Being vulnerable about vulnerability: Q&A with Brené Brown

Posted by: Roxanne Hai

At the end of 2010, a reseacher named Brené Brown gave a talk at her local TEDx event, TEDxHouston. That talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” has since become a web-video phenomenon — viewed and shared by millions of people, who write us to say that her words — on shame, vulnerability and honesty — moved them, inspired them, helped them make change in their own lives. (It has also inspired at least two tattoos.) When we invited Dr. Brown to speak at TED2012, she shared the impact her new fame has had on her own life and how putting her words on this big stage has caused her to reexamine what she knows about vulnerability. Before she spoke, our own Roxanne Hai sat down with Dr. Brown to ask her a few questions about the nature of vulnerability.

What’s the greatest lesson you have learned in your own life?
When you get to a place where you understand that love and belonging, your worthiness, is a birthright and not something you have to earn, anything is possible. Keep worthiness off the table. Your raise can be on the table, your promotion can be on the table, your title can be on the table, your grades can be on the table. But keep your worthiness for love and belonging off the table. And then ironically everything else just takes care of itself.

How has your own journey in vulnerability and authenticity changed as you’ve become more well known and your work has become more well known?
Oh, it’s been hard. I call 2010 the year of the vulnerability talk and 2011 the year of walking the talk, because I was very unprepared. I so believe everything I said, and I really am trying to live that way, but I’ve become very clear in the last year that it is more complicated and more difficult than I thought.

One of the things I did when I discovered this huge importance of being vulnerable is very happily moved away from the shame research, because that’s such a downer, and people hate that topic. It’s not that vulnerability is the upside, but it’s better than shame, I guess. And what I realized over the last year is, if you don’t understand shame and you don’t have some shame resilience and awareness, then you cannot be vulnerable.

How did you come to realize that you needed to understand shame to be vulnerable?
It has been a great year, tons of support, tons of people saying, “God, I’m with you, thank you,” and then also really hardcore mean-spirited, cruel attacks. Which are just part of the process, right? And I think the reason I’m still standing is not because the word got out there that I was vulnerable, but I’m still standing because I understand shame.

I was very careful not to attach my worthiness to how well that talk did, because when you do that, then those comments are devastating. It’s not that they’re not devastating anyway — they hurt your feelings. I would argue more than ever that vulnerability is still just absolutely essential. That we can’t know things like love and belonging and creativity and joy without vulnerability, but in this culture of reflexive cynicism you better also really have an understanding of shame if you’re going to put yourself out there.

You mentioned you have received attacks and negative feedback from your vulnerability work. Can you talk about those?
I got a lot of feedback that was constructive and hard to hear, things like: “You shouldn’t be talking about vulnerability unless you’re going to talk about the construct of trust, and what do you think about trust?” And the truth is, I don’t understand it well enough to talk about it yet. I’m really still researching. And “What about this image that you used, I think it was hurtful.” It’s been a great debate. And I’m not afraid of that. You’ve been a faculty person for thirteen years, you’re used to some horrendous discussion and debate. I love that.

But the stuff which was really the most hurtful was just the mean-spirited stuff like, “If I looked like you, I would embrace imperfection too.” Or “Good mothers don’t unravel, and I feel sorry for your kids.” Just really mean-spirited cruelty, which is rampant and is really a part of our culture right now.

One of the things that I’ve learned, that I didn’t know before that [TEDxHouston] talk exploded, is how hard I’d been working to keep my career small. And that was a little bit heartbreaking for me, because I usually thought of myself as being pissed off because I couldn’t get my work out there enough. But really I think I was engineering that, because I was afraid of these things that actually happened, like the personal attacks.

For people to look at other folks who are trying to come up and share their work with the world, or their art, their ideas, their writing, their poetry, whatever, and say “You can’t care what other people think” is bullshit. When you lose your capacity to care what other people think, you’ve lost your ability to connect. But when you’re defined by it, you’ve lost your ability to be vulnerable. That tightrope is what my talk is about, and I think that balance bar we carry is shame resilience. I think it’s the thing that keeps us steady. If we can understand that: I’m not the best comment, I’m not the best accolade I’ve received, and I’m not the worst. This is my work.

