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Serpentine, Shel! Serpentine! 

I'm editing a chapter in the new book today and I thought I'd share a funny piece with you. I have a section called "The Armory" that explores the various armor and masks we use to protect ourselves from vulnerability. 

I'm considering naming one of the more popular protection strategies, "The Serpentine." The term is based on a scene from the 1979 movie, The In-Laws with Peter Falk and Alan Arkin.

Here's a brief plot overview from the IMDB website: "In preparation for his daughter's wedding, dentist Sheldon Kornpett meets Vince Ricardo, the groom's father. Vince, a manic fellow who claims to be a government agent, then proceeds to drag Sheldon into a series of chases and misadventures from New York to Central America."  

The movie is a little corny in places, but Peter Falk is brilliant as the outrageous agent and Alan Arkin is the perfect uptight straightman.

My very favorite scene is Falk telling a terrified Arkin to avoid a flurry of bullets by running in a zig-zag pattern. He yells (as only the awesome Peter Falk could), "Serpentine, Shel! Serpentine!" I don't know why it cracks me up but I get hysterical every time I see it. Maybe it's because I remember watching it with my dad and brother and falling out! To this day if things are getting tense in a family conversation, one of us will say, "Serpentine" and we'll all laugh. 

It's the perfect metaphor for how we spend enormous energy trying to dodge vulnerability when it would take far less effort to face it straight on. Also, the image conveys how fruitless it is to duck and weave in the face of something as expansive and all-consuming as vulnerability.

Serpenting is trying to control the situation, back out of it, pretend it's not happening, or maybe even faking not caring. I serpentine a lot when I feel vulnerable. If I have to make a difficult call, I'll try to script both sides of it, I'll convince myself that I should wait, I'll draft an email while telling myself that it's better in writing - I'll emotionally run back and forth until I'm exhausted.

When I catch myself trying to zig-zag my way out of vulnerability it always helps to have Peter Falk's voice in head shouting, "Serpentine, Shel!" It makes me laugh which forces me to breathe. That's always helpful. 

Here's a link to the scene on YouTube. Sometimes they pull these down, so if doesn't work check out the film. Make sure you get the original! The production values are not great by today's standards but the acting is great. 

If you remember that scene - let me know. I'd hate to use that if I'm the only one who gets it. If you think, "Duck and Weave" is better - weigh in! I'll crowdsource the chapter title. Also if you have any strategies around serpentining, please share! 

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Reader Comments (66)

hahaha!!! remember it and loved it. my husband and I too will use "serpentine" as an inside joke. I never thought anyone else loved that movie the way we did!!
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterMelissa
Serpentine! Love it!! (and love the new TED talk!... putting on our galoshes to walk in the swamp... awesome!). The avoidance of vulnerability and the "serpentine" behaviors we employ to help us avoid reminds me of the Stone Center work of Jean Baker Miller and Irene Stiver (have you read their book The Healing Connection?... they talk about this in a really cool way).
Thanks for your great work!
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterNancy
I get it! It's one of my favorite quotes, too - and cracks me up every time it comes to mind.

I like the idea of using it to describe ways we try to get out of being vulnerable :-)
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterLeslie
Yes I do remember that movie and that scene! I've yelled "Serpentine, serpentine" many times myself! I thought of it immediately when I saw the title of your blog. I've never thought of it in the way that you do, of course. Thanks for sharing!
I love this line of thinking, and it's particularly relevant to something I'm currently experiencing. Thanks for your insight!
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJudi Hurwitt
Another vote for serpentine!
03.21.2012 | Unregistered Commenterlaurie
That was excellent! I love how he starts to run back to the car in a straight line, but then gets sent back out to dodge more bullets because he forgot to Serpentine! I think that's just how I handle vulnerability sometimes - I start out right, but then I don't like the way it went, so I have to go back and practice the non-vulnerable ways of doing what you said, particularly "scripting both sides."

PS - I love that I am not the only one who has entire conversations in her head with people when they're not around! The TED talks - Excellent, excellent, excellent.
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlanna
I love that movie, and especially that scene! I went with my mom to the movie, and embarrassed her terribly by laughing very loudly. So, I love "serpentine," but "duck and weave" would work, too.
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterBev Long
That's one of my husband's favorite movies! We've been known to yell "Serpentine!" too.

Is it serpentining when I'm in tears, and I'm on my fourth perfectly-plausible-sounding explanation for why I'm in tears?

And I have to agree with the other posters - your new TED talk was WONDERFUL!
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterSuzyn
How can you NOT use that description?

Okay, I'll admit that I didn't see the movie, but I've read your blog! That makes me get it!
Even if I had not, you'd have enough context to compensate for my ignorance.

