The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown (Hazelden Publishing, 2010)
I'm reading Brené Brown's books in the wrong order, perhaps. I found The Gifts of Imperfection more accessible than Daring Greatly, though maybe that's because I'm more accustomed to her ideas and style now. I still say that it's good to see Brown on video first, and you can find some on my review of Daring Greatly. Even more, however, I appreciate Brown's ideas as they are filtered and expanded on the Blue Ocean Families blog.
It's easy to look at Brown's words and take your mind to all sorts of places not supported by her ideas. The title, for example, suggests to my mind the cry, from toddler to teenager to street thug to tyrant: I don't have to follow the stupid rules; I gotta be ME!
But that's not what Brown means, and I believe she has tapped into a hidden problem that is the opposite of what we're always hearing as "what's wrong with the world today."
We're too selfish, too self-focussed. We love ourselves too much and others not enough. We are takers, not givers. We drank too much of the self-esteem movement's Kool-Aid and think we're God's gift to the world.
Wait. We are God's gift to the world.
Given that the negative message has been proclaimed in loud voices from many eras and all over the world, I'm sure there's a lot of truth to it. Where I'm struggling is that the above description simply doesn't apply to so many of the people I know. They're humble, they are doing amazing work, and in the rare moments they take time for themselves it is always with an eye for preparing to serve others better. The work of their lives is for other people, and yet they are convinced that, deep down, they are lazy, selfish, incompetent, and unable to live up to their own expectations, let alone those of anyone else.
Ask these folks where they want to go to lunch, and they'll starve while trying to discern where the others would like to go.
For such people, the repeated message—from peers, from society, from churches, from self-help books, from their own hearts—is that they are selfish, miserable sinners, or as Brené Brown puts it, not good enough: not smart enough, not pretty enough, not thin enough, not strong enough, not spouse or parent enough, not [fill in your favorite inadequacy] enough. This pours gasoline on lives that already feel as if they are in flames. Like the Pharisees of old, the promoters of such thoughts "tie up heavy, burdensome loads and lay them on men's shoulders" and have "disregarded the commandment of God to keep the tradition of men."
When I was a teen, I took a AAA-sponsored driver's education course. The instructor, having dealt primarily with cocky, over-confident teenaged boys, felt it his duty to knock out my confidence and give me a healthy fear of the massive weapon I was driving. He succeeded all too well, and left me with a phobia that handicaps me to this day. We do great harm when we use an axe to approach a job that requires an X-acto knife.
Enter Brené Brown. Her messages of self-care, of loving ourselves, and that we are "enough" to be deserving of love and belonging ring falsely at first to someone who all her life has bought into the message of failure. But it's worth getting over that. She doesn't mean there's no room for improvement!
We are God's gift to the world, but many of us have wrapped that gift up in so many layers of what we think we ought to be, that we no longer have any idea what's inside the box. That unique, authentic I—currently flawed and broken but no less worthy—is the person God created each of us to be. God creates individuals, not clones. If we bury ourselves and our abilities, are we not in danger of becoming the unfaithful servant who was condemned by his master for hiding what he was given to invest? I don't want to carry that image too far; no doubt God's view of a sound investment does not look exactly like our own. But there's something there, and Brené Brown may be giving us tools for removing the wrapping without damaging the contents.
Some of the quotations make better sense in their context, but I present them anyway. Most are from earlier in the book, before I ran up against the due-date deadline. Bold type is my own emphasis.
How much we know and understand ourselves is critically important, but there is something that is even more essential to living a Wholehearted life: loving ourselves.
It was clear from the data that we cannot give our children what we don’t have. Where we are on our journey of living and loving with our whole hearts is a much stronger indicator of parenting success than anything we can learn from how-to books.
I’ve learned that playing down the exciting stuff doesn’t take the pain away when it doesn’t happen. It does, however, minimize the joy when it does happen.
If we really want to practice compassion, we have to start by setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their behavior. ... When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice. For our own sake, we need to understand that it’s dangerous to our relationships and our well-being to get mired in shame and blame, or to be full of self-righteous anger. It’s also impossible to practice compassion from a place of resentment. If we’re going to practice acceptance and compassion, we need boundaries and accountability.
