Book Review: Brown, Brene — Rising Strong as a Spiritual Practice, 2015 Vermilion

Rising Strong, is a book about overcoming adversity, but it is much more than that. Brown has an accessible writing style that explains her own detailed research in a way that helps people to make sense of difficult emotions. Brown’s writing style is relaxed, informal, honest and at times, humorous. It is down to earth, with an anecdotal approach but references other peoples work as well as her own studies, in a clever and different way. Priests, screenwriters, and scholars are given equal billing, among others.

From a helping, and counselling, perspective, I found Brown’s explanations of spirituality, compassion, empathy and sympathy, easy to understand and relatable. Brown describes compassion as about knowing our darkness well enough to sit in the dark with others. This reminded me of the often used “pit” metaphor. Brown states that sympathy communicates “not me”, instead of the “me too”, that empathy communicates. I found this a simple way of making the distinction, particularly considering the recent “me too” campaign on social media in relation to sexual harassment and sexual assault.

Brown sees spirituality as recognising and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to one another by a power greater than all of us, that is grounded in love and belonging. That connection is unbreakable. Spirituality brings perspective, meaning and purpose to our lives. Brown does not define the power, which leaves her work open to people of all faiths. That has an inclusiveness in a helping/counselling role.

Brown addresses anxiety, stating there are two responses to it. The first is over functioning, which manifests as an excessive need for control and micro management and the second is under functioning, which is where people miss things, don’t “show up” and underperform. These concepts help you to understand that people are not behaving the way they are to spite you, but because they are doing the best they can in the face of their own anxieties.

Interestingly, Brown identified that the most compassionate people are also the most boundaried. This reminded me of being in the counsellor or helper role, and introducing that first session with the “contract”, setting out what can be expected of the relationship. Brown discusses her mother going into therapy and how it “transformed” her family, but ended her parents’ marriage. This reminded me of conversations in group sessions about relationships often breaking down when people enter therapy. Brown cites the experience as setting her on her path.

The principles of Rising Strong slot effortlessly into both a helping and counselling environment. It is about recognising emotion, becoming curious about feelings and how they connect with how we think and behave. Our bodies respond to feelings first, then think. When we disengage from tough emotions, they own and define us. Our instinct is to run from pain, not sit with it. It is being honest about the stories we are making up about our struggle then determining what is truth, what is self-protection, and what needs to change, writing a new ending. Our brain rewards us with dopamine when we recognise and complete patterns. Stories are patterns. We should write down our first stories, in an authentic way. Writing for 15–20 minutes a day, can decrease anxiety, rumination, and depressive symptoms. Finally, embodying the story in our everyday lives, so it becomes a daily practice, a way of thinking about our emotions, is key.

I found Brown’s work pragmatic with a practical application within a helping/counselling setting. The idea that “we’re only as sick as our secrets” being more than an adage with growing empirical evidence that not owning and integrating our stories affects not just our emotional health but also our physical well-being. Shaming others for their lack of “emotional control” was an interesting point made, as was guilt largely being about shame and the fear of “not being enough”. Brown states that forgiveness can only happen if something dies, resulting in a rebirth in our relationships.

Brown states that helping is courageous and compassionate. “The bottom line is that we need each other. And not just the civilised, convenient kind of need. Not one of us gets through this life without expressing desperate, messy, and uncivilised need. The kind we are reminded of when we come face-to-face with someone who is in deep struggle.” Trauma takes away the willingness or ability to be vulnerable and reclaiming must happen. I believe Brown hits the nail on the head and can understand why she is a wildly popular author and speaker.

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