Go for it!
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterKevin
i didnt know the movie but after seeing the scene on youtube - great metaphor ;.)
03.21.2012 | Unregistered Commenterherzbine
I admit I sometimes i back down , dodge and weave.I shall always remember this quote(Sereptine Shel! Sereptine).
So dearing ,yet very inspirational
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterMonica Mullings
Serpentine is a great name for it! I need to keep it in mind big time right now. Since declaring I want to live and love with my whole heart, be vulnerable, and have the courage to show up and be seen, I am being put to the test. I really need to step into the arena and stay there. Not do a serpentine and head for the hills. Thanks for the reminder. :)
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterLaura
Good One! I have never seen this movie but it fits well. :) My vote is Yes!
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterSandy
Maybe it's a regional thing, but we always called it "bob and weave," and then said "Bob who?" Anyway, I like the serpentine suggestion as well. Best of luck finishing up the book. I look forward to it. And now I'm back to organizing my memoir notes! Ack!
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJan Myhre
One of my all-time favorite movies, and that is the best scene without a doubt. The analogy is perfect for vulnerability. YES!
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJeff Costa
I like 'Serpentine' too.
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterDebbie
YES! Serpentine. It's been forever since I've seen that movie. I love how you connect everyday, movie kind of stuff into your work. It's a connecting piece, so go for it!
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterCarol
Duck and weave is a great option - it may click with more people.
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterTeresa
Yes! I remember that scene - the best of the movie. It brings me back to watching and laughing with my sister. You've found a great metaphor: so real, easy to relate, easy to find so many examples of all the crazy acrobatic avoidance. And good to do this through humor. Thanks for taking me back - and helping me be present now.
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterRick Brush
My wive calls this action a "Wake the Mole" - Up here in Idaho, springtime brings out the varmints and there hunters. "Weave, then Duck." Repeat as needed.
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterDavid C Gibbs
I like duck and weave a lot better to describe how we can avoid vulnerability. Serpentine makes me think of women learning to embrace serpentine energy more and more into their bodies versus the linear way most of us women hold ourselves... metaphorically speaking.
03.21.2012 | Unregistered Commenterplaya
Love that movie! Was just trying to explain that scene to my 10 year old. :)

What a great analogy.
the part I found really funny is toward the end of the clip when he makes it back to car safely after getting the keys, Falk says Serpentine, so he goes back out to run in the serpentine way. He didn't have to go back - he was already safe at the car. ha ha. How often do we/I do that. Go back to make it right or I think to make it right and it was fine all along
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJenn
Hi Brene: Great post & fun movie clip. Especially value this: "we spend enormous energy trying to dodge vulnerability when it would take far less effort to face it straight on. Also, the image conveys how fruitless it is to duck and weave in the face of something as expansive and all-consuming as vulnerability."

I think "the duck and weave" will register immediately with more people than "the serpentine" as it's more visceral and direct, - at least to me.
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterSheila

I laughed as soon as I saw the headline. Of course I remembered it! Maybe you'll have to offer a little explanation in the book, just to be sure people get the reference, but it would be worth it. The rest of us will get such a charge out of it. Go for it.
It is PERFECT! Absolutely use that line! It is a family fav here too!!
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterCmac
Voting for "duck and weave" as a clearer description.
erfect. =)
03.21.2012 | Unregistered Commentermarian
Genius. With the link it works. Laughed myself.......thanks for post
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterNeri
Brene, it works. Though, in the book you may want to describe the scene with the specific act to bring out the futility and the humour, to drive home the point. It could come up as a footnote. I'm from India and quite sure it would need some explaining.
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterPunam
I've never seen that before - hilarious! Will always remember "serpentine"!
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterSam
I LOVE that scene! Definitely use it! It's hysterical and I agree about Peter Falk being perfect in that scene (and role). The idea of serpentine as a metaphor for dodging vulnerability is brilliant!
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterValerie
Serpentine, serpentine, serpentine....& my wife Susan & I thought it was just us that have used that line for years.....just my .02$......shalom en theos...Jim
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJim Work
First......there was not a bit of duck and weave or serpentining during your Ted Talk. Excellent presentation.

As for the best metaphor....I think serpentine fits (the clip is hysterical) and I might add duck and weave as an "otherwise known as". How is that for walking on the fence.....
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterDiane
Wish you could put a link to the clip in the book. I didn't know the reference, but I know the phenomenon. Since I started doing shame resilience work, I waste a lot less time "serpentining," though there's always farther to go.
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoanMx
I have never seen the movie but the way you explained it was great and serpentining has it's own energy where as duck and weave seems cliche. Look forward to you new book!
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterCherilyn Clough
I like "duck and weave". It seems like this movie is one of those obscure classics. However, if you do use the term "serpenting", I'm sure that using a footnote to explain the reference would be helpful - I really think there are a lot of people who otherwise wouldn't get it. However, using a word associated with snakes - "serpenting" - would convey the meaning - but a lot of people might not want to associate their behavior w/that of snakes since we live in a predominantly judeo-christian society which associates serpents with negativity when it seems like the type of behavior simply is what it is and on top of that i wonder if the research says that most people, (I know I don't) always realize they're doing it.

