“The definition of vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. But vulnerability is not weakness; it's our most accurate measure of courage. When the barrier is our belief about vulnerability, the question becomes: 'Are we willing to show up and be seen when we can't control the outcome?' When the barrier to vulnerability is about safety, the question becomes: 'Are we willing to create courageous spaces so we can be fully seen?” -Brene Brown
February is, for some, the month of love and relationships, for others, it’s all about getting through it and counting the time until spring arrives. We at the CDP decided to make February a month to blog about the myriad types of connections from its many and varied angles.
Thinking about relationship, and always looking for a new slant that captures imagination, creativity and makes me pause to identify and question long-held beliefs, I decided to write a review of a new book that did exactly that. Dr. Brene Brown is a qualitative grounded theory researcher who develops theories based on peoples lived experiences rather than proving or disproving existing theories. In the midst of an era of disconnection, she speaks of cultivating community and the power of belonging.
In “Braving the Wilderness,” Dr. Brown asked study participants two questions: “What are people trying to achieve?” and “What are they worried about?” This book follows the complex answers she received. People want to be a part of something – but not at the cost of their authenticity, freedom, or power. They spoke of the increasing “us versus them” culture, the fears of disconnection and resulting dehumanization of us all. If, as Dr. Brown writes, the primary thing that binds us together is shared fear and disdain, not commonality, shared trust, respect or love, this creates an environment in which people are more afraid to disagree or debate with friends, colleagues, and family due to the lack of civility and tolerance. It becomes the false dichotomy of “You’re with us or against us.” The ability to think past either/or situations is the very definition of critical thinking, but it requires courage.
Brown redefines what it means to truly belong in an age of increased polarization. When she polled a large group of eighth-grade students on their notions of the difference between belonging and fitting in, she was surprised at how quickly and succinctly they understood and defined these differences. Belonging, they said, is being accepted for you. Belonging is about being true to who you are. Fitting in is being accepted for being like everyone else. When we sacrifice that authenticity to fit in, we sacrifice the essence of belonging.
How then can people be both loyal to a group and loyal to themselves? Many of us were raised with a core belief that it is vital to our happiness and well-being to “fit in” and conform. It starts very young, in our family culture, then expands when we begin school and continues into the workplace. Along the way, this belief becomes unquestioning truth and remains so, until something within us or outside of us triggers us to question the cost of “fitting in” and begin the process of belonging fully to ourselves. It takes courage to begin and hold onto this becoming. In a “fitting-in” culture, at home, at work, or in our larger community, curiosity is seen as weakness and asking questions equates to antagonism rather than being valued as learning. Dr. Brown puts it best when she writes “It takes breaking down walls, abandoning our ideological bunkers and living from our wild heart rather than our weary hurt.”
She writes, "True belonging requires us to believe in and belong to ourselves so fully that we can find sacredness both in being a part of something and in standing alone when necessary. But in a culture that's rife with perfectionism and pleasing, and with the erosion of civility, it's easy to stay quiet, hide in our ideological bunkers, or fit in rather than show up as our true selves and brave the wilderness of uncertainty and criticism.”
Standing alone can feel hard, frightening, and lonely. Yet, when we don’t take the risk and speak out, we perpetuate our own isolation and loneliness. If we do run the risk, however, the rewards are vast. There will be times you stand fully alone and all you hear around you are crickets, or you are judged and criticized. But, there will also be those times that others will hear you, stand with you and express relief that you had the courage to say what so many had been thinking, but feared to verbalize.
Does this mean that we should come up with a set of values and beliefs and then feel free to comment on anything or to anyone who disagrees? Unfortunately, this is a definition many individuals have adopted and it is simply another form of attempting to fit in. No, true belonging is having the fortitude to not know, to be open to others ideas and to change or shift our own in the face of new information. It is being curious, asking questions, daring to be seen as not having all the answers, even those you think you “should” have! True belonging is to brave the wilderness of uncertainty, vulnerability, and criticism.
With the world feeling more and more like a political and ideological combat zone, when it’s hard to remember our connection to one another through our humanity, not our politics, group membership or ideologies – this is extremely hard. The world calls us to remember our true connections and to embrace, rather than fear, our commonalities, and the wonder of that connection which gives people more freedom to express their individuality, without fear of jeopardizing belonging.
This then is the essence of Brene Brown’s latest book. Like all well-written, thoughtful books, it provides much to consider – to throw it up on the wall and see if it sticks to the experiences of your own life.
The opinions in CDP Staff Perspective blogs are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Uniformed Services University of the Health Science or the Department of Defense.
Laura Copland is the Senior PTSD Treatment Trainer for CDP at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda Maryland.