I shouted for joy the day O Magazine announced Brene Brown as a regular contributor. Dr. Brown has become a household name in my recovery community, where her shame research, approachable writing, and presentations have connected deeply with a population that knows shame all too well. Yet her work is intended for everyone and to land a gig with Oprah means her message will reach most of the planet.
Shame is pervasive and Brown has opened a topic for conversation that needed air, one that stays hidden by virtue of its own existence. To expose it as a common experience with predictable origins, patterns and outcomes is a gift. Brown’s work gave me insights I could never have achieved on my own because I was too busy protecting and denying parts of myself deemed too humiliating and disgraceful to acknowledge. I was too ashamed of my shame to speak of it, but Brown did that for me.
Of the stacks of books I read and reread to inform my self-managed journey, Brene Brown’s “I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t)” is by far the most resonate. Her phrases have become woven into my own vernacular and turn up here in my writing; shame identity, resiliency, vulnerability.
Brown’s array of work has not only given new insights, she has reminded us of solid existing wisdom and added a fresh take on old gems. Take, for example, Roosevelt’s famous “Citizenship in a Republic” quote (more commonly referred to as “Man in the Arena”) which has long been a staple of graduation ceremonies and locker room rallies:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
― Theodore Roosevelt
The speech from which this passage was taken is a full 35 pages long and written over 100 years ago. Roosevelt’s audience was a large group of scholars, court ministers, and military officers (therefore, mostly powerful males) at the University of France in 1910 and his message was one of nation-building. Women did not even have the right to vote at this time, so it is safe to presume that Roosevelt was not overly concerned with their interpretation at any rate.
That Brown should resurrect this gem as a battle cry for women seeking personal empowerment is both forgiving and defiant. Certainly Roosevelt would be surprised to know that a century later his “Man in the Arena” imagery be given new life in a world so utterly changed that women are not only powerful, bur also free to challenge conventional thinking and stigmas.
Regardless of back story, we are reminded that to live an examined life, to be willing to address and correct problems – be they addiction, disordered behaviour, unhealthy personal relationships, or other outcomes of our maladaptive coping strategies – is to be “in the arena”. Better to struggle and fail than to be the critical bystander.
This is at the heart of so many struggles for us in recovery. What will others think? How will I fit in? Who will understand me?
How many of have said this in early recovery: “I don’t want to be like other alcoholics – they’re losers, I’m not.” Guess what? That’s the sentiment of the critic in the stands. The minute we get honest and start working on ourselves we are in the ring, shoulder to shoulder with others who look a whole lot more like us once we view them up close.
Reading Brene Brown’s work felt like a series of fireworks for me, as one new insight after another exploded into my understanding. Just as she dusted off a hundred year old speech and gave it relevance, she also gave me tools to see that long-standing beliefs I held about myself as “true” we really seeds planted by someone else’s words and behaviours. Her work not only helped me identify the origins of these beliefs, but also powerful tools to change them.
In case you have had your head down and so far missed hearing about this amazing scholar and her brilliant work, here is a teaser – the TED talk that started it all, “The Power of Vulnerability”: