On this episode of Unlocking Us
In this first of a special two-parter with Ashley, I tell a story from Rising Strong that kicked off our Living BIG strategy. Spoiler alert: I am very, very, very pissed-off in this story. But I eventually come around to finding and seeing the connection between boundaries, integrity, and generosity.
Listen to the episode
Walking into our stories of hurt can feel dangerous. But the process of regaining our footing in the midst of struggle is where our courage is tested and our values forged. Our stories of struggle can be big or small, but regardless of their magnitude or circumstance, the rising strong process is the same: We reckon with our emotions and get curious about what we’re feeling; we rumble with our stories until we get to a place of truth; and we live this process, every day, until it becomes a practice and creates nothing short of a revolution in our lives. Rising strong after a fall is how we cultivate wholeheartedness. It’s the process that teaches us the most about who we are.
“Breathing Under Water, Falling Upward, and Unlearning Certainty, Part 1 of 2” Unlocking Us podcast episode with Father Richard Rohr
Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown and this is Unlocking Us. And today, this is Part 1 of a two-part series on Living BIG. We thought this would be great timing for life in general, but also especially the holidays. I’m here with my sister Ashley. Hi, Ash.
Ashley Brown Ruiz: Hi. Good to see your face.
BB: It’s good to see your face, too. Before we get started on Living BIG, and we’re talking about boundaries and generosity, I have some news for y’all. These two podcasts will be our last Unlocking Us podcasts on Spotify. I don’t have a plan for a future podcast. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I’m taking a little break, at least for the first quarter of 2023. But this is the end of a season, the end of a chapter. What do you think, Ash?
ABR: I think it’s been an amazing season and chapter, and I’m super excited to see what comes next.
BB: It has been. I got a little emotional right now just talking about it.
ABR: Did you?
ABR: I mean, there’s no shortage of content out there. It’s just been so amazing to listen to the conversations and the power between the thought leader conversations is amazing. It’s been really cool.
BB: Yeah. And I have to say the sister series, Barrett’s not with us today, but our sister series have been probably among the most popular and downloaded of all of them.
ABR: Well, they’re so fun. Like sometimes someone will call me and say something to me about it and I’ll be like, “Oh, my God, did I say that?” Because I forget I’m on a podcast. It’s like I’m just sitting at the table with y’all BS-ing. We just need some cards.
BB: We just need some cards, play some euchre.
BB: Ashley’s not my euchre partner, however.
BB: She plays with Ellen and who else? You’re usually just Ellen, right?
ABR: I usually play with Ellen, and you usually play with Barrett or Chaz.
BB: Oh, my God, Chaz. If Chaz doesn’t get to bid because he doesn’t have a good hand, he’ll only do it about two or three rounds, and then he’ll bid on shit. And it’ll take one card. He’ll lead with a nine, you know, and Ashley will do the… [sniffing sound] Then what do you say?
ABR: “Smell the euchre.” But just to give Chaz some love, he’s not the only one at the table that will do that.
BB: Oh, me?
BB: No, I know when to go.
ABR: You know when to hold them.
BB: Oh, yeah, it is… It’s been so fun. I’m so grateful to this community. I’m so grateful to every single guest we’ve had on Unlocking Us. You’ll be able to listen to everything on Spotify. So, this will be a good chance to catch up if you’re behind. We record a lot of podcasts, so it’s hard to keep up. I know that I’m like episodes and episodes behind on my favorite shows and podcasts. So, you’ll be able to use some time to catch up. But this is it. And we thought we’d go out with a bang here on something that’s really important to us. And that is the assumption of positive intent. You know, are people really doing the best they can? Or more likely, are they trying to piss me off on purpose?
ABR: I think they’re trying to piss you off on purpose. I’m just kidding.
BB: It’s always really fun to do this with Ashley because she’s a therapist. So, here’s how we’re thinking about the two-parter. Storytime. I’m going to read a chapter to you or part of a chapter to you from Rising Strong, which is the first book where I really tackle this. And it’s a huge issue because I go into companies all the time. And one of the most popular values that we’ve seen in companies, I think it started in Silicon Valley and kind of washed over the globe, is this assumption of positive intent. Organizations, individuals want to say, “Listen, I want to assume positive intent.” Or as my mentor, Jean Latting, called it, the hypothesis of generosity. I want to assume the most generous thing I can about your thoughts, about your actions and your words and your behaviors. And it’s so just nuts to me that, yes, it’s a great value. But people who can assume the best in others have one thing in common. And none of the companies talk about the prerequisite for the assumption of positive intent, which is boundaries. So, here’s storytime. Start the kettle, stretch for your walk, turn off the buzzer on the dryer, start folding. Here’s a story. And it’s about, I think it’s probably a 20-minute story. I don’t know, but it’s storytime.
ABR: Let me know if you want any help.
