Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today my guest is Brené Brown. Brené is a research professor at the University of Houston’s graduate college of social work, who has spent the past 10 years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. Her 2010 TEDx Houston talk on the power of vulnerability is one of the most-watched talks on TED.com, with over 6 million views. Brené is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.
With Sounds True, Brené has created a new audio series that’s also available as an interactive video course online called The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, and Courage, where she dispels the cultural myth that vulnerability is weakness, and reveals that it is, in truth, our most accurate measure of courage.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Brené and I spoke about wholeheartedness and what she learned from interviewing people who identify as being wholehearted. We also talked about the myths that surround vulnerability, and what it means to “be in the arena and take off our armor and dare greatly.” Here’s my conversation with Brené Brown.
To begin with, Brené, I just want to thank you for taking the time and bringing yourself forward for this conversation. Thank you so much.
Brené Brown: Oh, it’s my pleasure. I’m happy to be with you.
TS: To begin with, I’d love if it you could bring our listeners up to speed with the research work you’ve been doing, and how vulnerability emerged as such a central topic in your findings.
BB: Sure. I’m finishing my twelfth year looking into these experiences and emotions I think really are the foundation of our lives. Interestingly, I started my dissertation research, and I was interested in studying connection. I have a Bachelor’s, a Master’s, and a PhD; I was getting my PhD at the time in social work.
And so [in] all this social work education, the one thing I was absolutely clear on at that point was that connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. And in the absence of connection, there’s suffering. And social work is interesting because unlike psychology, [which] just kind of looks at inter-psychic, what’s going on with an individual, or sociology, what’s going on within communities, social work is really about understanding the link between the social, political, economic world and our everyday lives.
And so to me, finishing my degrees in social work, it made sense to me that connection is why we’re here and that in the absence of it, there’s suffering. Because I think there’s suffering when there’s the absence of connection within individuals, and I think we see in the world today suffering where as communities, we’re not connected to each other within or between.
So I started off on this dissertation research trying to understand the anatomy of connection. And I ran very quickly into shame. I think it’s an interesting dynamic—and I’d be so curious to know if you’ve experienced this, too, at all in your work—that often people explain what is by what isn’t.
So when I sat down—I’m a qualitative interviewer, so when I sat down to talk to people about, “Tell me about the most important relationships in your life. Tell me about connection,” they told me stories about betrayal and heartbreak and loss. It’s funny, because I’ve come to believe that we have more accessible words for pain and hurt and loss than we do for joy, which is a dangerous thing, because maybe that’s a self-fulfilling prophecy.
But as people explained the absence of connection or the heartbreak that they had felt from a broken connection in their lives, shame just kept coming up over and over and over. I kept hearing stories about people’s fear of not being good enough to be connected, or people afraid that something they’ve done or failed to do or something that had happened to them rendered them unworthy of love, of connection.
And so after I finished my dissertation, I was a new professor. I spent six years really focusing just on shame, empathy, and everything that kind of swirls around those topics. And that’s the first place where vulnerability really emerged as very critical. I wasn’t sure, to be honest with you, what to make of it. I didn’t really understand vulnerability at that point.
And, probably, I had some of my own bias, because I think the bias I brought in personally to the research was that vulnerability was a bad thing. And so in my early work, I talk about vulnerability as a strength, but I also talk about it as: people who understand what their vulnerabilities are have a better time dealing with shame. Does that make sense?
TS: People—I wasn’t fully with you with this last point, which is, I think, the point you’re asking about. If I know where I’m vulnerable, I have a better understanding of shame in myself?
BB: Right. So what I found when I was studying shame is that men and women with high levels of resilience had four things in common. And one of them was they understood the triggers and the vulnerabilities that opened them up to shame.
BB: So, for example—I’ll share my own life, it’s the easiest because I can give you the most detail—for me, I have a lot of vulnerability around trying to balance my career and being a mom. And so knowing that’s a vulnerability and knowing that I can feel really tender in that place helps because in those moments where I really screw something up, or I miss a class play, or Charlie’s the only person who shows up on Pajama Friday without pajamas because I just learned about it the night before somewhere and I didn’t get the email.
Understanding what makes us so vulnerable and tender is helpful because we can bring more awareness, we’re more awake to, “Oh my gosh, this is potentially a shame hazard for me.” And so be kind to myself, be gentle, get support, don’t beat yourself up.
So I think when I first started talking about vulnerability, I really talked about it as: it’s important to know what makes us feel tender. And then, I think, after studying shame, and really introducing a theory into the academic literature and talking a lot about what shame is—how it works, how we move through it constructively—I had a different question. My question shifted to, “OK, I get shame, I understand shame resilience,” but along the way, in these hundreds of interviews, I had interviewed men and women who, very much like me and you, lived in this culture that is very shame-prone.