I am excited to read this book! I totally "duck and weave" or "serpent" sometimes - I didn't quite realize it. At least I'm not the only one who feels that way sometimes - it DOES get exhausting and can really start the "oh my god I'm pathetic, everyone else is perfect" tapes going in my head.
03.21.2012 | Unregistered CommenterTessa T.
That clip is hilarious. Never seen it before. Whatever term or phrase you use will catch on anyway. Like ' wholehearted ' ..... just love how it feels authentic just saying it. Currently reading ' The Gift's of Imperfection' ..... thanks so much for this book. It's so reassuring and beautiful. So glad there's another book coming.
03.22.2012 | Unregistered CommenterGabrielle H
A lot of my serpentining happens in my head. I serpentine to avoid the bullets of my inner critic, cynic, and a whole other cast of characters. Then when I get it that I'm doing it to myself, I can stop the whole thing and laugh at my slap stick antics. Only thing is - it doesn't seem funny while I'm in the middle of it - all so serious business. Getting to the laugher is the best remedy. Thanks for the reminder of that.
03.22.2012 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne
Love the synchronicty. Have been serpentining all morning regarding a difficult employee matter that I must address and happened to be serpenting by avoiding what I need to do by checking my e-mail and found this post. The Universe laughs and says here you go! Thank you.
03.22.2012 | Unregistered CommenterGlenda
Thank you for the work you bring to the world! I've always loved that scene for the sheer silliness and great comedic timing, however I am more inclined to view it as a metaphor for how we sometimes react to so-called "experts" while ignoring our intrinsic good sense. We serpentine (or do something else to second guess our gut instinct) to please or gain approval from others even though we've done it perfectly fine the first time.
03.22.2012 | Unregistered CommenterSara Leary
A similar scene (though without Peter Falk) is in the Pixar movie "Cars". Lightning McQueen is getting shot at and he starts shouting "Serpentine!" over and over to himself. I've always found it humorous - and I imagine it's paying homage to The In-Laws. I'm 37 and I have never heard of that movie, but for anyone who has kids and has seen Cars over and over again, they would get the reference I think.
03.22.2012 | Unregistered CommenterChad Schuitema
HA! I was just going to write exactly what Chad said about the "Cars" movie. I actually skimmed all the comments to be sure no one had mentioned it! Your clip finally makes that bit make so much more sense, as I'm sure it IS an homage.

I love what you said about ditching out on a call and emailing instead. I do that ALL the time. But now I'm engaging in a business where I need to get over that and just jump in and call. Hmm, seems I have some shame and vulnerability issues to address. :)
Never saw the movie; love your blog. My only complaint is that there is not something new for me to read every day ;). I can't believe how apt this is to something that is happening in my work life right now. Thanks!
03.22.2012 | Unregistered CommenterTrina
Another fan of "The In-Laws" and "Serpintine!"
03.22.2012 | Unregistered CommenterCydne
It's so true, that we(I) spend much more time on avoiding the vulnerability than it would take to be vulnerable in the first place.
As I won't know the film you are referring to "duck and weave" makes most sense to me immediately, though I get the "serpentine" once you explained it.

One of my avoicance techniques is to find all sorts of others things, that needs to be done before that awkward phone call/conversation/piece of writing/decision.... Which means I don't do the other things with much attention, because I still worry about the actual thing, and I get worn out while avoiding what I know I have to do at some point any way.
03.23.2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Thompson
I love it! I haven't seen this movie, but will look for it. Peter Falk is one of my all-time favorite actors. I also found the bit where Alan Arkin says he'd rather risk dying than be left alone to deal with the situation to be pretty profound.
03.23.2012 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie S
Totally know the saying and the scene from the movie. My husband loves the line and told me about it when we first met (twenty years ago). We use it in jokes often. Loved your new talk. Congratulations.
03.23.2012 | Unregistered CommenterLori
that's the only scene of the movie I really remember clearly. I always laugh when I remember Shel going back to the beginning to get his serpentine right. I have used the serpentine reference many times and I am so glad someone else finally does also.
03.23.2012 | Unregistered Commenterpstrass
I watched your TED talk yesterday, and sent it (along with links to your TEDx talk, your blog, and your books, and the TED interview) to 6 friends, plus my boss!

I am sorry to hear that you copped flak after TEDx, and am sad that there were unpleasant things said by some people.

I think you look lovely, I appreciate your obvious authenticity in both your talks, and your book ('Gifts'). Keep doing what you do - it's what makes you you!

Sincere best wishes

03.24.2012 | Unregistered CommenterJenny

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