BB: Thank you. I might. Okay, I’m in chapter six of Rising Strong. And the name of the chapter is “Sewer Rats and Scofflaws.” And the subtitle is “Rumbling with Boundaries, Integrity, and Generosity.” I knew I’d regret it the second I mumbled my half-hearted, “Uh, yeah, okay, all right.” It wasn’t about the money. I’ve always done at least a third or a half of my speaking events pro bono. That’s how I support organizations or efforts that are close to my heart. But this wasn’t a cause at all. I agreed to do it because the first time I declined their invitation, the event organizers responded with the not-so-subtle and very effective line. “We hope you haven’t forgotten about the people who supported you before you were so popular.” Ashley’s making a face. Two of the most common messages that trigger shame in all of us are never good enough and who do you think you are? In Texas, the latter is often expressed as you’re getting way too big for your britches. Their response got me right in the britches, hence my reluctant, “Okay, yes, I’ll do the event.” Unfortunately, it takes about 10 minutes for my reluctant yes to become a resentful yes. And I was already there when one of the event organizers called to inform me that I’d be sharing a hotel room with another speaker. Ashley, let me ask you something. Do I share a room with you when we travel for business?
ABR: No. I mean, we have a secret code to knock on the wall if we need each other. So, we’re next to each other, but there’s no room shared.
BB: Hell no. So, after I circled around for five minutes about needing my own room, but never explicitly asking for one, she finally said, “All of the speakers share rooms. They always have and it’s never been a problem. Are you saying that you require something special?” Oh my God, britches, watch the britches. In my family, being high maintenance was a huge shame trigger, especially for the girls. Be easy, fun, and flexible. Need a bathroom break on a road trip? We’ll pull over when we don’t have to cross the highway to get to the gas station. Don’t like what we’re having for dinner? Don’t eat. Car sick? It’s all in your head. Unfortunately, being low maintenance is also about not asking for what you need and never inconveniencing anyone. So I got really good at proving that I’m as easy as the next person. And I got really, really good at being resentful. The phrase requires something special just hit me. It got me. So, my response, “No, I’ll share a room. That’ll be great.” I replied while thinking, “Jesus, I hate these people. They suck. This event will suck. And my roommate will suck.” As it turned out, the event was great.
BB: The organizers taught me a valuable lesson and my roommate changed my life. Granted, she did not do it in an inspiring way, but she did it in a with God as my witness, never again kind of way, which that works too. On the night before the event, I stood outside the hotel room and said a little prayer before entering, “Please, God, let me be open hearted and kind. Let me embrace this experience and be grateful for all new opportunities.”
BB: “Please, God, let me be open hearted and kind. Let me please God, please God.” I knocked at the same time that I use my key to crack open the door. “Hello?” Of course, my heart sank when someone responded with a very hearty, “Come on in.” Back to the prayer, “God, please do not let me be pissed that I didn’t get here first to stake my room and stake my claim.” When I walked into our room, she was sitting in the corner of a love seat, eating a giant cinnamon roll. Her legs were outstretched across the length of the small sofa and her hiking boots were pushed into the cushioned arm. I walked over and introduced myself. “Hi, I’m Brené.” And I thought my prayer might be working since I managed to refrain from saying, “Nice to meet you, get your dirty ass boots off the couch.” I could see that she had already left this giant footprint on the beige fabric of this sofa. She waved her sticky hand in front of me and she said, “Sorry, I’ve got this all over me. Otherwise, I’d shake your hand.” I smiled and waved back feeling kind of a pang of guilt about being so judgmental.
BB: I responded in my perkiest voice. “Oh, no problem. The cinnamon roll looks delicious.” With both hands covered in gooey icing, she was kind of wiggling around trying to find a way to change her position without touching the sofa. And just as I was about to offer to get her a napkin, she sat straight up, put the rest of the roll in her mouth and wiped both of her hands on the seat cushion of the couch. Then she looked at her hands, and clearly not pleased with how much frosting remained on her hands, she wiped them again, carefully avoiding the patch of upholstery where she’d already done the first swipe. My face must have conveyed sheer horror as I stood staring at the frosting-streaked cushions, because she just smiled and shrugged and said, “Eh, it’s not our couch.” I was speechless. That’s Ashley laughing. I was like speechless. I was so grossed out, and I was still gripping the handle of my suitcase in one hand. Meanwhile, as I stood motionless in the middle of the room, she walked to the kitchenette, grabbed a plastic coffee cup, filled it with an inch of water and went out onto the two by three-foot patio of the hotel room. Then she lit a cigarette.
