“I believe that almost all our sorrows are moments of tension which we experience as paralysis, because we no longer hear our estranged feelings living,” wrote poet Rainer Maria Rilke.
“So remember this principle when something threatens to cause you pain: the thing itself was no misfortune at all; to endure it and prevail is great good fortune,” the philosopher and emperor Marcus Aurelius admonished in his journal nearly 2,000 years ago.
“The particularity of our problems can be made bearable only through the recognition of our universal humanity,” said author Cheryl Strayed in Brave Enough. “We suffer uniquely, but we survive the same way.”
Perhaps, then, an elemental truth that we all share is this: We will fail and have our hearts broken and souls shattered, but we have the choice to weave this experience into the fabric of our being to enrich the textile of our character so that we’re ready for the next storm, because it will inevitably come.
While there is an ocean of wisdom on overcoming life’s uncertainties and hardships, we default to hearing the sounds of our inner, ancient hardwiring that makes us put on armor and build high walls. We would rather flee from reality, not face it. The tradeoff has a balance: we avoid feeling pain (albeit temporarily), but we also slap away the hand that helps us grow into ourselves.
What could our lives become if we handled adversity with a sound strategy and mindset that squeezed out the knowledge we need to live well?
Researcher and storyteller Brené Brown, in Rising Strong, offers a framework for turning our failure and adversity into meaningful lessons that help us evolve. The way our culture deals with adversity needs a lot of work. According to Dr. Brown, “There are too many people today who instead of feeling hurt are acting out of their hurt; instead of acknowledging pain, they’re inflicting pain on others. Rather than risking feeling disappointed, they’re choosing to live disappointed.”
This process, which she coined “rising strong,” is a three-step methodology that transmutes failures into wisdom, not for the purpose of moving on as fast as possible, but to allow the process to change us permanently. Here are the steps she describes:
The Reckoning: Walking into our story—recognize emotion, and get curious about our feelings and how they connect with the way we think and behave.
The Rumble: Owning our story—get honest about the stories we’re making up about our struggle, then challenge these confabulations and assumptions to determine what’s truth, what’s self-protection, and what needs to change if we want to lead more wholehearted lives.
The Revolution: Write a new ending to our story based on the key learnings from our rumble and use this new, braver story to change how we engage with the world and to ultimately transform the way we live, love, parent, and lead.
This framework is useful for any arena in our lives—heartbreak, job loss, grief, confusion, or pain. It can sit in the dugout, ready to be called up to the plate when the time is right.
According to Brené Brown, the reckoning—the first step—is ultimately about self-awareness, and I needed to drink it from a fire hose:
There is a clear pattern among women and men who demonstrate the ability to rise strong from hurt or adversity—they reckon with emotion. The word reckon comes from the Middle English rekenen, meaning to narrate or make account. The rising strong reckoning has two deceptively simple parts: (1) engaging with our feelings, and (2) getting curious about the story behind the feelings—what emotions we’re experiencing and how they are connected to our thoughts and behaviors.
The opposite of recognizing that we’re feeling something is denying our emotions. The opposite of being curious is disengaging. When we deny our stories and disengage from tough emotions, they don’t go away; instead, they own us, they define us. Our job is not to deny the story, but to defy the ending—to rise strong, recognize our story, and rumble with the truth until we get to a place where we think, Yes. This is what happened. This is my truth. And I will choose how this story ends.
The second step, according to Brown, is the rumble—owning our story, checking our assumptions and expectations, observing the language that we’re using, and imagining what positive change looks like. Brown writes,
We need to examine our story for phrases like, ‘I had my heart set on it,’ or ‘I counted on this happening,’ or ‘I just thought. . . .’ If expressions like these show up, we might be struggling with disappointment. Here is what you need to know about disappointment: Disappointment is unmet expectations, and the more significant the expectations, the more significant the disappointment.”
She quotes a fantastic sentiment by Anne Lamott: “Expectations are resentments waiting to happen.”
The final step, the revolution, is about writing a new ending based on what is learned in the rumble—the painful but necessary act of courage to embrace a new narrative, one of possibilities and learning.
Rising Strong is one of those books that pulls at every heartstring, offering both timeless and timely guidance into something that we will all experience many times throughout our lives: pain, suffering, failure, and hurt. But what’s most important of all is the knowing that these are not anchors to the grounds of our consciousness, but opportunities to find out what’s inside of us, to become greater in every way.
As Brené Brown beautifully said [emphasis mine]:
Heartbreak is more than just a particularly hard form of disappointment or failure. It hurts in an entirely different way because heartbreak is always connected to love and belonging. Over time, the more I’ve thought about heartbreak and love, the more clearly I’ve realized how vulnerable we are when we love anyone. The brokenhearted are the bravest among us—they dared to love.