What have you learned from the critics?
One thing that they’ve taught me, that I’m grateful for, is that at the end of every day, and at the end of every week, and at the end of my life, I want to be able to say I contributed more than I criticized. So they’ve taught me that I’m still standing.

What’s the one thing you really want to share, that didn’t make it into your talk?
I wish I could talk more about what I see going on in schools and corporations and families and churches and organizations. I wish I could talk more about why and how we’re losing people. The whole measurement idea of good parenting versus bad parenting, good employees versus bad employees — I don’t think it’s helpful and I don’t think it’s illuminating. I think the best way to look at things is: Are people engaged? Are people engaged parents, engaged employees, engaged leaders?

And I don’t think engagement can happen without vulnerability, and I definitely don’t think it can happen in the midst of shame. If you think dealing with issues like worthiness and authenticity and vulnerability are not worthwhile because there are more pressing issues, like the bottom line or attendance or standardized test scores, you are sadly, sadly mistaken. It underpins everything.

There’s not a talk that I’ve seen since I’ve been here — and I’ve been in all the sessions, and I saw the TED Fellows talks — there’s not a talk I’ve seen where people really touch lives and made a huge difference where they were not excruciatingly vulnerable. The results that we see at TED, and the innovation, and the incredible music and the art is an expected outcome, in my opinion, of human potential when people are willing to be brave and vulnerable. The reason why this is so rare is not because of the human potential that’s here. It’s because of the willingness of the people who are here to be brave and vulnerable. We all have this capacity; it’s a bravery conference. There’s no one who’s up there, including myself, who hasn’t failed. And I seriously doubt there’s many people up there who haven’t been the subject of major, heartbreaking criticism.

What group of people do you feel has been most impacted by your talk?
Across the board, I would say. If you want to ask me who needs it the most, I think we all need it. But the people who are really grappling with it the most are in the corporate sector. Veterans are a population that I’m really interested in, and police officers and firefighters, and people who we basically pay to be invulnerable. Then, when they return back to their lives, whether it’s at night when they come home or when they come back from a tour, they have no capacity for vulnerability and their lives are falling apart. We’ve seen a lot of research showing that for the veterans coming back from the Middle East right now, they’re more likely to die when they get home than over there, because of drugs, alcohol and violence. So I think all of us need this lesson, and all of us need this work. It’s not easy for any of us.

I asked my girlfriends (who are also big fans of your work) what they would ask you if they had the chance, and they all came back with this: What advice would you give to someone who feels like they are not [blank] enough to go about living more authentically and vulnerably?
Well, the idea of “I’m never enough” — beautiful enough, successful enough, thin enough, popular enough, loved enough, worthy enough — that’s shame and scarcity, and I’ve seen people overcome that every single day. I’ve gone through the process myself. I’ve interviewed people over the course of four years who’ve done a lot of this work. You have to understand shame. You have to understand where the message comes from, what drove it, how has it protected you in the past, and are you willing to look it in the eye and say, “Thanks, I appreciate it, but I’m not subscribing anymore. I’ve got a new way of doing things, and maybe you kept me safe and small in the past, but I’m not doing that.” The answer is absolutely that I’m not enough. You can overcome that, but you can’t overcome it without an understanding of shame. If you are not willing to have that conversation, there’s no way to the other side of it. You have to know what shame is.

How has understanding shame and vulnerability changed you as a parent?
Oh, it’s changed everything. My husband’s a pediatrician, so he and I talk about parenting all the time. You can’t raise children who have more shame resilience than you do. Because even if you don’t shame them, and even if you are actively trying to raise them feeling good about who they are, they’re never going to treat themselves better than you treat yourself. So that’s the bad news and the good news, but mostly the sucky news. If you want to raise a daughter with a really healthy body image, you better love your body as a mother, because that counts way more than looking at your daughter and saying “You’re beautiful and your body is beautiful.” All that matters to her is how she sees you acting with your own body. Which sucks. We can’t give children what we don’t have. We just have to be the adults we hope they grow up to be.