I would say, our culture today—I would say we live in a culture of deep scarcity. That’s how I name our culture. Scarcity is the “never enough” problem. “I’m not good enough, I don’t have enough, nothing is certain enough or perfect enough or extraordinary enough, rich enough, thin enough, powerful enough,” whatever our thing is. And I’ve interviewed a lot around scarcity and how it drives shame.
But one of the things that was really profound for me was that, in this interviewing, I met people who, again, like us, lived in a culture of scarcity but woke up in the morning and said, “You know what? I’m a little bit afraid. And I’m completely imperfect. But I am enough. And I’m going to engage with the world from a place where I believe I’m enough.”
And so year seven for me was turning my research upside-down and saying, “Hey, I’m going to go back in and instead of focusing on just shame, I want to hear from theses people who really seem, to me, to have figured something out.” I called them the wholehearted. And that’s actually because we go to an Episcopalian church, and in one of the prayers in the Book of Common Prayer, which is what we use at our church, there is a line that says—I think it’s our confession—“We have not loved you with our whole hearts.” And when I was trying to think of a word that described these men and women who I’d interviewed, I kept thinking, “Man, these are people who live and love with their whole hearts. They are all in.”
So I called them the wholehearted, and I went back through that data, re-interviewed many of them, and started really sampling to interview people who I thought were really wholehearted, and asking them what did they have in common. And the big two things that emerged, for me, in terms of what the wholehearted had in common: The first was that love and belonging are irreducible needs of men, women, and children. It goes back to my very first hypothesis in my research, my first belief that we’re here for connection.
And that was absolutely validated by this idea that love and belonging is irreducible needs for all of us. I think we talk about love and belonging in emotional terms. I think we talk about them in spiritual terms. But I really believe, neurobiologically, it’s how we’re wired. The need for love and the need for belonging is in our DNA. And I think the absence of it is the source of absolute suffering.
And so if you crudely divided the people I’ve interviewed over the last decade or so into two groups—people who had this sense of love and belonging and people who struggled for it—there was one variable that seemed to really predict the different. I think it’s important to say that when I say “had this sense of love and belonging,” I don’t mean that they just had the capacity to love other people, but they felt deeply loveable.
And so the only thing that really predicted the different between these two groups was a sense of worthiness. The people that had this deep sense of love and belonging simply believed they were worthy of it. And, to be honest, that pissed me off a little bit, because I was like, “What does that mean?” Because I don’t think I put myself in that group.
I think, up to that point in my life—I have a TED talk where I talk a little bit about this process, and I talk openly about the fact that that finding, for me, that a sense of worthiness is key to experiencing love and belonging, fully experiencing it, was really earth-shattering for me. Because I think I really struggled—I mean, I still struggle—I would not have put myself into the category of people who had a deep sense of love and belonging at that point in my life. I think I loved fiercely, but I don’t think I would have ever been able to say I fiercely believed I was loveable, completely loveable.
I think real worthiness doesn’t have prerequisites, and I think I was someone with a lot of prerequisites for being lovable at the time. I interviewed a lot of people where I saw myself reflected back in stories. Where people say, “Yeah, I’m lovable, but I’d be really loveable if I lost 15 pounds. I’d be really loveable if I made partner. I’d be really loveable if my kid gets into Stamford. I’d be really loveable if I got promoted. I’d be really loveable if my husband comes back, if my wife doesn’t leave, if I stay sober, if I get sober.” This huge list of prerequisites. And I think one of the things I learned in the research is that prerequisites bankrupt the entire meaning of worthiness.
TS: So these wholehearted people had, you said, two qualities: One, this sense of worthiness, and then the second quality?
TS: Aha. Here we go.
BB: The willingness to engage in vulnerability. Not just to understand it so that we could get a better handle on shame. But a real sense that vulnerability was essential to courageous living, that being vulnerable was not just about knowing what makes you feel tender, or what makes you feel open to attack or criticism, but a real complete flip on how they saw vulnerability as courage and strength. They’re willing to show up and be seen, to say what [they’re] thinking, to say “I love you” first, to walk into difficult conversations, to hold space for uncertainty—that that was essential to wholeheartedness.
TS: OK, so I’m imagining someone listening, and even just the word “wholeheartedness” opens up this space, at least in my chest. It’s like, I want that. I want to be wholehearted. I want that. I want to live my life that way. So I want to go into both of these qualities: this sense of worthiness and also this ability to be vulnerable. First, the sense of worthiness. What did you learn about what helps people develop that?
BB: You know, it’s interesting, because at first I was like, “What does that mean?” I thought, “Maybe it’s a declaration. Maybe it’s a process of self-actualization and then declaration. One day you get, like, ‘Oh, I’m worthy.’ And then you declare you’re worthy, and then you experience greater degrees of wholeheartedness.”
