The Lie of Authenticity
My Love-Hate Relationship with Brené Brown
Just Be Yourself?
Standard advice to awkward kids is “Just be yourself.” Dr. Brené Brown made a whole career out of encouraging this kind of authenticity. Out of freeing ourselves from the shame that can hold us back and prevent change.
There’s a lot in that message that resonates with me. That I want to believe.
I’ve loved Brené Brown’s books and ideas. I have three of them at home. (That’s the “love” part.) But I also crave meaningful connection and feel cheated when being real and open doesn’t get me there. (That’s the “hate.”)
All my life, I’ve wanted to understand and be understood. The biblical idea of judgment is a little intimidating (because I know I’ve messed up a lot). But the parts that talk about being fully known by God sound like heaven to me. The chance to be completely seen draws me in.
So when Brown calls us to embrace our imperfections, I support that. When she points out how “our constant need to fit in” can “sabotage real belonging,” I’m on board with her.
“I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”
~ Brené Brown
But it doesn’t automatically follow that being the real you will lead to real belonging.
I don’t want to hide behind a wall. I don’t want conditional friendships based on who I seem to be. I believe each person is made with a particular set of gifts and interests for a reason. Each of us has a purpose.
I remember once in a Bible fellowship, an older lady reached out to make a full family dinner for each of the younger mothers who had little kids at home. She made a main course, bread, salad, dessert — the works. It was so thoughtfully done, and we all loved it.
Yet she felt small, because the only gift she had to give was hospitality. And I was flabbergasted. Because at least her gift was something other people wanted to receive. And aside from my cooking, that’s something I rarely feel when I’m giving my truest self.
What if I have gifts to give, but no recipients?
Be Yourself (But Do This Too)
As a woman, wife, and mother, I spend most of my energy doing things I’m not naturally good at. Traditionally, it seems like women are expected to be the hub. To be nurturing. To be relational and constantly thinking of what others need and how they feel. To be social. To chat with everyone at ball games while we cheer them on. To remember birthdays and anniversaries.
With few exceptions, I hate that. In fact, sometimes I suck at it.
Remember anniversaries? Early in our marriage, my husband set the voice mail PIN as our anniversary. I got it wrong and couldn’t pull off messages for about a week.
I’m an idea person.
I’m not aggressive, but I’m direct.
I don’t go along with the crowd and like what they like.
I won’t pretend to have an opinion because it makes others comfortable (although I could keep mine to myself to spare them discomfort).
If you’re having a problem, I look at ways to change the process so you can stop having that problem.
I hate small talk.
I like going deep.
I like solitude.
I don’t need a lot of girl time. In fact, those signals women are supposed to pick up on with each other? Absent.
I have little use for hierarchies and think you should be courteous to everyone, regardless of who they are or what they do. This doesn’t gel in a culture enamored with influencing and power.
I’d rather research things to death than talk on the phone or text someone.
The closest I came to enjoying being the core “me” with all its love of learning and ideas was when I homeschooled my son. I put together the curriculum, read the books with him, and had discussions filled with oddball, complex rabbit trails that went a ton of interesting places.
And I prepared him for a public education system that wants none of that curiosity or complexity. That often discourages asking questions. That ignores a whole world of “interesting” and acts like we’re weird for finding those weird things interesting at all.
Connection Is a Two-Way Street
Society offers few rewards for a smart, quiet, quirky woman who likes to talk about complex issues and doesn’t watch Game of Thrones or Bridgerton. Who reads nonfiction about Afghan factions and persecuted outcasts for no particular reason. Who has no idea how to do soccer mom talk. Who notices these are sentence fragments and cringes when the editing app seems to like them because they’re short.
Whose son asks her, “Why are you like this?”
That leaves me with the choice of being authentic and being alone, or pretending and maybe having friends who don’t really know me. Which is, ultimately, kind of like being alone.
Authenticity can only connect you if there’s a kinship to connect.
Apart from that, in revealing who you are, it reveals a dissonance.
It shows what you don’t have in common. That regardless of how real you’re being, people can still read all kinds of meaning and arrogance and angles into it that aren’t there. And if perception is their reality, you can’t connect in that reality.
Even so, I don’t want to pretend to be anything I’m not. If I like to think and learn, I’m going to think and learn (like INTJ girls like to do).
If I like to celebrate people who have found their joy and lived it and excel so much that other people resent them…I’m going to celebrate them.
(Marie Kondo — rock on. I dig your vertical folding. Forget the haters with their rampant criticism and live your joy. Because every time I watch you in action, I see it.)
Courage, compassion, and connection: That’s supposed to be the key. It’s supposed to be the thing that breaks through the brittle walls that keep us from being genuinely close with people.
Courage and compassion, I can do. The flaw in the assumption, though, is that if only we’re authentic and vulnerable, people will respond to that and like us. That it will naturally generate connection. And that’s often not true.
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