When Brené Brown speaks of the wilderness in Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone, she’s not speaking of a place on a map. The wilderness isn’t “out there.” The wilderness is “in here.” It’s learning how to be who we are meant to be. It’s through understanding and accepting our own wilderness that we’ll find true belonging – and the courage to stand alone when needed.
Integrated Self Image and Stable Core
The language I use is different, but the concepts are the same. I speak about the need to develop an integrated self-image. It’s an image of oneself that recognizes all the aspects. It accepts the bad with the good. It recognizes that no one can be defined by a label. No one group that we are in defines us. The result that Brown encourages everyone to find by braving the wilderness is that person inside. Having an integrated self-image is so important that it comes up over and over again in my writing, including in my reviews of Happiness, The Trauma of Everyday Life, Schools without Failure, Compelled to Control, Beyond Boundaries, What Got You Here Won’t Get You There, and Brown’s previous work Rising Strong. Braving the wilderness is the process that Brown recommends for finding an integrated self-image.
However, there’s another aspect to the way that I speak to this. It’s having a stable core. It’s the result of the integrated self-image where you know who you are, what you stand for, and what’s important in a way that stabilizes you from the temporary winds that seek to blow you off course. This concept, too, finds its home in multiple places – Dialogue, How to Be Yourself, The Power of the Other, and Resilient – in addition to many of the places where integrated self-image appeared. Having a stable core makes us, in general, much less reactive to other people and to the situations we find ourselves in. However, even with a stable core, people and situations will sometimes trigger us into a place of fear that we’ll have to fight our way out of.
The Person We Once Were
Everyone has hurts from their childhood that they still carry with them. Maybe it’s being chosen last for a game of dodgeball. Maybe it’s being embarrassed by the hand-me-down and therefore out-of-style clothes. The larger the area of hurt that we experienced as a child, the more likely we’ve had to deal with it somehow in our journey to adulthood. However, often there are little, narrow cracks of pain that we don’t confront in our journey to adulthood.
These end up either being a dull pain that we can’t seem to find – and we make seemingly irrational decisions because of – or a sharp, quick pain that catches us out of nowhere.
Braving the wilderness is appropriately comforting the little child that still lives inside of us in a way that tries to soothe the pain so that it doesn’t come back again. We must be careful to not make our attempt to soothe our pain cause someone else pain. (One of the most frequent ways that this happens is when parents try to live out their lives through their children, as I describe in Are Your Children Living Their Lives – or Yours?) However, done effectively, healing the hurts of the person we once were can lead us to a more integrated self-image and a more sable core.
Sometimes, I feel like I belong in the Island of Misfit Toys (from the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer TV special). In Straddling Multiple Worlds, I explained part of the experience of living between worlds and how difficult it can be. In my review for The Search for Significance, I pulled together Diffusion of Innovations author Everett Rogers’ recognition that innovators and early adopters often feel as if they don’t belong to a community and the reduction in recidivism when released prisoners feel like a community from Change or Die. I even acknowledge that our society discourages belonging like it used to, as explained by Bowling Alone. The central core of Alone Together is that, though we need more connection, belonging, and intimacy, our world today doesn’t offer us that – it only offers the illusion of it.
While belonging is a basic human need, our world is growing ever more specialized, and we’re losing our patience for those who don’t exactly match the profile of interests and activities we have. We connect in a trivial way with others and for shorter periods of time as our interests fade or are replaced with the latest distraction.
In the end, we must accept that we belong to ourselves. We must get comfortable with ourselves and, paradoxically, sometimes accept that belonging happens even when we’re alone. Our unique self won’t always intersect and connect with others in ways that look like belonging, but if we accept who we are, we can accept the levels of belonging that other groups offer. (See The Deep Water of Affinity Groups for more on belonging and its power.)
Lack of Control
Control is an illusion, but it’s an illusion that we cling to. It’s the safety blanket of youth that we’ve not shed. We told ourselves that one day we’d grow up and make all the rules. In short, we’d be in control. The problem is that we don’t have control of our world any more than our parents had control of theirs. We only have influence on our world.
The first step into the wilderness is surrendering the idea that we’ve got control, because inside the wilderness, there is no such thing as control. Inside the wilderness, we’re vulnerable. When we go searching into the depths of our soul, we don’t know what we’ll find – and we certainly can’t control what we find.
Our illusion of control is like a rope that we hold on to. As long as we hold on to the illusion, we can’t enter the wilderness and learn about our true selves.
At the heart of the wilderness is learning trust. It’s not about learning to trust other people. It’s about learning to trust yourself. When I wrote Why and How Twelve Step Groups Work, I missed an aspect of their power. I missed their capacity to help you regain the trust in yourself that you’ve lost. They stop the cycle of shame that prevents people from conquering their addictions, but they work on the other side of the coin as well.
The other side of the shame coin is learning to accept and trust yourself. Acceptance is a prerequisite, because everyone will fail – at something at some point. Acceptance is a part of developing the integrated self-image where you realize that there are parts of you that aren’t perfect. Once the prerequisite of acceptance has been addressed, it’s possible to move forward into relearning to trust yourself. (For more on acceptance, see How to Be an Adult in Relationships.)
Most people have developed some level of distrust for themselves. Whether it’s the statement that they “can’t” resist a chocolate cake or the knowledge they “can’t” pass a stray animal without taking it home, each of us has places where we don’t believe our willpower will hold up to the test. (See Willpower for more.) By focusing on these limitations or accepting them as unchangeable, we begin to trust ourselves less. (See Mindset for fixed mindsets that imprison us in our own thinking.)
