Tag Archives: authenticity

Read This Now: Brené Brown’s Rising Strong

Screen Shot 2015-11-05 at 2.11.38 PMBrené 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.

I’m trying!

What do you think? Have you read the book?


Image is from Rising Strong.

All the World’s a Stage

Who lives like this?

Who lives like this?

As many of you know, we’re preparing to move a few weeks from now. We’re moving within the DC area, closer to my husband’s job. Then we have to sell our current house. Thankfully we’ve arranged things so we can move out before that happens—it needs some work to get it ready to go on the market.

We haven’t bought or sold a house since 2003. Sometime during those intervening twelve years, staging became a much bigger deal.

Back then, I remember our real estate agent giving us a few tips on making the house look good. Did you know there’s a proper ratio for how much dining room chairs should stick out from under the table? That sort of thing. I also remember walking into some homes that looked showroom quality, even though it was clear people were living there. I wondered what their secret was. I wondered where their clutter was. Now I know: staging.

These days, the real estate agent will hire a stager to take a close look at the home and put together a plan. The goal is to maximize bang for your buck, so the stager will rank and prioritize the tasks. Kitchens are important. So’s the placement of furniture. We’ll be leaving some pieces behind once we move, to help people visualize the space as well as possible.

Colors are also a big deal. Our stager gave us specific Pantone numbers to paint various rooms. Which suits us fine, frankly. Just tell us what to do and we’ll do it.

While we were going around looking at houses, my husband remarked how similar staging is to curating an online persona on social media. You can’t change the raw materials you have to work with. Your life is your life; your house is your house. But you go through a careful process of putting your best foot forward. We all do it to some extent, though some are more meticulous about it than others.

The problem comes when we compare our unstaged life to everyone else’s staged life and feel inadequate for falling short.

I was nervous about the staging thing at first. It’s hard not to feel judged for your design choices, and I pictured a snooty woman wrinkling her nose as she beheld our aging IKEA furniture. But our stager was great. And she won me over when she said, “You know… my house looks like a regular house—a house people actually live in. When I walk into a home that doesn’t need staging, I think ‘these people need therapy.'”

It’s a bit of a game. And naming that is important and healing.

I’m glad for the stager. We’ve made good memories in our home. That means displaying it in the best possible light so other people will see the potential for their own memories to be housed there.

This summer, like many of you I’m sure, I’ve seen friends post their vacation photos to Facebook. In the past, those pictures used to get me down sometimes. The beaches were so pristine, you see. The kids, so adorable, clutching their ice cream cones, barefoot in the perfect slanting light of dusk.

This summer I haven’t felt that way. This summer I have welcomed every photo, even living vicariously through them. A friend and I were laughing that I wasn’t bothered by the photos because I’m not working right now! That’s part of it, I’m sure (and I am working, though not full time and not in the church). But also, I recognize the rules of the game. Facebook is not reality. I sincerely hope my friends had great vacations this summer, but I also see the perfect photos for what they are—a representation of life that’s not entirely accurate.

Like my mama used to say, don’t compare your insides to other people’s outsides. Studies have shown that people can be dragged down by other people’s perfectly curated online personas. But I wonder if that will change as we “grow up” with this technology. I wonder if we are becoming more savvy about social media and the rules of the game. What do you think?

Salvation at the Grocery Store

My brother posted on Facebook today:

I sometimes feel like a juggler who is barely keeping up, but is constantly having bowling pins thrown at him. Or perhaps they’re chainsaws.

I wrote about that sense of overwhelm (yes, that’s a verb that needed to be nouned) in a recent post, Failure to Adult. Yesterday I had yet another minor freakout about some stressful things going on–I won’t bore you with them, because they’re mundane. But I realized that I was in dire need of some perspective: my basic needs are being met, my family is healthy, I have gratifying work and a loving family.

Perspective comes in all kinds of ways… like this sign:




In case you’re having trouble reading it, it’s a sign alerting people with nut allergies to the fact that chestnuts would be displayed in open bins. This sign went up in early December–the “holiday season” in question–and was still on display as of May 20 at 11:30 a.m. when I snapped this picture like some weird grocery-store stalker. Unless chestnuts are the hot new Memorial Day item, this sign is five months out of date.

