It's hard not to pay attention to Brené Brown, whose most recent book is Daring Greatly (NY: Avery, 2012). She has several TED talks that are among the most popular ever. She's also done those PBS special series that usually go to the pre-eminent psychology person of an era (years ago it was John Bradshaw).
What Brown is most known for is her research on vulnerability; in fact the subtitle of this current best seller is How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. I was preparing a project that included the subject of vulnerability, so I decided to give it a read. The popularity of the book hit me when I went to two bookstores and found it sold out.
I didn't expect to find a lot new on the topic since I've been a psychologist for 30+ years and much of my work has been with men and all the ways to support their greater vulnerability, especially in relationships. Reading Daring Greatly I discovered that I really liked Brown's sense of humor and how she manages to steer clear of most clichés on the topic. I've recommended it to several clients.
What I found most interesting, though, is that what she wrote hit me in a completely unexpected way. I've always thought of myself as reasonably vulnerable, but Brené Brown pushed me to take a hard look at myself. I was well acquainted with the fact that my choice to go into a helping profession was influenced by my being a caretaker in my family. The same role developed with my friends, similar to most people I know who have gone into this line of work.
Where Brown's Daring Greatly shook me up was to show me that my caretaking has become how I AVOID vulnerability. By listening, drawing people out, and giving a broadly positive response (with good intent that is usually appreciated), I was also hiding my own strong feelings, inhibiting remarks that might rock the boat, and seldom asking directly for what I need.
It was embarrassing for me to have this laid bare. Here I'm supposed to know myself—but no. Also, seeing my behavior as a way of playing it safe made me chafe, since I usually like to think of myself as an adventurous fellow.
The next thing to do, of course, was to experiment with opening up more. So I made small changes, because nobody deserved to be shocked or hurt by me suddenly spinning the dials on how I operate. Several times I took a deep breath in a meeting and said how I really felt, rather than making a safe comment reflecting what others were saying. Or I gave a direct answer to a client about what I think he should do, rather than "exploring" what he thinks. Twice I let a close friend know I did not appreciate his sharp words, when usually I'd just have let it settle down.
The funniest experience was working up my courage to ask my daughter her opinion on glasses frames I was considering (New #1). "Round frames would not look good on you," she said. I teased that her outspoken response hurt my feelings a little (New #2). I persisted (New #3) and told her, "I'm tired of my look and I want to change it up" New #4). And she proceeded to find a whole class of glasses online that she thought would look great on me. I take that with me to the optometrist next week.
Not earth-shattering by any means. But it's where I injected more of me into relationships, beyond my usual caretaking and facilitating roles. These new conversations feel more interesting, and at times funny (I had been worrying my sense of humor was drying up!). I realize people give me way more latitude for response than the narrow rules I’ve set for myself. I'm still far from "daring greatly," but there's a little more liveliness. Maybe great daring is coming next…