Learning to trust ourselves is, of course, about the basics of being reliable to the commitments we make to ourselves. However, it is also about being reasonable with the commitments we make. Many folks make New Year’s Resolutions only to fall off the bandwagon within weeks. Our rational rider makes commitments to ourselves that our emotional elephant isn’t willing to go along with in the long term. (See Switch and The Happiness Hypothesis for more on the Elephant-Rider-Path model.)
Sure, we need to learn to trust other people. We need to figure out whom and when it’s appropriate to trust, but, at its core, most problems of trust start with ourselves. (See The Power of the Other for more on learning when to trust others, and Trust=>Vulnerability=>Intimacy for a more comprehensive view of why trust is critical.)
Brown has a checklist for evaluating perspectives and behavior that makes the convenient acronym “BRAVING.” The components are as follows:
- Boundaries – Was I clear about my boundaries, and did I respect them?
- Reliability – Was there congruence between my values, my actions, and my words?
- Accountability – Did I own my mistakes, apologize, and make amends?
- Vault – Did I keep the confidence of others, sharing only what was mine to share?
- Integrity – Did I choose courage over comfort?
- Nonjudgement – Was I able to ask for what I needed? Did I allow others to ask for what they needed without judgement?
- Generosity – Did I interpret the actions, intentions, and words of others in the most generous (positive) way possible?
Whenever we want to evaluate how we did in a situation, this list provides a framework for evaluating whether we’re living true to our values and in a way that helps build up not only us but others as well.
What is Loneliness?
Loneliness can be quickly defined as “perceived social isolation.” However, that simple statement takes a bit to unpack – in fact, John Cacioppo wrote a whole book titled Loneliness. We’ve all felt lonely. In fact, when we feel like we don’t belong, we can feel that sense of loneliness. Loneliness is a serious concern, because it’s often invisible to the outside world. (See The Fearless Organization for more on invisible acts.) It’s dangerous, because isolation “is as significant to mortality rates as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and lack of physical exercise.” (See Emotional Intelligence for this quote from this 1987 article in Science.) Cacioppo and Brown both echo this concern.
The key the 1987 article missed is that it’s the perceived isolation that matters. You can be in a room full of people and be lonely but not alone. In fact, feeling alone in a room full of people is perhaps the loneliest feeling possible.
I get to speak at a lot of conferences. Some are conference where I feel right at home. Some of the places I speak at I’ve spoken at for years. It’s sort of like a family reunion when I show up. There are speakers that you know and love but don’t get to spend much time with. There’s the set of speakers who are odd enough that you sit and quietly smirk at their antics. The attendees are people you’ve seen year after year.
Other places, I walk in and feel no connection whatsoever. They talk a different language. They care about different things. They aren’t familiar in any sense of the word. I’ve literally been in a room with 500 people, and I can’t tell you a time that I’ve felt more alone. For me, it’s OK. It’s a short-term thing, and I get to come back to a home where I’m anything but lonely. However, I can’t imagine living in a world where you only ever felt separate and alone.
If Nothing Changes, Are You OK?
Most people believe that they’d be OK if something else changes. If I got a promotion at work. If I got a new car. If my son gets into the college that he wants. There’s always something outside of us that can make us happy or at least OK. The problem with this thinking is that we don’t have control of the things outside of us. (See Stumbling on Happiness for more.) The key to happiness isn’t in our ability to change external circumstances. The key to happiness is in being able to accept our circumstances.
On the road to happiness, the first stop is acceptance. We must accept the reality of our circumstances and be OK with them. Once we’ve come to accept that we can’t change our circumstances, we can be happy with them.
I understand that the first response to the preceding is “hogwash.” We believe that we can change our circumstances – and we can. However, we don’t have “positive control” of them. We have influence over our future circumstances. We can shift them, but we don’t know exactly how things will turn out. More importantly, we’re changing the future version of our circumstances, not the circumstances of today. As a strongly-biased “future” person, I’m all for pushing to change tomorrow’s circumstances. (See The Time Paradox for more on future-focused people.)
The problem is that happiness is lived in the now. It’s in the today. It’s in the present moment. In that context, what matters is my acceptance of the reality of now. Not that I can’t or shouldn’t want to change things tomorrow to be better – that’s great – but I can’t change things in the now.
I Like Persons, Not People
I’m an introvert. I’m charged up by time spent reading, researching, and writing. It’s the way I find my core. I love one-on-one conversations about deep topics. I find that, individually, a person can be amazing. However, people – as a group – aren’t my favorite. Please don’t get me wrong. I love presenting to a group and watching the lights come on as I explain a difficult topic. I love the moment of confusion right before the revelation. I love the ability to help people. However, fundamentally, I’m not a people person. I’m a “person” person.
I can’t form connections with people. I form connections with persons. I learn about their struggles and their triumphs. I learn about their passions and their sorrows. It’s a precious gift that I try to graciously accept. The beauty of persons is that I can accept them as they are individually. I don’t have to see a sanitized, stripped-down version of who they are. That always feels empty and hollow to me.
Change Ourselves, Not Others
The journey into the wilderness isn’t for other people. It’s for us. We can’t tell others to go into the darkness for us. We must go for ourselves. We need the vulnerability of the journey to teach and guide us. We need to know that we can be vulnerable and survive. We need to learn the truth of nature is that all growth is vulnerability. The time when bacterium is the most susceptible to being killed is immediately after replication. It must become vulnerable to grow. So, too, we must become vulnerable to thrive.
We can’t do our work hoping other people will change. We must do our work hoping that we will change. We must trust that the process will change us in the same way that heat changes iron to steel. Native American Indians used to send boys into the woods for a trial. The trial ended with the boy returning from the wilderness as no longer a boy but a man. It’s time for all of us to go Braving the Wilderness, so that we can come back out changed for the better.