Barbara Brown Taylor likes to ask groups she speaks to, “What’s saving your life right now?” What’s saving my life right now is that dang sign–or at least, what the sign represents. This is the grocery-store equivalent of having your Christmas decorations up until spring. Or it’s like the friend of mine who dropped off her kids at school today and saw other kids piling up supplies for an upcoming event on a table and realizing she’d completely forgotten.

I’ve decided that pretty much 100% of people feel this way–and apparently, some local businesses too.

I find it oddly comforting that, whether consciously or unconsciously, the various store personnel who pass this sign every day have determined there are more important things to worry about than getting the sign down. It’s not hurting business. It’s not in the way. And hey, come November they’ll be ahead of the game.

We are all such individual and collective messes.


Failure to Adult

Screen Shot 2015-04-22 at 10.21.28 AM

I was “bequeathed” a few of my father’s writings, which are precious artifacts to me. Some were written for publication; others are more personal. One of the more personal ones dealt with a simple home improvement project that went wrong. In addition to feeling frustrated, my dad began hearing his own father’s voice in his head, berating him for not knowing how to do something so simple. The louder the voice got, the more my dad tried to hammer away at the problem, making it worse and worse, literally knocking holes in the wall in his shame. No matter how he tried, he could not silence the voice: You should know how to do this. What kind of man are you?

The people involved are all deceased, which is one reason I feel I can share those bare-bones details. The other reason is this: Don’t most of us struggle with shame scripts from time to time? Brené Brown wouldn’t be a bestselling author if we didn’t.

Even if your parent didn’t speak this language, you have probably picked up some of the basic messages of shame. Brené articulates them as:
Not good enough.
Who do you think you are? 

Robert and I have been slowly making headway on some long pending home projects. (Long pending.) Sunday morning I went on a long run and when I got back I decided to take advantage of my already-sweaty status and tackle the garage. Over the next several hours I sorted a bunch of items for donation, boxed up little-kid toys for the attic, and collected all the outdoor toys into a single place in the garage. As I left for Goodwill with the back of the van piled high with stuff, I proudly announced to Robert that we were probably one weekend away from being able to park our van in the garage for the first time in James’s life.

It was an amazing feeling.

Late in the afternoon Robert and I set about putting the boxes of Christmas decorations back in the attic. (Yes, mid-April… and that’s not even our record. June 25 is the magic day on which the next Christmas is closer than the previous one, so why bother putting the boxes away?)

As I started to hand up boxes of ornaments and ceramic figurines, I heard him say “Umm… hold up a second. Yeah, stand back.”

Then down through the hole came a shower of debris: empty box after empty box, large styrofoam pieces–old storage for computer monitors, desktops and other household appliances we don’t even own anymore.

I began to hyperventilate, and it wasn’t from the dust.

Here I had spent the entire day getting the garage in order, and we were trashing it out again! This wasn’t a rational response, of course. I knew intellectually that one trip to the recycling center would do it–and that’s exactly what happened. And it’s great to have more space in the attic.

But with each cascade of boxes came this voice in my head: You call yourself a competent adult? Look at this stuff you haven’t dealt with… for years! You will never conquer the chaos and clutter in your life. There will always be more–more than you can ever handle. 

I realized that keeping up with the Joneses can take many forms. Some people are lured by the Joneses’ shiny new toys, or the Jones children’s impeccable manners and shelf full of trophies.

My trigger is competence. I often feel like there’s this body of knowledge about adulthood that I somehow missed. Our dishwasher recently started leaking and it turns out we needed to clean the seal from time to time. Where in the heck were we supposed to pick up this information?

As the Internet leaves its infancy and adolescence, we’re seeing more and more studies on the effect of social media on happiness. I’ve read a lot of it and it’s a mixed bag–there are net positives and net negatives. But I do know that Facebook and other sites have given us insidious new ways of comparing every one else’s outsides to our insides, which is never a formula for a wholehearted life. Our real-life messiness will always lose out to everyone else’s carefully curated personas. Blessed be those who will post the graphic like the one above. Blessed be the pockets of radical honesty where a super capable person I know can say, “It’s April 18 and my taxes are a mess. I have done nothing. Help.”

