After a tragic shooting, help from a social work researcher

Brene Brown’s talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” offers an explanation for the state of American politics and some deep wisdom about raising kids.

By Anne Collier

The angry, polarized state of American politics came up a lot in the news media over the weekend as we all tried to make sense of Saturday’s tragic shooting in Arizona (e.g., here’s a view from Europe). So when I happened to watch Brene Brown’s 20-minute TED talk last night about “The Power of Vulnerability,” I was surprised and grateful for her reference to politics at the end. It was a big ah-ha moment for me, pointing not only to how we got here but also to what we can do about it. I was also grateful for what she said about children at the end – what our real job is as parents and educators. Please keep reading….

Brown’s a qualitative researcher in the field of social work, which means, she says, that she hears a lot – thousands – of stories and has become a storyteller, really. In this short, profound, engaging talk, which I urge you to watch, she also tells her own story and distils what she has so far learned in her research down to this: “By the time you’re a social worker for 10 years, what you realize is that connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. This is what it’s all about…. What we know [from the research] is that the ability to feel connected, neurobiologically, that’s how we’re wired…. In order to experience connection, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.”

Connection and compassion Then she talks about what she discovered over six years (a one-year project that had turned into six) about what helps people feel connected (a sense that they’re worthy of love and belonging) and what unravels connection, or keeps people from experiencing it. I won’t give it away, but her talk is about vulnerability, her own and everybody’s and how we deal with it – what stood out to her in the people in her research who felt connected. She talked about their courage, based on their knowing that they were worthy of being loved, their compassion for themselves and others, and their being “willing to let go of who they thought they should be and just be who they were.”

As she dug into her data more, Brown found that what people who felt connected also had in common is that “they fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. They didn’t talk about it being either comfortable or excruciating, just about it being necessary.” When she got to this discovery, she had a breakdown, she relates, and had to step away from her work for a year for some therapy (I can’t possibly communicate the depth of her experience the way she can, which is why I urge you to watch her talk).

What disconnects

So, fast-forwarding to what she says about politics and raising children: When she went back into her data, she asked herself, “Why do we struggle with vulnerability so much? What do we do with it? We numb vulnerability…. We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in US history. The problem is, you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say, ‘Here’s the bad stuff, I don’t want to feel these. I’m going to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin.’ You can’t numb those without numbing the other emotions. So when we numb [the negative emotions], we numb joy, gratitude, happiness. Then we are miserable, look for purpose and meaning, then become vulnerable, then more beers and a banana nut muffin. We need to think about why and how we numb.” But addiction isn’t our only response to vulnerability, she says, and here’s the part about the political scene: “Another thing we do is make everything [that is] uncertain certain,” in other words black and white. She gives two examples: “Religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty – I’m right, you’re wrong, so shut up. The more afraid we are, the more vulnerable we are, the more afraid we are. This is what politics is today. There’s no discourse anymore, no conversation – there’s just blame. You know how blame is described in the research? ‘A way to discharge pain and discomfort’.” Doesn’t that make sense? Think about bullying and cyberbullying. How do we address this discharging of pain and discomfort that takes the form of social aggression? Think about some of the measures taken in this context – expulsion, suspension, zero tolerance, banning certain Web sites or taking social-networking profiles down. How well do they work, really?

Our job as parents

Which brings us to the brief but vitally important idea Brown shares about raising children: Going back to her point about how those in her research who felt connected felt worthy of love and belonging and that “what made them vulnerable made them beautiful.” Besides numbing or blaming others or somehow removing uncertainty, another response we have to vulnerability is to perfect things – our homes, our bodies … even our children. “We perfect – most dangerously – our children. Let me tell you what we know about children. They’re hardwired for struggle when they get here. And when we hold those perfect little babies in our hands, our job is not to say, ‘Look at her, she’s perfect, my job is just to keep her perfect and make sure she makes the tennis team by 5th grade and Yale by 7th grade.’ Our job is to look and say, ‘You know what? You’re imperfect and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.’ That is our job.” Exactly.

[Many thanks to my friends and colleagues Stephen and Fi Carrick-Davies in the UK for thinking to mention this important talk out to me yesterday.]

Related links

* Added later: President Obama’s memorial speech in Tucson on January 12
* Another angle on what happened in Arizona might be the finding of psychiatrist Stuart Brown’s, shared with public radio host Krista Tippett of what the shooters and other homicide convicts he studied had in common: play deprivation. See “The power of play” for thoughts on how play teaches, heals, protects, and builds resilience.
* My co-director Larry Magid on how “Shooters, Like Bullies, Can Misperceive Social Norms” in the Huffington Post, illustrating how important it is for us to help our children see that the social norm is not violence, blame, mean gossip, or bullying but civility – how their own compassion for themselves and others can help lock in that social norm.
* “Obama Leads Moment of Silence to Honor Shooting Victims” and tens of thousands of other news items at Google News

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