BB: Still white knuckling my luggage, I raised my voice a little so she could hear me through the crack in the patio door. “This is a non-smoking room. I don’t think you can smoke in here.” She laughed. “They didn’t say anything about the patio.” Jesus, are you kidding me? “No, seriously. I think the entire whole hotel is smoke free.” I said in my most earnest, authoritative ex-smoker voice. “Plus, I think the smoke is actually coming in the room.” She laughed again. “It’s not a big deal. We’ll spray some perfume.” Okay. All right. Okay. God, I’m lowering the bar. Please don’t let me kill anyone or do anything stupid. Let me keep my hate and rage on the inside and in the name of all things, holy, let there be another room available. Well, three out of four. Three out of four of my prayers were answered and in hindsight, I guess it’s best that the one prayer request not granted was another room being available rather than some of the others like killing people. I did the opening talk the next morning and I left for the airport 15 minutes after I walked off the stage. As I stood in the gate area waiting to board my flight, I knew something was wrong. Oh, man. Oh God. I hate this. The woman in front of me was just completely on my nerves.
BB: I was taking issue with everyone who walked past me in the gate area. The woman in front of me was wearing too much perfume. The guy behind me was smacking his gum. The parents across from me shouldn’t let their kids eat all that candy. I stood in line ruminating about my experiences at the hotel and gathering further evidence from the people around me about the absolutely shit disappointing state of humanity. Have you ever done that, Ashley? Have you ever found yourself just having grievances about everything and everyone that comes into your line of sight?
ABR: Oh, yes. Completely.
BB: I couldn’t get the image out of my head of my roommate wiping the icing on the couch, but my growing irritation was a warning sign to me that I’ve come to recognize. It’s one thing to be frustrated, grossed out, or even outraged by my roommate’s behavior, but I was feeling something else, something closer to rage than outrage. It was self-righteousness. I was stewing in self-righteousness, and this is a massive trigger emotion for me. After years of rumbling with this feeling, I have learned that no matter how right I think I am or how wrong someone else appears to be, self-righteousness is an off-limits emotion for me. In fact, I don’t know if I’ve ever talked about this with you, Ashley, I think of self-righteousness as a substance in my recovery. I have to be abstinent from self-righteousness to work my program.
ABR: Yeah, I mean, it makes sense.
BB: Like it’s so addictive to me, and it can so quickly unravel my recovery. Self-righteousness starts with the belief that I’m better than everyone, or better than other people, and it always, always ends with me being the very worst self, my very worst self, and thinking, I’m not good enough. It’s so crazy that we think that there’s this really long walk between, I’m a piece of shit and I’m better than you. That’s a miles-long journey, but it’s actually standing in the exact same place. I’m a worthless piece of shit and I am better than you is the exact same thing, exact same position. It’s comparing yourself to other people. It’s just, ugh. So even as I was standing there knee-high in judgment, I was curious about what was happening, and I knew that I wanted to get out from underneath the weight of all the negativity that I was experiencing. I called and made an appointment with my therapist, Diana, as soon as I took my seat on the plane. When I got home that afternoon and told Steve the story, I could tell he didn’t know if he should laugh or be enraged for me. He went for cautious support. “Look, the kids are at your mom’s house, do you want to go out to dinner and talk?” And I was like, “What’s the point? I can’t eat anything that’ll make me feel better. I want chicken fried steak and mashed potatoes. I want to drown all my resentment and anger in cream gravy.”
BB: He laughed and he said, “That sounds great, anything you want.” But back to my recovery, I know that cream gravy is only a short-term fix and would probably break my tenuous commitment to not numb with food. So, I suggested grabbing a salad at Cafe Express and then making a quick run to the mall to do some shopping, because I can definitely suffocate rage with a pretty new sweater. Steve reluctantly reminded me of our new budget and suggested that we go for a walk after the salad. God, it was a dark moment, completely bleak. You can’t bury resentment with lettuce and walking is for talking through feelings, not smothering them. This is all bullshit. I was like, no. So, I stomped into the kitchen like an angry toddler, rolled some lunch meat around a stick of cheese and ate it in three bites and went to bed. I was like my best three-year-old self. I woke up the next morning pissed off. The anger was still sharp. There was no gravy hangover to dull the senses and no new outfit in the closet to distract me from my self-righteousness. When I got to Diana’s office, I’ve got to tell you, just because you’re a therapist, Ashley, I’m going to interrupt and just say, do you ever think the people sitting across from you might hate you?
ABR: Oh, yes. I can give an example from today.
BB: I mean, I hated her in this moment. Okay. So, I can give an example from today. When I got to Diana’s office, I didn’t sit down on the couch so much as like, harrumph myself into it. With my arms folded tightly across my chest, I waited for Diana to say something. She just looked at me with an open face and a kind smile, just not the shit that I wanted. And I finally said, “Look, this wholehearted living spiritual awakening bullshit is great. I’m fine with it. In fact, I like it except for the sewer rats and the scofflaws. Those people are bullshit.” I would later learn that Diana filed this line away as one of her all-time favorite opening therapy session intros. I’ll read it for you again, just in case you missed it. “Look, this wholehearted living spiritual awakening thing is great. I’m fine with it. In fact, I kind of like it except for the sewer rats and scofflaws. Those people are bullshit.” I still remember exactly how I felt that morning. I remember my conviction and my restrained rage. Diana stayed open and kind. This was our way of working together. She created a judgment-free space, and I filled it with every ounce of unfiltered emotion I could muster.