But that was not the case at all. Basically, what I found [was] that these folks who fell into this wholehearted camp made different daily choices in their lives. They had practices embedded in their lives that led to different ways of living and different ways of making choices about things that some of us don’t even think about at all, much less consciously make choices [about].
And so that gave birth to The Gifts of Imperfection. What I found were 10 guideposts—10 things that these folks had in common. I call them guideposts for wholehearted living that were basically daily practices. These were guideposts that I go through in The Power of Vulnerability. Do you want to go through all of them? Do you want to talk about a few of them?
TS: Maybe you could just give a couple examples to give people the sense of this development of worthiness.
BB: Sure. So for example, perfectionism. So let me back up and say a little bit. When I started looking at, what are these choices and these practices that the wholehearted have in common? I wasn’t interested—you know, because I come from a shame background, so I wasn’t just interested in what they were doing. I was interested in understanding from them, what were the gremlins and the shame messages that they had to work through in order to really engage in these practices daily?
That’s the hard thing, to me, about the current state of a lot of books and literature about how to live better lives. They’ll say, “You need to do this, you need to do this, and you need to do this.” Often, they rarely come out and say, “But man, in order to get there, there’s going to be some really hard stuff in the process.” And so one of the things I did was I focused on both: not only, “What do we want to start doing every day?” but “What do we need to let go of or do more of in order to get there?”
So for the first [guidepost], one of them is cultivating self-compassion. One thing that these folks had in common is self-compassion. And I have to be honest with you, every single thing that I learned from these folks is a practice. I’ve always thought, until this research, that self-compassion was a thing. You either had it or you didn’t.
But that is not what emerged in my data. What emerged in my data is self-compassion is a practice. And in order to get there, what did these folks have to let go of? What I found in my research, the biggest barrier to self-compassion is perfectionism. And so in order to practice self-compassion, we have to let go of the idea that perfection will keep us safe.
I always thought that perfectionism was—I know people talked about it as a bad thing, but I always thought it was kind of a good thing. I accomplished a lot, and I thought, “Well, everything that I have, I owed to the fact that I’m pretty perfectionistic. I do it perfect or I don’t do it at all.”
But the more I started studying this, the more I realized that perfectionism isn’t at all about striving to be excellent or trying to be our best selves. In fact, in the research—not only my data, but research from many other fields—the opposite of perfectionism is actually healthy striving.
And so what I talk about in my work is that perfectionism is not about trying to strive for excellence. It’s a cognitive behavioral way of looking at the world that says, “If I look perfect, live perfect, act perfect, and do it all perfectly, I can avoid or minimize shame, blame, criticism, judgment.” And so perfectionism isn’t at all about striving to be our best. It’s about protecting ourselves.
And so I’ve come to call perfection the 20-ton shield. We carry it around thinking it’s going to keep us safe when what it really does is keep us from being seen. And so if we want to start practicing self-compassion, we have to let go of perfectionism. For me, those are not even daily practices. Those are hourly practices.
If I’m writing something or I’m sending an email or I’m doing something with my kids, I have to really work on saying, “This is enough. This is great. I’m having fun. The process counts. I’m being kind to myself. I’m not beating myself up or other people around me. And I’m doing it for me, not for what other people think.” Which is what drives perfectionism.
And so that was one example. Another guidepost, one of my favorites—or it wasn’t at the time, because it kind of hit me hard—was creativity. One of the things that every wholehearted person shared in common—and again, this is over 10 years, thousands of interviews, 11,000+ pieces of data—every single wholehearted person shared in common creative endeavors. They engaged with their creativity. And creativity was a practice. The thing they had to let go of—which was very surprising to me, at first—was comparison.
Another example of wholeheartedness is cultivating laughter, song, and dance. And let me tell you, Tami, you have no idea how resistant I was to this. In fact, the first addition of the manuscript I wrote didn’t even have that guidepost in it. And my doctoral students were like, “What about the laughing and the singing and the dancing?” I’m like, “I don’t know if we have enough data to really back that up.” And they’re like, “We do!” And I’m like, “I’m not sure.” And they’re like, “Oh my God, you don’t want to put that in there.”
And I was like, “Well, it just seems so flaky to me.” They’re like, “It doesn’t matter, it’s the data.” And it’s true. One of the guideposts was cultivating laughter, song, and dance, and letting go of being cool. Which clearly was an issue for me, because I didn’t want to put it in there.
TS: As I’m listening to you describe this, I think one of the things about worthiness is that I think people have this idea that, “Oh, that person had a good childhood. Their parents really loved them. And that’s why they have a sense of worthiness.” Not that this is something that’s available to all of us if we engaged in these practices that you’re describing.
