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The Swim of Awakening with Brené Brown

Grow
Paper cut illustration of lake scene

Artwork by Julene Harrison

In the absence of data, we will always make up stories. It’s how we are hardwired. In fact, the need to make up a story, especially when we are hurt, is part of our most primitive survival wiring. But these stories are typically not true.

The minute we find ourselves face down on the arena floor, our minds go to work trying to make sense of how we got there. This story is driven by emotion and the immediate need to self-protect, which means it’s most likely not accurate, self-actualized, or even civil. In fact, if your very first story is any of these things, you’re either an outlier or you’re not being fully honest. The rumble starts when we have the willingness, ability, and courage to wade into that first uncivilized story we’re making up.

Why is capturing this uncensored story necessary? Because embedded in these unedited narratives are the answers to three critically important questions—questions that cultivate wholeheartedness and bring deeper courage, compassion, and connection to our lives:

  1. What more do I need to learn and understand about the situation?
  2. What more do I need to learn and understand about the person or people in the story?
  3. What more do I need to learn and understand about myself?

In the absence of data, we will always make up stories. It’s how we are hardwired. In fact, the need to make up a story, especially when we are hurt, is part of our most primitive survival wiring. Meaning-making is in our biology, and our drive to come up with a story that makes sense, feels familiar, and offers us some insight into how to best self-protect is often the default. What we’re trying to do in the rumble—choosing to feel uncertain and vulnerable as we rumble with the truth—is a conscious choice. A brave, conscious choice.

Robert Burton, MD, a neurologist and novelist, explains that our brain rewards us with dopamine when we recognize and complete patterns. Stories are patterns. Our brain recognizes the familiar beginning–middle–end structure of a story and rewards us for clearing up the ambiguity. Unfortunately, we don’t need to be accurate, just certain.

You know that wonderful “aha” sensation that we experience when we connect the dots or when something finally makes sense to us for the first time? Burton uses that as an example of how we might experience our brain’s pattern-recognition reward. The tricky part is that the promise of that wonderful “aha” sensation can seduce us into shutting down the uncertainty and vulnerability that is often necessary for getting to the truth.

Burton writes, “Because we are compelled to make stories, we are often compelled to take incomplete stories and run with them.” He goes on to say that even with a half-story in our mind, “we earn a dopamine ‘reward’ every time it helps us understand something in our world—even if that explanation is incomplete or wrong.”

The Making of a Conspiracy Theory

One example of s story gone wrong began at Lake Travis with three data points:

  1. Steve and I are swimming together for the first time in decades.
  2. I’m being unusually vulnerable and trying to connect with Steve.
  3. He’s not responding positively to my bid for connection.

The very first story I tell myself from those three points is that he’s a jerk who’s tricked me into believing he’s kind and loving over the past 25 years when the truth is that he’s blowing me off because I don’t look great in a Speedo and my freestyle sucks.

Why is this my first story? Because “I’m not enough” is one of my go-to narratives when I’m hurt. It’s the equivalent of my comfy jeans. When is doubt, the “never enough” explanation is often the first thing I grab. The blame story is another favorite of mine. If something goes wrong, feels bad, or leaves me feeling too exposed or vulnerable, I want to know whose fault it is. I can make up one of these quick meaning-making stories in a heartbeat.

What do we call a story that’s based on limited real data points and imagined data points blended into a coherent, emotionally satisfying version of reality? A conspiracy theory. Drawing on extensive research and history, English professor and science writer Johnathan Gottschall examines the human need for story in his book The Storytelling Animal. He explains that there’s growing evidence that “ordinary, mentally healthy people are strikingly prone to confabulate in everyday situations.” As a social worker, I always used the term confabulate when talking about dementia or brain injuries that can sometimes cause people to replace missing information with something false that they believe to be true. The further I got into this research, the more I agree with Gottschall’s assessment about confabulation being an everyday human issue, not just the result of specific medical conditions.

In one of my favorite studies described in The Storytelling Animal, a team of psychologists asked shoppers to choose a pair of socks among seven choices, then to give their reasons for choosing that particular pair. Every shopper explained their choices based on subtle differences in color, texture, and stitching. No shopper said, “I have no idea why I picked that one.” Everyone had a story that explained their decision. But here’s the kicker: All the socks were identical. Gottschall explains that all the shoppers told stories that made their decisions seem rational. But they really weren’t. He writes, “The stories were confabulations—lies, honestly told.”

