'Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone' by Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW
I’m a fan of Brené Brown. I feel like there is something in her style of writing that feels as though I’m in the midst of a conversation with a close friend. A sense of warmth and belonging are embedded throughout ‘Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone.’ If you haven’t had the chance to watch her YouTube video on the topic of vulnerability, which has millions of views, it is well worth your time.
Though this is not a book written explicitly about trauma, the wish to belong is a common theme for trauma survivors who, as a result of their traumatic experiences, describe feeling disconnected from themselves and others.
Brené writes about the idea of ‘true belonging,’ which is not about fitting in; it is about being true to who we really are. She is trying to understand what ‘true belonging’ means and how to cultivate a sense of it in one’s life. Based on her research as a social scientist, she condenses her findings into four main practices that aim to heighten our ability to be honest, vulnerable, and brave, with ourselves and others.
The four practices are:
1. People are hard to hate close up. Move in.
2. Speak truth to BS. Be civil.
3. Hold hands. With strangers.
4. Strong back. Soft front. Wild heart.
The first practice alerts us to the risks of making generalizations about other people or groups of people. Generalizations create an ‘us versus them’ mentality, and at their worst, allow us to dehumanize others. Our common humanity and our collective morality are compromised when other people become less than human. Brown’s research points to the value of facing our fear of conflict and taking the risk to have challenging, nuanced, and honest conversations with others.
In the second practice, we are encouraged to think critically before landing on an opinion. ‘True belonging’ includes being able to risk disagreeing with others while still holding on to civility. I love Brown’s writing in this section on the theme of generosity, and the idea of approaching others with the thought, “what is the most generous assumption we can make about the people around us?” I had to pause after reading that the first time, just to imagine what a profoundly different place the world might be if we all approached others with that question in mind.
The 3rd practice is about the importance of human connection. Not just two people connecting, but the importance of connecting with our humanity through experiences and moments of collective joy and pain. Her research underscores that building a community based on hating the same thing or having a common enemy does not contribute to a sense of ‘true belonging.’
Finally, her fourth chapter is about having courage, vulnerability, and a willingness to love, and an ability to hold and feel both pain and joy. Brown discusses the importance of celebration and gratitude as her research indicates that we cannot bring joy to others if we don’t have a connection with joy ourselves. Brown notes that in discussing the concept of joy, many participants in her research reflected on feeling guilty if they celebrated or were joyful when there is so much pain and suffering in the world. She then shares what she has heard about the importance of gratitude from survivors of trauma who explained to her: “When you are grateful for what you have, I know you understand the magnitude of what I have lost.” There are moments throughout the book where a sentence like that would result in a full stop as I tried to sit with the meaning of the words and the emotions that came along with them.
I found myself asking, what does all this mean for our traumatized clients? One issue is that some people who have experienced childhood trauma report experiencing a limited sense of self. People were focused on survival during the time when, ideally, they would have been developing their identity and sense of self. Brown assumes one already knows who their authentic self is to some degree and that what is required is the courage to reveal oneself and to stand in one’s convictions. We may need to take a step back with some of our clients and help them nurture their developing sense of self.
Having said that, the core findings from Brown’s research apply to all, though trauma may make some of the practices all the more complex and challenging. I feel quite hopeful that her research has found that an authentic connection with self and others is at the heart of ‘true belonging’ as this is essentially the journey so many of our clients are already on.