One of my favorite authors, a woman who just happens to be an Texas local, is Brené Brown. Among her many nuggets of wisdom is an “authenticity mantra” that I conjure often: “Do not shrink. Do not puff up. Stand your sacred ground.” I love this. For me, it serves as a reminder to stay rooted in my truth and to walk a middle path of self-assurance and humility in relation to others.
Difficulty relating to others is one of the primary themes I hear about from my clients and, frankly, from my friends as well. It is a human dilemma. Almost all of us crave connection and understanding from other people, but obstacles sometimes prevent us from relating to others in healthy, fulfilling ways.
When I facilitated groups of middle school and high school kids through my work with Out Youth, I offered a simple list of tips for having difficult conversations. This list included:
Choose the right time
Use a confident body posture
Make eye contact
Sandwich the difficult bit in between honest, tender statements
For youth, the first tip was often the most important. When you want to tell a friend that something they did hurt your feelings, the talk will definitely go better if it happens in a private, safe moment than if it happens between classes in front of peers. Choosing the right time and setting the right tone makes the difference between a conversation that ends with reconnection and a conversation that leads to more “drama.”
Difficult Conversations are Usually Difficult
In my work, the difficult conversations I’m helping clients navigate are frequently coming out conversations. We can all imagine the stress involved in coming out as gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, or queer. Even those who are cisgender and heterosexual may have had the experience of needing to explain something about their core self that makes them feel vulnerable. For coming out conversations, my favorite tip is the last one: sandwich the difficult bit in between honest, tender statements.
Here’s an example: “Mom, you have always been there for me and for that I’m thankful. I know you have hoped that I would study medicine, but I have decided that I will focus on art right now. I’m telling you this because our relationship is important to me.”
Notice that the “bread” in this sandwich is sincere and vulnerable. Offering false compliments will not have the same effect. To optimize the possibility of a warm reception, one must speak from the heart.
Sphere of Control
Here, I’ll pause and offer a very important point. No matter how perfectly a person communicates their difficult message, there is no guarantee of a positive outcome. One can do their best with the variables that are in one’s control – but one cannot control other people.
I always felt this point was of critical importance when I worked with youth in schools, because sometimes the family members to whom these youth might be coming out were not ready to offer acceptance. Imagine the emotional impact of risking vulnerability of honesty only to be met with rejection.
Sometimes, depending on individual circumstances, it is simply not the “right time.” For a young person who continues to depend on adults for their livelihood, there is sometimes a necessity to not have that difficult conversation just yet. This is not the same thing as “shrinking;” this is temporary and necessary patience until one has the resources they need to stand their sacred ground.
I added a new tip to the list: Take care of yourself before and after the conversation. And by “take care of yourself” I don’t mean you have to do so alone. In addition to preparing healthy individual coping strategies, I encourage people to “outsource self care” to trusted friends and professionals. Let your cool aunt know you’ll need a pep talk. Have friends on call to help you process feelings. Schedule counseling sessions to scaffold your plan.
Standing our sacred ground is not an event; it’s a practice. There are moments in life where we are challenged to communicate effectively through conflict, but a lot of the time we’re just in maintenance mode. Our challenge is to move through the world with a sense of being rooted in our worthiness and being open to seeing and hearing the truths of others.
Making Sincere Apologies and Repair
If we are to hope that others will greet us with openness, even when things get difficult, we must do the same for them.
As a counselor, I find it easy and satisfying to coach a client on self-advocacy. Many people haven’t had somebody who is sincerely in their corner, invested in their project of internalizing self-worth and living their full truth. To be that somebody is an honor for counselors, and it is a joy to witness people’s movement in this direction.
It is less comfortable but equally important to coach people on accountability. Self-worth and accountability are really two sides of the same coin. We all hurt others sometimes. Arguably, the goal of standing our sacred ground is more difficult when we realize that we have caused pain or harm than when we ourselves have been victim to it. When we have harmed, we get stuck in feelings of guilt, shame, and regret that sometimes prevent us from being receptive to understanding the other person’s experience.
If we have said something hurtful, we have probably faltered in walking our middle path of self-assurance and humility. Faltering is forgivable. Perhaps we had been "shrinking,” sacrificing something important about our perspective. Perhaps our shrinking had culminated in feelings of anger and then we “puffed up,” lashing out and affecting others in ways that dismissed their perspectives. Two things are simultaneously true:
1. We can have compassion for ourselves rather than sink into a shame spiral, and
2. We are accountable for the hurt we have caused and should own, apologize, and repair.
This is how we stand our sacred ground in these moments. This is how we come back to integrity.
Another favorite author of mine, Nora Samaran writes extensively about “Nurturance Culture,” a vision of a connected and compassionate world where people do the work of healthy relating. I invite you to check out her work. And Brené Brown has many books, articles and a few TEDtalks that you’d love!
And remember, you don’t have to do this work all by yourself. We do this work together. That’s the whole point.
About the Author
Renee is a transgender-affirming psychotherapist who specializes in helping clients navigate gender transition journeys and offers ongoing support for a broad array of other issues. Using a relational, trauma-informed approach, Renee works with people to gain insight, to practice coping strategies and to experience growth and healing. Renee is passionate about advocacy and empowerment - writing is one way she influences the world to be more inclusive and compassionate - knowledge is power! Renee is an LPC-Intern Supervised by Sara L. Weber, LPC-S, CEDS-S