If You're Not in the ArenaMar 16, 2021
If you’re a fan of Brené Brown, you’ll already have recognized the title of this week’s blog. If not - and I’ll give you all the benefit of the doubt - here’s the quote in full:
"If you’re not in the arena also getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback. If you have constructive feedback you want to give me, I want it...But if you’re in the cheap seats, not putting yourself on the line, and just talking about how I can do better, I’m in no way interested in your feedback."
from “Why Your Critics Aren’t the Ones Who Count”
And while I’d venture that most women reading that quote will recognize its truth and resonate with its power, how many do you suppose actually live by this mantra?
Let’s slap some (purely theoretical) percentages on it.
What would you say? 50% of women? 75% 25%? 7%? 3%?
I’m pretty sure no one has hard data on this question (how would you even begin to collect it?), but I’m also pretty sure that we can take an educated guess based on our own experiences and anecdotal evidence.
My educated guess is “not very many” (despite lip service to the contrary).
Lip service: insincere support or respect expressed but not put into practice
But there’s another question at play, too - ‘What arena?’
When I think of ‘arena’, two vivid images come to mind: first, Chris Hemsworth as Thor fighting The Incredible Hulk (“He’s a friend from work!”), and Katniss Everdeen being dropped into the ring of the Hunger Games. In either case, the idea is a ‘fight to the death’.
I don’t know about you, but I play in several arenas: womanhood, sisterhood, entrepreneurhood, motherhood, spousehood, chronicillnesssuffererhood, writerhood, speakerhood, coachhood, advocatehood, homeschoolingmomhood…..they’re all my ‘hoods - or my ‘arenas’.
I can confirm (hello, Letterkenney!) that I’m regularly getting my ass kicked in each of those arenas.
Your arenas and my arenas might have quite a lot in common. But no matter how close we might be in age, background, upbringing, attitudes, geography, etc., we will always have some different arenas. That’s just a fact of life, and it’s a good one, at that, because it ensures a diversity of experience (which is where humans - despite rhetoric to the contrary - actually make their greatest leaps and accomplishments).
So! We have some arenas. So what?
I’m in the Arena...And?
While I’ve long been a fan of Brené Brown, it was just this morning, when James Clear’s Atomic Habits newsletter arrived in my inbox, complete with this quote, that I was reminded of it - and the compulsion to boot my planned blog in favour of this topic became overwhelming.
If I’m being honest (and I always am) that’s kind of how I work: I have a plan, and I’ll carry it out unless inspiration comes from somewhere else (which it frequently does). This is both a gift AND a curse, as you might well imagine.
What struck me about this quote - and what compelled me to respond in my own way - is the matter-of-factness of it (something Brené Brown excels at). It’s a big ol’ middle finger at anyone who has something to say, but no credibility with which to say it. It’s that English teacher in Grade 8 (a dude) who told me I’d never been a writer - the one thing I’d always been told I was good at - because I wasn’t high enough quality (deeply ironically, our paths crossed many years later, when I was a successful writer and he...wasn’t).
It’s that guy who tells you that women already have enough, and they should be happy.
It’s that parent who tells you your dreams are stupid, silly, pointless, laughable.
The grandparent says that, without having a child, you have no worth.
It’s that spouse that scoffs in your face when you tell them you want to make big changes - saying that you don’t have the ability, talent, follow-thru, that you’re just meant to be at home.
It’s the boss that tells you you’ll never go anywhere in the company because you’re “not a good fit for our culture, and your priorities aren’t aligned with the corporation’s”.
It’s the investment banker who can barely contain his smirk at your pitch before he tells you they’re “not interested” in your business idea.
It’s the community that ostracizes you when you stand up for what you believe is right.
It’s those friends who laugh when you tell them, at 47, you want to chase your dreams,
What each and every case has in common (besides the derogatory and diminishing nature of each) is that the speaker is actually not in the arena with you.
And that’s what you have to hold on to for dear life.
Fine, I’m holding on to that idea...now what?
If you’re going to be in the arena, then you’re going to need to grow, nurture, reinforce and maintain your personal resilience. That is your ability, if you will, to get your ass kicked on the reg, and still stand back up and come back for more - without your spirit being crushed.
Easier said than done, right?
Sure, if you have a support system, a belief system, or a history of success that emboldens you in the face of adversity, you can weather these storms...maybe.
But what is it that keeps women going when they don’t have those supports? Because they do keep going - not all, but definitely some.
They’re the woman who is abused and finally finds the courage to leave and start over. They’re the mom who raises four successful children while putting herself through college and working multiple jobs. It’s the disabled woman who keeps moving when it hurts. It’s the young woman who goes against everything her family and community say and believe because she knows she is called to something else. It’s the middle-aged mother who decides that it’s her one-and-only life and that she’s letting others determine how it gets lived.
