Brene Brown: Vulnerability is ‘the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love’

by Mallary Tenore Tarpley

I just finished watching a TED talk that made me think more deeply about what it means to be happy. Sociologist Brene Brown — who speaks humbly and has a great sense of humor — spent years researching the source of people’s happiness. She learned that to be happy, we need to cultivate compassion and courage, allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and embrace our imperfections. We need to allow ourselves to be seen. (More on this later.)

Brown’s 20-minute talk — which focuses on vulnerability — makes me want to read her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection.” If her writing is as good as her TED talk, then I’m sure the book will have some valuable takeaways.

I transcribed some of my favorite parts from Brown’s talk for those of you who want a quick recap. I especially like the parts about courage and banana nut muffins.

“Connection is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.”

“Shame is really easily understood as the fear of disconnection. Is there something about me, that if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connection? … It’s universal, we all have it.”

“In order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen.”

“People who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it; they believe they’re worthy. And to me, the hard part of the one thing that keeps us out of connection is our fear that we’re not worthy of connection.”

Based on her research, Brown found that people who believe they’re worthy of connection had one thing in common: a sense of courage. She says the original definition of courage was “to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.” (Love this!) … “These folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others because, as it turns out, we can’t practice compassion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly. The last was they had connection — and this was the hard part — as a result of authenticity. They were willing to let of go of who they thought they should be, in order to be who they were. … You have to absolutely do that for connection.”

People who believed they were worthy of connection also fully embraced vulnerability. “They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful. … They talked about the willingness to say ‘I love you’ first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram, the willingness to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.”

“Vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.”
“One of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulnerability. And I think there’s evidence — and it’s not the only reason this evidence exists, but I think it’s a huge cause. We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. The problem is, and I learned this from the research, is that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can’t say — ‘here’s the bad stuff, here’s vulnerability, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, there’s disappointment– I don’t want to feel these. I’m gonna have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin.’ … You can’t numb those hard feelings without numbing the other affects or emotions. When we numb those, we numb joy. We numb gratitude. We numb happiness. And then we are miserable and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulnerable so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin, and it becomes this dangerous cycle. One of the things that I think that we need to think about is why and how we numb.”

Children are “hard-wired for struggle when they get here. … When you hold those perfect little babies in your hand, our job is not to say: ‘Look at them, look at her, she’s perfect. My job is just to keep her perfect and make sure she makes the tennis team by 5th grade and Yale by seventh grade.’ That’s not our job. Our job is to look and say, ‘You know what, you’re imperfect and you’re hard-wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.”

We have to “let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen. To love with our whole hearts even though there’s no guarantee, and that’s really hard. … To practice gratitude and joy in those moments of kind of terror, when we’re wondering, ‘Can I love you this much, can I believe in this as passionately, can I be as fierce about this?’ Just to be able to stop and instead of catastrophizing what might happen, to say, ‘I’m just so grateful because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive?'”

“When we work from a place, I believe, that says ‘I’m enough,’ then we stop screaming and start listening. We’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.”