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Gillian Sisley

What Brené Brown’s “Daring Greatly" Can Teach Us About Fearlessly Writing our Trauma Stories

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Gillian Sisley
Gillian Sisley
 2021-05-07

“If you decide to walk into the arena and dare greatly, you’re going to get kicked around.” — Brené Brown

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Image credit via Elevatenetwork

As a professional online writer, the following excerpt stopped me dead in my tracks:

“If you decide to walk into the arena and dare greatly, you’re going to get kicked around.” Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, page 167

If you didn’t already know, Brown’s epic bestseller “Daring Greatly" is all about embracing vulnerability and transparency in our lives to live at the most fulfilled level.

As you can imagine, this is the perfect sort of book for a woman whose full-time job is writing about her healing and trauma journey as a result of sexual assault, and who works as an advocate for fellow survivors.

Vulnerability and transparency, to an extremely uncomfortable degree for some, are the backbone of the work I do.

In the survivor community, the personal essays I write are commended.

But outside of that community, my honesty is not always well-received. And because I publish my work publicly online, anyone can stumble upon it.

And there are many, many people (often men with fragile egos) who find my work extremely offensive to their sensibilities as Big Manly Men.

If you’ve ever written a vulnerable personal essay online, odds are you’ve also encountered these fragile beings.

Here’s what actual science and research have to say about these very individuals who would rather beat you down than ruminate in the discomfort your honesty brings to light.

This hostile reaction to your vulnerability is a shield.

Before I continue on, at first like to point out that Brené Brown is not only a number one New York Times bestselling author, she’s also a PhD in sociology and social work. She’s dedicated the last several decades of her life and career to studying the science of vulnerability, and with that, she’s published many powerful and research-based books that have changed people’s lives.

One of the biggest themes within Daring Greatly is society’s general avoidance of ever having to be vulnerable. After studying hundreds, maybe even thousands, of people for her diverse research, Brown has dissected all of the creative and complicated ways that we as human beings harness to avoid being vulnerable as much as possible.

But Brown also points out that vulnerability is an essential part of being a human being with meaningful connections.

To be able to love, be loved and have a sense of belonging, we must be willing to get vulnerable with people in our lives.

For many of us, being vulnerable with loved ones or close friends isn’t too difficult. If we weren’t able to do it, we wouldn’t have those relationships.

But for others, being vulnerable is avoided at all costs. And for that reason, these individuals have extreme difficulty making connections with other people, being empathetic, and relating positively to vulnerability expressed by anyone else.

To these people, showing vulnerability equates directly to showing extreme weakness.

And for that reason, these same people will put up a shield when faced with vulnerability. The shield that I’m discussing here today is the one of ‘Cynicism, Criticism, Cool, and Cruelty’.

Brown says the following when it comes to any industry when choosing to be vulnerable or showing vulnerability in your work:

“There may even be some plain old mean spiritedness. Why? Because cynicism, criticism, cruelty, and cool are even better than armor — they can be fashioned into weapons that not only keep vulnerability at a distance but also can inflict injury on people who are being vulnerable and making us uncomfortable.” — Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, page 167

How can we courageously tell our stories when struggling under the crippling weight of trauma?

There a lot of people in my life, from readers online to my own mother, who often ask me how I have grit strong enough and skin thick enough to be able to bear my heart and soul to the world and receive the negative responses that I do.

And let me say, I receive a lot of negative responses for the work I write.

The truth is, in the beginning, it was really hard to receive those responses. But it’s also worth noting that the only reason I started writing so vulnerably about my trauma was that I was in the darkest place of my life and choosing to write about that time was my last resort.

If I’m being honest, there was no misogynistic or hateful response out there that was more effective at damaging me than my own trauma already was.

But I also recognize that this very fear, of receiving negative and hurtful responses on your truly vulnerable work, is what stops a lot of other survivors from publishing their stories even though they really do want to write about their truths.

If I’ll be honest, for the last few years I’ve never really had a very comforting response to survivors who have asked me,

“How can I write my truth and be okay with receiving hateful responses in the comments section?”

Most of the time, I’m very blunt and honest and simply explain that misogynists scour the internet looking for articles just like the ones we write, and it’s some part of their sick mission to try and beat down survivors who are speaking their truths.

Basically, it’s a reality that can’t be avoided, and you just learn to put protections in place and grow a thick skin so that one day it doesn’t bother you as much.

Not exactly a very encouraging piece of advice, I know. But I didn’t have a better way to phrase this — until now.

When faced with a cruel commentator, remember firstly that their response comes from a place of feeling threatened.

Thankfully, Brené Brown has come in to give me the exact piece of information that I’ve needed to communicate to all of those survivors who have asked me the question of, “But how can I confidently write my truth despite the hateful comments?”

