Stories, boundaries, and compassion: thoughts on Rising Strong by Brené Brown

As I mentioned in my previous post, I had a rather miraculously wonderful bout of reading on vacation. It was both the worst and best time to read books that forced my self-reflection. On one hand, I didn’t have the constant busyness of life to distract and interrupt introspection! Yay, insights! … on the other, it’s freaking vacation. Normal people don’t read heavy, life-disrupting, tear-inducing books on vacation. They do things like not read life-disrupting, tear-inducing books and relax and drink pina coladas and lay on the beach and take pictures of palm trees.

Don’t worry, I did that, too.

ew where’s my book

But anyway, Rising Strong by Brené Brown.

I breezed through this one and loved it. Brené continues on her theme of embracing vulnerability and doing the scary things, this time by examining what happens to us (and what we should do) when we fall. When we take the brave steps, when we enter the arena, and when what happens is we get knocked down and find ourselves face down in the dirt, broken, embarrassed, tired.

While I didn’t enjoy this book quite as much as her previous books (maybe because it was a little less structured and more anecdotal? I’m weird that way), I found so many gems. Three things in particular have stuck with me and changed the way I am trying to live my life and be in relationship.

First, I loved her emphasis on the stories we tell ourselves, stories about ourselves and stories about the interactions we have with other people. For many years, I’ve thought about how story-telling is deeply wound into our interpretation of the world around us. I even wrote about it in my book — the idea that since we don’t and can’t know all the relevant details about any situation or person, we have to fill in the gaps in our knowledge with narrative of some kind. We should learn how to tell better stories, to fill in our gaps with actual knowledge when we can. But no matter how much we learn, we will always reach a point where our knowledge ends, where we have to get creative when putting together a necessary coherent picture of other people. So we have to grapple with the way we construct and tell our stories.

Story-telling is simply something the human brain does. It’s not something we can stop, so we have to learn to do it better and to learn to recognize when we are doing it. I loved how Brené connected our personal story-telling to the experience of the falling down, to the getting up, and to many other dimensions of human living, loving, and working. The idea of recognizing, confronting, and even sharing our stories in order to be healthier and happier struck me in a personal way, much more than ever before. EVEN THOUGH I WROTE A LOT ABOUT IT. My brain is stubborn, I guess. But regardless of my stoopid brain, I’m trying to be more conscious of when I start spinning out of control with my narratives and to remember that there is a lot I don’t know — about myself and about others. Learning to embrace the uncertainty of not knowing, the pre-learning, is something I’m working on.

Secondly, and probably most penetrating and yet difficult for me, was Brené’s discussion of how setting boundaries is an important aspect of compassionate living. She tells a great story of a time in her professional life where she didn’t set boundaries, and how that led to resentment, bitterness, anger, and far less compassion towards those in the situation. I struggle SO MUCH with boundaries. So, so much. It’s hard for me to tell people what I really think, my instinct is always to preserve harmony in a social setting or in relationships rather than assert myself, and I feel an inordinate amount of guilt anytime I say no to a request for something of me.

The idea of kindly and firmly setting reasonable boundaries as being an act of compassion punched me in the gut. In a good and bad way. To accept that premise means accepting the fact that all these years I haven’t been setting and communicating good, healthy boundaries means I’ve not been the kind of compassionate that is healthy for a relationship. It’s not been compassionate, it’s been fearful, dishonest, and ultimately hurtful. I’ve been compassionate in other ways, sure, but not in that particular way. Reframing boundary setting as an act of compassion towards other (as well as towards myself) rather than an act of self-preservation has motivated me to get better about being aware of my boundaries and learning how to set and communicate them in compassionate ways. As Brené says:

Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment. When asked to speak at the event [for free], I said yes when I wanted to say no. I put no value on my work or my needs, and the event organizers, in turn, put no value on my work or my needs.

Rising Strong 115

Finally, the last idea I took with me and can’t stop mulling over is her light bulb moment and conviction that “we are all doing the best we can.” I’ll be honest: don’t quite know what to do with that idea. On one hand, I love it because it helps me be much more compassionate towards others. I can see how that belief would be very healthy and loving in my personal relationships. I strongly believe in giving everyone the benefit of the doubt, and this is a great mantra to help me do that.

On the other, it feels permissive, and flirts with being defeatist. What hope do we have of the kind of change our world needs if everyone is already doing the best they can? What does that statement even mean, in a deep way, anyway? What goes into what people are able to do? What does “best” mean? What can we truly and realistically expect of people?

In general, I think we are way too optimistic about what we can expect of others. (See most recent A/O/V interludes for my thoughts on that!) But I also am enraged by the willful harms perpetrated by people in this country and this world, some from people in the most absurd positions of privilege who really, truly, and absolutely know better, while also having ALL CONCEIVABLE RESOURCES to do better. How do I reconcile those two conflicting beliefs?

I don’t have a good answer for that. I probably won’t ever — it seems to be one of those maddening, unresolvable dimensions and questions of what it means to live and be human. I did and do appreciate how Brené grappled with it, however, and what she found that was useful to her. I imagine her conviction will be useful for others, as well. Even though I’m not quite able to meet her there, it’s gotten me thinking more about yet another facet of compassion, and I’m grateful for that. (As well as grateful for her compassion stance towards other humans.)

As I’m writing this out, I realize that that’s the big takeaway I got from this book. How to be more compassionate towards myself and others, through the stories I tell myself about me and about others, as well as through the way I learn to set good boundaries and use what I’ve learned about ourselves and others to set appropriate expectations.

I know the self-help genre gets a bad rap sometimes, which I don’t quite understand. Why wouldn’t we want to heal our wounds and be better people to those around us? A blog post for another time. I think Brené’s work is important and penetrating and helpful, and I’m glad I was able to read this book on a wonderful vacation, made both better and more complicated by the reading of this book. And Rising Strong wasn’t even the most life-changing book I read! Onto Erich Fromm….

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