True, at the core. But I've found it's certainly possible to do the acts of compassion from a place of resentment. It's not healthy, but sometimes necessary.
Until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.
As I conducted my interviews, I realized that only one thing separated the men and women who felt a deep sense of love and belonging from the people who seem to be struggling for it. That one thing is the belief in their worthiness. it’s as simple and complicated as this: If we want to fully experience love and belonging, we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging.
In a society that says, “Put yourself last,” self-love and self-acceptance are almost revolutionary.
Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.
I was shocked to discover that hope is not an emotion; it’s a way of thinking or a cognitive process. … Hope is a combination of setting goals, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue them, and believing in our own abilities.
Herein is one of my frustrations with Brown: In her attempts to nail down certain concepts, she simply defines words the way she wants to. They may ultimately be useful definitions, but it's a bit disorienting at first.
I found in my research that men and women who self-report as hopeful put considerable value on persistence and hard work. The new cultural belief that everything should be fun, fast, and easy is inconsistent with hopeful thinking. It also sets us up for hopelessness. When we experience something that is difficult and requires significant time and effort, we are quick to think, This is supposed to be easy; it’s not worth the effort, or, This should be easier; it’s only hard and slow because I’m not good at it. Hopeful self-talk sounds more like, This is tough, but I can do it.
I’ve also learned that never fun, fast, and easy is as detrimental to hope as always fun, fast, and easy. … Before this research I believed that unless blood, sweat, and tears were involved, it must not be that important. I was wrong. … Hope also requires us to understand that just because the process of reaching a goal happens to be fun, fast, and easy doesn’t mean that it has less value than a difficult goal.
Over the past two years I’ve become increasingly concerned that we’re raising children who have little tolerance for disappointment and have a strong sense of entitlement, which is very different than [sic] agency. Entitlement is “I deserve this just because I want it” and agency is “I know I can do this.” The combination of fear of disappointment, entitlement, and performance pressure is a recipe for hopelessness and self-doubt.
A critical component of Wholehearted living is play! ... [Dr. Stuart Brown] explains that play shapes our brain, helps us foster empathy, helps us navigate complex social groups, and is at the core of creativity and innovation. ... Brown proposes seven properties of play, the first of which is that play is apparently purposeless. Basically this means that we play for the sake of play. We do it because it's fun and we want to. ... Brown argues that play is not an option. In fact he writes, "The opposite of play is not work—the opposite of play is depression."
We've got so much to do and so little time that the idea of spending time doing anything unrelated to the to-do list actually creates stress. We convince ourselves that playing is a waste of precious time. We even convince ourselves that sleep is a terrible use of our time.
There's no such thing as selective emotional numbing. There is a full spectrum of human emotions and when we numb the dark, we numb the light. While I was "taking the edge off" of the pain and vulnerability, I was also unintentionally dulling my experiences of good feelings, like joy. Joy is as thorny and sharp as any of the dark emotions. To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn't come with guarantees—these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain. When we lose our tolerance for discomfort, we lose joy.
All of Brown's references to pop music are lost on me, because she is of a far different musical generation, but if she were of mine, she would surely have quoted Simon and Garfunkel's "I am a Rock."
(For the record, Brown makes it clear that she loves the happiness writings of Gretchen Rubin and appreciates happiness even though she distinguishes it from joy.)
I was amazed at Brown's comments about joy because I was concurrently reading "Dante and Charles Williams," an essay by Dorothy Sayers. In it she says,
The capacity for joy and the capacity for something like despair tend to be found together.... Note that I say joy and not happiness—they are by no means the same thing. Indeed it would scarcely be untrue to say that people of a happy temperament are seldom capable of joy—they are insufficiently sensitive.
Leaving aside the problems of defining joy and happiness and whether or not the different authors mean the same things by those words, these two writers, from different eras, different countries, and greatly different backgrounds, one writing on social issues and the other on literary criticism, have come independently to similar conclusions.