Practicing courage, compassion, and connection in our daily lives is how we cultivate worthiness. The key word is practice. Mary Daly, a theologian, writes, “Courage is like—it’s a habitus, a habit, a virtue: You get it by courageous acts. It’s like you learn to swim by swimming. You learn courage by couraging.” The same is true for compassion and connection. We invite compassion into our lives when we act compassionately toward ourselves and others, and we feel connected in our lives when we reach out and connect.
Before I define these concepts and talk about how they work, I want to show you how they work together in real life—as practices. This is a personal story about the courage to reach out, the compassion that comes from saying, “I’ve been there,” and the connections that fuel our worthiness.
The Gun-for-Hire Shame Storm
Not too long ago, the principal of a large public elementary school and the president of the school’s parent-teacher organization (PTO) invited me to speak to a group of parents about the relationship between resilience and boundaries. I was in the process of collecting data about Wholehearted parenting and schools at the time, so I was excited about the opportunity. I had no idea what I was getting myself into.
The second I walked into the school auditorium, I felt this really strange vibe from the parents in the audience. They almost seemed agitated.
I asked the principal about it, and she just shrugged her shoulders and walked away. The PTO president didn’t have much to say about it either. I chalked it up to my nerves and tried to let it go.
I was sitting in the front row when the principal introduced me. This is always a very awkward experience for me. Someone is running through a list of my accomplishments while I’m secretly trying to stave off vomiting and talking myself out of running. Well, this introduction was beyond anything I had ever experienced.
The principal was saying things like, “You might not like what you’re going to hear tonight, but we need to listen for the sake of our children. Dr. Brown is here to transform our school and our lives! She’s going to set us straight whether we like it or not!”
She was talking in this loud, aggressive voice that made her seem downright pissed off. I felt like I was being introduced for WWE WrestleMania. All we needed were the Jock Jams and a few strobe lights.
In hindsight, I should have walked up to the podium and said, “I’m feeling very uncomfortable. I’m excited to be here, but I’m certainly not here to set anyone straight. I also don’t want you to think that I’m trying to transform your school in an hour. What’s going on?”
But I didn’t. I just started talking in my vulnerable I’m-a-researcher-but-I’m-also-a-struggling-parent way. Well, the die had been cast. These parents were not receptive. Instead, I felt row after row of people glaring at me.
One man, who was sitting right up front, had his arms folded across his chest and his teeth clenched so tightly that the veins in his neck were popping out. Every three or four minutes he’d shift in his seat, roll his eyes, and sigh louder than I’ve ever heard anyone sigh. It was so loud that I’m barely comfortable calling it a sigh. It was more like a humph! It was so bad that the people next to him were visibly mortified by his behavior. They were still inexplicably unhappy with me, but he was making the entire evening unbearable for all of us.
As an experienced teacher and group leader, I know how to handle these situations and am normally comfortable doing so. When someone is being disruptive, you really only have two choices: ignore him or take a break so that you can privately confront him about his inappropriate behavior. I was so knocked off my game by this weird experience that I did the very worst thing possible: I tried to impress him.
I started talking louder and getting really animated. I quoted scary research statistics that would freak out any parent. I served up my authenticity for a big ole helping of You better listen to me or your kids are going to drop out of third grade and take up hitchhiking, drugs, and running with scissors.
I didn’t get a head nod or a slight grin or anything. I just managed to freak out the other 250 already-pissy parents. It was a disaster. Trying to co-opt or win over someone like that guy is always a mistake, because it means trading in your authenticity for approval. You stop believing in your worthiness and start hustling for it. And, oh man, was I hustling.
The second the talk ended, I grabbed my stuff and ran-walked to my car. As I was pulling out of the parking lot, my face was growing hotter. I felt small and my heart was racing. I tried to push back the instant replay of me acting crazy, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. The shame storm was brewing.
