A few years ago, I read Brené Brown’s book Braving the Wilderness. Like so much of her work, it’s reflective, accessible and eminently actionable. Her acronym BRAVING (which stands for boundaries, reliability, accountability, vault, integrity, non-judgment and generosity) has been my guide for the 2020s.
I was so ready to close the books on the few years that preceded this decade. I was finally seeing the light at the end of a dark three-year tunnel that included my father’s death (the person to whom I was the closest in the world), a painful and unexpected divorce (that left me lonely and afraid), and facing my daughter’s depression and my own anxiety (both of which I had been spectacularly unaware).
Years of hard work with gifted therapists and coaches helped me feel ready to usher in a new era of joy.
Then nothing proceeded to plan (thanks, COVID!).
BRAVING has helped me navigate the new normal. Here’s how:
I went to a parenting class when my daughter was small. We were asked to draw pictures of our child -- one in which the child was caged, one in which the child was surrounded by lots of white space and a squiggly line, and one in which the child stood alone in a huge, empty space with no lines.
Like a mother without any sense of boundaries, I showed this to my five-year old and asked what she thought. “You do that one, Mama,” she told me, pointing to the child alone in space. And then she pointed to the squiggly line and said, “I want that.”
I got better (slightly) at setting boundaries for her, but it wasn’t until the pandemic that I got really good at setting my own. And much better at respecting those of others.
We’ve been forced to reckon with what safety means to us and our families, and what it means to those around us. I’ve been asked, at work and at home, to do things I don’t feel comfortable doing. I’ve said no. I’ve asked others, at work and at home, to do things they’ve not felt comfortable doing. They’ve said no. I can’t overstate the positive impact this clarity has had on me and my relationships.
If you want to create a trusting environment, do what you say you are going to do. Pre-2020s I was famous for saying, “Sure, I’ll be there,” just before cancelling when my busy life got in the way. I was known for my unreliability. My family started saying, “we don’t know if Ali’s coming until we see the whites of her eyes.”
My daughter tells me beautifully and honestly that I just wasn’t there for her.
I. Had. No. Idea.
This past year and a half has changed all of that. It’s hard not to be where you say you’re going to be when you have nowhere else to go. With all meetings by Zoom and taking place at home, I haven’t missed a thing.
Despite living in isolation, I find I’m having shared emotional experiences with nearly everyone -- collective trauma, grief and burnout -- all of which have made me even more aware of how important it is for us to keep our commitments to one another.
When my daughter wants my attention, I give it to her fully. When my colleagues schedule time with me, I show up. I can now honestly say, “you can count on me.”
Accountability means taking ownership for our mistakes, apologizing and making amends.
There’s nothing like over a year of solitude to create some space for contemplation. I’ve found myself at the line between owning my mistakes and ruminating over what I should have done. And, if you’ve been following me, you know that I preach what I most need to learn -- no shoulding on ourselves or others.
Instead, accountability has meant meeting myself with compassion. Reflecting on the things I did or didn’t do, digesting the feelings that accompany how I may have let myself or others down, and integrating the experience so that it becomes a source of wisdom. And then apologizing. To my daughter, to my work colleagues, to my ex-husband, and to others I let down.
I have learned to say, “you counted on me to show up fully, and I did not. I’m sorry for that.”
The vault is another name for confidentiality. We are reminded to only share what is ours to share. Simply put, don’t gossip. As a coach and a former lawyer, I have always taken confidentiality very seriously. Nearly every professional conversation I have is confidential.
I’ve watched how forced separation from others has changed many workplace dynamics. Without meetings at the school gates, in coffee shops and office corridors, there has been less opportunity for gossip. This has been refreshing!
I’ve also noticed even more space for self-reflection in me and in my coaching clients. Funnily enough, if we don’t hide “self-view” in Zoom, we’re literally "seeing" ourselves in our conversations. That holding up the mirror has helped many honor the commitment to only share what is ours to share. We literally see ourselves making that promise, and we keep it.
Do what is right over what is fun, comfortable or easy. That is how Brené Brown defines integrity. We’re living through times where we’re all called to learn about and to address systemic inequality and injustices wherever we can. These conversations are anything but fun, comfortable or easy. The political polarization that’s happening around the globe is frightening. Yet I continue to be hopeful as I, and others with whom I work, find the courage to have uncomfortable conversations every day about what is right and what is just.
This has been the best part of this period for me. It’s about not judging ourselves for what we need. And boy has this time taught me that whatever we need is just fine! I’ve never in my many years of coaching seen so much written about self-care, and with such clarity in that it has nothing to do with spa days and facials. It means taking care of ourselves.
I’ve been practicing a lot of gratitude about living in Southern California these last few years for all kinds of reasons, especially sunshine. The number of times I’ve sat outside in my garden tending to (and sometimes talking to) my flowers and heard that voice in my head saying, “you should go be more productive” is a lot.
But I’ve cultivated an inner response. At the beginning of the pandemic, I listened to an interview with the author Elizabeth Gilbert. She says she writes in her journal in the form of a dialogue between herself and love. Here’s my go at that:
Ali: You’ve spent enough time in the garden. You should go work and be productive.
Love: I’m here for you.
Ali: Thank you, love, for being here for me. What does that mean?
Love: Keeping you warm and holding you close without judgment.
Ali: Thank you. I’ll stay in the garden a bit longer and feel this love. It gives me energy.
And finally, make generous assumptions. I’ve been let down during this time. We all have. But I’ve found the bottomless well of compassion for myself and others, and the practice of assuming positive intention of those close to me has been utterly liberating.
We’re off to a rough start, but I am optimistic about the new roaring twenties. Stay safe, awake and connected. We’ll get through this together and be stronger for it.