BB: No, and let me tell you, that was my first thought, too. My first thought was, “Of course they’re wholehearted people who have a sense of worthiness, because their lives have been great.” And so we went back into the data asking, “Were their lives great? Did they turn out more beautifully than the rest of [us]?” And the answer was no. It was a resounding no. There were not fewer divorces, bankruptcies, histories of trauma, histories of addiction. There were not fewer of those things.
Now, certainly, I will have to say I’ve studied parenting since I’ve started my work, so I’ve always thought about family origin issues. And certainly I think we can raise children who are—I always describe wholeheartedness as the North Star. You can walk toward it and in that direction your whole life, but I don’t know that we ever arrive there.
But we can certainly always be moving toward it, and we can always certainly know when we’re heading in the right direction and know when we’re heading in the wrong direction. And I think we can raise our children pointed toward wholeheartedness, seeing what that looks like. But I don’t think that’s a prerequisite.
Now, if in your family there’s a lot of perfectionism and a lot of comparison, and cool is way more important than the awkwardness that comes with being silly and laughing and playing and dancing, are you going to have a lot more work to do? And are you going to have a lot more gremlins—gremlins is kind of the word I use for shame-triggers—to befriend and understand and quiet down? No doubt. If you’re raised in a household where vulnerability was really inwardly or outwardly seen as weakness, is it going to be harder to grow up and be an adult who engages openly with vulnerability? For sure.
But I think I’m an absolute example of that. I was raised in a family where there was very little vulnerability tolerated. It was not only just the family culture, it was Texan. I was raised in a very tough suck-it-up, soldier-on, “You want to learn how to ride your bike? You don’t need training wheels. You want to learn how to swim? You don’t need goggles. Goggles, training wheels—those are for weak people.” You get in there and you strong-arm it and you get it done.
And some of that has served me, certainly, in some ways, but a lot of it has set me way back. And I had, I think, a lot more work to do. So being vulnerable was a very scary thing for me, because not only did I grow up as, I would have to say, the vast majority of people grew up, with the mythology that vulnerability is weakness, I grew up with the idea that weakness is repugnant. It’s the opposite of lovable.
And so I do think wholeheartedness is available to all of us, but I also do think how we grew up can either leave us with some more work to do or point us in the right direction. But I will say, from a parenting perspective, which is very difficult, I don’t think we can raise children who are more wholehearted than we are.
I think if Ellen and Charlie grow up facing in the right direction and taking some steps on that map toward wholeheartedness, it won’t be because I fed them the intellectual information or the data about what it looks like. It’s going to be because they saw their dad and I doing it. And so that’s the goal in our family. The goal in our family is: be the adult you want your children to grow up to be.
TS: Let’s go right into this idea, then, of practicing vulnerability—vulnerability as a practice. Let’s say somebody’s listening, and they’re thinking to themselves, “I know I need to be more vulnerable, but I’m not actually quite sure where I start. What do I do? In a conversation, do I share something personal? What do I do?”
BB: So there are four major myths about vulnerability that I think can be helpful to go through before we start this conversation, just so people understand what I’m talking about and what I’m not talking about when I talk about vulnerability. Again, based on the research I define vulnerability simply as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.
The myths are that vulnerability is weakness, which I think we’re talking about and we’ll keep talking about, that vulnerability is not weakness. I think it’s our greatest measure of courage. The second myth is that I can opt out of vulnerability, like, “Well, Tami and Brené are having an interesting conversation, [but] I don’t really do vulnerability.” The truth is we all do vulnerability. To be alive, to be human, is to be vulnerable. To be human is to be up against uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure all the time. And so you can’t opt out of it. And if you don’t know what you do when you are feeling vulnerable, then vulnerability is probably unconsciously doing you. You’re doing something, and we’ll talk about that in a second.
The third myth is that vulnerability is letting it all hang out. Someone listening [might] think, “OK, so I should just share my hard story with the next person I talk to.” That’s not vulnerability. Vulnerability is about sharing our stories with people who’ve earned the right to hear them. Vulnerability is about intimacy and trust. Vulnerability without boundaries is not vulnerability. That’s over-sharing, it’s desperation, it’s attention-seeking. It can be a lot of different things, but it’s not vulnerability.
And then the last one is that “I can become more vulnerable on my own; I don’t need anyone to do that with.” And vulnerability by definition is relation, so it requires other people in this practice.
So I think if you’re listening and you’re thinking, “I’d like to be more vulnerable, what does that look like?” I think the first place to start is, what are you currently doing with vulnerability? One of the things I talk about in The Power of Vulnerability is this idea of the armory. I think one of the big ironies of vulnerability is that growing up, we develop weapons and armor to protect ourselves from vulnerability, because as children, feeling vulnerable is scary, it feels out of control, we feel hurt. And so we develop armor to keep us safe.