When the shame winds are whipping all around me, it’s almost impossible to hold on to any perspective or to recall anything good about myself. I went right into the bad self-talk of God, I’m such an idiot. Why did I do that?
The greatest gift of having done this work (the research and the personal work) is that I can recognize shame when it’s happening. First, I know my physical symptoms of shame—the dry mouth, time slowing down, tunnel vision, hot face, racing heart. I know that playing the painful slow-motion reel over and over in my head is a warning sign.
I also know that the very best thing to do when this is happening feels totally counterintuitive: Practice courage and reach out! We have to own our story and share it with someone who has earned the right to hear it, someone whom we can count on to respond with compassion. We need courage, compassion, and connection. ASAP.
Shame hates it when we reach out and tell our story. It hates having words wrapped around it—it can’t survive being shared. Shame loves secrecy. The most dangerous thing to do after a shaming experience is hide or bury our story. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes. I remember saying out loud: “I need to talk to someone RIGHT NOW. Be brave, Brené!”
But here’s the tricky part about compassion and connecting: We can’t call just anyone. It’s not that simple. I have a lot of good friends, but there are only a handful of people whom I can count on to practice compassion when I’m in the dark shame place.
If we share our shame story with the wrong person, they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm. We want solid connection in a situation like this—something akin to a sturdy tree firmly planted in the ground. We definitely want to avoid the following:
1. The friend who hears the story and actually feels shame for you. She gasps and confirms how horrified you should be. Then there is awkward silence. Then you have to make her feel better.
2. The friend who responds with sympathy (I feel so sorry for you) rather than empathy (I get it, I feel with you, and I’ve been there). If you want to see a shame cyclone turn deadly, throw one of these at it: “Oh, you poor thing.” Or, the incredibly passive-aggressive southern version of sympathy: “Bless your heart.”
3. The friend who needs you to be the pillar of worthiness and authenticity. She can’t help because she’s too disappointed in your imperfections. You’ve let her down.
4. The friend who is so uncomfortable with vulnerability that she scolds you: “How did you let this happen? What were you thinking?” Or she looks for someone to blame: “Who was that guy? We’ll kick his ass.”
5. The friend who is all about making it better and, out of her own discomfort, refuses to acknowledge that you can actually be crazy and make terrible choices: “You’re exaggerating. It wasn’t that bad. You rock. You’re perfect. Everyone loves you.”
6. The friend who confuses “connection” with the opportunity to one-up you: “That’s nothing. Listen to what happened to me one time!”
Of course, we’re all capable of being “these friends”—especially if someone tells us a story that gets right up in our own shame grill. We’re human, imperfect, and vulnerable. It’s hard to practice compassion when we’re struggling with our authenticity or when our own worthiness is off balance.
When we’re looking for compassion, we need someone who is deeply rooted, able to bend, and, most of all, we need someone who embraces us for our strengths and struggles. We need to honor our struggle by sharing it with someone who has earned the right to hear it. When we’re looking for compassion, it’s about connecting with the right person at the right time about the right issue.
I called my sister. It’s only been since the 2007 Breakdown Spiritual Awakening that I’ve called one of my sisters or my brother for shame-cyclone support. I’m four years older than my brother and eight years older than my sisters (they’re twins). Before 2007, I was pretty vested in being the older, perfect (aka uptight, better than, and judgmental) sister.
Ashley was amazing. She listened and responded with total compassion. She had the courage to tap into her own struggles with worthiness so that she could genuinely connect to what I was experiencing. She said wonderfully honest and empathic things like, “Oh, man. That’s so hard. I’ve done that dance. I hate that feeling!” That may not be what someone else would need to hear, but for me it was the best.
Ashley wasn’t uprooted and thrown into the storm created by my experience. She also wasn’t so rigid that she snapped with judgment and blame. She didn’t try to fix me or make me feel better; she just listened and had the courage to share some of her own vulnerabilities with me.
