I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Making the Journey from "What Will People Think" to "I Am Enough" by Brené Brown (Gotham Books, 2007)
I have finally completed the current canon of major Brené Brown books for laymen—though I'm certain there will be more. In keeping with the random pattern laid down by the books' availability at our library, my last book was her first. I Thought It Was Just Me is the book that started it all (though it was her TED talk that made her famous). My other reviews are here: The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, and Rising Strong. It's probably best to read them in chronological order (I Thought It Was Just Me, The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong), but from my own point of view, I'd prioritize them as The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, I Thought It Was Just Me, then Rising Strong.
I heard somewhere that this book was originally entitled Women and Shame, and that pretty much covers it. Later, Brown was to study the subject of shame and men, and conclude that the problems and strategies for combating them are the same, though the issues are different. Personally, I don't think the gender divide is as great as she makes it; I'm sure there's a continuum. I identify with some, but far from all, of the major shame issues for women—but also some but not all of the issues for men.
There's more to it, of course, but at its heart, I Thought It Was Just Me is an elaboration on the following truth: Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.
Here are some more quotations; as always the bold emphasis is my own.
- Can you use shame or humiliation to change people or behavior? Yes and no. Yes, you can try. In fact, if you really zero in on an exposed vulnerability, you could actually see a very swift behavior change.
- Will the change last? No.
- Will it hurt? Yes, it's excruciating.
- Will it do any damage? Yes, it has the potential to scar both the person using shame and the person being shamed.
- Is shame used very often as a way to try to change people? Yes, every minute of every day.
Often, when we try to shame others or ourselves into changing a behavior, we do so without understanding the differences between shame and guilt. This is important because guilt can often be a positive motivator of change, while shame typically leads to worse behavior or paralysis.... Guilt and shame are both emotions of self-evaluation; however, that is where the similarities end. ... Shame is about who we are and guilt is about our behaviors.
When I talked to women about the possibility of shame having positive outcomes or serving as a guidepost for good behavior, they made it clear that shame is so overbearing and painful that, regardless of intent, it moved them away from being able to grow, change and respond in any kind of genuine or authentic way. Guilt, on the other hand, was often a strong motivator for change.
Power-over is a dangerous form of power. Dr. Robin Smith ... described one of the most insidious forms of power-over as working like this: "I will define who you are and then I'll make you believe that's your own definition."
When I talk about isolation I don't mean feeling lonely or alone. Jean Baker Miller and Irene Stiver ... have beautifully captured the overwhelming nature of isolation. They write, "We believe that the most terrifying and destructive feeling that a person can experience is psychological isolation. This is not the same as being alone. It is a feeling that one is locked out of the possibility of human connection and of being powerless to change the situation. In the extreme, psychological isolation can lead to a sense of hopelessness and desperation. People will do almost anything to escape this combination of condemned isolation and powerlessness." ...
Shame can make us feel desperate. Reactions to this desperate need to escape form isolation and fear can run the gamut from behavioral issues and acting out to depression, self-injury, eating disorders, addiction, violence and suicide.
Not to mention dangerous peer-dependency.
When we tell our stories, we change the world. I know that sounds dramatic, but I believe it. We'll never know how our stories might change someone's life.
Recently I was eating dinner with a friend. We both had newborns at the time. She stayed at home with her baby and her toddler, and I was getting ready to go back to work. She was telling me the terrible sadness she felt about the fact that she and her husband were probably not going to have any more children. She explained that even though having two young children was overwhelming at times, she had always wanted three or four and that she was really having a difficult time letting go of that vision of a family. ... My response to her was something like "Two is perfect. ... Plus, you could go back to work or graduate school or something." She looked kind of shocked by my reply and stumbled to find the right words.
I can see why her friend was shocked and at a loss for words. Brown might has well have said, "You're sad because you're hungry and can't afford to buy food? But you live on the beach—why not eat sand instead?"
At the doctoral level, if someone asked me a question that I couldn't answer, they'd either assume they had asked a bad question or that I was too smart or busy to concern myself with such foolish matters. One of the perks of earning credentials is gaining permission to know nothing. This privilege is rarely afforded to those who aren't protected by plaques, titles, certificates or initials strung behind their names.
In my experience, the most serious threat to objectivity is the very belief that "pure objectivity" and "value neutrality" exist. I have greater trust in those who question objectivity and who believe that people, values and experiences influence our research and practice—they are the ones who make the greatest effort to present their opinions in the appropriate context.
I think I've seen the movie Flashdance at least twenty times. In the 1980's, I wanted to be just like Jennifer Beals's character, Alex. ... Nothing took the mystique out of my secret Flashdance fantasy like showing up to meet friends for dinner and realizing that all six of us had permed hair, headbands and ripped sweatshirts. ... We all wanted to be Alex.
That's an example of the cultural disconnect I often feel with Brown's books. I can make a connection with many of her ideas, but the culture she takes for granted often leaves me feeling like a being from another planet. Perhaps the fact that I've never seen Flashdance could be attributed to the age gap, but I can no more imagine my friends—at any stage of life—dressing up to imitate a movie character than I can imagine doing it myself (Hallowe'en excepted).
Interestingly, to be perceived as "trying too hard" was identified as an unwanted characteristic. ... We want perfection, but we don't want to look like we're working for it—we want it to just materialize somehow.
She's speaking of motherhood here, but I first noticed this among musicians, when I learned that "Wow, that's an incredibly difficult piece" is the worst thing you can say after a performance, no matter how much you mean it as a compliment. The performer's job is to make it look easy. If you're thinking about how hard it is, they've failed to make you hear the music. That's true of other professions too: the perfect waiter is the one you hardly notice, the perfect event seems to have produced itself. I don't believe this attitude is all bad: we want people to hear the music, not the performer, and to enjoy the event without thinking about how much planning and effort went into it. We certainly don't want our children going through life worrying about all the trouble they're causing us! The problems come when we assume that because things look easy, they are easy. Gratitude, appreciation, and respect are everything.
When we choose growth over perfection, we immediately increase our shame resilience. ... When we believe "we must be this" we ignore who or what we actually are, our capacity and our limitations. We start from the image of perfection, and of course, from perfection there is nowhere to go but down. ... When our goal is growth and we say, "I'd like to improve this," we start from where and who we are.
In our culture, the fear and shame of being ordinary is very real. In fact, many of the older women I interviewed spoke about looking back on their lives and grieving for the extraordinary things that would never come to pass. We seem to measure the value of people's contributions (and sometimes thier entire lives) by their level of public recognition.
Nope. Not me. When I grieve, it is much more likely to be about the ordinary things that did not, or will not come to pass. It never occurred to me to regret not being famous for my cookies, or not turning cookie-making into a successful business. I save my regrets for lost opportunities to make cookies with my grandchildren.
It's not a good idea to back people into a corner. Even making a valid point doesn't warrant using shame or intentionally putting someone on the spot in front of other people.
[Quoting one of her correspondents] My faith is a very important part of my life. I want to feel free to talk about my spiritual beliefs just like people talk about their politics or their social beliefs. But I can't. If I even mention the word church, people get offended. They look at me like I'm crazy and I'm trying to convert them. I used to have a voice mail message at work that said, "Thanks for calling, have a blessed day." My boss made me erase it because it was "offensive." The people in my office use the "f-word" all day, but they try to make me feel like I'm the outcast because I say "blessed."
It is critical that we catch ourselves doing things well. If we can acknowledge our strengths, they become tools that can help us meet our goals.
It doesn't take momentous events [to change the culture]—it takes critical mass. If enough of us make small changes in our lives, we will see big changes.