And then we become adults, and there’s this huge realization, usually around midlife, where people come to this place of understanding, where we’re like, “Oh my God, to become the person, the partner, the parent that I want to be, I have to put down the weapons and take off all the armor that has kept me safe for all these years. Because it’s not serving me anymore. I’m an adult now. I don’t need to do that anymore to stay safe. I can make choices.”
And to be wholehearted and fully in, we can’t walk around with 100 pounds of armor on and weapons in our hands. And so the first question we ask ourselves in this process is, “What were some of the lessons, either spoken or unspoken—what are my thoughts on vulnerability? What did I learn about vulnerability growing up? What did I see modeled? Where am I in relationship to this idea of being vulnerable?”
And then the second part, I think—and again, this is not a lock-step recipe, because we’re all very different—another important early process is, “What do I do now when I feel vulnerable? How am I armoring up against vulnerability?” It’s [like] that Carl Jung quote, “We must first accept the things we want to change.” And so I think in order to really become more vulnerable, we have to figure out what we’re doing with it. Do I use perfectionism? Do I numb with alcohol, drugs, foods, sex, internet?
One of the interesting things I talk about in The Power of Vulnerability, and one of the not quite universal, but close to universal, armor is something I call foreboding joy. One way that you protect yourself against vulnerability is you just kind of stay in a constant state of disappointment. “I’m never going to get too excited. I’m never going to be too let down.” Something exciting is happening, I’m just going to wait for the other shoe to drop, know that it really won’t pan out. And if it pans out, OK.
Because one of the things I’ve noticed about all of us—myself included—is the most vulnerable emotion to experience, I believe, is joy. I don’t think it’s shame. I think that might be a close second in terms of discomfort, but I don’t think it’s shame. I don’t think it’s fear. I don’t even think it’s grief. I think joy is the most vulnerable thing that we’re up against on a daily basis.
TS: And that’s because we’re afraid that it won’t last, it’ll get taken away?
BB: Yes! It’s inviting disaster. And so one of the things that we have a tendency to do is we have a tendency to, when we lose our capacity for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding.
TS: Brené, this capacity to just deal with pain—it’s going to hurt if I actually open my heart this much, take all the armor off, I’ll be so exposed and there’s so much pain in there. Things I haven’t grieved, or the possibility of pain. People will criticize me and that’s really going to hurt if I step forward in this way. So how do you develop this muscle where you know that you can handle whatever pain might be part of the process? Here you’re talking about joy, the pain of the potential loss.
BB: [Laughs] You know, listening to you—you have such a therapeutic voice, I’m listening to you and I’m like, “I don’t know! It’s dangerous, don’t do it!”
BB: Because it’s scary! One thing I really try to do in my work is be really honest. If there was an alternative that was less frightening, I would study it and I would shout it from the mountaintop. But I think the bottom line is that our capacity for wholeheartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be brokenhearted.
I think about the love that I feel for my children, I think about the excitement I feel about some things in my career, and it’s so much easier to say, “I’m just going to be halfway in so if something happens, I’ll only be halfway hurt.” But the truth is, you can’t be halfway hurt. None of us are missing out on the pain, let me tell you for sure.
TS: Well, can’t I be halfway hurt if I’m holding back and I’m not really there? It’s not hurting as much? Or you’re saying that’s not true.
BB: I think that’s mythology. That’s like people who—a great example of foreboding joy is your daughter or your son drives off on their prom date and your heart’s swelling, and you’re thinking, “Oh my God, I love you so much.” And then you picture a car wreck and you’re like, “Oh my God.” And there’s so many of us that take that catastrophizing to the very detail of, “Who’s going to call me, and what’s that call going to be like?”
And people who are listening and people who have received those calls will tell you there’s no amount of planning or being half in that can take away the tragedy and the pain and the terror of that kind of loss. But what we can do, and what we do do, is we for sure squander the joy that we need to fill us and make us resilient and stronger so when those things happen, we have balance in our lives.
A great story that I tell in Daring Greatly is about a man who said, “I spent my whole life believing it was always best to never get too excited or too disappointed about anything. So I always planned for the worst and if things turned out OK, then it was a pleasant surprise.” Again, another perfect example, in my opinion as a researcher, of someone who’s saying it’s easier to live disappointed than to feel disappointment. A constant state of disappointment is easier than dipping in and out of it.
When I interviewed him, he was in his late 60s, and he said in his earlier 60s he had been in a car accident with his wife and she was killed. And he said he spent a lot of years thinking about all of the moments that he never fully grasped and softened into out of the fear of being disappointed, and how he wished, more than anything, after her loss that he could go back and fully live those moments.
There was no part of him or anyone I’ve interviewed—and I’ve interviewed people who have survived horrendous loss, from violent loss to genocide to parents who’ve lost children to disease—there was no one who ever told me, “Yes, I experienced this horrific loss, but you know, it was not so bad because I never let myself be too joyful.” Never once. You have vast experience in this landscape, have you ever heard anyone say that?
