In our Autumn 2019 issue, we were thrilled to profile the work of the amazing vulnerability pioneer, Brené Brown. The full article is available below – read on and enjoy!
The Courage to be Vulnerable
We profile the amazing Brené Brown
by Aisling Cronin
Brené Brown is an author, educator and research professor at the University of Houston, Texas, who has become renowned for her work on promoting vulnerability as a means of embracing our authentic selves. She has spent over two decades studying courage, shame and empathy, and is the author of five New York Times bestsellers, including Daring Greatly, Rising Strong and Dare to Lead.
Her work began to gain widespread traction in 2010, after she delivered an inspirational Ted talk called ‘The Power of Vulnerability.’ It has now become the most-watched Ted talk of all time, with over 39 million views. As a self-professed introvert, she had to embrace her own courage in order to step onto a stage and inspire others to embrace vulnerability as the true gift that it is. However, the risk she took has paid off in an amazing way.
Brené’s work has inspired thousands of people over the world to ‘lean in’ to their uncomfortable feelings, accepting whatever arises for them and presenting themselves with integrity. Her bottom line is: ‘I believe that you have to walk through vulnerability to get to courage, therefore … embrace the suck. I try to be grateful every day and my motto right now is courage over comfort.’
Dare to Lead is Brené’s most recent book: the culmination of a seven-year study on the future of leadership, and how we can embrace our own leadership qualities. She also has a powerful documentary, The Call to Courage, currently streaming on Netflix. In this documentary, she elaborates on her motto, ‘courage over comfort’ and explains just what a revolutionary act it is.
Brené strongly believes that a willingness to embrace discomfort and vulnerability is the key to societal transformation. Here at Positive Life, we have long been inspired by her brave message. With that in mind, we wanted to pay tribute to this vulnerability pioneer and share some of her brightest nuggets of wisdom.
‘Your story is a privilege. You share it with people who’ve earned the right to hear it.’
One of Brené’s strongest beliefs is that having courage does not necessarily mean sharing every single detail of our lives with people who may not appreciate the magnitude of that gift. She is keen to emphasise that vulnerability is not defined by the amount of information we disclose, but by the quality of that information, and the degree of trust we place in the person involved.
Vulnerability does not mean having a total lack of boundaries in your life. As she phrases it – with her trademark humour – ‘live tweeting your bikini wax isn’t vulnerability!’
Brené on the relationship between trust and vulnerability:
This is a hard one. Do I trust you, and then I’m vulnerable with you? Or am I vulnerable with you and then I learn to trust you? The answer is ‘yes, and.’ It’s a slow stacking over time of vulnerability and trust. I don’t go out there with the big guns and say, ‘Nice to meet you, I’m Brené, here’s my darkest secret. Can I trust you forever?’ We start with little things and we build over time: the more I share with you, and the more you honour that sharing.
In one of her books, Gifts Of Imperfection, she writes, ‘Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think, no matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.’
The things we may regard as our greatest failures or weaknesses can become our greatest gifts, if we are willing to treat ourselves with honour, compassion and love. The world is in need of more people who are willing to step forward and be brave.
‘The older I get, the more I realise that time is the big, precious non-renewable resource.’
Devoting our time and energy to projects and people who truly uplift us is a major theme of Brené’s work, and she is open about the fact that she had to learn this lesson the hard way. When her Ted talk video initially went viral in 2010, she was amazed by the amount of support and positive commentary she received … but the negativity that appeared in the comments section took its toll on her too.
‘You can study shame, but you are never prepared for the terrible stuff online,’ she admits candidly in The Call to Courage. ‘It’s the cesspool of humanity. The best way to describe shame is, it’s the feeling you would get if you walked out of a room that was filled with people who know you, and they start saying such hurtful things about you that you don’t know that you could ever walk back in and face them again in your life. For me, the fear of criticism and the fear of shame had been so great in my life up until that point, that I engineered smallness in my life. I did not take chances. I did not put myself out there – I just didn’t. It wasn’t worth it for me to step into my power and play big because I didn’t know if I could literally, physically withstand the criticism.’
She laughingly reveals that at one point, she coped with the negative commentary by eating peanut butter and watching Downton Abbey! Her journey of healing was accelerated by a famous saying attributed to former U.S. President Teddy Roosevelt: ‘It’s not the critic who counts. It’s not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done it different. The credit belongs to the person who’s actually in the arena, whose face is marred with dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who errs, who comes up short again and again and again, and who in the end, while he may know the triumph of high achievement, at least when he fails, he does so daring greatly.’
The final two words of Teddy Roosevelt’s statement inspired the title behind Brené’s book … and from there, the rest was history.
She divides her life into two segments: before reading that quote, and after reading that quote. Three things became very clear to her from that moment onwards. First of all, she vowed to herself that she would always ‘live in the arena’ and have the courage to take chances. Secondly, she understood that vulnerability transcends ‘winning’ and ‘losing’: that it is, instead, about having the courage to show up and do your best in situations where you can’t control the outcome. The third thing that became extremely clear to her was: ‘if you are not in the arena with me, getting your ass kicked and being brave, I am not interested in or open to your feedback about my work.’
Humans are, by nature, social animals. We are neurobiologically hardwired to seek out connection with others, and to care about what they think of us. Brené believes that we should accept that, rather than shutting everyone out to avoid dealing with the hurt of rejection or negative criticism. ‘The deal is that you have to be very specific about the people whose opinions of you matter,’ she explains. ‘Solicit feedback from people who give you good feedback. You know who makes that list? People who love you, not despite your imperfection and vulnerability, but because of your imperfection and vulnerability. Their feedback matters.’
Having the courage to be vulnerable has the potential to change the world. In the midst of deeply significant political and social movements that are changing the way we relate to one another, we need to learn how to embrace uncomfortable conversations. Brené says, ‘giving feedback, receiving feedback, solving problems, ethical decision-making … these are all born of vulnerability. Brave leaders are never silent about hard things. Our job is to excavate the unsaid.’
If we can find the courage to step up, be accountable, and wholeheartedly embrace ourselves – flaws and all – we have the potential to be powerful agents of change in a world that sorely needs it.
‘The Call to Courage’ is now streaming on netflix.com, while Brené’s latest book, ‘Dare to Lead’, is available on her website (as are all of her previous books).