I talk to many friends and colleagues recently who struggle with some version of impostor syndrome: If people found out how screwed up I was, I’d be fired/ridiculed/judged. A woman and pastor colleague who serves a large church told me several years ago, “I feel like I’m always fifteen minutes away from complete embarrassment.”

Not good enough.
Who do you think you are?

As I continue to reflect on Sunday’s experience of cascading boxes, I’m trying to confront those messages in my head as the shame-poisoned lie that they are. Yeah, life is chaotic, and I’ll never have it figured out. But I’m trying to practice radical kindness toward myself in the process.

Last week at The Well, one of my colleagues quoted that beautiful line from Ram Dass: We’re all just walking each other home. That’s what I’ve been trying to hear over the din of not good enough.

These conversations need to leave the quiet moments behind closed doors. I hate that our culture doesn’t reward this kind of truth telling. But you know what? We are culture. We have the power to move toward greater authenticity with one another. I hope we will.


This one’s for KB.


A Guide to Effective Trolling… Or Not


So I wrote a thing the other day that provoked some strong reactions.

I’ve been blogging for more than 10 years and have managed to fly under the radar for much of that time. For many years, I joked that my blog was down the dirt road and past the rusted-out gas station, and I liked it that way. I had a small group of readers, consisting of folks I knew and strangers who were amiable and thoughtful even when they disagreed. It was a great place to try out new ideas. Blogging is ideal for putting stuff out there even when the toothpick doesn’t come out clean.

I know people who’ve been trolled mercilessly, even threatened, on the Internet; and I know it can be harder for women, who often deal with rape threats and other violent or misogynistic comments. We’re learning more about the psychology of trolls—these folks are more likely to exhibit behaviors correlating with the so-called Dark Tetrad of personality: sadism, psychopathy, and Machiavellianism.

I’ve had a pretty great experience online. I still say that, even after spending a good part of the last few days wading through emails and comments that have come in as a result of the TIME.com article and this blog post. It’s been an interesting sociological study and occasion for self-reflection. What does vigorous engagement look like? How do we disagree online and in real life? How do we influence and persuade one another? How do we show graciousness when our “side” has prevailed?

Some of this week’s emails got quickly deleted, e.g. those that mainly consisted of quoting the Apostle Paul. Trust me, I’m familiar with his work.

Similarly, messages employing all caps, excessive exclamation points, etc. I don’t allow people I know to yell at me; do you really think I’m going to let you?

Other responses contained factual inaccuracies about the decision that was made or had a legitimate gripe about what happened. My rule of thumb has always been that those folks deserve one response, so if I have time, I’ll respond in good faith. Then it’s their move. If they show a genuine effort to engage, I may continue. If they escalate the nastiness, I’m through. Life’s too short.

But then there were a few messages that got to me. And upon reflection, it’s not the trolls that do it. They are so over the top as to be instantly disregarded.

It’s the people who wrote out of their own authentic experience… especially those who were honest in naming their pain.

One person began a note by saying, “I cried when that marriage decision was made too, but for the exact opposite reason that you did.”

Hey. I feel the way I do, and the person’s email doesn’t change that. But how can you not be moved by that?

I keep thinking about James Baldwin’s words: I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.

This person refused to be a knee-jerk hater, instead responding from a deeper place. The emailer shared an experience of pain, and with a complete stranger, no less. I honor that. It has stuck with me.

Many people are pained by what happened. I don’t understand it. I honestly believe that this is a faithful decision biblically, theologically and pastorally. I further believe that gay marriage won’t be a cultural cataclysm, just as interracial marriage wasn’t. But I appreciate the pain the General Assembly’s decision is bringing to people. And part of our action at GA was for the church to put a process in place of engaging with people who are pained.

How do we do that? The church has been arguing about LGBT issues for decades. There’s really nothing much left to say. Let’s stop trying to convince each other we’re right. So what’s next? Authenticity is next. Vulnerability is next. Sharing our broken places with one another is next.

(Thank you Brene Brown.)


Image: “Troll surrenders to love,” by my aunt, artist Chris Bergquist Fulmer.