Monday, 15 July 2013

Review of "Daring Greatly" by Brené Brown

I'm hoping to make book reviews a regular feature of the blog, and I'm happy to start with a book from an author you all (okay, both of you) know I enjoy very, very much. Despite awaiting an ordered copy,  I bought one on sight in that awful high-street chainstore that I keep saying I'll stop patronising but haven't yet.

What bliss it was to read through its pages for the first of no doubt many times! Short-lived bliss though; this is no weighty tome but a quick read that is at times, dare I say it,  "light and breezy".  It's considerably more mass-market than her last book, the excellent "The Gifts of Imperfection." Much of the same content is here about shame, vulnerability, resilience and so on, but in a snappier, less formulaic and more accessible format.  It's a book for everyone, not just those who'd self-define as needing to "let go of what other people think and be who [they] really are".

Brown takes the title from a 1910 speech by Theodore Roosevelt.
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

Dowtcha, Teddy.
Stirring words and an equally stirring book. I had page after page of "aha!" moments. You know, like when Oprah compares her random thought with her guest's half-decade of academic research. One moment came in the chapter on the Vulnerability Armoury, which describes the shields we use in vain to protect us from shame. One such shield is Viking or Victim binary opposition, or in layman's terms "assholes and suckers".

Vikings and Victims
I love that I now have a term for people who see themselves as winners in life, thanks to their inherent abilities but even more so their hard work and take-no-prisoners attitude. An attitude that understands that life is a competition and you have to get up early to beat the losers. Even though beating losers is easy (because losers have only themselves to blame) Vikings can still feel good about it.

Brown says that Vikings are deluded, which is refreshing as half the self-help books out there could carry the tag-line "how to be more Viking-like".  Brown defines you as  a Viking if you're "some-one who sees the threat of being victimised as a constant, so you stay in control, you dominate, you exert power over things, and you never show vulnerability." . Her whole thesis is that being able to live with vulnerability can only make us stronger, meaning that those who deny it in themselves punish it in others are stitching themselves into a straitjacket of inflexibility and stress. The links she makes between the Viking/Victim opposition and suicide among veterans make interesting reading in light of this week's Panorama investigation.

The opposite of Vikings are Victims. You're a Victim is you're "a sucker or a loser who's always being taken advantage of and can't hold your own".  Self-help books in general are often scathing on the issue of "victimhood" and hector their reader to "stop being such a victim" or "refuse to be a victim". Brown takes a different approach, arguing that the Viking/Victim, winner/loser opposition is itself an illusion. There is therefore no need to make a huge effort to climb out of victimhood. This makes huge sense to me. I seem to often find myself being taken advantage of, or on the losing end of  confrontation. In fact, I rarely even have confrontations because I head them off with my agreeableness.  I sometimes feel that the only thing I have going for me is my reputation as a "lovely girl" and I don't want to risk losing it in battles I don't see myself winning anyway. This is fine, because in Ireland you can keep on being referred to as "a lovely girl" well into your fifties.

Part of this trap is that I too believed in the Viking/Victim division. This could be because the Vikings in my life, and probably Vikings in general, have no problem voicing their beliefs.  Brown writes that Victims may stay that way because they don't want to be Vikings. This may be true but it could also be that we see the Vikings getting the spoils, boasting about it, and conclude it's not worth trying because "Only Vikings win". I used to want to be a Viking (without knowing the term) but in the same way that I took up gymnastics because I wanted to do back-flips on the beam. It was just never going to happen, and turning up for two years for a sport at which I was always going to be useless only turned me off organised exercise for twenty years. Attempts to "be more assertive", "go in there to her office and just tell her to give you what you want" or "show that bold sixth year who's boss" would leave me more convinced than ever of my own chronic ineffectiveness.

So on Brown's advice, I have stopped trying to be a Viking and that alone has meant that I gradually feel less of a Victim.  She recommends defining success in the different areas of my life, and surprisingly few of them involve "beating" anyone. There's writing, where I wrote success as "producing and sharing work I can be proud of" and teaching where it was "ensuring students achieve their potential in exams and develop as writers and MFL speakers/supporting and connecting with colleagues". The one exception is was in relationships. This feels increasingly like a game of musical chairs where I'm the only one left standing when the music stops.

Disruptive Engagement

I looked forward to this chapter as it deals with education, my day job. Was Brené going to suggest I show my vulnerable emotional underbelly to the students in a effort to get them to learn? Far from it.  The book is very strong on the idea of the teacher as leader, not just as  the "lead learner" or "facilatator"  we're so fashionably described as in current pedagogical thinking but actual leader as a distinct role. This is important, as I believe, as Frank Furedi writes in "Wasted: Why Education isn't Educating" that "the exercise of adult authority is indispensable for the running  of an effective education system". Also in common with Furedi, Brown recognises that for learning to take place, the learner must at times experience the discomfort of venturing outside their previous experiences and reference points. She says that she tells her own students "If you're comfortable, I'm not teaching and you're not learning." Fair enough, but I would like to have read more recognition that the school-teacher/pupil relationship is quite different to that between a lecturer and an adult student who has freely elected a course of study.
Brown writes of course about the corrosive effects of shame on students and says that "85% of the men and women we interviewed for the shame research could recall as school incident from their childhood that was so shaming. it changed how they thought of themselves as learners".  That doesn't mean that shame is that rampant in today's schools though. Practices such as asking the dyslexic child to read aloud as a punishment are generally a thing of the past. I honestly don't think any teacher believes any more that you can shame a child into better academic performance. I have seen however, students get told so often that they're bold, that it becomes part of their identity. The refusal to even try to change their behaviour is, in fact, part of the anti-vulnerability armoury described in the book.
I wonder if part of the shame-inducing effects Brown describes as resulting from children being "shown or told they weren't good writers, artists [or] musicians" the result of this coming as a shock to the children. She does use the phrase "weren't good" not "were terrible" or even "were good". Maybe we tell children they're "fantastic" and "brilliant" at creative things too long past the toddler stage. Creativity then becomes about pleasing and performance and when the show inevitably drops, as it does for most of us, then our motivation goes with it. Maybe the solution isn't to safeguard the "I'm fantastic" illusion until adulthood but to foster more of a "this feels fantastic" experience of the arts from a very young age.

Diagnosis as Detrimental to Healing and Change
Couldn't have put it better myself

Finally, I'm going to share my favourite quote from the book.
Diagnosing and labelling people whose struggles are more environmental or learned than genetic or organic is often far more detrimental to healing and change than it is helpful.
I'm thinking of having a poster made and hanging it, in a guerrilla sting, at the entrance of my local psychiatric unit.  Brown is writing here about narcissism but the same could be said of BPD, PTSD, anorexia, bulimia, most cases of depression, learned helplessness, anxiety disorders. I could go if I had a copy of the DSM-5 to hand. This for me is the great strength of
Brené Brown's work, and of this book in particular. Again and again she stresses the universality of shame. even those of her interviewees that she admires as living "Wholehearted" lives are not immune to painful feelings, just resilient. She does not shame the shamed or hold up examples of those living "Halfhearted" lives as object lessons but stresses how we're all vulnerable and we might as well own it. 

There is no division in these pages between the mentally ill, those with "mental health issues, or the lucky rest of the population. It is a call not to arms, but to drop arms, and face the world with courage. At times the anecdotes can seem nauseatingly wholesome, and there's far too much cutting- and-pasting from her previous books but on the whole this is one to buy and keep. To read and reread.
"Daring Greatly. "How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead" Penguin  E11.50  ISBN :. 978-0-670-92354-0

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