BB: Then we’d sort it all out. Without judging or attaching value, she said, “I can see you’re really pissed off. Tell me about the sewer rats and scofflaws. Who are they?” I asked her if she’d seen the kids’ movie Flushed Away. She thought for a minute, clearly scrolling through all of the movies she’d watched with her grandkids and finally said, “No, I don’t think I’ve seen that one. What’s it about?” I said, “Oh, it’s about this great little rat named Roddy, who is the pet of a wealthy young girl in London. When the family goes on vacation, he climbs out of his fancy cage and enjoys the run of the house. He dresses in a tuxedo. He drives the Barbie car like it’s a James Bond car. He’s British. He speaks like this very posh English. He watches television and plays with toys. He’s super conscientious and hardworking. He keeps everything spotless and is respectful of the family’s belongings. One day, while the family is still out of town, the sewer backs up and this horrible sewer rat pops up from the kitchen sink. He’s got this big belly. It’s hanging over his torn jeans. He’s wearing a scuffed leather jacket.”
BB: “His feet are sticking out of his old sneakers, and he has long, dirty toenails. He’s like, I imagine they drew him to be like a ruffian little rat, like a, I don’t even know what, just a rough. He burps. He passes gas. He poops on the floor. He’s constantly sniffing out cheese and gorging himself. He’s just hideous. He trashes this family’s house. So Roddy, the uptown rat, tries to flush him down the toilet, but Sidney, the ruffian rat, ends up doing like a quick switch and pushes Roddy over the side and right into the London sewer. The rest of the story is like a very predictable plot line. Roddy learns to be less uptight. He makes friends. He fights a bad guy, blah, blah, blah, blah. The point is that the sewer rat ruined everything.”
BB: So, Diana gets the picture, and she asked me if I’ve encountered any sewer rats lately. I launched into my story about the icing swiper and then I explained the cream gravy denial and then our stupid budget commitment and Diana’s response is, ‘Just for clarification,” she said, “Was your roommate a sewer rat or a scofflaw?” I had to think for a minute. “Both. She was both. And that’s the worst. That’s the worst combination.” I just want everybody to know listening right now, for the record, fuck that combination. I still hate that combination.
ABR: But are they doing the best that they can?
BB: No. Diana said she needs help understanding both terms. So, I did my best to explain. “A sewer rat doesn’t care about the rules and doesn’t respect other people’s stuff. A scofflaw is also someone who doesn’t follow the rules, but the scofflaw also makes fun of people who respect the rules. They scoff at the law. They mock people like me, the rule followers.” I think, I’m pretty sure that the sewer rat scofflaw would be the Enneagram number one’s biggest archenemy. Okay. And they do, they mock people that are like rule followers. And so, here’s an example. My friend in college dated this guy who is the biggest scofflaw ever, one weekend we rented buggies at the beach and there was a huge sign at the rental place that said, keep your feet and hands in the buggy. So of course, as soon as we pulled out of the rental parking lot, this guy’s driving and he started hanging his foot over the side and I told him to stop, and he laughed and he was like, “Ooh, keep your feet in the buggy. Brené’s the buggy police.” Ten minutes later, he crushed his ankle on a curb, and then we spent five hours in the emergency room of the hospital.
BB: Everyone felt sorry for him except for me. I thought it was bullshit. So, Diana’s eyes widened as she listened. “I got it. I think I understand the difference. So, let’s talk about your roommate. Do you think she was making fun of you?” I could see where this was going, and I was not going to let this end with a discussion of how I was taking the incident too personally. So, I went into a hundred percent my dad, Chuck Brown, cross-examination mode. “She was making fun of the rules and breaking them even though I was conveying that they were important to me. Therefore, she was making fun of what’s important to me, and that’s the same thing as making fun of me.” Don’t jack with me on this. I’ve seen every episode of Law & Order. I get this. I get how this works. So, Diana says, she takes a deep breath. “I see.” Oh no, no, no. I did not bite. I took a deep breath and stayed quiet too. Two can play at this. You want to do the “Hmm,” quiet. “I see.” I can do that too. Diana asked, “Do you think it’s possible that your roommate was doing the best that she could do that weekend?” Uh-uh. Nope. Okay. Are you kidding me?
