Connection for change

Or what Brené Brown and Sara Larson taught me over my morning coffee 

As a long-term disciple of Brené Brown, I really enjoyed Sarah Larson’s profile in last week’s New Yorker. It reconnected me with three parts of Brown’s teaching and sparked further thinking on social justice, which I wanted to share here. 

‘Shame’ as the great inhibitor of connection, impact, and personal progress

Shame is a near-universal feeling. 

We can all recall a moment when we are called out; make a public mistake; or self-berate. 

The heat rising in your face. The knot twisting in your stomach. Your quickened heart rate. A trifecta of physical responses that force us to mentally shut down; ‘armour up’;* and close-off genuine connection with others. 

Recently, I have been thinking a lot about how my Catholic upbringing shaped my career in social justice. The older I get, the more I recognise that it had a profound impact – instilling in me that we exist on this earth to help others and that there is something out there worth fighting for. 

However, there is no doubt that my Catholicism also brought a heady dose of ‘shame’ to the table; infusing near-constant guilt and fear of others’ expectations – and the expectations of an ever-seeing deity – as a means of control. 

I wondered, reading Larson’s profile, whether this twin reality is a core part of campaigner psychology. 

I am no longer a practising Catholic, but I do meet a huge number of people through my work for whom faith is a driving factor. 

Are we, as a campaigner community, in regular tension between belief in humanity as a motivator, but shame as an inhibitor?

And how often is this preventing us from building a genuine human connection with the people we serve? 

Remembering to ‘name’ emotions but also feel the full spectrum of them without judgement

As someone who is prone to perfectionism and burnout, learning how to ‘name my emotions’** and feelings has been vital.

No, the world isn’t ending and that person doesn’t hate you. Yes, you’re extremely tired, overworked, and probably premenstrual.   

Having the knowledge to step back has helped me to both listen to what my mind and body needs, but also resist the temptation to ‘armour up’ in those moments of frustration. 

However, Brown also pushes us not to be afraid of feeling our full range of emotions. This is a key part of her new book, Atlas of the Heart, which Larson covers in the profile. 

I was lucky enough to see Angélique Kidjo perform in New York last night. I was blown away by her performance and one of the things that struck me was: here is a woman who is not afraid to feel and to share her feelings with us all. It was immensely powerful. 

This experience and this profile made me reflect on whether my ‘naming of my emotions’ has become just another control tactic. Instead, do I need to be aware of my emotions but also able to feel the full spectrum of them without judgement? 

As women, we are so are taught to be afraid of our emotions. Is this any wonder in a world that fears powerful women? Seeing Kidjo last night and observing Brown’s meteoric rise, it is clear just how much power this awareness can bring. 

Meeting people where they are and inviting them into the cause

I started my career as a community organiser and have carried the teachings of Saul Alinsky*** and his many disciples throughout my life. 

Organising as a route to justice is vital on countless levels, but two key elements I return to over and over again are:

  1. Meeting the world as it is, not as we hope it to be, is the only route to strategies that work. 
  2. Inviting people in; encouraging broad and pluralist engagement with a common goal, rather than inflicting purity tests that divide us and disassociate change from communities. 

There is a great quote from Brown in response to an implied criticism of her work with big corporations that embodies these two maxims: 

She’d been thinking about the axiom that drives social work—“Start where people are”—and realized that she could reach the most people if she applied her research to the “context of their daily lives.” “And that’s work,” she said. “You cannot change the world if you don’t change the way we work.”

Few companies fully embody her values—including, possibly, Spotify—and she makes sure to keep her contracts “really boundaried.” But, she said, “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life preaching to the converted. I’ve got a bigger calling than that.”

I think this is something we often get wrong in social change work. 

By judging ‘corporations’ and companies only through the lens of their profit source, we forget there are tens of millions of ordinary people who could be part of our cause within them. 

If we are too quick to judge people’s motives based on their employer – and, indeed, herald the downfall of their economic security without alternatives – we lose an incredible constituency. 

We also encourage ourselves and others to ‘armour up’, rather than join forces to fight the common evil of injustice. 

*A Brown maxim that ‘the greatest barrier is armor, or how we self-protect when we’re in fear’. Hear more in this episode of Dare to Lead:

**This Harvard Business Review article by Alice Boyes on ‘How to Stop Obsessing Over Your Mistakes’ is great on this:

*** Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals is the organising primer and a must-read for anyone interested in delivering meaningful change. 

Barry Blitt, Crossing the Divide, New Yoker, November 1 Cover Image


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