Being vulnerable about vulnerability: Q&A with Brené Brown

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At the end of 2010, a researcher 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.