BB: I was incensed, totally and completely incensed. For the first time since we would work together, I went completely cold. I had been flapping my arms around telling my stories, but now they were again folded tightly across my chest. My lips were pursed. I answered in my most proper voice. “No, I do not believe she was doing her best. Do you believe she was doing her best?” This is the thing that pisses us all off. Sorry, Ash. With every tightening move I made, Diana seemed to unfold a little, opening her face and her body and her heart to possibility. It was making me physically sick. Diana says, ‘You know, I’m not sure. I do, however, think that in general, people are doing the best they can. What do you think?” Oh my God. I was like, “What do I think? I think this conversation is total crap. That’s what I think. I think the idea that people are doing the best they can is also crap. I cannot even believe I’m paying for this shit right now.” Diana interrupted my high-level reflection with. “Brené, you look angry. What’s going on?” I unfolded my arms, leaned forward, and rested my forearms on my knees.
BB: I looked her right in the eye and asked, “Do you really believe, I mean, in your heart that people are doing the best they can? Or is this what we’re supposed to believe because we’re both social workers? I mean, honestly, honest to God, tell me the truth.” I was so close to her that there was no way I’d miss it if she flinched. She smiled and looked toward the sky, then nodded her head. I was like, “Oh Jesus, God, you’ve got to be kidding me.” “Yes. She said, “Yes, I really do believe that most of us are doing the very best we can with the tools we have. I believe we can grow and get better, but I also believe that most of us are doing, really doing our best.” Well, I snapped right back. “That’s great. That’s good for you. That’s great. Good for you. I do not. And you and whoever you’re smiling at up there should just ride your unicorns over the rainbow and leave the rest of us mere mortals to our misery and our fucking chicken fried steak.”
BB: Ashley, are you okay? This is what’s happening in the background of therapy. Do you know this?
BB: Because you’re on both sides of it, right?
ABR: It’s so funny though. Yeah.
BB: Diana told me then that we were out of time and for the first time in a long while I was grateful to hear it. I just left thinking “We’ve got nothing in common. I’m mad. She took the couch wiper’s side.” I trudged out to my car and set off to run a few errands before heading home. Diana had floated some wild ass ideas behind me during the course of our work together, but this was by far the most ridiculous and infuriating. Even as I stood in line at the bank, I was shaking my head and letting out exasperated breaths. I’m sure I was like the asshole that everyone’s looking at going… [sighing sounds] I was pulled out of my private grumbling when the woman in front of me who had made her way to the counter began yelling at the bank teller who was helping her. “This can’t be right. I didn’t make these withdrawals. I want to see a manager.”
BB: I was only a few feet behind the woman so I could hear and see everything. She was an older white woman, probably in her late 70s and the young man helping her was an African American in his late 20s. The man pointed to a supervisor who was helping another customer a couple of windows down. The supervisor was a middle-aged Black woman. “No, I want a different supervisor,” shouted the woman at the counter. I was like, “Jesus Christ, here we go. She’s really going to wait until she gets a white supervisor. What is wrong with people?” By this time, the supervisor had seen the commotion and made her way over. And as she began escorting the woman to her office, the teller called me to the counter. “Can I help you?” the man said, clearly possessed by the demons unleashed in therapy. I blurted out, “Do you think people are doing the best they can?” He smiled. He looked at me and he said, “Did you see what just happened?” I nodded. “Yeah, I did see that. She didn’t like what you were telling her, and she wanted a white supervisor. It was horrible. I’m sorry.” He raised his eyebrows and shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah, she’s scared about her money,” he explained. “Yes, I heard her. But back to my question. This is the perfect example. Do you think she’s doing the best she can?” He thought for a moment.
BB: “Yeah, probably. She’s scared. Who knows?” Then he paused for a second and said, “Are you a psychiatrist?” He was completely missing the point. “No, I’m a researcher and I can’t really believe you think she’s doing her best. Really?” Completely ignoring my question. He explained that he had seen a psychiatrist when he came back from two tours in Iraq. He said that his wife had had an affair with someone they both knew, and it had, quote unquote, “done a number on him.” My question instantly felt very far less important and we talked about his experiences and my research for a couple of minutes. Aware of the growing line behind me, I thanked him and stuck my money into my purse. As I turned to walk away, he said, “You know, the thing is, you never know about people. That lady could have a kid on drugs stealing money from her account or a husband with Alzheimer’s who’s taking money and not even remembering. You just never know. People aren’t themselves when they’re scared. It’s maybe the best, it’s all they can do, I guess.” Although I tried to dismiss Diana’s idea as absurd, there was something insidious about it.
BB: I became obsessed. Her combined with the bank teller at Wells Fargo, I was like, “Jesus.” Over the next three weeks, I asked more than 40 people this question. I first asked a couple of colleagues and grad students, and I reached out to some of the research participants from earlier studies. It was a simple question. “Do you think in general that people are doing the best they can?” By the time I finished 15 interviews, I had saturation, clear patterns and themes had emerged that would accurately predict what I would find in the remaining interviews. And now we’ve been doing these interviews for how long, Ashley? Ten years at least? Fifteen?
ABR: Yeah, at least.
