Daring Greatly

IMG_1830I finished Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly about a week ago while in London for Stoicon. I saw one of Brown’s TED talks years ago. I haven’t re-watched it recently. Many friends and even people I barely know have recommended Brown’s books to me so I thought I’d give one a try. Daring Greatly seemed the most appealing for what I want right now in my life. I would love to be more courageous and daring. Brené Brown makes a killing from her best selling books and also rakes it in as a popular keynote speaker. I was curious to see what she offers.

My initial reaction to this book was confusion. I had seen it marketed as psychology and self-help, neither of which I found here. Brown is a self-described shame researcher, but if this were a psychology book about shame, the Super-Ego would be mentioned at least. It’s not self-help because there are no practical suggestions or tools given for actually becoming more vulnerable and thus, courageous. I was also confused about what constitutes “shame.” For Brown, the shame tent is nearly all-encompassing. Self-loathing, fear of rejection, embarrassment (even though she says not), anxiety, overwhelm, discouragement, feelings of unworthiness, and perfectionism are all “shame” for Brown.

I also found myself wincing as I read. Brown’s constant reference to her credentials and popularity is off-putting. She seems to have an overpowering need to establish herself as an expert. It’s as if she were constantly asking, “Do you believe me know? And now? How about now?” On a related note, in the book she talks about how we wince when someone overshares. She attributes the compulsion to overshare to shame (of course) and justifies her own oversharing as acceptable because she only opens up about personal issues she has already worked through. I have not seen Brown on tv and barely remember her TED talk, but I imagine her to be a very charming and engaging speaker in person. She likely has an attractive personality and that’s why she gets away with oversharing and, well, neediness. Because she is so vibrant she comes off as being real and authentic in her neediness rather than tedious.  I should clarify that I didn’t flinch so much at her oversharing since she brings a lot of self-awareness to it, but to her need to convince readers that she is an expert.

Her book appears to be a description of the results of a sociological study rather than psychology or self help. However, as far as her research methods go, I am left with the question: How is this any different from someone talking to a lot of people and finding her own personal issues in other people’s stories? It’s a very human response for sure, but I’m not sure I’d call it scientific or research or data. Also, the entire tone of the book seems to be, “Did you know there is this thing out there called shame? and I have personally discovered  and uncovered it as the source of all of society’s ills!” There is zero historical context or mention of past shame researchers.

The truth is, a week after reading this book, very little of it sticks with me. There was a lot about the paralyzing effects of perfectionism. That is something I became aware of in myself and started dealing with in my early 20s. I couldn’t relate to many of her personal anecdotes. I did like the paragraph about Kristin Neff, self-compassion researcher but I had already seen Neff’s TED talk. In fact I had recommended here her website and self-compassion exercises as practical and useful.

I really can’t think who I would recommend this book to in spite of it being so popular and lauded. In its place I would recommend Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the voice of vocation by Parker J. Palmer if you are looking to feel more centered and grounded in your authentic self. I liked Freeing Our Families from Perfectionism by Thomas S. Greenspon.

I have to say I even question the importance of vulnerability in courageous action as compared to wisdom and discretion. Why was Catherine the Great such a powerfully courageous monarch? Because she was wise. She started reading practical philosophy as a young girl and sought to develop her own personal philosophy of life that guided her every action. She was courageous because after years of seeking wisdom in books and from her own astute observations of court life, she was expert at assessing risk, whether it be in a personal relationship with an advisor or a war with millions of lives at stake. I would like to be vulnerable in the way that Catherine the Great was, to have the ability to dispassionately take stock of my weaknesses and strengths, to be humble enough to take good counsel and yet confident enough to make my own decisions.

I have made some brave decisions in the past few years of my life. Many people have asked me how I got that courage and just now I have been reflecting on that. I think my dad encouraged me to be both wise and daring as a kid. Many times he would see that I wanted to do something, like to ride a spirited horse for example, but my fear kept me back. I remember his voice as he told me, “You can do it and you will be fine. Yes, that’s it. You’re doing great!” Many times these attempts ended in the “failure” of me being thrown from the horse and experiencing physical pain, but my father made me see these instances as triumphs over fear. I learned from him that you have to go for it and that sometimes pain happens. Pain is pain, nothing more and nothing less. As Marcus Aurelius said, “Pain is neither intolerable nor everlasting if you bear in mind that it has its limits, and if you add nothing to it in imagination.”

self-criticism and rumination

 

I don't know why I picked this particular painting for this post. Any excuse to look at Chagall, I guess.
I don’t know why I picked this particular painting for this post. There is a cow, and cows ruminate, right? Any excuse to look at Chagall, I guess.

