Our stories are not meant for everyone. Hearing them is a privilege, and we should always ask ourselves this before we share: “Who has earned the right to hear my story?” If we have one or two people in our lives who can sit with us and hold space for our shame stories, and love us for our strengths and struggles, we are incredibly lucky.
— Brené Brown
Recently, I have worked to become ever more sparing about what and how I share. I’ve arguably over-corrected, failing to share specific concerns when doing so would actually have been wise.
I’ve known for several days that there’s something important for me to share here, but I haven’t been able to find the right, actually shareable words. I’ve tried getting at the “something” in a few draft posts, only to wordily wander far and wide, not to mention deep into narrowly-shareable territory.
I have learned so, so many things in the last few months of “rumbling” toward understanding. But as I reflect today on all I’ve learned, only a fraction of which I can yet match with appropriate words, I find that my key learning so far is this:
It is precisely when I feel least safe that I must be most explicit about setting and maintaining my boundaries.
Having grown up in profound, sustained violence in all forms, I grew up having learned a very different lesson:
It is precisely when I feel least safe that I must stay smallest, most measured in my words, and most attentive to carefully restraining any word or behavior that might be perceived as a threat.
My childhood taught me that people could be very, very dangerous when they don’t feel good about themselves. They’ll do just about anything to even temporarily relieve that pain, even if that “anything” ultimately leads to them feeling still worse long-term.
I didn’t know the name for that pain until I began reading Brené Brown, but I sure knew its signs: many of the individual behaviors that indicated its sustained presence.
The more such behaviors related to this then-unnamable pain demonstrated by a person in my vicinity, the greater—my ample experience informed me—their potential danger to me. To themselves. To anyone.
That pain? Shame, or what Brown defines as “the “intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
Brown does more than define it, though. With compassion and clarity, she spells out—as I have known in my bones, all my life—what it means and what it does.
“When we’re in shame,” writes Brown, “We’re not fit for human consumption.”
“Shame is more likely to be the cause of destructive behavior than the cure.”
I wish that I didn’t have to achieve all I’ve learned about the corrosiveness of shame in such slow, pain-filled, heartbreaking ways.
And yet: For me, the story now isn’t in the pain. The story, this morning, is in the gratitude:
That my then primary care provider recommended Brown to me a couple years ago;
That I had the sense to heed her recommendation to watch Brown’s Netflix special;
That I saw in Brown’s special the potential for finding the words for phenomena
I no longer believed capable of being matched with words;
That I saw in Brown’s special, at last,
the possibility of healing.
This morning, listening to a copy of Brown’s Rising Strong as a Spiritual Practice, I listened to one passage over and over and over again, tapping out the words on my iPad for printing and heavy near-future reference.
What would it mean for us if people were actually doing the best they could? And what does it really take to operate in our lives from a place like that? And so, what I learned in the research was that it does require boundaries and integrity in order to be generous. And the reason why I think all of these slogans and companies that say ‘assume positive intent’ is ‘cause they don’t teach people the other piece of it is: To love and live BIG is Boundaries, Integrity, and Generosity. […] The most compassionate people I have ever met and interviewed are by far the most boundaried, because it is impossible to extend an assumption of generosity to someone who is taking advantage of you, being disrespectful, hurting you, not hearing you, not seeing you. You cannot be generous toward those people. We can only be generous toward the people with whom we have set boundaries, demand boundaries, and were able to stay in our integrity.
This quote takes me back to this post’s starting quote from Brown, as I ask again:
How do people earn the right to hear my story?
They may earn it thusly:
By listening when I communicate my boundaries, and then working to honor them.
By communicating their boundaries, and also telling me when they feel I’ve failed to uphold them.
It is in this mutual, act by act by act by act, affirmation of boundaries that already-safe people show me I don’t need to stay small and meek to be safe with—or from—them.
It is in this way that I can slowly, accurately distinguish for myself whose behaviors have earned them the right to hear my story—
judging not anyone’s implicit worth, but rather making this time-limited judgment in affirmation of my own worth,
in protection of my self and, no less, two sweet boys who are themselves
deserving of my fullest, most healed,
most loving protection.