On holiday in Adelaide – ironic that I’ve ended up holidaying in my old home town – I went shopping with my daughter in the rain (it never rains in Adelaide, except when we visit). After two hours spent looking in fashion and surfing shops in the city mall, and buying a sweater for my son who wasn’t with us, I asked my daughter for ten minutes in a bookshop.
At the top of the escalator, it was a big bookshop, I headed for the business books, hoping my daughter would saunter off, which she did. I felt queasy, in need of water. Why are big bookshops so often airless? A sensible-looking woman, around my age, offered to help me find what I wanted. I smiled and asked if they had a pet section, which she pointed me to. We are currently on the list for a new puppy and, keen for it to be a happy experience, I thought a good book might give me some pointers.
Next to the pet section were the psychology books. After browsing various titles I picked up the only book by Brene Brown that I hadn’t read, I Thought It Was Just Me. The title was spelled out in big orange and pink capital letters on a dark cover, and though it didn’t have the word shame in the title, the quotes suggested that it was a book about the experience of shame.
How, I wondered, would Brene Brown open a book about a subject that most of us naturally avoid? ‘You can never’, she wrote in the first paragraph, ‘shame anyone into changing their behaviour’. With these nine words the author hooked me. Reading them, standing up in a bookshop, made me realise that I’d spent much of my marriage trying to shame my husband into changing his behaviour. I’d done it unwittingly, unconsciously even. And, as Brene Brown pointed out, it hadn’t worked.
Until I read these words, I wouldn’t have admitted to shaming my husband. Yet seeing this simple idea in print allowed me to accept it. It instantly gave me perspective and, yes, relief. It wasn’t just me. It isn’t just me. Lots of us get caught up shaming each other into changing behaviour.
What have I been unsuccessfully shaming my husband into changing? Working too hard, drinking and smoking. My own family’s medical history is pock-marked with conditions, mainly heart and cancer, that I have done my best in middle age to avoid. My husband’s family history is stronger than mine, which may be why he refuses to share my anxieties about his health. Whereas I apply the precautionary principle in avoiding risk factors, my husband, a philosopher, is more sanguine. He isn’t the only one. When I told my GP about my concerns for my husband’s health, he smiled. ‘Ah’, my GP said, ‘society hasn’t caught up with medical research in these areas, and contradictions abound’.
Last weekend, as I read Brene Brown’s book under the duvet in a freezing converted barn in the Adelaide Hills, I realised that I was guilty of putting my husband on the spot, of driving him into a corner from which he could only pull in his head. Reading this book, high above the plains below, I felt guilty. But I also felt absolved. Because until I read this book I’d unconsciously assumed that it was my job, my responsibility as a wife, to help my husband see the light. Until last weekend I’d felt sure that one day my husband would read an article in The New Scientist, or The Guardian Weekly, on recent medical research into alcohol and smoking and, that very day, would drink less wine and order a vaping kit.
But Brene Brown made it clear that complex human beings are not like that. Complex human beings, and I should know because I am one, need to be stroked not shamed. They need to be stroked and made to feel good about themselves. ‘Being nice’, is the way my husband puts it. Making someone feel bad about their behaviour backfires, Brown explains, because the experience of shame damages their capacity for change.
On returning from holiday I realised how simple my brief with my husband is. It’s to not be critical of him. Every day I wake up and remind myself of this. My job is not to make him see the error of his ways, any more than his job is to point out mine. His health isn’t my responsibility, just as my career isn’t his.
Perhaps this is what holidays are for. All that packing and unpacking, marshaling through airport security, and cliff-top walks, were for the purpose of seeing life from a different point of view. What felt intractable a week ago, my husband’s seeming immaturity and my own excess of it, now feels looser. Hopefully one day I’ll be able to look back and laugh.