BB: For those who said they believe that people are doing the best they can, they consistently qualified their answers. “I know it sounds naïve,” or “I can’t be sure, but I think so.” Or “I know it sounds weird or dumb.” They were slow to answer, almost apologetic as if they tried to persuade themselves otherwise, but they just couldn’t give up on humanity. They were so careful to explain that it didn’t mean that people can’t grow or change, but still at any given time, they figured people were normally doing the best they could with the tools they had. Those who believe that people were not doing the best they could were unequivocal, passionate in their responses and I never once heard, “I’m not sure, but I don’t think so.” It was always some version of an emphatic, “Absolutely not, hell no, no way.”
BB: Unlike their yes counterparts, about 80% of these respondents used themselves as an example. “I know I’m not always doing my best, so why should I assume others are? I mean, I slack off all the time” or “I don’t give it 110% when I should.” They judge their efforts in the same exacting manner that they judge the efforts of others. It was clearly important for the people answering no to acknowledge this parity. I also began to see a pattern that, ah, this pissed me off and worried me. The past research participants who answered “No, people were not doing the best they could,” were also people who struggled with perfectionism. They were quick to point out how they were not always doing the best they could and offer examples of situations when they weren’t their perfect selves. They were as hard on others as they were on themselves. Every participant who said “Yes, people are doing the best they can,” was in the group of people who I had identified as wholehearted, people who are willing to be vulnerable, who believe in their self-worth. They too offered examples of situations where they made mistakes or didn’t show up as their best selves, but rather than pointing out how they could and should have done better, they explained that while falling short, their intentions were good, and they were trying.
BB: Professionally, I saw what was emerging. I didn’t experience it personally, however, until I got flushed down the toilet like my friend Roddy the rat. This happened very close to the end of this experiment when I was having dinner with a new friend. Of course, I thought it’d be fun to ask her the question because we had a lot in common and I guessed that she would be a, “Hell no,” like me. Our over-functioning and low tolerance for slackers were things that had drawn us to each other as potential friends. I launched into the question the second we sat down. “Okay, so here’s a research question for you. Do you think that in general people are doing the best they can?” She shot back a defiant look, I’ll never forget it, and a very predictable, “Oh, hell no!” I smiled, “Right?” I totally agree. Then she leaned over the table and began a rapid-fire explanation. “Let’s take breastfeeding for example. I’m nursing my daughter right now. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s exhausting. Yes, I’ve had three infections and it feels like glass cutting into my nipple every time she latches on. But please do not tell me about needing your body back or feeling tired or needing a supplement for work.”
BB: “I don’t want to hear it. If you’re not going to breastfeed for at least a year, you should think twice about having children. You are not doing the very best you can, and don’t you think your children deserve more? Quitting is lazy and if quitting really is your best, maybe your best is not good enough when it comes to parenting.” And there I was, a chubby little sewer rat in my little battered leather jacket with my little torn jeans. I could almost smell the cheese. I was her sewer rat. I breastfed my kids for short periods of time, nowhere close to a year. I had the overwhelming need to explain to my new friend that I had severe, severe hyperemesis for the first 20 weeks of both my pregnancies, hospitalized. I mean, that I did all I could do when it came to breastfeeding and I wanted to explain that pumping was really difficult and that I tried a bunch of things, and I just couldn’t try. I wanted to convince her that I love my kids as much as she loves her kids. I wanted her to know that I was doing the best I could.
BB: But I didn’t say anything because all I could think about were the people who, when I sat in judgment, probably wanted to say to me, “You don’t know me. You don’t know anything about me. Please don’t judge me.” By the way, I also didn’t want to be backed into defending my choice as a mother. There are at least a million ways to be a great mom and not one of them hinges on what we think of as the big hot button issues. Great mothers know that they’re worthy of love and belonging and as a result, they raise children who know that they are worthy of the same. Shaming other mothers is not one of the million ways to be a great mom. When I got home that night, Steve was sitting in the kitchen. When he asked me how dinner went, I realized that I had not asked him the research question. So, I told him I wanted his answer before I gave him the lowdown on dinner. He thought about the question, whether people are doing the best they could or not, for a solid 10 minutes. As a pediatrician, he sees the best and worst in people.
BB: He just kept staring out the window and I could tell he was really struggling. Finally, when he looked back at me, he had the same look on his face that Diana had in her office. Steve said, “You know, I don’t know. I really don’t. All I know is that my life is better when I assume that people are doing their best. It keeps me out of judgment and lets me focus on what is and not what should or could be.” Wow, his answer felt like just the truth to me, not an easy truth, but the truth. One month and 40 interviews later, I was back in Diana’s office, and I sat down on the couch, my legs folded under me and my journal in my hand. Diana had her own notebook in her hand and looked over at me with her open face and kind eyes. She led with a question, “How are you?” I started crying. “People are doing the best they can.” Diana did nothing but look at me compassionately. No gold star, no pat on the head, no “Good job, young Jedi.” Nada. “I know what happened that weekend, and I know I should have asked for what I needed.”
