Contemplating Brené Brown’s Contribution to the War Against Patriarchy

I love me a good TED talk and is there any TED talk that speaks more to the white middle class North American woman than this one right here on vulnerability? This thing hit the internet in the face like a sledge hammer back in 2010. It’s the story of a qualitative researcher who realized that the secret to overcoming the paralyzing effects of shame (about everything. .. body image, parenting, career, class. . .) was vulnerability and its sibling, authenticity . This controlling, perfectionist, driven woman, faced with this truth that she discovered, promptly had a breakdown. It was a horror to contemplate that being authentic in relationship was a necessary part of overcoming the paralysis of shame. It felt like a trap. So, she did what any self-respecting woman of privilege might do and put it all in a TED talk so that we could learn from her experience. It struck a chord. I’m sure that many of you are well aware of this talk, the subsequent books and the Netflix special that was recently released. I also quite loved the original talk. In this basic idea, that we cover up our shame with a myriad of false selves, each more impermeable than the last, she is bang on.

Certainly, she has been a commercial success for herself and with that has come the scrutiny of the public eye. In this revealing interview, she is somewhat honest about her discomforts and the way people interpret her intentions. I can feel the tension in her as I read the interview. She has something to say that she wants people to know. It’s important and it’s so hard to do. She wants to find a way to teach it so she can help but it keeps getting reduced to “Oprah Approved” and “Self-Help Queen”. She resists having her ideas over processed even as she markets them like a meal at slightly better than McDonalds food chain (I couldn’t pin one that I wanted. . .Milestones maybe?).

Then, into my feed this past week comes this blog post of hers on midlife. Since that’s what I’m up to these days, midlife-ing, I was interested in hearing what she had to say (she is 54 and when this was published, she was closer to 53). It has some parts that really resonate for me, like this passage:

If you look at each midlife “event” as a random, stand-alone struggle, you might be lured into believing you’re only up against a small constellation of “crises.” The truth is that the midlife unraveling is a series of painful nudges strung together by low-grade anxiety and depression, quiet desperation, and an insidious loss of control. By low-grade, quiet, and insidious, I mean it’s enough to make you crazy, but seldom enough for people on the outside to validate the struggle or offer you help and respite. It’s the dangerous kind of suffering – the kind that allows you to pretend that everything is OK.

In this passage we again see the core struggle of Brené’s life, that being exposed as not capable of handling all the things is unfathomable, a no go, a hard stop, a nope. If she is allowed to pretend it’s okay, she naturally will. This is the story of many many many of us.

Also in this post, there is the force that is pushing the other way. In her first go around, it was her research that was screaming in her face “You won’t get anywhere by pushing, perfecting and controlling!” Her research said, if you don’t want to suffer shame so much, get real about who you are and express it. In this writing, it’s morphed into “the Universe”. The Universe says:

I’m not screwing around. All of this pretending and performing – these coping mechanisms that you’ve developed to protect yourself from feeling inadequate and getting hurt – has to go. Your armor is preventing you from growing into your gifts. I understand that you needed these protections when you were small. I understand that you believed your armor could help you secure all of the things you needed to feel worthy and lovable, but you’re still searching and you’re more lost than ever. Time is growing short. There are unexplored adventures ahead of you. You can’t live the rest of your life worried about what other people think. You were born worthy of love and belonging. Courage and daring are coursing through your veins. You were made to live and love with your whole heart. It’s time to show up and be seen.

Basically, this is the same message. Stop worrying, show up, be seen. I mean, I love it. Yet, something was missing. There was a sort of screaming in my own head. It came up most especially in this passage:

What bubbles up from this internal turmoil is fantasy. We might glance over at a cheap motel while we’re driving down the highway and think, I’ll just check in and stay there until they come looking for me. Then they’ll know I’m losing my mind. Or maybe we’re standing in the kitchen unloading the dishwasher when we suddenly find ourselves holding up a glass and wondering, “Would my family take this struggle more seriously if I just started hurling all this shit through the window?”

Most of us opt out of these choices. We’d have to arrange to let the dog out and have the kids picked up before we checked into the lonely roadside motel. We’d spend hours cleaning up glass and apologizing for our “bad choices” to our temper tantrum-prone toddlers. It just wouldn’t be worth it, so most of us just push through until “losing it” is no longer a voluntary fantasy.

Brené! Where is the next obvious paragraph? The one that notices that the reason we alone are responsible for emptying the dishwasher, picking up the kids, contemplating the drink ware and the sound it makes as it shatters, is not ONLY about our lack of courage to be seen. The layer of resistance is not ONLY about us hiding from our very personally held experience of shame generated ONLY by our close family of origin experiences. Brené, if we don’t include the systemic effect of, at a MINIMUM, patriarchy and colonialism, we will continue to fail and fail and fail.

In her interview with the Guardian that I linked above, she actually does show an awareness of how patriarchy has impacted her career. She explains the struggle with the double standard regarding her work:

“That article that was written about me,” she says at the end. “The one where it said: ‘America Has a New Queen of Self-Help’? I’ve got to tell you, I cried for four hours, because I don’t think they’d ever do that to man who had been a researcher, a scholar, for 13 years. And it’s not unusual for me to be the only female speaker in a day-long list at a corporate event. With a predominantly male audience and to be paid half of what the men are. So I double my fee and then everybody leaps on me. Saying, who do you think you are? You know who I am? I’m the person trying not to vomit into my mouth when I hear what my male counterparts are making. That’s who I am. I’m just trying to stave off the throwing up. It’s difficult, difficult.”

