Brené Brown on Owning Your Weird Family Story
I read Brené Brown's “Rising Strong” during my first few weeks of maternity leave.
While I knew of Brown's work as a shame researcher, I had no idea that her latest book would be so relevant to my own memoir, and my lifelong fascination with family stories.
"We're wired for story," Brown writes in “Rising Strong:”
In a culture of scarcity and perfectionism, there's a surprisingly simple reason we want to own, integrate, and share our stories of struggle. We do this because we feel the most alive when we're connecting with others and being brave with our stories—it's in our biology.
Sometimes, however, our stories can hold us back. This is especially true of family stories, which can shape our identity from childhood on. Perhaps your parents struggled with money, or your grandmother always said that you'd never amount to much. It's easy to adopt these stories as your own.
Brown recommends first examining the emotions and behaviors surrounding the story, then challenging their value, and finally rewriting the stories to transform how you engage with the world. She calls this process the reckoning, the rumble and the revolution.
My Own Reckoning, Rumble & Revolution
I realized that in writing The Skeleton Club, I’ve been following Brown’s process without even knowing it. I grew up hearing stories about my grandmother’s mental illness and abusive parenting. When I became a mother, I had a hard time separating her story from my own. I feared that my own struggles with panic disorder and depression would make me a terrible parent—maybe even an abusive one. I worried that, like my grandmother, I too would go crazy.
The story almost became a self-fulfilling prophecy. My worries about harming my child exacerbated my postpartum depression to the point of near psychosis. Eventually I got help. A prescription for Prozac tamed the panic attacks and lifted the depression. But what helped even more than the drugs was the unpacking of the family stories I had allowed to define me for so long.
"Curiosity is a shit-starter. But that's okay. Sometimes we have to rumble with a story to find the truth."
To unpack these stories, I filled one journal after another. I interviewed family members and plotted family trees. I learned new things about my grandmother’s life, and started writing about my own.
The Gifts of Uncertainty
I’m still unpacking those family stories, even after the birth of my second son. It hasn’t been easy. In fact, my “rumbling” has uncovered far more questions than answers.
"Watch out for the need to be certain,” Brown counsels in "Rising Strong." “Uncertainty is tricky. It moves good storytelling along—the fun of a whodunit is the mystery—but it can shut down difficult stories we are trying to capture. When it comes to the process of owning our hard stories, uncertainty can be so uncomfortable that we either walk away or race to the ending. ... The important thing is not to skip it. Stay in the story until you touch every part of it."
Her words aren’t touchy-feely mumbo jumbo. Recent research reported by the New York Times shows that the writing—and rewriting—of your personal story can lead to behavioral changes, better health and greater happiness.
My family’s stories inspired me to start writing. And that writing has transformed my life for the better. I still have lots of work to do, but I find myself constantly awed by those family stories—and how empowering it can be to write and share my own.