BB: “I know I should have turned down the event or at the very least insisted on my own room.” She looked at me and without even an ounce of irony or an ounce of I told you so, she looked at me and she said, “you were doing the best you could.” The moment she said that I thought of Maya Angelou and about hearing her say, “When we know better, we do better.” I then shared Steve’s insights, which I thought were so wise and beautiful. “Steve says his life is better when he assumes people are doing the best they can. I think he’s right. I learned some hard things about myself and about people. It’s a powerful question.” Diana said, “Yeah, I agree. It’s a powerful question. Do you want to share what you’ve learned? I’d love to hear.” I explained that very early in my own work, I had discovered that the most compassionate people I interviewed also have the most well-defined and well-respected boundaries. It surprised me at the time, but now I get it. They assume that other people are doing the best they can, but they also ask for what they need, and they don’t put up with a lot of shit.
BB: I lived the opposite way. I assumed that people weren’t doing their best, so I judged them and constantly fought being disappointed, which was easier than setting boundaries. Boundaries are hard and when you want to be liked and you’re a people pleaser hellbent on being easy, fun, and flexible, it’s hard. Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to say no. They say yes when they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment. When asked to speak at the event, I said yes when I wanted to say no. I put no value on my work or my needs and the event organizers in turn put no value on my work or my needs. You know the irony about speaking fees, I’ll be honest with y’all. When I do something for full fee, people are respectful and professional. When I do something pro bono because I care about the cause, people are super respectful and professional, which is important because I try to do 50% of all speaking events pro bono. It’s like the Robin Hood plan. NGOs, nonprofits, military. When I do something because I feel pushed, pressured, guilt tripped, or shamed into it, I expect people to be super appreciative in addition to being respectful and professional.
BB: Ninety percent of the time, they are none of the above. How can we expect people to put value on our work when we don’t value ourselves enough to set and hold uncomfortable boundaries? I told Diana about taking the question even further with a group of clergy who serve rural families living in poverty. I described how I asked these clergy to think of… They’re all deacons, actually. To think of someone they find themselves judging and holding resentment toward and to write that person’s name on a piece of paper. Then I asked them to pretend with me for a minute. What if you had it on the highest authority that the person whose name you wrote down is doing the very best they can do? There was immediate resistance. “I don’t believe it. Who’s the authority? Who said they’re doing the best they could?” Because these were clergy, it was really easy. I said, “God says directly to you they’re doing the best they can.” One woman immediately burst into tears. She and her husband were sitting next to each other. Both were deacons and without conferring, they had written down the same person’s name. I asked her if she felt like sharing what she was feeling with the group.
BB: James, the person they both referenced, was a man with six young children who lived in a trailer in the desert. Both he and his wife had long addiction histories and children’s services had been in and out of their lives for years. The clergy brought James and his family food, diapers and baby formula on a regular basis, and they were convinced and had a lot of evidence that he sold the goods for drinking money, at least as often as he used them for his family. In a shaky voice, she said, “If God told me that James was doing the best he can, I would do one of two things. I would continue to bring him what I could when I could and withhold judgment, or I would decide that giving anything directly to James is not something I can continue to do. Either way, I would stop being so angry, stop judging and stop waiting for something different to happen.” Her husband slid his arm around her, fighting back his own tears. He looked at the group and said, “We’re just so tired. We’re so tired of being angry and feeling taken for granted.” Diana listened intently and when I was done, she said, “You’re right.”
BB: “This is really hard and important work.” This time I felt my face and heart opening it up. “Yes, it’s hard and I’m tired. But the tired I feel from doing this kind of exploration is different than a tired I feel from being pissed off and resentful all the time. There’s a difference between good tired and cream gravy tired.” We’re going to spend most of Part 2 talking about how this research and work and now thousands of people we’ve asked this question has morphed into a tool that we use, right?
BB: What do you think about the story?
ABR: I mean, I even felt like how I was holding my body and inside my body when you were talking shit and all of that, I was like, yeah and I was like laughing and stuff. But then when you went into the second part of, “Oh, yeah, if they are…” I automatically felt heavier. I know that there’s a lot of talk around that this can sometimes lead to grief, which I’m sure we’ll get into, but I’m sure because we’re raised in the same family. The first part of the story felt way more familiar to me than what it was like to be in the second part of the story.
BB: Yeah, just saying yes and being resentful versus…
ABR: Well, yes. And when at the end when the husband put his arm around his wife and he said, “We’re just so tired of being angry and resentful,” like being able to let that part go and to actually dig into what’s underneath that or behind it, is heavy. It’s freeing and it’s… Brings clarity, but it’s heavy and it’s hard. And I don’t know that a lot of people have the tools or skills to do that without something like this. Like, who would even know to ask that question?
BB: I mean, before this work, I had no idea about the inextricable relationship between boundaries and compassion.
