No place at all

You are only free when you realise you belong no place – you belong every place – no place at all. The price is high. The reward is great. – Maya Angelou.

For 20 years, Brené Brown profoundly disagreed with this sentiment. Although she admired Angelou, she opposed this quote. Brown had long believed that in many ways she did not belong. “Not belonging” had formed one of the most “painful threads” of her life. As an academic and now research professor in the social work field, Brown has spent the best part of a lifetime pondering topics like vulnerability, shame and belonging. At the time she heard Angelou’s quote, Brown firmly rejected the idea that “belonging nowhere” meant freedom.

The price is high. The reward is great.

Brown couldn’t bear the idea that she and Angelou disagreed on something so fundamental. She pondered: Why would she say that? What kind of world would it be if we belonged nowhere? Just a bunch of lonely people coexisting. Belonging is essential. We must belong to something, to someone, to somewhere. 

To something, to someone, to somewhere.

Brown talks about the difference between fitting in and belonging. She writes that it took decades to move from “expert level fitting in” to true belonging. This came to a head in Brown’s academic life. People tried to convince her not to study shame, she did it anyway. People tried to convince her she couldn’t turn her research in to books for a mainstream audience. She did it anyway. (And thank goodness she did. Since reading Rising Strong, (& here & here & here), I seek out anything Brown writes or says.) By choosing these acts, Brown felt true to herself, but outside of her profession. The alternative would have been to feel in sync with her profession, but disloyal to herself. Brown says that her choices kept her in a constant state of anxiety and scarcity and that she craved a sense of belonging. Although she knew that the price of assimilating was too high and as much as she wanted acceptance, she chose to stay on the outside. This was one of many times Brown has felt that she did not belong.

Brown was invited to speak at a conference. She was asked to wear “corporate dress” and complied. Arriving at the conference in unfamiliar clothing, she felt unlike herself. She felt that she could not speak about authenticity when she was not embodying her authentic self. She ran and changed in to jeans and clogs.

Brown describes a couple of other times when she “collided with the business world”. The first was when conference organisers asked if she could please not talk about her faith, which is often woven through her dialogue, because of the “business context”. The second was when another conference organiser asked if she could please not swear, so as not to offend any of the “faithful audience”. Of course she felt conflicted. And upset.

Downloading to her husband, Brown lamented: “I don’t belong anywhere. I belong no place. Everywhere I go now, I’m an outsider breaking the rules and talking about things that noone else is talking about. I’ve got no crew. And its been this way my whole life”. There were no “professor-researcher-storyteller-leadership-entrepreneur-faithful-cussers” out there, leading the way, telling her it was going to be okay.

Brown’s husband did not disagree. In fact he agreed, she kinda didn’t belong. He acknowledged that it must be hard, and that she must feel alone, as she is “kind of weird – an outlier in a lot of ways”. But, he reminded her of the conference. There were more than 20 speakers at that conference, and she was the highest-rated. Noone belonged there more than she did. In her jeans and clogs.

Suddenly Brown realised the truth of Angelou’s quote. When we follow our own minds, we belong. If this makes us outliers or outsiders or sets us apart from the crew, we still belong. Because we belong to ourselves. The price is high. The reward is great. This reckoning led Brown to embark on a journey to the Theory of True Belonging.

Brown says that True Belonging, requires us to embrace a strong back, soft front and wild heart. And to Brave the Wilderness of the outside.

In true Brown style, she closes the book with a call to arms: “There will be times when standing alone feels too hard, too scary, and we’ll doubt our ability to make our way through the uncertainty. Someone, somewhere, will say ‘Don’t do it. You don’t have what it takes to survive the wilderness.’ This is when you reach deep in to your wild heart and remind yourself, I am the wilderness.”

More writings on Brené Brown ( I told you I liked her):

Fortune Favours the Brave, So Does Failure

The Reckoning: Making Friends With Your Feelings

You Can’t Skip Day 2

Is that the best you can do?

Thought Leader(s): Brené Brown

Book(s): Brown, B (2017) ‘Braving the Wilderness’, Penguin Random House UK. 




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