I kept resisting Brené Brown. I’m not sure why. For years, my colleagues and friends have been trying to convince me to read Brené, to watch her, to listen to her. Was I resisting her because everyone loved her so much therefore I automatically felt annoyed by her? Was it because she has catch words and pithy phrases and both things kind of bug me? Whatever it was, I resisted Brené until one day I recognized that I couldn’t do the work I do empowering girls and their parents without understanding Brené Brown’s work. So I started watching her Netflix special about vulnerability and immediately thought, “Goddam, she is good.” And then I watched a little longer and thought “I could never be as good as she is.” Within 30 minutes of watching this brilliant woman, who specializes in shame research, I was in full on self-loathing mode for my inability to be as insightful, as successful, as brilliant as this woman. The experience of watching Brené was meant to elevate me and instead, I found myself sitting in a deep, dark pit of inadequacy. Still left with some semblance of self-preservation, I paused the show and left it for a while.
The opportunity to resume watching Brené’s special came on a plane ride a couple of weeks later. Three of my children had already left for summer camp and my husband and I had just put our oldest child on a flight for his summer trip to Eastern Europe. In an effort to make the most of our time alone without our children, we had booked our trip to Nashville right up against our son’s flight. We ran to a different terminal at JFK Airport to catch our own flight because the clock was now ticking on our three and half weeks with our children away. I was free!
Except, as we approached our plane, I realized it was like a TINY, TOY PLANE — its doorway something out of Alice in Wonderland with 12 narrow seats. I honestly think if I’d tried reaching out my arms to their full wingspan, I would have touched each side of the plane. I seriously considered turning to my husband and telling him that I was not getting on that plane. How could I leave my four children and climb aboard this rinky-dink aircraft? I started to panic, bile rising in my throat, but I said to myself: “Vanessa, you are not someone who panics. You have to keep it together!” I shakily found my seat, grateful that I was sitting nowhere near my husband in case our plane crashed, then maybe one of us would survive. As our toy plane climbed valiantly into the vast sky, my palms started to sweat. I gripped my arm rests. I threw up a little bit in my mouth. I closed my eyes tight because I knew that if I looked out the window I would seriously lose my shit. I stayed that way a LONG time, maybe 20 or 30 minutes. Eventually, I calmed my breathing. I pictured my beloved children. I conjured an image of my eldest smiling as he was just an hour before when I left him. I forced a smiled myself. I took a deep breath. I started watching Brené.
It’s not lost on me that I was watching a woman speak about shame and vulnerability after I had to:
- Pause her show originally because I felt so much shame about my own inadequacy.
- Resume watching it when I repressed my own vulnerability in order to get on a plane by dismissing my panic it as “not me” and “weak.”
I pressed play on the Netflix app on my phone and Brené began speaking again. My awe at her humor, intelligence and insight comes back in full force. I marvel at Brené’s off-the-cuff comments to the audience while she seemingly effortlessly interweaves a series of meaningful messages with personal stories. Brown moves deeper and deeper into her narrative, carrying me along with her, and although I still feel occasional jabs of my own inadequacy, I am also able to hear what this women is teaching me. I relish the fact that her stories are so relevant to my life in this very second. I am so moved by her words that I begin to SOB, tears streaming down my cheeks.
Here are three things I learn from Brené while surreptitiously wiping snot from my face:
- There is no joy without vulnerability.
- There are no acts of courage without vulnerability.
- If we want to be seen by the people we love, we need to let them see our vulnerability.
Brené’s poignant and moving performance climaxes with her telling the story of helping her daughter find bravery in the face of guaranteed defeat at a swim meet. In this anecdote, the culmination of her talk, Brené encapsulates why girls playing sports is about sports and also nothing about sports. She tells her daughter (and her audience) that sometimes winning is just about being brave, and nothing more. It was if her talk had been written for me and me alone.
“Hey, Vanessa. It’s me Brené: It’s not about winning. It’s about being brave.”
“Hey, Vanessa. It’s not about being as good as me, Brené Brown. It’s about learning from me, Brené Brown.”
I am no longer resisting Brené and I am no longer competing with Brené (mostly because, like her daughter’s swim race, that would result in guaranteed defeat.) I am simply learning from Brené and sitting in my vulnerability so that I can find joy, I can feel courage and I can be seen by the people I love. It’s not about repressing my vulnerability and getting on a terrifyingly tiny plane, it’s about me owning my vulnerability and getting on a terrifyingly tiny plane.