BB: I mean, y’all, I sat, I mean, you know the story, actually, I sat with a stack of research that I called the compassion smackdown, literally interviews with like monks, like the most compassionate people in all the research I’d done, trying to figure out the variable that they shared in common. I thought it was spirituality. I thought it was faith. I thought it was trauma histories. I thought it was therapy. I thought it was recovery. And it ended up being boundaries.
ABR: Yeah, but it makes so much sense because boundaries come from a place of you believing in yourself and in your time and in your space, enough to protect it.
BB: Say more.
ABR: Well, if I believe in myself or my time or my space or my work, I’m going to set some boundaries around it. I’m going to say, “Yeah, my time’s important. So yeah, I’d love to help you, but I can only do one day for two hours.” You know what I mean? And so…
BB: I love what you’re saying when you put value on your yourself, your space, your work, your time. That is what drives setting good boundaries. How do you see that related to compassion for others?
ABR: Well, I’m not exhausted and fighting and trying to figure out my own worth. If I’m in a place where I feel that, when we feel that, we have a cup that’s not empty and we’re able to give more.
BB: God dang, I’m having a real, I don’t think I ever understood this part.
ABR: Just call me Therapist Ashley. Just call me Therapist Sister.
BB: Wow. So, it’s about the cup being full.
ABR: I mean, I think that has to be part of it because when I think about this whole idea of compassion and being generous, you’re not going to be those things from an empty place like… over COVID, over the pandemic, I couldn’t be that way to anybody. And I had no idea how empty my cup was until I was able to start doing things to fill it back up. I was like, “Holy shit, I am empty. I am not connected to people. I am…” I mean, it was just like trickling. Even the work that I do so much that I love was over Zoom, which made it not even personable. Like you know what I mean? So yeah, I think that we have to have something in our cup. Well, you know, to pour from. Whether it’s boundaries or…
BB: This is so good. Yeah. I knew the relationship existed and I know, I think I forgot about the cup because I always think I think about it the other way. I think about it for me. I can’t be compassionate toward you because you’re hurting me.
ABR: Well and I can’t be compassionate to you because I’m not compassionate to me.
BB: Oh, God damn, what a pain in the ass this therapist thing is.
ABR: Well, I got that from you.
BB: No, I’m just the researcher. All right, we’re going to come back with Part 2, and we’re going to talk about the tool that we’ve developed called Living BIG. And BIG is what boundaries need to be in place for me to be in my integrity and be generous towards you.
ABR: It’s good, but it’s hard.
BB: Yeah, but you really live it.
ABR: I love it. Oh, well, thank you. But I, as a facilitator of this work through therapy, I love this exercise.
BB: Let me ask you this. How do your clients react to this? What is the reaction? Does it mirror the chapter of like, “Hell no,” that people are not doing the best they can, or…
ABR: You know, it’s funny because there’s so many different stages to group, but there are still some people that want to make sure that they’re giving me the right answers. And so they say, “Oh yes, I do.” But for most part, people are like, “Hell no.” And they fight, and I’m not there to prove them wrong. I’m just there to say, “What would it be like for you if you believe that? What would change for you, not them, but you, if you believe that?” And every time they say something, I just say, “Well, what would it be like for you?” Because it’s really easy to stay on them, so.
BB: Ladies and gentlemen, her. [sound effects and laughing] I wish you had seen the action that went with that right there. I don’t know what it was like jazz hands or something.
ABR: Jazz hands.
BB: Jazz hands. All right. We’ll be back for Part 2, and we’ll talk about Living BIG. All right. Part 2 next week, it’ll be our very last Unlocking Us podcast on Spotify. You will be able to continue to find all the podcasts on Spotify. You can also find them on brenebrown.com. If you don’t want to miss anything, go to brenebrown.com, sign up for our newsletter. We’re really good at sending things and updates. I’m very excited for y’all to hear Part 2 of this conversation with me and Ash. Stay awkward, brave, and kind. Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil. And by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil and music is by the amazing Carrie Rodriguez and the amazing Gina Chavez.
© 2022 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.
Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead podcasts, with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.
You are welcome to share an excerpt from the episode transcript (up to 500 words but not more) in media articles (e.g., The New York Times, LA Times, The Guardian), in a non-commercial article or blog post (e.g., Medium), and/or on a personal social media account for non-commercial purposes, provided that you include proper attribution and link back to the podcast URL. For the sake of clarity, media outlets with advertising models are permitted to use excerpts from the transcript per the above.
What’s Not Okay
No one is authorized to copy any portion of the podcast content or use Brené Brown’s name, image or likeness for any commercial purpose or use, including without limitation inclusion in any books, e-books, book summaries or synopses, or on a commercial website or social media site (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) that offers or promotes your or another’s products or services. For the sake of clarity, media outlets are permitted to use photos of Brené Brown from her Media Kit page or license photos from Getty Images, etc.