“To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
– C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves
Brené Brown is at it once more. In her #1 New York Times best-selling work, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown shared the message “Be you.” Her 2012 tome Daring Greatly furthered this message to include the directive, “Be all in.” In her latest work, Rising Strong, Brown continues her mission with the invitation to “Fall. Get up. Try again.”
Failing can be such a frightening experience, so frightening that it can keep us from even trying. Rising Strong is about overcoming our failures and giving ourselves permission to fail, fall, and try again.
Brown’s Rising Strong process has three steps. First is the Reckoning, in which you realize that you are having an emotional reaction and become curious as to why. Second is the Rumble, where you acknowledge your genuine emotions and confront any fabrications and false assumptions you may have made. You decide what is useful about your reaction and what you want to change. In the third step, the Revolution, you use what you have discovered about yourself to write a new, better story, in order to live a more wholehearted life.
For me, the best “a-ha!” moment of the book was about realizing that we make up stories that chip away at our self-confidence and hurt our relationships. In typical Brené Brown fashion, the author manages to be both erudite and folksy, offering plenty of examples from her personal life to illustrate her research findings. For instance, Brown describes the time she and her family were on vacation, and she went for a swim across the lake with her husband. Surrounded by the dazzling summer beauty of the lake and feeling deep affection for her husband, she felt a welling up of joy and sense of vulnerability. She told her husband how glad she was that they were enjoying the water together. When he responded with a half-hearted, “Yeah. Water’s good,” and swam away from her, her emotional reaction was embarrassment, closely followed by shame. While she had attempted to embrace her vulnerability and use the moment as an opportunity for connection, his lackluster response led her to question herself. Realizing that as a renowned shame and vulnerability researcher, she ought to practice what she preached, she tried again. She caught up with her husband and told him, “This is so great. I love that we’re doing this. I feel so close to you.” His response before taking off again? “Yep. Good swim.” Before they reached the water’s edge and the end of their swim, Brown made up stories about what was going on with her husband. Maybe he was silently berating her for being such a slowpoke. Maybe he was repulsed by how she looked in her bathing suit. Maybe he wanted a divorce!
At this point in the narrative, Brown had a choice. She could believe her made-up stories, feel embarrassed, angry, and disconnected, or she could try again and do something different. So she steeled herself, rising up, and shared with him the stories she was making up. As a result, her husband shared with her that he had been having a panic attack throughout the entire swim, triggered by a nightmare he’d had the night before about their children drowning in the lake. Brené’s thoughts had been hijacked by body-image fear (the most common shame trigger for women). Her husband’s dream had stirred his anxiety about not being able to protect the children and awakened his fear of being weak (the most common shame trigger for men).
Brown reckoned with her emotions by acknowledging her feelings of embarrassment and shame, getting curious about how those feelings were linked to her thoughts and behaviors. She rumbled around the stories she’d made up (“my husband thinks I’m a terrible swimmer, I’m unattractive, and he doesn’t want me”) and dug deep to find a willingness to revisit, challenge, and fact-check the stories. She told her husband the stories she’d made up so that he could give her a reality check. She experienced a revolution when she and her husband were able to find the courage to trust one another with their honesty and vulnerability.
John and Julie Gottman, psychologists and renowned experts on marital stability, run the Gottman Institute, which is devoted to helping couples build and maintain loving, healthy relationships based on scientific studies. The Gottmans found that throughout a given day, partners make requests for connection, what the Gottmans call “bids.” For example, say that a husband notices a hawk fly across the yard. He might say to his wife, “Look at that majestic bird outside!” He’s not just commenting on the bird here: he’s requesting a response from his wife—a sign of interest or support—hoping they’ll connect, however momentarily, over the bird.The wife now has a choice. She can respond by either “turning toward” or “turning away” from her husband, according to the Gottmans. Though the hawk-bid might seem minor and silly, it can actually reveal a lot about the health of the relationship. The Gottmans found that these bidding interactions had profound effects on marital well-being. Couples who had divorced after a six-year follow up had “turn-toward bids” 33 percent of the time. Only three in ten of their bids for emotional connection were met with intimacy. The couples who were still together after six years had “turn-toward bids” 87 percent of the time. Nine times out of ten, they were meeting their partner’s emotional needs. Returning to the swimming example, we can see how Brené’s husband “turned away” from her initial “bid” for connection. Her belief in the power of vulnerability gave her the strength to make an additional bid, despite her fear. Her own risk-taking – falling and getting back up – led to a return bid from her husband and a turning point in their relationship.
As we reckon our stories, Brown pushes readers to feel and recognize our emotions and then get curious enough about them to dig a little deeper. Doing so, she writes, keeps us from offloading our hurts in a variety of unproductive ways: lashing out our hurts, bouncing our hurts away as if they don’t matter, numbing our hurts through one or more methods, stockpiling our hurts by keeping everything inside, or getting stuck in our hurt. In the chapter on reckoning, Brown offers realistic strategies for reckoning with emotion and healing the hurt.
If the reckoning is the spark that ignites our stories, the rumble is the self-examination that fans the flames. The goal of the rumble is to challenge our stories, to really investigate the link between our emotions, thoughts, and behaviors. This requires a willingness to confront our assumptions and beliefs, often by checking with our partners, friends, and family members. Brown calls this “mining for truths.” Taking the risk to show vulnerability can be scary, but it can lead to more deeply connected relationships, a sense of personal power, and infinite joy.
“Take all of your wasted honor
Every little past frustration
Take all of your so-called problems,
Better put ’em in quotations
Say what you need to say …
Even if your hands are shaking
And your faith is broken
Even as the eyes are closing
Do it with a heart wide open …”
– John Mayer, Say
The revolution is what comes after the rumbling. It’s the act of rising strong, but it cannot be done before all the prior work. Revolution is the act of intentionally choosing authenticity and worthiness (as an act of resistance to shame) in this world.
Rising strong is hard work. It requires mindful attention to our emotions, casting a spotlight on feelings that we might prefer to stuff down inside. Rising strong demands that we question, challenge, and confront our beliefs about ourselves – and what we imagine others believe about us. Once we get to a place of truth, we become part of the revolution toward wholehearted living. When we fall again – and we will fall again – we can utilize the skills that Brown has consolidated, to allow us to Rise Strong. Again and again.
“This time you’ve got nothing to lose
You can take it, you can leave it
Whatever you choose
I won’t hold back anything
And I’ll walk a way a fool or a king
Some love is just a lie of the mind
It’s make believe until its only a matter of time
And some might have learned to adjust
But then it never was a matter of trust”
– Billy Joel, A Matter of Trust
Brown, Brené. Daring Greatly. New York: Gotham Books, 2012.
Brown, Brené. The Gifts of Imperfection. Center City, MN: Hazeldon, 2010
Brown, Brené. Rising Strong: The Reckoning, The Rumble, The Revolution. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2015.
Gottman, John. Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: And How You Can Make Yours Last. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1994.