We all conspire and confabulate, and sometimes the consequences can appear negligible. But I would argue that they’re not. I would argue that conspiring can become a destructive pattern over time, and sometimes a single confabulation can damage our self-worth and our relationships. Had Steve and I not resolved our problem that day in the lake, it’s very likely that I would have told my sisters (whom I love, respect, and am honest with) that we had a terrible fight because Steve thought I looked like crap in my new Speedo. It would have been a confabulation. And regardless of how honestly I was conveying this untruth, it could have hurt Steve, our relationship, and me. And perhaps even my relationship with my sisters. I can just see one or both of them saying, “That doesn’t sound like Steve. Are you sure?” My response would have probably been, “That’s perfect. Be on his side. All of you suck!” Productive, right?

The Most Dangerous Story

Gottschall argues that conspiratorial thinking “is not limited to the stupid, the ignorant, or the crazy. It is a reflex of the storytelling mind’s compulsive need for meaningful experience.” He goes on to make a compelling point that, ultimately, conspiracy theories are used to explain why bad things happen. He writes, “To the conspiring mind, shit never just happens” and the complexities of human life are reduced to produce theories that are “always consoling in their simplicity.”

One of the most dangerous conspiracy stories is the narrative that calls our inherent worthiness into question. Many of the research participants who found themselves in the midst of a painful breakup, divorce, or betrayal by a partner, or those who experienced a distant or uncaring relationship with a parent or family member, spoke about responding to their pain with a story about being unlovable—a narrative questioning whether they were worthy of being loved. This may be the most dangerous conspiracy theory of all. If there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past 13 years, it’s this: Just because someone isn’t willing or able to love us doesn’t mean that we are unlovable.

Such unconscious storytelling often explains why we keep tripping over the same issue, why we stay down when we fall, and why we keep having different versions of the same problem in our relationships—we’ve got the story on repeat. The good news is that people can learn to capture their conspiracies and confabulations.

How to Capture Your Conspiracies

The most effective way to foster awareness of our “first stories” is to write them down. Nothing fancy. The goal here is to write what Anne Lamott would call your “shitty first draft”—or the SFD, as I like to call it. (This can stand for “sloppy first draft” if you are looking for a G-rated term to teach the Rising Strong process to kids.) Lamott’s advice from her exceptional book Bird by Bird is exactly what we need:

The only way I can get anything written at all is to write really, really shitty first drafts. The first draft is the child’s draft, where you let it all pour out and then let it romp all over the place, knowing that no one is going to see it and that you can shape it later. You just let this childlike part of you channel whatever voices and visions come through and onto the page. If one of the characters wants to say, “Well, so what, Mr. Poopy Pants?” you let her. No one is going to see it. If the kid wants to get into really sentimental, weepy, emotional territory, you let him. Just get it all down on paper because there may be something great in those six crazy pages that you would never have gotten to by more rational, grown-up means.

As in the Lake Travis story, I can promise that you will meet the romping, tantrum-throwing five-year-old Brené in almost all of my first stories. Our rational, grown-up selves are good liars. The five-year-old tyrants within us are the ones who can tell it like it is.

What you write doesn’t have to be a sweeping narrative. It can be a bullet list on a Post-it note or a simple paragraph in a journal. Just get it down. And because our goal is wholeheartedness, we need to consider our whole selves when we write our SFD. The core (and sometimes the entirety) of my SFD is normally just these five sentences with maybe just a few notes.

The story I’m making up—in 5 sentences:

  1. My emotions…
  2. My body…
  3. My thinking…
  4. My beliefs…
  5. My actions…

Storytelling is also a creative endeavor, so if you have a friend or someone you trust who has the skills and patience to listen, you can talk through your SFD, but writing is always more powerful. It’s also important that we don’t filter the experience, polish our words, or worry about how our story makes us look (which is why writing is often safer than having a conversation). We can’t get to our brave new ending if we start from an inauthentic place. So give yourself permission to wade through the sometimes murky waters of whatever you’re thinking and feeling. You can be mad, self-righteous, blaming, confused. Just don’t edit and don’t try to “get it right.” Ninety percent of my SFDs start with “I’m feeling angry.” I’m physically feeling like screaming or punching someone or crying.