TS: I know what you’re saying, and yet I can still feel this sense of, if I actually open up and put myself out there, I may be rejected. And that rejection—I’d rather just stay off the stage, not take that, as you call it, move into the arena. Because that rejection will just be too painful.
BB: You’re talking about “in the arena,” and I think it’s a really helpful metaphor. So one of the metaphors I use a lot in my work is this idea of daring greatly. I think being vulnerable is about daring greatly, and it comes from a quote from Theodore Roosevelt. And I’ll just share a small piece of it to give listeners context.
So in a speech that he gave at the Sorbonne in Paris, I think in the early 1900s, he said, “It’s not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the person who’s actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”
And so what I hear you asking, and what I hear everyone asking, and what I contemplate myself on a daily basis is, going into the arena without our armor and our weapons is terrifying. And what if I get booed? And what if I get laughed at? And what if I get criticized? What if I fall or trip or stumble or fail? The fact is that if you go into the arena on a regular basis, you’re going to screw it up, and you’re going to get booed off stage, and you’re going to get criticized and you’re going to fail. There’s no question. If you do it enough, it’s going to happen. It happens to me all the time.
But I think the most, to me, probing question we ask ourselves, and what I ask myself all the time is, yes, vulnerability feels dangerous, and yes, it feels scary and maybe even terrifying. But is it more scary and does it feel more dangerous to get to the end of our lives and wonder, looking back, what would have happened had I shown up? What would have happened had I been all in?
These are big, grand metaphors, right? I’ll give you a very simple example. When we asked people, “What is vulnerability?” [their] examples included things like, “Vulnerability is initiating sex with my wife, initiating sex with my partner.” “Saying ‘I love you’ first in a relationship.” “Sitting down with my wife, who has stage four breast cancer and trying to make plans for our young children.” “Starting my own business.”
One of the examples that came up a lot that I think we can all relate to is, “Vulnerability is picking up the phone and calling your friend who something tragic has just happened to.” They lost a partner or they lost a child. They just had a horrible cancer diagnosis or something. Vulnerability is picking up the phone and making that call. And would you agree that that’s vulnerable?
TS: Definitely. Definitely. It’s very awkward, I don’t know what to say. I’m scared to do this. Yes.
BB: Right. I’m going to screw it up.
BB: I’m not going to say something that makes everything better, which you can’t make everything better. The best you can do in those situations is say, “I’m with you. I’m hurting for you. I’m connected.”
So what do most of us do, myself included? I have fifteen years of higher education in uncomfortable conversations and I still do this. We walk up to the phone, we circle it, we think, “You know what? Let me call in an hour or so. They’ve probably got company over.” An hour turns into a couple hours, and you’re like, “Oh, God, I’ve really got to call over there. I don’t want to call. OK, you know what, it’s probably dinnertime. You know what I’ll do? I’ll bake a really nice casserole and take it over tomorrow.”
And we can’t bear the uncertainty, the risk, the emotional exposure, the vulnerability of it. And so one of the things I ask audiences often, because I think it’s very telling—and I’ll ask you, because we’re in the conversation and I think we represent everybody, the human experience—what does it feel like for you when you do pick up the phone and you walk into that really difficult conversation and you hang up the phone. How do you feel?
TS: After I’ve made the call?
TS: It might depend on how the call went, to be honest.
BB: Well, if the call went well, and you feel like, “Man, the person I talked to knows that I’m here and that I’m connected and I’m going to be present.”
TS: Then I would feel a sense of love. I would feel a sense of bondedness with them. And I’d feel good.
BB: Right. Now, how would you feel if you kind of blew the call off because it was too vulnerable, too uncomfortable, and a day turned into a week and a week turned into two weeks, and you ran into her at the grocery store?
TS: Guilty and awkward.
BB: Terrible, right?
BB: Because the thing is, vulnerability is about courage. And people ask me all the time, “You want me to take my armor off, you want me to take the shield down. Is there anything I can take into the arena with me that will help me?” And there is. There’s one thing I would never go into the arena without. And that is a very clear sense of my values.
For me, courage is a huge value in my life. I set an intention every morning to be courageous. Integrity—another huge value in my life. To make choices every day that reflect who I am and what I really believe. Love—a huge value in my life. God—another major value in not everybody’s life, but mine, for sure.
And so what happens when I hang up the phone and I’ve made that call and it’s awkward and he or she’s in more pain than I thought and I stammered and I stuttered and I didn’t say things right and I didn’t cure it, which no one can. But they do know I’m here and that their grief is more important than my comfort. What I feel in that moment is completely aligned with my values of God, love, courage, integrity.