I felt totally exposed and completely loved and accepted at the same time (which is the definition of compassion for me). Trust me when I tell you that shame and fear can’t tolerate that kind of powerful connection surging between people. That’s exactly why courage, compassion, and connection are the tools we need for the Wholehearted journey. To top it off, my willingness to let someone I care about see me as imperfect led to a strengthening of our relationship that continues today—that’s why I can call courage, compassion, and connection the gifts of imperfection. When we’re willing to be imperfect and real, these gifts just keep giving.
Just a quick follow-up to the story: About a week after the wrestling match/parenting talk, I found out that the school was experiencing a hovering problem—parents were in the classrooms all day and interfering with instruction and class management. Without telling me, the principal and PTO president had required the parents to attend my lecture. They told the parents that I was coming to tell them why they needed to stop hovering. In other words, I was set up as a helicopter-parent mercenary. Not good. I may not be a fan of hovering in the classroom, but I’m also not a parenting gun-for-hire. The irony is that I had no idea that was an issue, so I never even mentioned the topic.
With this story in mind, let’s take a closer look at each of the concepts of Wholeheartedness and how they work together.
Courage is a huge theme in my life. It seems that either I’m praying for some, feeling grateful for having found a little bit, appreciating it in other people, or studying it. I don’t think that makes me unique. Everyone wants to be brave.
After interviewing people about the truths of their lives—their strengths and struggles—I realized that courage is one of the most important qualities that Wholehearted people have in common. And not just any kind of courage; I found that Wholeheartedness requires ordinary courage. Here’s what I mean . . .
The root of the word courage is cor—the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.” Over time, this definition has changed, and, today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic. Heroics is important and we certainly need heroes, but I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage. Heroics is often about putting our life on the line. Ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. In today’s world, that’s pretty extraordinary.
When we pay attention, we see courage every day. We see it when people reach out for help, like I did with Ashley. I see it in my classroom when a student raises her hand and says, “I’m completely lost. I have no idea what you’re talking about.” Do you know how incredibly brave it is to say “I don’t know” when you’re pretty sure everyone around you gets it? Of course, in my twelve-plus years of teaching, I know that if one person can find the courage to say, “You’ve lost me,” there are probably at least ten more students who feel the exact same way. They may not take the risk, but they certainly benefit from that one person’s courage.
I saw courage in my daughter, Ellen, when she called me from a slumber party at 10:30 p.m. and said, “Mom, can you come get me?” When I picked her up, she got in the car and said, “I’m sorry. I just wasn’t brave enough. I got homesick. It was so hard. Everyone was asleep, and I had to walk to Libby’s mom’s bedroom and wake her up.”
I pulled into our driveway, got out of the car, and walked around to the backseat where Ellen was sitting. I scooted her over and sat next to her. I said, “Ellen, I think asking for what you need is one of the bravest things that you’ll ever do. I suffered through a couple of really miserable sleepovers and slumber parties because I was too afraid to ask to go home. I’m proud of you.”
The next morning during breakfast, Ellen said, “I thought about what you said. Can I be brave again and ask for something else?” I smiled. “I have another slumber party next weekend. Would you be willing to pick me up at bedtime? I’m just not ready.” That’s courage. The kind we could all use more of.
I also see courage in myself when I’m willing to risk being vulnerable and disappointed. For many years, if I really wanted something to happen—an invitation to speak at a special conference, a promotion, a radio interview—I pretended that it didn’t matter that much. If a friend or colleague would ask, “Are you excited about that television interview?” I’d shrug it off and say, “I’m not sure. It’s not that big of a deal.” Of course, in reality, I was praying that it would happen.
It’s only been in the last few years that I’ve learned that playing down the exciting stuff doesn’t take the pain away when it doesn’t happen. It does, however, minimize the joy when it does happen. It also creates a lot of isolation. Once you’ve diminished the importance of something, your friends are not likely to call and say, “I’m sorry that didn’t work out. I know you were excited about it.”
