Saturday, 6 July 2013

Brené Brown at the RSA: Down with Atleastism!



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This is Brené Brown www.ordinarycourage.com  giving a talk at the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce in London. The talk took place last Thursday, the 4th of July, on the day the small paperback of her latest book "Daring Greatly" was published this side of the world. I'm still awaiting my copy as I don't own a Kindle and I'm trying to avoid using Amazon. It'll be next week before I can get my hands on it. I haven't been this excited about a new book since "Bring Up the Bodies". I hope "Daring Greatly" won't be the disappointment that one was. Not that "Bring Up the Bodies" isn't a  great book; it's just not "Wolf Hall Continues".

Brown clearly explains things that we all know, but most of us are afraid to admit. Her books and internet talks are about shame, vulnerability and empathy, with hardly a mention of mental health in sight. They stress the normality of emotion, even extreme emotion, without seeking to pathologise it.

Her "Wolf Hall" (that is, the best of her books that I have read so far) is " The Gifts of Imperfection" which I started reading on the bus home and ended up missing my stop. What she says about shame struck a deep chord with me, as it does with most of her readers. There were lots of "aha!" moments where I recognised that what let to my involvement with the services and most of the poor(ok, crap) decisions I made were driven by feelings - no, that's not strong enough - convictions of not being good enough. I also believe that long after I'd grown out of the original shame triggers of not being pretty enough, organised enough, quiet enough, popular enough, academic enough or talented enough,  I found I had managed to pick up the heavier, and socially sanctioned, shame burden of not being mentally healthy enough.

My favourite parts of the talk are when Brown talks about the different faces of empathy.  I've been as guilty as anyone of thinking "at least..." when some-one talks about a problem. "at least you have a husband/child/full-time job..." Have resolved to avoid spoken, and even unspoken, atleastism. She also says it's fine to say you don't know what to say, and that that's better than saying nothing.

"Rarely can a response make something better, what makes something better is connection."
                                                                                                                                    Brené Brown
 
That's a kind of liberating idea, isn't it? Sometimes I feel I'm in a play and no-one's remembered to hand me the script. But I know there IS a script and those around me aren't improvising but saying their well-rehearsed lines.  That's how I feel and there's no getting around it. So there is a choice: do I make something up, do I admit I don't know what to say or do I ignore, or feign ignorance of, the other person's situation? I have to say I've been guilty of taking the last option.

Empathy is a prerequisite for being a writer, because how else are you ever going to write anything that's not the story of your own life?  Feeling starts in imagination, and imagination starts in feeling.  You can't feel some-one else's feelings; you can only imagine that they have the same emotional infrastructure as you and wonder how it interacts with their situation. Given that everyone is different, but everyone is the same. If the similarities breed connection, it's the differences that breed curiosity.

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