If I run into you at the grocery store two weeks later and I blew off the call because I was just too afraid or felt too awkward or too uncomfortable, and that experience—like you said, awkward, guilty—that’s the definition of guilt. Guilt is cognitive dissonance. Guilt is when we hold up something we’ve done or failed to do up against who we want to be and our values, and there is a huge gap.
And so, to me, yes, I think vulnerability is hard. And yes, I think we risk getting hurt. And I think if comfort is a priority for you, vulnerability is going to be really difficult. But if there are values that you put ahead of comfort, like love and courage, empathy, compassion, then vulnerability is not optional.
TS: I’m curious if you’ve developed a muscle or a skill in receiving negative feedback. You put yourself out there and actually you are criticized and people do make fun of you and you’re not cool and that feedback comes in and, yes, it hurts. And then what’s the skill that helps you move through that?
BB: I’ve got a couple that I’ve developed just in doing this work and working myself through this stuff personally. And the first one is, you know, when I read that quote from Theodore Roosevelt, I just burst into tears. Because three things hit me like a ton of lead. The first one is, that’s who I want to be. I want to be in the arena. And I’ll take the dust and the sweat and the blood every now and then. I want to be in the arena.
The second thing was, oh my gosh, this is everything I’ve ever learned about vulnerability in this quote. And it’s a great metaphor, and I do believe to be vulnerable is to dare greatly. The third thing that really was transformational for me personally is from that moment forward—and it was a moment in time, I know what I was wearing, I know where I was sitting [kind of] moment—I put into place a policy that basically is this: if you are not a person who is in the arena getting your ass kicked on a regular basis, I am not interested in your feedback. Period.
So if you’re the anonymous commenter on CNN.com or somewhere where I’ve got an article and you’re leaving a comment that says, “Hey, spend less time doing research and more time getting some botox”—which is an actual comment—or, “Hey, if I were Brené Brown, I’d embrace imperfection too, because what choice do you have if you look like that?” Anonymous comment.
I’m not interested. A) I’m probably not going to even read it anymore, or I’m really not actually going to read it anymore, and B) I’m not interested. Because in the broadest sense of humankind, you count because you’re a person and people count, but in my world of my work, you don’t count.
TS: Now, you brought up, in giving examples of how people responded to this question of, “What does it mean to be vulnerable?” the example of either a man or a woman approaching their partner for a sexual encounter, and how vulnerable that is. It seems like in our intimate relationships, that’s a special type of vulnerability.
Here we’re talking about the anonymous commenter on CNN, and I think that’s really important to consider, but I’m also really interested in these most intimate moments of our life how terrifying it can be with the person we love the most. And I think sexuality is where it seems the most terrifying for many of us. What do you have to say in that respect about encouraging people to be vulnerable in their intimate relationships?
BB: It’s so hard. I could say, as a researcher, I could tell you that vulnerability is the birthplace of intimacy. But as a person who’s been with my partner for 25 years and we have a very loving relationship and we’re very close, it’s still really hard. And I think one of the reasons it’s so hard—and let me tell you, this cut across everyone. Everyone felt this way about sex, or at least sex that involved intimacy.
I think what we all have a tendency to do is we wake up in the morning, we put on our armor for the day, we go out in the world, we kick ass, we do our work, we fight traffic, we argue with colleagues, we shuttle kids around if we have them, we get home, we get everything done that we have to do. And then most of us don’t ever take the armor off. It’s a lot of work to take the armor on and off. It’s a lot of work.
And so our armor stays on. And then all of a sudden, we’re standing with our partner, and how do you just, all of a sudden, after combative days, day after day after day, genuinely melt into this intimacy and this vulnerability and, “Boy, I see you, and I love you, and I want to be seen by you,” when we spend our whole day making sure we’re not seen and that people see what they want to see?
And so it’s really couples who’ve done a lot of work around this issue and individuals who belong to those couples who—I think, for me, it’s changed dramatically since I just stopped putting so much armor on. It’s changed the way I live, it’s changed the people I hang out with, because if you’re not going to be armored up during the day, you can’t be going into battle every day.
So if you’re a friend who, if we’re going to lunch, and I have to spend an hour and a half battling with you about whose kids are doing better on standardized testing and, “What are you driving?” and “How much are you making?” I can’t do that with you anymore, because I can’t live with armor on anymore. Because it’s keeping me away from the intimacy—not only sexual intimacy, but intimacy with my children and my close friends and my family. And so I think wholeheartedness is about a big shift in living.
TS: You know, it’s interesting, because we began our conversation and you were talking about this belief you have, investment, with connection and how all humans need this connection. And listening to you, what I’m feeling is who comfortable you sound in your own skin. So not even whether or not you and I are genuinely connecting or not or whatever, but just how inspiring it is to listen to someone who seems comfortable in themselves, and how we all long for that. We all want to be comfortable in our own skin.