Comments (54)

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  • Tommy Tse commented on Aug 10 2012

    I am going through a breakdown right now, and when I watched her first speech it was hard to accept but dip down we all know is true. And then I watched the second one, and not only it moved and inspire me again again (yep I watched a few more times to ensure I didn’t miss a word) I know I have to force my partner, my family (especially by dad who is having a breakdown too) to watch it, although they don’t have the advantage of understanding english like I do and the chinese translation is not perfect, but I know I must let them know what you had find out through research the fact and origin of their pain and suffering. I just want to say thank you and the way you presented the speech with so much soul is ….not simple words can describe.

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  • commented on Jun 20 2012

    Reblogged this on YouYoga and commented:
    sometimes we have to be reminded that we’re enough and are worthy of all things we desire……Brene Brown speaks to those points in a manner that is heart warming, funny and true. Please take 20 minutes to view and enjoy!

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  • Andrea Sinclair commented on Mar 30 2012

    “But the stuff which was really the most hurtful was just the mean-spirited stuff like, “If I looked like you, I would embrace imperfection too.” Or “Good mothers don’t unravel, and I feel sorry for your kids.” Just really mean-spirited cruelty, which is rampant and is really a part of our culture right now.”

    You know, when people feel the need to make a comment that is intended to be hurtful, they are actually responding to themselves. We react most strongly to in others what we fear most or dislike most in ourselves. They were just saying that they were trying to be perfect and so should you – they obviously just are not ready for the message yet!

    Brene, I am single handedly trying to enlighten everyone in Australia with your work :) and I want to thank you for helping me finally realise the barriers in the way of my art and my life in general.

    You seem like the kind of chick who would be an awesome friend. Keep it up !

  • Maggie Cameron commented on Mar 24 2012

    @Colette. Brene did author a book on women and shame–lucky you! I think some of her newer research has changed some of her theories here, but it’s very interesting. Here’s a link.

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  • Colette Bennett commented on Mar 21 2012

    Powerful, remarkable. So glad to have discovered your work, Brene, and I honor your courage and find it inspiring. I had not reflected on how shame factored into my life before listening to this talk, although I had certainly been carrying it all my life. I would love to see you author a book specifically on that topic — I hope it’s something you will consider. I think learning more about how shame works can be a great key for me to understand how I can leave my own shame behind.

  • Pest Controllers commented on Mar 21 2012

    Well, the bottom line of this talk is that shame and vulnerability goes together and a great motivation for being brave person. In addition to that, shame and vulnerability are factors that enhance our personality to be better person.

  • Diane Michels commented on Mar 21 2012

    Hello Brene!
    I found your video by accident and it has been like “apples in settings of gold” in due season, during my journey to wholeheartedness. After watching your video I realized that shame is not part of my life that I have to accept and that it has blocked the path of joy, peace and creativity in me, as you stated in your video. I was delighted to know that dealing with shame would unlock those areas of my life once again. It has changed my parenting because now I don’t fear base parent but allow my children to consider the health of vulnerability and I am transparent with them about my journey. They have had some tough family crisis and they are being freed to share thier vulnerable thoughts and worries without fear or judgment. This journey is a work in progress for sure but living wholeheartedly seems to free the whole being to live in joy, peace, and creativity as you stated in the video. I appreciate your transparency and strength to speak about the things that many of us are afraid to talk about but want so despirately in our lives.

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  • Janusz Ostrycharz commented on Mar 18 2012

    So beautiful! Thank you so much, Brené, for doing this work and sharing so much of the articulations thereof.
    I was reminded of discussions I (“once upon a time”) thrilled to engage in, and found incredible resonance in the above paragraph surrounding: ‘…“You can’t care what other people think” is bullshit.’ i have been burying notions like this in the back of my mind for decades now, never bothering/daring to figure out a way to explicate it. THANK YOU. Looking forward to sharing this work further.

  • commented on Mar 18 2012

    To paraphrase Abe Lincoln: You can please some of the people all of the time and you can please all the people some of the time, but you cannot please all the people all the time. When someone gets nasty as a reaction to what we believe is true, the only good response we can give is to try and love them, even though their words and actions hurt us, yet all the while holding our ground for what we believe to be true. Neither is easy.

    • Tommy Tse commented on Aug 10 2012

      Thank you and it was just what I needed to hear.

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