Now when someone asks me about a potential opportunity that I’m excited about, I’m more likely to practice courage and say, “I’m so excited about the possibility. I’m trying to stay realistic, but I really hope it happens.” When things haven’t panned out, it’s been comforting to be able to call a supportive friend and say, “Remember that event I told you about? It’s not going to happen, and I’m so bummed.”
I recently saw another example of ordinary courage at my son Charlie’s preschool. Parents were invited to attend a holiday music presentation put on by the kids. You know the scene—twenty-five children singing with fifty-plus parents, grandparents, and siblings in the audience wielding thirty-nine video cameras. The parents were holding up cameras in the air and randomly snapping pictures while they scrambled to make sure that their kids knew they were there and on time.
In addition to all the commotion in the audience, one three-year-old girl, who was new to the class, cried her way through the entire performance because she couldn’t see her mom from the makeshift stage. As it turns out, her mother was stuck in traffic and missed the performance. By the time her mother arrived, I was kneeling by the classroom door telling Charlie good-bye. From my low vantage point, I watched the girl’s mother burst through the door and immediately start scanning the room to find her daughter. Just as I was getting ready to stand up and point her toward the back of the classroom where a teacher was holding her daughter, another mother walked by us, looked straight at this stressed mom, shook her head, and rolled her eyes.
I stood up, took a deep breath, and tried to reason with the part of me that wanted to chase after the better-than-you eye-rolling mom and kick her perfectly punctual ass. Just then two more moms walked up to this now tearful mother and smiled. One of the mothers put her hand on top of the woman’s shoulder and said, “We’ve all been there. I missed the last one. I wasn’t just late. I completely forgot.” I watched as the woman’s face softened, and she wiped away a tear. The second woman looked at her and said, “My son was the only one who wasn’t wearing pajamas on PJ Day—he still tells me it was the most rotten day ever. It will be okay. We’re all in the same boat.”
By the time this mother made it to the back of the room where the teacher was still comforting her daughter, she looked calm. Something that I’m sure came in handy when her daughter lunged for her from about six feet away. The moms who stopped and shared their stories of imperfection and vulnerability were practicing courage. They took the time to stop and say, “Here’s my story. You’re not alone.” They didn’t have to stop and share; they could have easily joined the perfect-parent parade and marched right by her.
As these stories illustrate, courage has a ripple effect. Every time we choose courage, we make everyone around us a little better and the world a little braver. And our world could stand to be a little kinder and braver.
To prepare for writing my book on shame, I read everything I could find on compassion. I ultimately found a powerful fit between the stories I heard in the interviews and the work of American Buddhist nun Pema Chödrön. In her book The Places That Scare You, Chödrön writes, “When we practice generating compassion, we can expect to experience the fear of our pain. Compassion practice is daring. It involves learning to relax and allow ourselves to move gently toward what scares us.”
What I love about Chödrön’s definition is her honesty about the vulnerability of practicing compassion. If we take a closer look at the origin of the word compassion, much like we did with courage, we see why compassion is not typically our first response to suffering. The word compassion is derived from the Latin words pati and cum, meaning “to suffer with.” I don’t believe that compassion is our default response. I think our first response to pain—ours or someone else’s—is to self-protect. We protect ourselves by looking for someone or something to blame. Or sometimes we shield ourselves by turning to judgment or by immediately going into fix-it mode.
Chödrön addresses our tendency to self-protect by teaching that we must be honest and forgiving about when and how we shut down: “In cultivating compassion we draw from the wholeness of our experience—our suffering, our empathy, as well as our cruelty and terror. It has to be this way. Compassion is not a relationship between the healer and the wounded. It’s a relationship between equals. Only when we know our own darkness well can we be present with the darkness of others. Compassion becomes real when we recognize our shared humanity.”
In my story, Ashley was willing to be in my darkness with me. She wasn’t there as my helper or to fix me; she was just with me—as an equal—holding my hand as I waded through my feelings.
