On Brené Brown's "Rising Strong" - a Book Review
8 August 2022
On Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown.
Let me preface this review by saying that I respect Brené Brown. Her work helps so many people in so many ways that I do wish I could hand copies out to everyone I know – especially, maybe certain people in my life who live with ego/shame blinders. I took a lot of value from this book and will explore those things a bit later on. But two aspects of this book drove me absolutely bat-shit crazy, and I want to start with those.
First, the book’s structure was my nemesis. Now I understand the value of a good title; John Irving is meticulous with his story and chapter titles and explains that they should be carefully chosen. I’m all for such creativity, ambiguity, leading, in fiction. But this is a self-help book, if you ask me, and if I’m going to use it as such, it needs to be referenceable. Its chapter titles should point clearly, with absolutely no ambiguity, toward the message of each. That way, if I want to go back later to a point from the book, I can. Brown has titled chapters six through ten (or nine?) per their stories, not their lessons, and that did a number on my head. Moreover, each of those stories has overlap of messages – doing yet another number on my head. If each chapter had identified one aspect of the rising strong process, I’d have been pleased as punch. If each chapter title had highlighted that one aspect clearly, I’d have been cheering on the sidelines. Sending up fireworks. A total fan and shameless promoter. But that was not the case. Brown’s chapter titles, like “Civilization Stops at the Waterline” and “Sewer Rats and Scofflaws” were witty, deep, and fun, but their utter meaninglessness out of context rendered the book’s structure untenable.
If it were limited to the chapter titles, that might’ve been one thing; however, the four or five chapters covering Brown’s researched “stories” – and it’s reasonable to see how this happened – were a messy interlacing of lessons. Some of those lessons appeared more than once, some didn’t. This overlap ensured that I was perpetually lost, and the chapter titles ensured that when I wanted to find myself, signposts were absent, so I could not. Instead, I flailed. I’d literally have to go back into each chapter and do a cross-examination, a compare/contrast evaluation, to determine where the vital differences lie. Then I could parse out meaning. Instead of listing the five-to-eight life lessons subject to rumbling in each chapter, could she have chosen just the main one? Instead of Chapter Ten being titled, “You Got to Dance With Them That Brung You: Rumbling with Shame, Identity, Criticism, and Nostalgia,” would it have benefited readers to simply title it, “Identity and Shame,” then address those other concepts as subsets of the two most important ones? I know – I know – this is probably just me. My brain has probably dealt with so much chaos in my life that I cannot entertain even an inkling of disarray or ambiguity. It’s fine. It is what it is.
The other frustration I had with Brown’s book was the rather tame nature of her examples. This is such a silly complaint, and I know it. Of course we need the tamer examples, or we wouldn’t understand that Rising Strong is not just limited to catastrophic life events; it should be implemented daily, wherever conflict arises, not just when we are “face down in the arena,” as she calls it. Nevertheless, I found myself scoffing at her: Seriously? You seriously had to rumble with your husband over being vulnerable during a swim across Lake Travis? Like – seriously, this is the story you’re using as the grand example for the entire book?
But I forget that not everyone is as forward as I am with their spouse. Brian and I wouldn’t have allowed “the story we’re making up in our heads” go unannounced; we’d just have it out. If I’m upset with him, he knows – and I tell him why – and vice-versa. We spend very little time in conflict without fully understanding the meat of the matter. How easily I forget the time it took us to get here. We’ve been married twenty years now, and we’re both familiar with relinquishing the death-grip on our egos just to be “right.”
Yet! YET, as a couple we do still encounter our own version of the rising strong process when we have bigger-than-daily-life crises, like coping with my father’s recent glioblastoma diagnosis, navigating our children’s wellbeing through tough military transitions, and deciding what we want to do with our lives (our individuated identities, our goals, our dreams, our passions, and our place in each other’s worlds through it all). I guess I just wish Brown had had the balls to choose a larger rumble to share from her marital relationship. It made me want to dismiss her, early on, because I just could not silence the voice in my head muttering, This is the worst of your problems?
Okay, I’ll take off my haughty know-it-all hat, now. Otherwise the book’s phenomenal. The messages are hard and true. I’ve dog-eared a few of my favorites, so let me dig in:
Offloading Hurt: This is a concept Brown introduces us to in Chapter Four: The Reckoning. When we are hurt, it is natural for us to find a way to cope with it without addressing it head-on. This is incredibly unhealthy, as it allows hurt to fester and grow. The five methods for offloading hurt are chandeliering, bouncing hurt, numbing hurt, stockpiling hurt, and high-centering. These fascinated me because I’ve seen members of my family do each of these at one time or another, rather than to face hurt, shame, or a bruised ego. The two I do most, myself, are numbing (by dissociation or with food and alcohol) and stockpiling (mashing it down and ignoring it until it rears its ugly head as my crippling anxiety monster). It was critical to identify these methods of offloading hurt to analyze when it is happening in my life: Why am I eating this Oreo? What am I actually feeling just now? My therapist and I discussed this just last week…it’s important for me to take a pause before eating something and ask myself, Am I eating this because I am hungry and it is good for me, or am I eating this to numb some emotion I don’t want to face? Oof.