Again, you can verbalize this process rather than write it, but there are some risks with that approach. Getting clear on the story that we’re making up in the midst of pain is not about venting or lashing out. Your SFD is not permission to be hurtful. If you’re standing across from someone and saying, “I’m making up that you’re a self-centered egomaniac and everyone who works for you thinks you’re an asshole”—you’re on the wrong track. This process is about capturing the story you’re telling yourself about your fall. This should feel vulnerable and personal. Your intention should be about curiosity, awareness, and growth.

If you come across a part of your story that you don’t understand or that makes you feel uncertain or anxious, don’t walk away or race to the ending. Just jot down a question mark or write yourself a note: What the heck happened here? Total confusion. Who knows? The important thing is not to skip it. Stay in the story until you touch every part of it.

You’ll know you’re being honest if you’re worried that someone might see your SFD and think that you’re a total jerk or a nut job. Concerns like this are a good sign that you’re on the right track. Don’t hold back.

I normally have to walk or swim or do something that gives me the time and space I need to get clear on my SFD before I share it. About 50 percent of the research participants talked about doing something physical as a means for thinking through more complex SFDs—stories where they’re feeling strong emotion. One participant even walked down and then back up 15 flights of stairs at his office.

Finding the Delta

The difference, or the delta, between what we make up about our experiences and the truth we discover through the process of rumbling is where the meaning and wisdom of this experience live. The delta holds our key learnings. Deltas are also where rivers meet the sea. They’re marshy, full of sediment, and forever changing. They are also rich and fertile areas of growth. This is where we need to do our work—our key learnings emerge from the delta.

In the lake story, I had to rumble with shame, blame, connection, love, trust, and generosity. The delta between the story I made up and the truth gave birth to a key learning that, to this day, is still invaluable in our relationship: Steve and I love and trust each other but when shame and fear visit, everything can unravel in a heartbeat if we’re not willing to be vulnerable in the exact moment when we most want to self-protect. Other key learnings from the delta:

  • I was reminded that shame is a liar and I have to trust myself and the people I care about more than the gremlins, even if that means risking being hurt.
  • I learned that one of the most vulnerable parts of loving someone is trusting that they love you back and being generous in my assumptions.
  • When I played the story to the end on the swim back, I saw for the first time how many of our cold wars and arguments are predicated on bad information and how often I turn to blame when I’m scared.

In some cases, I can now go from “face down” to the delta to key learnings in five minutes. Other times, it takes me months. But if you’re like me, there will always be times when we experience a completely new way of falling down, and that delta will be gaping once again and require more learning.

The courage to reckon with our emotions and to rumble with our stories is the path to writing our brave new ending and the path that leads to wholeheartedness. It’s also the beginning. Understanding our fall and rise, owning our story, taking responsibility for our emotions—this is where the revolution starts.

Starting with “The Story I’m Making Up”

My leadership team uses “The story I’m making up” on a regular basis. For example, if I suggest that we skip an item on the agenda because we’re running short on time, it wouldn’t be unusual for someone on my team to say, “I’m making up that skipping means it’s less important than these other issues. I’m spending a lot of time on this project now, so if our priorities have changed, I want to talk about it.”

Think about how more productive that is than someone leaving the meeting angry, resentful, or confused. Or someone leaving and not working on the project based on their made-up story. As the leader of this team, I really appreciate and respect this kind of honesty. It gives me an invaluable opportunity to communicate honestly with the people I trust the most.

Just think about how many times you’ve walked away from a conflict with someone at work or read an email that pissed you off, and made up an entire story about what’s happening. Of all the emails I get from leaders who are implementing my work with their teams, the vast majority talk about how getting clear on these first stories has changed the way they lead and live.


Brené Brown, PhD, is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work who has spent the past 10 years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. She is the author of best-sellers including Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, from which this article was adapted. Rising Strong is now in paperback from Random House.


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