Boundaries and Compassion
One of the greatest (and least discussed) barriers to compassion practice is the fear of setting boundaries and holding people accountable. I know it sounds strange, but I believe that understanding the connection between boundaries, accountability, acceptance, and compassion has made me a kinder person. Before the breakdown, I was sweeter—judgmental, resentful, and angry on the inside—but sweeter on the outside. Today, I think I’m genuinely more compassionate, less judgmental and resentful, and way more serious about boundaries. I have no idea what this combination looks like on the outside, but it feels pretty powerful on the inside.
Before this research, I knew a lot about each one of these concepts, but I didn’t understand how they fit together. During the interviews, it blew my mind when I realized that many of the truly committed compassion practitioners were also the most boundary-conscious people in the study. Compassionate people are boundaried people. I was stunned.
Here’s what I learned: The heart of compassion is really acceptance. The better we are at accepting ourselves and others, the more compassionate we become. Well, it’s difficult to accept people when they are hurting us or taking advantage of us or walking all over us. This research has taught me that if we really want to practice compassion, we have to start by setting boundaries and holding people accountable for their behavior.
We live in a blame culture—we want to know whose fault it is and how they’re going to pay. In our personal, social, and political worlds, we do a lot of screaming and finger-pointing, but we rarely hold people accountable. How could we? We’re so exhausted from ranting and raving that we don’t have the energy to develop meaningful consequences and enforce them. From Washington, DC, and Wall Street to our own schools and homes, I think this rage-blame-too-tired-and-busy-to-follow-through mind-set is why we’re so heavy on self-righteous anger and so low on compassion.
Wouldn’t it be better if we could be kinder, but firmer? How would our lives be different if there were less anger and more accountability? What would our work and home lives look like if we blamed less but had more respect for boundaries?
I was recently brought in to talk with a group of corporate leaders who were trying to manage a difficult reorganization in their company. One of the project managers told me that, after listening to me talk about the dangers of using shame as a management tool, he was worried that he shamed his team members. He told me that when he gets really frustrated, he singles people out and criticizes their work in team meetings.
He explained, “I’m so frustrated. I have two employees who just don’t listen. I explain every single detail of the project, I check to make sure they understand, and they still do it their way. I’m out of options. I feel backed into a corner and angry, so I take them down in front of their colleagues.”
When I asked him how he was holding these two employees accountable for not following the project protocol, he replied, “What do you mean by accountable?”
I explained, “After you check with them to make sure they understand your expectations and the objectives, how do you explain the consequences of not following the plan or not meeting the objectives?”
He said, “I don’t talk about the consequences. They know they’re supposed to follow the protocol.”
I gave him an example, “Okay. What would happen if you told them that you were going to write them up or give them an official warning the next time they violated protocol and that if it continues, they’re going to lose their jobs?”
He shook his head and said, “Oh, no. That’s pretty serious. I’d have to get the human resources people involved. That becomes a big hassle.”
Setting boundaries and holding people accountable is a lot more work than shaming and blaming. But it’s also much more effective. Shaming and blaming without accountability is toxic to couples, families, organizations, and communities. First, when we shame and blame, it moves the focus from the original behavior in question to our own behavior. By the time this boss is finished shaming and humiliating his employees in front of their colleagues, the only behavior in question is his.
Additionally, if we don’t follow through with appropriate consequences, people learn to dismiss our requests—even if they sound like threats or ultimatums. If we ask our kids to keep their clothes off the floor and they know that the only consequence of not doing it is a few minutes of yelling, it’s fair for them to believe that it’s really not that important to us.