Doing the Best We Can: One lesson I took from Chapter Six: Sewer Rats and Scofflaws – Rumbling With Boundaries, Integrity, and Generosity is to replace anger and judgment with compassion. Brown’s therapist reminded her, after an incident that left Brown sneering down her nose at a hotel roommate at a conference, that “we are all doing the best we can.” Brown was incensed; she did not believe this woman was doing her best. But she polled the universe and found that the only people who believe others are not doing their best on a regular basis is us (I include myself in this lot) overachieving perfectionists who do not believe ourselves capable of doing our best – and so we have no boundaries, then become resentful of people taking advantage of us. Whoof, that was a hard pill to swallow! Here’s my favorite excerpt from this section, for what some will identify as obvious reasons:
One woman said, “If this was true and my mother was doing the best she can, I would be grief-stricken. I’d rather be angry than sad, so it’s easier to believe she’s letting me down on purpose than to grieve the fact that my mother is never going to be who I need her to be.” (120)
Brown writes in her analysis of this, “…judgment and anger take up way more emotional bandwidth for us. Beyond that, they are often shame and disrespectful to the person who is struggling, and ultimately toxic to the entire culture” (121). Replacing such judgment with compassion allows us to shift our anger to sadness; however, it does not mean that we should usher back into our lives people who continually hurt us. Boundaries, amirite? Nevertheless, this lesson is a windfall.
Our Parents Did Not Have the Access We Do: Brown’s parents divorced, as mine did. And she looks at that separation with compassion in a way I need to adopt, surely. She puts the dissolution of their marriage in chronological context, here:
Back then, there was nowhere for my parents to turn and nothing they could do with that negative emotion. No one talked about that kind of stuff. There were no movies or television shows or national conversations about what was really happening within families. I can’t imagine the pressure of losing everything, trying to keep a family of six afloat, while having no support or permission to be afraid or vulnerable. My parents were raised in families where talking about emotions was way down a the bottom of the list of things needed for survival. There was no space for talking about emotions. Instead it was just grind on…more of the same…push harder…yell louder. (153)
There’s something to this, for all of us Gen Xers to ponder: so many of us grew up in fractured households as latchkey kids. So few of us were taught to embrace our emotions, to inspect our emotions, or to speak our emotions. The family’s emotional landscape was – barren – untraversed, unexplored, uninhabited.
When my parents divorced, there was no Internet. There were therapists, but I cannot imagine many were schooled in the concepts of generational trauma. Even this year I had to hunt for one with this specialization. Who did they talk to about these things? Who was there to guide them? Emotions were untouchable, so offloading hurt was the only option!
This ties back to the last point: my parents were doing their best. Given what they had access too, they did what they could. It’s revolutionary for me to entertain this compassion for my parents, even when it’s hard to do (because I am the overachieving perfectionist who cannot accept others’ failings). I’m learning. I’m growing. I hope.
Handling Criticism: The final point I’ll address here is tightly linked to my own impostor syndrome. In Chapter Ten, You Got to Dance with Them That Brung You: Rumbling with Shame, Identity, Criticism, and Nostalgia, Brown taught me how to avoid my fear of those who criticize me…a lesson I was, perhaps, already beginning to learn. I’ve noticed, as I share my writing more and more, that most people have really shut up about it. I thought, for a very long time, that it was because my writing is shit. One or two people have criticized it as “too personal” and the words “too complex.” As though my vocabulary and word choice make my writing voice elitist, snobbish.
The truth is, I see now that my vulnerability will strike a chord with people who are incapable of authenticity/vulnerability themselves. Likewise, my vocabulary will rub wrong anyone insecure of their own writing or vocabulary. Neither of these things is my fault, and neither of these things is about me at all. This kind of criticism is meaningless to me.
But what Brown points out is that we should get “totally clear on the people whose opinions actually matter” (246). And she’s right! She lists people on a one-inch by one-inch square of paper whose opinions matter to her, and she keeps that list in her wallet. The list is comprised of those “who love you not despite your imperfections and vulnerabilities, but because of them” (246). Of course, this would include my husband, my kids, and my closest friends, but I think that in my case, this should also include writers whom I know personally and admire for their work – writers who might suggest revision recommendations in my best interest. I just love this so much! It’s so true. I’ll keep that little tidbit handy…
Overall, I’m glad I read Rising Strong. Some of the lessons felt a touch pedantic at times, but perhaps I needed to see them in black and white to reinforce my own personal growth. Like I said, I think this book would be excellent for most people, despite its muddled structure – and I might need to send it to a few people. It doesn’t matter if your frustrations are large or small, the Rising Strong process is applicable and reinforces Brown’s overarching research findings: we build connection through vulnerability – not by avoiding it.