I had never heard of a shame researcher before, but I am awfully glad Brené Brown does this important work.
Brown reports that “who we are and how we engage with the world are much stronger predictors of how our children will do than what we know about parenting.” She says that the question isn’t so much, “Are you parenting the right way?” as it is, “Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?”
In addition to being a researcher, Brown is a parent who aims to engage in what she calls “wholehearted living and parenting.” A terrific way to learn about her discoveries is to check out a talk where she explains that we all carry around
feelings of shame. She defines shame as that little “gremlin in all our heads that whispers ‘You’re not good enough.’ ”
Brown says that recognizing and accepting our own vulnerabilities is key because giving voice to our greatest fears takes the power (shame) right out of them. The real kicker is that taking a risk to be seen for who we are helps us to connect to our most creative selves and engage more fully with others. Brown calls this process “Daring Greatly.”
Brown’s new book is “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead” (Gotham books, 2012). I caught up with Brown to ask her a few questions about how we can dare greatly as people and parents.
JK: How important it is to engage in self-awareness and self-compassion?
BB: It’s huge. I’ve learned a lot since I was a new mother. My approach to struggle and shame now is to talk to yourself like you’d talk to someone you love and reach out to tell your story. During fits of inconsolable crying, we tell our babies, “It’s okay. You’re all right. We’ll figure this out. I’m here for you.” At the same time we’re often telling ourselves, “What’s wrong with you? You’re no good at this. I can’t tell anyone — they’ll judge me.” Imagine the power of talking to ourselves with love and compassion, and reaching out for support!
JK: Bullying is a problem that appears to start as early as pre-K. What can parents do to support their own kids so they know how to take care of themselves?
BB: First and foremost, we need to be the adults we want our children to be. We should watch our own gossiping and anger. We should model the kindness we want to see. I think it’s also very powerful to tell our children stories of our own experiences. When did we feel left out or alone? When did we join in when kids were making fun of someone and how did that make us feel?
Kids who have an understanding of how and why their feelings are what they are are much more likely to talk to us about what’s happening, and they have better skills to work it out. If there’s real bullying — a pervasive pattern of behavior — emerging, then I’d get involved. This is beyond what children can handle on their own. It takes parents, administrators, teachers, etc.
JK: The idea of “Turning Toward” (stating what you need from your mate and being open to noticing when/what your partner needs) in order to connect with others is so helpful, and you mention John Gottman, who also incorporates this idea as part of his “Sound House” theory. How can we “dare greatly” with our mate if he or she isn’t ready to jump in with us?
BB: In her book, “Marriage Rules,” Harriet Lerner talks about how one person can often be the catalyst for major change in our relationships. I think this is true. What makes it difficult is that it requires major vulnerability on our part. Normally, when someone we love is turning away from a struggle, we self-protect by also turning away. That’s definitely my first response. I think change is more likely to happen if both partners have common language and a shared lens to see problems. For example, say to your wife, “I read this interesting chapter on blame, can I read it to you tonight? I’d love to know what you think.” Ask your partner to watch the vulnerability or shame talk with you: “I saw this 20-minute video and it has me really thinking. Will you watch it with me? It’s important to me.”
JK: How can parents begin to engage with schools and communities to bring the message of showing up, being seen and daring greatly to the larger culture?
BB: Again, I think shared information and language is a great start. Do a book club. In fact, I have a 13-year-old daughter, and we’re going to invite all of her friends and their parents over for a potluck to watch the documentary “Miss Representation” about media, body image and self-worth. To me, it’s all about the power of conversations. We don’t have to agree to be awakened, we just need to share stories, ideas and information.
Jennifer Kogan is a clinical social worker in Northwest Washington who works with parents.