It’s hard for us to understand that we can be compassionate and accepting while we hold people accountable for their behaviors. We can, and, in fact, it’s the best way to do it. We can confront someone about their behavior, or fire someone, or fail a student, or discipline a child without berating them or putting them down. The key is to separate people from their behaviors—to address what they’re doing, not who they are (I’ll talk more about this in the next chapter). It’s also important that we can lean into the discomfort that comes with straddling compassion and boundaries. We have to stay away from convincing ourselves that we hate someone or that they deserve to feel bad so that we can feel better about holding them accountable. That’s where we get into trouble. When we talk ourselves into disliking someone so we’re more comfortable holding them accountable, we’re priming ourselves for the shame and blame game.
When we fail to set boundaries and hold people accountable, we feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice. For our own sake, we need to understand that it’s dangerous to our relationships and our well-being to get mired in shame and blame, or to be full of self-righteous anger. It’s also impossible to practice compassion from a place of resentment. If we’re going to practice acceptance and compassion, we need boundaries and accountability.
I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.
Ashley and I felt deeply connected after our experience. I know I was seen, heard, and valued. Even though it was scary, I was able to reach out for support and help. And we both felt strengthened and fulfilled. In fact, a couple of weeks later, Ashley said, “I can’t tell you how glad I am that you called me that day. It helped me so much to know that I’m not the only one who does stuff like that. I also love knowing that I can help you and that you trust me.” Connection begets connection.
As a matter of fact, we are wired for connection. It’s in our biology. From the time we are born, we need connection to thrive emotionally, physically, spiritually, and intellectually. A decade ago, the idea that we’re “wired for connection” might have been perceived as touchy-feely or New Age. Today, we know that the need for connection is more than a feeling or a hunch. It’s hard science. Neuroscience, to be exact.
In his book Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships, Daniel Goleman explores how the latest findings in biology and neuroscience confirm that we are hardwired for connection and that our relationships shape our biology as well as our experiences. Goleman writes, “Even our most routine encounters act as regulators in the brain, priming our emotions, some desirable, others not. The more strongly connected we are with someone emotionally, the greater the mutual force.” It’s amazing—yet perhaps not surprising—that the connectedness we experience in our relationships impacts the way our brain develops and performs.
Our innate need for connection makes the consequences of disconnection that much more real and dangerous. Sometimes we only think we’re connected. Technology, for instance, has become a kind of imposter for connection, making us believe we’re connected when we’re really not—at least not in the ways we need to be. In our technology-crazed world, we’ve confused being communicative with feeling connected. Just because we’re plugged in, doesn’t mean we feel seen and heard. In fact, hyper-communication can mean we spend more time on Facebook than we do face-to-face with the people we care about. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve walked into a restaurant and seen two parents on their cell phones while their kids are busy texting or playing video games. What’s the point of even sitting together?
As we think about the definition of connection and how easy it is to mistake technology for connecting, we also need to consider letting go of the myth of self-sufficiency. One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on “going it alone.” Somehow we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into “those who offer help” and “those who need help.” The truth is that we are both.
I’ve learned so much about giving and receiving from the men and women who are engaged in Wholehearted living but nothing more important than this:
Until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.
For years, I placed value on being the helper in my family. I could help with a crisis or lend money or dispense advice. I was always happy to help others, but I would have never called my siblings to ask them for help, especially for support during a shame storm. At the time, I would have vehemently denied attaching judgment to my generous giving. But now, I understand how I derived self-worth from never needing help and always offering it.
During the breakdown, I needed help. I needed support and hand-holding and advice. Thank God! Turning to my younger brother and sisters completely shifted our family dynamics. I gained permission to fall apart and be imperfect, and they could share their strength and incredible wisdom with me. If connection is the energy that surges between people, we have to remember that those surges must travel in both directions.
The Wholehearted journey is not the path of least resistance. It’s a path of consciousness and choice. And, to be honest, it’s a little counterculture. The willingness to tell our stories, feel the pain of others, and stay genuinely connected in this disconnected world is not something we can do halfheartedly.
To practice courage, compassion, and connection is to look at life and the people around us, and say, “I’m all in.”
From The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are by Brené Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W.. Copyright 2010 by Hazelden Foundation.