Yet, 3 years later, she publishes this blog that fails to explicitly acknowledge that our experience of being squashed, unheard and unseen in our lives, careers or even on the bus has a good deal to do with the fact that we apparently cannot rely on our families or broader communities to notice we are losing our gourds trying to do every f-ing thing. We cannot rely on them because they tell the same story about us (and by “us” I am talking about those the patriarchy does not include in it’s power structure) that we are telling ourselves. This story, is the story of the dominant power structure, not just your withholding mom. It’s SYSTEMIC, Brené!

This post, and my use of poor Brené, as a counterpoint, did not come out of nowhere. In fact, I was contemplating writing about my kind of recent knowing that I am really quite fabulous exactly as I am in this moment. I am recognizing that all the choices I have made (although they looked chaotic at the time) have led me to a place of relative peace. That ole Universe whispered and I said oke doke. But you know what? That’s crap. Like Brené, I have lots of education and I have an overabundance of resources, both financial and community. It still took me until I was 50 to fully move out of and get radically pissed off at the role I was playing in ways that didn’t endanger my children or my own well being. This wasn’t just a matter of me listening to the inner whisperings of my soul, although I’m totally guilty of believing that at times, I love that narrative. This was me finally having enough power and financial security to be able to see my way out of the stories I was telling myself, without running into the block of fear. To hear Brené tell it, this fear is imaginary. We’ve made it up because we don’t want to feel the shame of our failures and all we need to do is be brave and poof, the way will be cleared.

Except it’s hard to be brave if you can’t afford decent housing and you don’t have pay equity and your can’t get a job because of how your name sounds and you are sexualized at work or you are misgendered constantly or you are not believed and you are not supported in your parenting or your health and all the ways this seemingly increasingly cold hearted community is abandoning people and telling them to suck it up.

Brené never talks about that and I really want her to. I want her message to make a difference to more than the middle/upper-middle class mostly white women who can actually use and execute her advice. But how?

What if, included in her message of personal empowerment, there was also an exhortation to give back somehow? In some ways this is counter-intuitive to the message. We are already giving and giving, this is about being real and brave and taking ourselves and our choices and our realities back. But if you can do that, as I can, it really doesn’t feel right to leave people behind. Maybe this is the evolution of Brene’s work that I long for (and maybe she IS speaking about this already, I didn’t do a deep dive). When we have benefited from our self-discovery and our bravery and our steps out into the light, we need to turn around and grab someone else and take them with us. It should be a person who can’t reach critical velocity of exit from these stories of the patriarchy because they can’t amass the resources, usually because of multiple points of marginalization. Ideally, it should be someone not at all like me and Brené. It could be through recognized charitable orgs, or even better, pick an individual and really make a difference. In the past 4 years or so, that’s been my choice. I don’t get a tax receipt but the impact on that one person is big. If everyone who followed Brene’s every word did that, what a difference that would make. It would empower an army of previously silenced people who could war more effectively against these narratives, continue to put good work in the world, maybe run for public office!

That’s what I hear the universe saying to me right now. Take someone with you.

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10 thoughts on “Contemplating Brené Brown’s Contribution to the War Against Patriarchy

    1. Ya I read a great blog from a fat girl begging her to stop that while I surfing around for what she is up to lately. Sam tweeted this at her this morning and freaked me out but maybe if she followed this blog it would help? Thanks for your comment :).

  1. Timely! I heard an interview with her a couple days ago and thought about her ideas on vulnerability and that I have mixed feeling about them – there was a lot of “both-siding” about things political and I see that as a false equivalence when one side is removing people’s rights and putting people in cages. I do think there is something real there about vulnerability and openness being a pathway into personal growth but she certainly sidesteps a lot of issues about the underlying systemic structures that keep large swathes of people down.

    1. I honestly think this is another manifestation of her stuff. It’s hard to be vulnerable about your own privilege. It unmasks you. But the unmasking of it and acceptance can also be liberating and make interacting with others less fearful and shame filled. See? Her ideas work, they just need to sink down deeper.

  2. This is such a great post, thanks for sharing it! You’ve put your finger on things that have been annoying me about her perspective, but that I haven’t been able to put together or articulate coherently. I hope she reads it 🙂

  3. I’m sure part of the reason she hasn’t hit this depth is because she is being amply rewarded, publicly, for NOT looking that far down. The DIY- laydeez message empowers individual women to provide a mask of empowerment to other women, and then (often) to sell them things. This is called postfeminism and it is bullshit.

    I credit my own strength, sense of empowered vulnerability (ask my students), and groundedness to a lot of good psychotherapy (ongoing) and a firm foothold in actual retail feminism. Being able to see the patriarchy at work doesn’t fix anything, but at least you’re no longer being gaslit and can free others with you.

    And I agree with Sam, Susan – TEDx needs you!!

      1. Totally with Kim! You give her way too credit and not enough to you. Write a book. Make a TED talk. The world needs more political feminist therapists

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