You could come up with a much longer list. Maybe you are on the list.
In each case, though, women were missing - or had to lose - some of the fundamental supports considered necessary for resilience building and maintenance. One might say they were beaten down or had the rug pulled out from under them. Or they’ve had their armour stolen from them (like the Mandalorian).
So how did they manage to keep going?
Oops, I Did it Again
When I started this blog, I actually hadn’t dug too deeply yet - not personally, at least. I had general thoughts and impressions, and - honestly - I didn’t lump myself in with the women that were without support.
Well, once again I find myself gobsmacked by a realization while I write: I actually have walked over these coals, and I did so early on in my adulthood. Who would’ve thunk it? I certainly didn’t.
One danger of this kind of work is that you can start to minimize and disregard your experiences, because you come to know so many other women’s stories, and you can feel selfish, self-centred, guilty, and ridiculous for feeling like your situation was/is at all “bad”, because it’s still manifestly better than many of the other stories you’ve come to know.
On the one hand, this can be good, because it can remove the tendency to make everything about you - and everything a drama, in general. However, on the other hand, it can make you push aside or push down things that have a real effect on your happiness, self-worth, ability to function in relationships, and so on.
In my case, the situation is far enough in my past that it isn’t in the front of my mind most days. However, when I stop long enough to reflect, I realize I do need to look at the memory more closely because it does inflect my current life.
And where this matters to us in this blog - and, in fact, part of why I resonate so deeply with Brené Brown’s quote - is that I had to basically give the same middle finger to my world, upbringing, and family in order for me to focus on getting in - and staying in - the arenas I CHOSE.
How did I do it?
My ‘Get in the Ring’ Moment
I’ve told bits of this story elsewhere, and I dive into the full story in my upcoming book, but for now, here’s the highlight reel:
- I worked without pay for the family biz throughout my upbringing
- I’d made the deal that “there’d be money” when I wanted to go to college
- I was given the use of a truck in lieu of income
- When I went to apply to Uni in Grade 12, I was asked by a certain parental, “where I thought the money was coming from?”
- I learned I was not going to be supported; I had no savings; No one else would hire me as my parental had a lot of influence in our isolated community; I couldn’t get a loan (my family business had “too much money”); My parental wouldn’t emancipate me so I could get a loan on my own
- I had been accepted at Ivy league schools in Canada and the US, but partial scholarships meant I had to come up with the rest, and I was not able to work in the US - and I couldn’t raised enough capital anyways
This was a bit much to absorb all at once, I’ll tell you. I stayed, but demanded a wage (I was still paid minimum - or less - wage); I tried moving out, but that was short-lived; I got involved in the arts community as a means of keeping my sanity; I got an unsolicited job at a Conservatory when I was 19, completely unprepared, untrained and shellshocked, which I took because it was a potential path out.
When I was 20, I applied for the regional University in pre-med. When I went to leave, my parental asked how I was getting there - I’d assumed the truck. The truck was retracted, so I had to get a ride to the dormitory. I was dropped off outside without goodbyes, with no money (I’d made the initial down payments), and from there I worked in the Conservatory and the National Parks, always a payment or two behind on tuition, credit cards, rent, and I wasn’t spoken to by my family for a long time.
My “crime”? I’d wanted to go to University and get a degree and upgrade my life on my way to changing the world. I don’t come from a fundamentalist family, women aren’t thought stupid or incapable, and I was highly regarded by my parentals - until I didn’t do what I was told (which was stay in my hometown and take over the family biz).
I still got in the arena - and started the long road to bolstering myself against those who would provide “feedback” but who weren’t willing to get into the ring themselves. Oh, I got lots of “feedback” all right (once I was being spoken to again), but what I learned - and it took a long time, was the thing that Brené Brown is getting at - and the thing I think all of the women who step forward or step up have in common (in spite of a lack of support) - is a fundamental belief in their self-worth.
It’s sometimes hard to put your finger on, but I can tell you that what it came down to for me was an unassailable belief (completely unmerited, I might add) that I was made for more.
And at each stage, in each arena, I’ve held on to that with every bit of my strength.
If you’re in the ring with me, fighting hard, getting your ass kicked, doing what you believe in, then yes, you can share your perspective and constructive feedback (though I always reserve the right to completely ignore you).
If you AREN’T in there, if you’re trying to tell me - from the cheap seats - that you know more, can do it better, that I’m not worthy, worthwhile, good enough, doing it right, or anything else, then, my friend, I am in no way interested in your feedback.
Just a few thoughts on a Thursday.
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