Last week was hard, friends. I faced a difficult moment of truth about myself, and I’d like to share it with you.
Black and white thinking is safe feeling to me. Things are either right, or wrong. Often this thinking helps protect me from the grey of life, people doing wrong things with right intentions (or no intentions at all), or being able to vilify an entire population like “the church.” This way of thinking seems so clear.
Therapy has been such a battle for me, as I unpack “big T” traumas (like sexual assault, or abuse), I find that there are more and more “little t” traumas, like how people reacted to my disclosure of abuse, or spiritual teachings gone awry in the church. It’s been so easy to look at the church as either good, or bad, the people in it are “good or bad”, helpful or abusive. This has been a protection from me needing to humanize the people involved in my story.
For example, it’s been comfortable for me to look at my former religious life (the church, the pastors, the teachings) as a whole. It’s all bad, they had poor intentions, etc. But there is so much more to it. There is nuance. Perhaps my pastors give teachings in love, but were misguided. My hurt is real, but intent may not have been present. (Or the intent was to guide, rather than to shame.) *Side note, there are people out there who directly intended to hurt others, an example being my rapist, this is not in reference to those who committed crimes nor to people who had true intention to harm others.
When it comes to my pastor, there were several things he did wrong, and many things he should have done better. When I disclosed my rape on church property to him, the first words he said to me were “well, why were you over there?” (I was going to a restroom that wasn’t often used, for context.) When I contemplate his intent, it’s easy to see this as victim blaming, and shaming. (And it is.) The choices then become, what do I do with this question and how do I feel?
I will be meeting with him in the near future to ask him about this question, which he likely will not remember. Which brings me to point two.
As I move into preparing my statement for my former pastor, I am starting to reassess my beliefs regarding his response to one of the biggest “Big T” traumas. Maybe he asked me the question of the location in order to know more about what had happened. Perhaps he was wondering what had prevented me from using a restroom that someone could have hurt the assault happening in (close to the youth group room). What if he was feeling guilt and wanted to know how far his responsibility went towards how he could have prevented this crime. Hopefully he wasn’t asking this to question the validity of my experience. The fact is, I don’t know what his motive was. It’s easy to assume that he was victim blaming. (And this has been a huge part of my story.)
This brings me to last week, where I stepped in it. I had read a post about using handclaps in social media posts (as in one clap in between each word) and how it was seen as cultural appropriation. I read more about it, and was very interested that it was seen that way, and recognized the connection of the emoji to the culture of a population that I intrinsically don’t belong to (I’m caucasian, and it refers to the handclaps as being appropriated from black culture.)
While I don’t use them in my posts, I knew of a close friend who did. Knowing her, I knew she never wants to offend anyone, as she is a social justice warrior herself. Then, I jumped the shark. I messaged her the article and said “I’d imagine you’d like to know, the handclap between words thing is a cultural appropriation issue.”
I left no room for connection.
The way I said it came across as accusatory, and as if I was the end all and be all of the issue. I called her out, instead of attempting to connect with her as a fellow human being and “call her in” to conversation about what she thought. And as one would guess, she responded in frustration and anger about what I had sent, rather than wanting to explore the issue further. I found a week later that she was upset, and when I explored what might have been wrong, by looking at my messages to her, my comment was glaring. This way of stating my feelings has been consistent in my communication, and I’ve been called out on it more than once. I tend to try to be direct, but it often is (or comes across as) harsh. I needed to find a better way.
This week I finally dove into “Braving the Wilderness” by Brene Brown. I tend to really love hate her books, and the margins are always peppered with curse words as she calls me out to be better, more vulnerable and seek connection with others, especially over challenging issues. Anytime I read Brene, she speaks right to my soul. This week I was on chapter 5 “Speak Truth to Bullshit.”
Brene speaks of several instances where people called her out, rather than calls her in, and her response to the person. She describes how when people make black or white statements, or accusations (as I had done with my friend) it bounces her soul right into the reminder of the “if you are not with me, you’re my enemy” thinking.