I used to analyze myself down to the last thread, used to compare myself with others, recalled all the smallest glances, smiles and words of those to whom I’d tried to be frank, interpreted everything in a bad light, laughed viciously at my attempts ‘to be like the rest’―and suddenly, in the midst of my laughing, I’d give way to sadness, fall into ludicrous despondency and once again start the whole process all over again―in short, I went round and round like a squirrel on a wheel.

-Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Crime and Punishment

This mind set that Dostoyevsky describes so accurately is indeed torturous. It’s self torture. I’ve been there, as have most people. Over-analysis of your faults, comparing yourself to others, social anxiety, self doubt, and self criticism are all symptoms of a personal identity crisis and/or feelings of low self worth. An identity crisis can come along at any point in your life and at any age. It’s when you doubt who you are, what you stand for, and where you fit in. Any life event that shakes up your status quo can trigger an identity crisis. If you are experiencing an identity crisis it means that you are growing out of your previous identity and it’s time to redefine and recreate who you are. It’s time for an upgrade! No matter what brought on the identity crisis, it’s an excellent opportunity for personal growth.

However, though ultimately a good thing, an identity crisis may initially bring on the sort of negative thought patters that Dostoyevsky so keenly describes in the above quote. Before you can proceed with the deeply rewarding work of redefining yourself and finding just where it is you fit in, you need to get off that wheel! Here’s how.

1. Eliminate or severely limit self-help books and anything else that has you focusing on your weaknesses. Avoid like the plague those articles entitled the likes of, “56 Toxic Things About You that are RUINING Your Life FOREVER.” Maybe in casting about for some way, any way, of digging yourself out of this identity crisis pit, you landed upon the idea that if you can only fix yourself you will fit in, people will like you, and everything will be ok again. But no, that’s not going to work and here’s why: This is not a good time to take on massive self-improvement projects because right now you are feeling so vulnerable, all of your weaknesses are going to seem magnified way out of proportion to what they really are.

2. Stop self-criticism and start self compassion NOW. Constant self-criticism is damaging to your self concept and even affects you physically. Attacks to yourself, even if you are the perpetrator, stimulate the body’s threat defense system causing it to release high levels of cortisol, which could eventually cause your body to shut down in a depressed state. Practicing self compassion has the opposite effect, lowering cortisol and releasing oxytocin and opiates. Self-compassion is accepting and loving yourself as the imperfect person you are. It’s treating yourself just as you would treat a good friend. You might find these guided meditations and self-compassion exercises helpful.

3. Stop ruminating. Rumination is obsessive analyzing and thinking about negative past events or current situations that you can’t change. For example, if you have just ended a relationship, it’s constantly replaying the events that led up to the break up and obsessing about what you might have done differently to save the relationship. Or fixating on what a terrible person your ex is and planning how to get revenge. The best revenge is a life beautifully lived, but you’re not going to get there with these kinds of thoughts.

What I personally found most helpful in halting rumination was learning to let go of the things I don’t control. I realized how fruitless it was to worry and stress about the past, people’s opinions of me, my health, and any myriad of things that could go wrong. I created mantras that I repeated to myself throughout the day any time I felt tempted to think about those things. In less than two weeks I saw a remarkable difference in my thought patters and after a month, I found that I didn’t need to repeat my mantras as often anymore because I was starting to believe in a deep down way that I have absolutely no business worrying about what I do not control

Other effective ways to stop rumination are:

  • Scheduling a set time to worry every day, maybe 20-30 minutes. That way every time you get a negative, worrying thought you can think to yourself, “Ok, I’ll save that to think about during my worry time.” Then it doesn’t become a permanent mind set, and yet you aren’t trying to suppress negative thoughts or feelings, which can cause other problems.
  • Write about it. I found that writing provided a more constructive and positive way to deal with my issues than keeping it all in my head. Writing helped me make more sense of everything that was happening to me. In many cases, I found that once I wrote about a problem I was experiencing, I no longer felt the need to keep thinking about it. I was ready to move on.
  • Focus on the here and now. Let me ask you something. If you had the option to either go about in the world freely or lock yourself in dank, smelly basement, which would you choose? When you are ruminating, you are not living in the moment. You are living in the equivalent of a dank, smelly basement. Get out of there! Practice mindfulness by giving your full attention to the lovely, simple pleasures of daily existence.

