Welcome to Day 1 of my new series, “30 Days of Brené Brown” wherein I will take the top 30 quotes as determined by Goodreads. Who is Brené Brown you ask? She is a research professor at the University of Houston, author of several books on emotional health and authenticity and all-around bad-ass when it comes to shame and vulnerability research. But more importantly, she is my “if you could have dinner / evening out with anyone you don’t know who would it be…” -person. Go here to learn more about her. In each post I will try to limit myself to 1,200 words.
Owning our story can be hard but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy—the experiences that make us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.
― Brené Brown
Hmm. Agh. Gah. Shit.
I have some really worn out track shoes that I’d spent a so-called adult lifetime in running, nay, sprinting from my story. Years ago I had a friend who was a career marathoner and triathlete who was also an attorney and a brash Texan. We were doing a charity walk for his wife’s chronic illness and I asked him why he didn’t run the event instead of walk it. He said that he wanted to spend the time with his sons and show them that “just walking for Mommy was helping her.” He then followed up with a side remark, “I’ve spent my life running as a marathoner. Since I was 14. I have recently come to the personal conclusion that in doing all those marathons I was either running to something or running from something.”
He had my interest. In my usual eloquence, I said, “More. More.” as I waved my hand impatiently for more information.
He resumed, “I don’t know which yet. I’d like to say I’m running to something, but that means that something isn’t right; if I say that I’m running from something, then I don’t rightly know where I’m going. I’m figuring it out. But my sense is, it’s my past… that I’m running … from.”
Owning my story. This flies in the face of my reminding myself that I am not my story. Embracing vulnerability is something I’ve spent a lot of time doing. Back when I first began therapy, in 1923, I remember Freud saying to me before he went back to Vienna for his vacation, “I wonder what it would be like for you to be soft and vulnerable.”
I nearly defibbed right there. Like Carol Burnett portraying Greta Garbo dying on a flight of stairs, I felt air get sucked from my body and I clenched my chest. Y’see, I’d spent a good part of my then-65 years as a hard-ass. My father used to call me a scrappy, barren city playground nickname that makes my blood boil. I won’t share it because it’s one that I lived up to and as far as I’m concerned, stripped me of most of my softer ways. He was proud when he said that nickname, and as an obedient, or more likely, survival-driven child, I would do my utmost to retain and build on it; so much so that it became almost like my ‘rep.’
So when Siggy asked me to consider it, being soft and vulnerable, I balked. I looked over my shoulders, around the room and suggested that clearly he must be talking to someone else. Surely it wasn’t me, at 65, who was causing my own problems, my own anxieties and my own patterns. No.
No. I had no problems. I was seeing Freud because it was my children who were the problems. For me to have allowed that I was in a weak position because of something that happened to me as a child meant that I would have to admit I was emotionally leaking which only came from weakness. And weakness meant that I needed help and that even the mere suggestion of my being needy and asking for help was not in the least shameful. No.
“Define soft and vulnerable,” I said as my eyelids quivered to stay closed and my jaw consciously loosened. I slowly let out the rest of my breath.
“You know: ask for help, be kinder to yourself. Say ‘no’ to someone’s request for assistance. Say ‘yes’ to someone’s offer of assistance. Better still: Allow things to happen without interfering and maybe be OK with not having all the answers. Let someone hug you for more than a couple seconds; say if you’re afraid of something. You know: be a human.”
I had a hard time with that. I said so, “It’s hard to be soft.” I wanted to kick him in his shins, shave his famous beard, stomp on his glasses. He gave me a month to try it. No therapy. I was just getting a handle on what my feelings were — I had only known of two until then: rage and confusion.
So yeah — owning my story is easier than running from it. My story is no better and no worse than anyone else’s. I have always been a candid person and I’ve always had an easy time relating to people and wanting them to feel safe telling me their stories. Some people are OK with it, others aren’t. I will also admit that there are some stories I just can’t hear anymore and I’m tired of telling my story — or at least the sad parts of it, but I am giving myself some slack right now because I’m still fairly unused to my mother being gone and so naturally lots of stuff is swimming around in me. I go from “I’m tired of telling my story.” to “I want the world to know my story!!!!” in the same breath. Sometimes I can’t believe where I’ve come from and then I hear someone else’s story and I feel pathetic — as though my story doesn’t count compared to another.
Then there’s the ‘running-from’ aspect: when the feelings of our stories, our hurts, disappointments, fears, regrets, shame, woe, confusion — true vulnerability — comes in play. It’s too hard to hold. That’s like the Prince of Tides moments for me — not so much that I endured and withstood and survived the things I did … that’s hard as it is; but the allowing that someone else could perpetrate the actions which led to those feelings of abandonment, woe, regret, ugliness, disposability, shame, fear, and hurt on me. What’s worse: allowing that it wasn’t personal. We want, even in those darkest moments for it to have been personal, at least just a smidge, so that the person who was hurting us was even aware that we were present, that we were being hurt; that it wasn’t just some case of blind rage or random fuck-up’edness that made that action possible.
That’s where another level of the ‘running from’ comes in for me: that I didn’t even matter then, during all that rage and sadness and narcissism. It’s hard to admit that pain; the double-edge of it (that a: it happened and b: you didn’t matter enough to make it stop), so I ran from it.
As a people, signs are omnipresent that we bury it deep inside us: Target stores everywhere, the abundance of stuff, Black Friday, today “Cyber Monday” (WTF?!) and all the shit in our homes, our lives… all the stuff! none of it matters! we use it to build walls and hide ourselves with our perfect nails and fancy hair and super-white teeth all so we won’t at all let on that we’re insecure, that we’re scared inside, that we’re afraid of being judged. Or there’s the “everything’sjustfineitis!it’sgreat!sogreat!totally!” which also is a wall we build to hide our vulnerability and pain.
But in order to bury it, we have to use the hole that the pain created for it to fit. But it doesn’t always fit there, so we spew it at others in passive-aggressive ways or in straight-out aggressive-aggressive ways. We project our self-loathing on to others by withholding love or by judging them. I did that. For a long time. And now my mother, the one I withheld against for so long (simply as a matter to protect myself) is dead. I’m not saying I regret it — I absolutely had to draw boundaries (and I think that’s where Brené and I might disagree at times), I just wish it weren’t so.
So then we try to fill the hole of that pain with alcohol and shopping and food and drugs and running and work and facebook and gambling and porn and rage and shame and ____ and _____ and _____ which of course creates more pain (a bigger hole) for us to fill up with more shit which creates more pain for more shit.
When we own our stories, we confront them. We neutralize them — the stories don’t evaporate, but they are manageable. We can learn from them instead of filling them with shit. This life, the moment you’re living right now isn’t a dress rehearsal, we don’t really get a second chance. When our lives are over, they’re over. When it comes to “near-death” experiences, I’m not sure I buy it… we die when we are meant to die. So if it’s a year or 60 that we have left to live, it’s probably best to stop running so you can shake hands with your story, own your fears and rage and joys and grace. Sit down and enjoy life. Make lemonade, then drink it.
ps – My other 30 Days series was on Carl Jung. Click on this link for that index.