It’s not that she says “don’t challenge the status quo” or even “keep your opinions to yourself”, but rather to take a moment to process your statement and thread civility into it. By remembering that most people act from a place of good, learning more about their motivations can help you both get to a place of openness and connection about even the most challenging issues.
I will continue to talk a bit about her approach, with this caveat, my friend’s statement to me was not bullshit, nor was her use of handclaps. This is important to note, as Brene describes issues of difference (as it pertains to not embracing change or desiring to self-reflect) as “bullshit.” This needs to be really clear.
When an issue of conflict in belief comes about, Brene talks about…
Avoiding creating an environment where there are two sides.
- Setting up a black or white response framework cuts off the ability for understanding and the nuances of why the person believes what they do.
- Perhaps they just don’t know (but why would they admit it, if doing so would make them look like an asshole because you are accusatory?)
- Perhaps they do believe a variation of what you are asking about, but have reasons behind it. (But why would they explain that if you leave no room for conversation?)
- Perhaps what you THINK they believe is actually not even the case (or only some parts are true). (Why would they take the time to explain it, if you are accusing them of being one way?)
- *Side note: there ARE black or white issues. This is speaking more about the nuanced belief systems. But, even those issue have nuances of reasonings and explanations that we could learn more about.
What could I do better to not “call her out” but “call her in” (to conversation)?
- I could have mentioned this article I read in a WAY better way.
- I could have asked her about her feelings about the article, rather than implying “dude, I see you do this, knock that shit off”, “this article is true” and “what are you going to do about it?”
Looking back, I would bring this issue up like this:
“Hi friend! I read this article the other day, and was curious what you thought about it? I notice you use handclaps in your statuses frequently, can you tell me what that means to you? I’d really like to talk more about this with someone who utilizes this tool in their communication to learn more about it!”
The tone is SO different. Instead of learning about her feelings in a way where she felt she needed to be understandably defensive, we could have had a good conversation about the article and come to conclusions about its implications. I deeply care about my friend, and the way that I approached this issue with her was totally not valuing her as the strong, thoughtful, and aware woman I know her to be.
This is Brene’s second point, Speak the truth to bullshit, but BE CIVIL. Rarely is a good conversation where both people are heard, respected and learning started with such direct and pointed conversation. She brings up the acronym BRAVING again in this chapter. (Brene’s words in italic.)
B- Boundaries- What’s okay in a discussion, and what’s not? How to you set a boundary when you realize you’re knee deep in bullshit (either from them, or from you?)
R- Reliability- Bullshitting is the abandonment of reliability. It’s hard to trust or be trusted when we BS too much. (I take this as both people involved!)
A- Accountability- How do we hold ourselves and others accountable for less BS and more honest debate? Less off-loading of emotion and more civility? (Again, from both sides. For me, it was “how could I have promoted a valuable conversation, rather than hurt my friend?”)
V- Vault- Civility honors confidentiality. BS ignores truth and opens the door to violations of confidentiality.
I- Integrity- How do we stay in our integrity when confronted with BS and how do we stop in the midst of our own emotional moment to say “you know what, I’m not sure this conversation is productive” or “I need to learn more about this issue”? (We couldn’t even get to a place of conversation, because I had shoved the door open and pulled her inside, rather than gently inviting her in.)
N- Nonjudgment- How do we stay out of judgment toward ourselves when the right thing to do is say “I actually don’t know much about this. Tell me what you know and why it’s important to you.” How do we not go into “winner/loser” mode and instead see an opportunity for connection when someone says to us “I don’t know anything about that issue?” (In this case, what I knew was I read an article. I knew my friend used them. The jump I made was launching right into the issue with a “this isn’t right”, rather than seeking understanding and connection with someone I cared about.)
G- Generosity- What’s the most generous assumption we can make about the people around us? What boundaries have to be in place for us to be kinder and more tolerant? (Though I made the assumption that my friend wasn’t using handclaps to be offensive, I equally assumed that she was wrong. The former was not even implied in my message to her, but certainly my view of “you are wrong” came across strongly. Though my intent was not to call her out, I did.)
I read this section of the book today and though I had already apologized to her for how I approached this, Brene really “called me in” to do much better.
I’m sorry, dear friend.