4. Surround yourself with the right friends. Avoid people who are constantly critical. Even if they are not directing the criticism at you, they could be infecting you with their negativity and even provoking rumination and self-criticism. If in social situations you start to feel like the above Dostoyevsky quote is describing you, here is a sure-fire quick fix. Stop talking, stop trying to impress people, and start listening. It will require a lot of attention and it won’t be easy at first, but it’s worth it. Listen to people. Repeat back to them what you think they are trying to say to make sure you understand. Try to put yourself in their shoes. Understand. Forget about yourself for a while and listen. You may be surprised at the results. I know I was.

The Secret is wrong. So is Mark Manson.

The Universe aka Santa Claus
The Universe aka Santa Claus

Here is the perfect example of why I feel for people who, lacking a personal philosophy of life and a clear vision of who they are, seek answers among the morass of self help and psychology articles.

On the one hand you have positive psychology and the likes of The Secret. I never read it because after seeing it on Oprah years ago and reading a synopsis I knew it wasn’t for me. If it’s been a while since you heard about The Secret, let me refresh your memory. It’s a mystical spin on positive psychology. There is supposedly this Law of Attraction out there in the Universe that really boils down to: like attracts like. If you think positive thoughts, you put out this high frequency vibration that attracts all the good stuff because the good stuff also vibrates at a high frequency. Ditto for negative thoughts and their corresponding low frequency that attracts bad stuff. Also, if you shout it out into the Universe that you want a certain thing that you believe will make you happy, and you really really really believe that you’ll get it, the Universe (that good ol’ Santa) will provide it for you.

Mark Manson recently came out as hating The Secret. His criticism of this particular book as well as the positive psychology camp minus mystical trappings is spot on and I completely agree. It makes perfect sense to me that this mind set, especially if adopted by people of limited intellectual or emotional capacity or obsessive tendencies, can lead to complacency, extreme risk-taking, and delusional thinking. It can aggravate and perhaps cause rumination, OCD, depression, and anxiety. I agree with Manson that making your own personal happiness your ultimate priority is likely to make you self absorbed and consequently, unhappy.

What I don’t agree with is Manson’s answer to the question, if not The Secret, then what? He says:

Call me crazy, but I believe that changing and improving your life requires destroying a part of yourself and replacing it with a newer, better part of yourself. It is therefore, by definition, a painful process full of resistance and anxiety. You can’t grow muscle without challenging it with greater weight. You can’t build emotional resilience without forging through hardship and loss. And you can’t build a better mind without challenging your own beliefs and assumptions.

So why would we ever expect that becoming a better person is easy or pleasant or…positive?

These are all, by definition, difficult and stressful activities.

I don’t know about you, but that makes me want to give up on improving myself forever. Pass me the Doritos and the remote control.

I think Mark Manson is an incredibly gifted communicator. His brash, in-your-face style has its appeal. He’s funny. We were talking about Manson in positive terms last night at a party. I think The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F***  is wonderful, and this from someone who dislikes the f-word. Very Stoic! I approve. However, in spite of Manson’s way with words and the fact that we both look askance at positive psychology, I would never in a million hire him as a life coach. Sounds like psychological boot camp for the rest of your life.

I don’t believe in these kinds of extremes. Thank merciful heavens I don’t believe my only two choices are between starry-eyed, silly positive psychology and a harsh, stressful demolition and construction project for my soul.

Here is my choice. I’ll even put it to you manifesto style.

I believe that all humans have an innate need to progress and become a little better every day. We all need to engage in some variety of soul crafting. While it’s true that this is not an easy process, it needn’t be especially stressful and certainly not unpleasant! For me it’s a glorious and fulfilling undertaking that brings me great joy. I believe that in order to be brave enough to make ourselves sufficiently vulnerable and have the strength to make difficult changes in our lives, we need to be our own best friends. We must treat ourselves with compassion and fill our lives with the things we love best. We need to find ways to fulfill our needs for beauty and connection, and when we do that, we are able to approach challenging issues from a place of abundance and a strong sense of self worth. Then it’s not nearly as painful or difficult to remove the barriers that hold us back. It is never selfish to take care of our own needs first. It is only when we feel that we are taken care of that we are able to turn our gaze outward with curiosity and generosity and engage with the world in a healthy, effective way. I believe that we find our best answers within ourselves and not in the pages of a self-help book.