding its trigger(s)
- Getting to the bottom of what’s causing the feeling while creating space for loving and compassionate self-talk
- Reaching out to those who have earned the right to hear our story and have the capacity to bear the weight of it
- Giving voice to what happened, what you’re feeling, and what you need to move forward
This process takes courage. But as Dr. Brown says, “Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”
In the 2015 book Rising Strong, Dr. Brown addresses the reality that “if we are brave enough often enough, we will fall.” As such, we need an approach for picking ourselves back up and getting back in the game. As with shame resilience, it demands a “reckoning” to name our feelings and get clear on their underpinning and impact. It calls for honesty about the stories we’re making up about the situation, the other players, and ourselves to determine what’s truth, what’s old patterns of thinking, and what’s good old self-protection. It results in a new ending that affects positive change in the way we engage in the world. Dr. Brown punctuates each of these concepts with evocative stories that provide illustrations of the circumstances, internal dialogs, interpersonal dynamics, ordinary acts of courage, and triumphs that go hand-and-hand with “rising strong.”
Clearly, I’ve barely skimmed the surface of the rich content contained in Dr. Brown’s books. Again – I highly recommend that you take the time to read her books and/or watch her TED Talks. Her research, findings, and recommendations consistently accord with my life experience. Her organizing principals for the practice of “wholehearted living” offer sufficient depth to be genuinely useful without burdening them with undue complexity. Her writing style appeals to the “scientist” within me while also giving me a good chuckle. And she clearly models the behaviors that she hopes to instill in others.