This is my new response moving forward when I get asked that question:

“The negative responses from dudes drowning in toxic masculinity are going to happen. But the important thing to keep in mind is that the reason they’re lashing out is because they feel threatened by your vulnerability. Their words are coming from place of deeply rooted insecurity. You have something fundamentally and beautifully human that they lack — the ability to put yourself out there and create meaningful connection with other people through being unashamedly vulnerable.”

I’ve written before about how I consider vulnerability to not only be a strength, but a superpower of sorts. I cannot name all of the writers who have touched and changed my life through telling their stories. I acknowledge the sacrifice they’ve made to make that reality happen and help me in my healing journey.

Brown really backs this sentiment up by saying the following in regards to people who will lash out cruelly in response to your expressed vulnerability,

“If we are the kind of people who ‘don’t do vulnerability’, there’s nothing that makes us feel more threatened or more incited to attack and shame people than to see someone daring greatly… When we see cruelty, vulnerability is likely to be the driver.” — Brené Brown, Daring Greatly, page 167

Final word.

In full transparency, because I am nothing if not honest in my writing, there isn’t really a way to avoid hateful and misogynistic comments on the internet.

Especially when you’re writing about gender inequality issues, racism, advocating for sexual assault survivors, or even pointing out that the patriarchy exists… there will always be an angry person, often a privileged white man, showing up in the comment sections to tell you how wrong, stupid, and uninformed you are.

Yes, words are hurtful. This article is not meant to minimize that fact in any way. I sincerely believe there’s a special place in hell for internet trolls who say horrific things to women via keyboard that they would never say to their faces.

But if you’re planning to fearlessly and unashamedly speak your truth and write your story, you have to come to terms in the beginning with the fact that you’re going to encounter this ignorance.

If despite the darkness that exists on the internet you still plan to write vulnerably about what you’ve experienced, then here are a few tips from a seasoned writer who knows about these insecure and threatened fragile online users all too well:

1. Hitting this point home yet again — they are threatened by vulnerability.

I know we just talked about this, but I really want to make sure that if there’s anything you walk away from after reading this article it’s this very point. Because I sincerely feel that if I had known this at the beginning of my writing journey, it would have made the really hurtful words sting less. I hope this is also the case for someone who is reading this.

2. You cannot control the actions of others — you can only control how you respond to those actions:

If we’ve learned anything at all in history, it’s that there’s nothing an individual person can do to stop hate entirely. Hate exists in society, there are very broken people who make a hobby out of spewing hate at complete strangers, and yeah, they have a lot of issues they need to sort out.

There is no specific set of words, perfect construction of a sentence or seamless way to phrase something that will guarantee you won’t receive hateful comments. If the topic you’re writing about is in any way vulnerable (which can also mean controversial to some) there will always be someone who disagrees with you. Even when you’re writing about your own story and personal experience.

3. Remember why you wrote the story to begin with, and who you wrote it for.

The further I go in my journey as an activist for survivors of sexual assault, the more I find this self-reflective practise to be helpful. I read all of the comments I receive on my work. Certain pieces get a lot of hate. I read those hateful comments. But I also try to be mindful of asking myself when faced with a truly cruel comment, “Is this person my target audience?”. Close to 100% of the time the answer is going to be ‘no’.

So get clear on who your target audience is — my target audience is women and survivors of trauma who are looking to build a connection with one another to heal, and also allies who are open to recognizing their own privilege and educating themselves about how they can be active in making positive change in the world. Notice how hateful, spiteful and cruel internet trolls do not fall within my definition of my target audience. No one forced them to read my work, if they weren’t enjoying it they could have just clicked away — the fact that they chose instead to leave a hateful comment says far more about them than it does about me as the writer.

And finally,

4. Your first priority should always be to protect yourself.

Only you can define what protecting yourself looks like.

For some people, the reality is that protecting themselves means never pressing publish. My hope though is that if you have a desire for whatever reason to publish your story, whether it’s for your own healing or for the healing of others, that you can set up a Protection Plan for yourself that allows you to still be able to write/publish.

Here are some of my examples for protecting myself, my mental health and my purpose for writing the way I do:

  • If a specific article starts receiving a lot of hate and it is damaging your mental health, give yourself permission to no longer read the comments on that article.
  • If even receiving one hateful comment on your content is damaging to your mental health, just don’t read the comments. As a fellow survivor, I can promise you that I don’t hold this against anyone. I get it — I want you to protect yourself above replying to a comment I left on your work.
  • Become best friends with the Report and Block buttons. They exist for a reason. When you report you save other writers for receiving similar abuse, and when you block you ensure that you never have to deal with this person again.
  • Cut yourself some slack, and overall just be gracious with yourself. Your healing and mental health come first. Actively participate in that which safeguards these things, and remove yourself from that which is harmful to them.

I hope this article has been insightful and helpful for you, as it has been for me.

And with that, I will leave you with a quote from Scott Stratten, author of UnMarketing,

“Don’t try to win over the haters; you’re not the jacka** whisperer.”