BB: I think that’s the big door prize, right? I think that’s the biggest gift of our life, is to get to a place where we’re comfortable with who we are. And there’s a quote that I say a lot from my work: “Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we’ll ever do.”
And I think a lot of times, getting to the point where we really genuinely love ourselves, and we get there by owning the stories. “This is who I am. These are the things I’ve been through. These are the things that were great. These are the things that sucked. These are the moments I’m so proud of, and these are the moments that really terrorized me with shame that I’ve moved through but it’s been super hard. This is all of me, and I love myself. And I’m not going to orphan the stories, anymore, that don’t fit with what you think I’m supposed to be, because this is all of me.”
I think that is wholeheartedness. I think that is the practice. I think that is the gift of vulnerability.
TS: Brené, just one final question here, which is, in your work, one of the things that was a real a-ha moment for me was when you were talking about how many people identify that we live in a culture of narcissism. People are very obsessed with themselves and that, really, what you were pointing to as underneath this self-obsession is a sense that it’s not OK to just be an ordinary person, that we somehow feel we have to be this extraordinary, fabulous superstar, and that we’re ashamed of just being an ordinary person.
And there’s a way, when I think about being comfortable in one’s own skin, it actually also means being OK just being an ordinary person. And I’d love to hear you talk about that, because I know in my own life, that’s been a real struggle for me to just be OK being one of a gajillion people, and that that’s fine, I don’t have to be an extraordinary anything.
BB: Yes. I have come into such powerful personal awareness of what that means in my life. I know what it meant in the research, [but] I can’t even articulate where I am with that right now. What I can say is that all of this talk of narcissism is so—there’s certainly narcissists among us, and we all have that capacity and trait of that, probably. But the thing that people don’t understand about narcissism is that of all the personality disorders, if you want to get really technical, it is the one most underpinned by shame. Shame absolutely drive narcissism.
So to me, I think narcissism is a label. I’m not a fan of labels. I think it means a lot of stuff that I don’t know whether we actually know is true or not. So to me, I think it’s easier to think about it as the shame-based fear of being ordinary. And I think being ordinary has become a shame trigger in this culture where everything is about flash and everything is about, “Be big, be better, have more.”
Maybe for me as a researcher and just as a person—as a partner and a mom and a sister or a daughter—what changed me the most was talking to the people that I mentioned earlier who had gone through really great, great losses, losses that I can’t—I have my share of hard things in my life, but these are things I couldn’t even fathom sometimes. You know, genocide. Burying a child.
And when I asked them, “What do you miss the most? What’s the hardest?” none of them said anything about the extraordinary moments that weren’t going to happen, or the extraordinary moments that happened that won’t be repeated. Every single person said, “I wish I would have been paying more attention to the ordinary moments.” “I wish I could hear my kids laughing in the backyard through the screen door.” I wish I could come downstairs and see my husband sitting at the table, pissed off because I bought the wrong brand of bread.” “I wish I could get one of those wacky text messages from my mom again.”
And I was so struck by that, and it made me realize two things: that’s one thing they told me, the other thing they said, which is also related and life-changing for me, was when I asked, “How do we as individuals and as a community, as a collective, show more compassion for people who’ve been through hard loss?”
And you know what the answer was, over and over? Gratitude. “If you could be grateful for what you have, it honors what I’ve lost. Don’t shy away from loving your child and being grateful for your child, because I’ve lost mine. Because when you honor those ordinary moments with your child, you honor the profound nature of my loss.”
And so to me, I really build my life around that now. We practice gratitude as a family. There are things in my career that are super fun and exciting. I get to go places and meet people, but I don’t do that very much, and I never do it if I have to miss carpool or soccer practice or those things. Because I will not miss those moments, because they are the moments that make me who I am, that make me comfortable in my skin, and remind me of how grateful I am for what I have, and that what I have has nothing to do with meeting famous people or getting to go talk somewhere or writing a book or the things I get to do in my professional life. I’m grateful for those, and I’m so grateful because I’m passionate about my work, but it’s the ordinary moments in my life, if you string those together, that tells you who I am.
TS: I’ve been speaking with Brené Brown. With Sounds True, Brené has created a six-session audio series called The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, and Courage. And this series is also available as an online, interactive video course, where participants will have the chance to interact live with Brené and ask her questions. With Sounds True, Brené has also produced a two-session audio program on Men, Women, and Worthiness: The Experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough, as well as an upcoming audio program on parenting. Brené, I’m really pleased and grateful that you’ve chosen to work with Sounds True and put out this important work on connection and courage and authenticity. For your own work and your willingness to just step out. Thank you! Thanks for doing it!
BB: Thank you! And you are in the arena all the time too, and I’m grateful for that because we wouldn’t have Sounds True without you opening that door and walking in.
TS: Continuing to walk into it, walk further and further out every day.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks, everyone, for listening.