I just finished reading Rising Strong this last week. It’s the first book I’ve read by Brene Brown, and I loved it, which is evidenced by how many page corners I folded down to remind me where my favorite passages were…
The whole book is amazing, full of many different ideas which I will be mentally chewing on for some time, but the one which impacted me the most was the idea of “the stories we tell ourselves”. She writes about the tendency we have to fill in missing details in our effort to understand ourselves, as well as other people.
“Storytelling helps us all impose order on chaos—including emotional chaos. When we’re in pain, we create a narrative to help us make sense of it. This story doesn’t have to be based on any real information. One dismissive glance from a coworker can instantly turn into I knew she didn’t like me. Our stories are also about self-protection. I told myself Steve was blaming me so I could be mad instead of admitting that I was vulnerable or afraid of feeling inadequate. I could disengage from the tougher stuff. That’s what human beings tend to do: When we’re under threat, we run. If we feel exposed or hurt, we find someone to blame, or blame ourselves before anyone else can, or pretend we don’t care.” (source)
I love to analyze, and I spend a lot of time in my own head, trying to figure things out. This can lead to some nasty storytelling, which I’ve been aware of for a long time, but it wasn’t until I read this book that it became clear to me while I was in the process of doing it.
It was one of those long, bumpier than normal kind of days, and I had already helped our sweet children through a long list of complaints, negative attitudes, and many other parenting challenges by the time Ben got home from work. While he was still by the door, yet another behaviour issue exploded, and I reached my limit. Ben could tell I was done for the day, and any parenting after that point could get a bit scary, so he, in an effort to be helpful, said, “Why don’t you go into the other room and let me handle this?”
Because of the frustration of the moment, I misunderstood his intent – Ben was trying to be helpful, but I thought he was telling me to go to the other room because I couldn’t keep calm while dealing with the situation. Instead of getting mad at our kid, I got mad at Ben. I held it in until I got to our bedroom, but I was furious with him, and feeling extremely justified. How dare he suggest that I was not capable of parenting our children in an appropriate manner? How could he make such a comment in front of our kids, criticizing my self-control and ability to handle the situation? “Somehow,” I thought to myself, “I manage to care for all three children every single day, all day long, while he is off relaxing in his office at work without any tantrums, screaming, or bad attitudes exploding in his face repeatedly!” (Like all he does all day is relax, but in the moment, I was not entirely reasonable!)
As these very heated thoughts blazed their way through my mind, Brene Brown’s question popped up: “What story am I making up in my head?” Immediately, I started to get curious. Why was I responding this way? What was making me so mad? What was going on behind all this anger?
The realization struck me – I was taking Ben’s words and interpreting them in a way which fueled insecurities about my parenting, rather than hearing what he was actually saying. He was offering me a break after a long day, but I was taking it as criticism of my parenting, and responding with anger on the surface, when deep down, I was actually feeling hurt and insecure in my parenting. I was ashamed that I couldn’t keep things under control, and disappointed with myself for how the day had gone.
It’s a lot harder to be honest about insecurity than about anger, but it makes for a much calmer, less explosive conversation. Because my issue was not even about anger, we would have gotten nowhere trying to work out what was making me “mad”, until I could recognize what was truly going on underneath. Once our kids were in bed, we had time to talk it over, and I couldn’t believe how much harder it was to tell him I was feeling shame and inadequacy as a parent, as well as hurt because I misunderstood his offer to help as a subtle sign of judgement.
I wanted to be mad, because it was easier, but admitting to the messier stuff underneath brought things to the surface which I needed to work through on my own, and had nothing to do with Ben.
It is really tempting to deny responsibility, or deny the messy, ugly truth deep down inside us. But that incident with Ben, which really had nothing to do with Ben, made me feel so much better when I could identify what was truly going on, and face the messy stuff. I still have a lot more internal housecleaning to do, but it makes a big difference already to be aware of these feelings of insecurity or inadequacy I have as a parent, and the lies they’re telling me.
All of this makes me curious about what else is lurking down there. I think I have a lot more stories to explore, and some brave new endings to write!