My entire research career has been fueled by a commitment to bring to light the emotions, thoughts, and behaviors that we all experience but never discuss — to find patterns and connections in our experiences so that we can learn more about the journey from fear and scarcity to love, belonging, and worthiness.
The most difficult and most rewarding challenge of my work is how to be both a mapmaker and a traveler. My maps, or theories, on shame resilience, wholeheartedness, and vulnerability were not drawn from the experiences of my own travels, but from the data I’ve collected over the past dozen years — the experiences of thousands of men and women who are forging paths in the direction that I, and many others, want to take our lives. As I discussed in the talk, I’m a surefooted and confident mapmaker. As a traveler, however, I stumble and fall, and I constantly find myself needing to change course.
Exactly one year ago, I received an email from the curators of TEDxHouston congratulating me because my talk was going to be featured on the main TED website. I knew that was a good thing, a coveted honor even, but I was a little nervous. In a culture of reflexive cynicism, I felt safer in my career flying right under the radar. Looking back, I’m not sure how I would have responded to that email had I known that having a video go viral on vulnerability and the importance of letting ourselves be seen would leave me feeling so uncomfortably (and ironically) vulnerable and exposed.
This past year has been an experience that I can only describe as equal parts terrifying and exciting. There’s been unbelievable support, long overdue debate and discourse about these silenced topics, and — the thing that makes me the most excited — the development of new communities committed to cultivating more conversations about the emotional landscape of our lives. For better and for worse, there have also been some tough lessons on finding balance, asking for help, and seeking out constructive, respectful debate and feedback without letting in too much of the downright mean-spiritedness that’s rampant in our culture.
The way I see it, 2010 was the year of the TEDxHouston talk, and 2011 was the year of walking the talk — literally. As I crisscrossed the country talking to folks about my work — some as enthusiastic as me about my topics and others totally resistant — I confess that there were times when I thought to myself, “What was I thinking? I’m ready to trade in my new ‘vulnerable and open’ mantra for that old, reliable family motto of ‘lock and load.'”
But as hard and, frankly, as weird as it’s been at times, I didn’t trade in my mantra, nor did I give up on what I learned from the research: Vulnerability is not weakness, nor is it optional. We can’t opt out of the uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks that are woven through our daily experiences. Like it or not, vulnerability is coming, and we have to decide if we’re going to open up to it or push it away.
The only choice we really have is how we’re going to respond to feeling vulnerable. And contrary to popular belief, our shields don’t protect us. They simply keep us from being seen, heard, and known.
If there’s anything I’ve learned over the past decade and experienced firsthand over the last year, it’s this: Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose.
Even if letting ourselves be seen and opening ourselves up to judgment or disappointment feels terrifying, the alternatives are worse: Choosing to feel nothing — numbing. Choosing to perfect, perform, and please our way out of vulnerability. Choosing rage, cruelty, or criticism. Choosing shame and blame. Like most of you reading this, I have some experience with all of these alternatives, and they all lead to same thing: disengagement and disconnection.
One of my favorite quotes is from theologian Howard Thurman. He writes, “Don’t ask what the world needs; ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive.” Vulnerability is not easy, but it’s the surest sign that we’ve come alive.
Dr. Brené Brown is a researcher professor at the University of Houston, Graduate College of Social Work, where she has spent the past ten years studying a concept that she calls Wholeheartedness, posing the questions: How do we engage in our lives from a place of authenticity and worthiness? How do we cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection that we need to embrace our imperfections and to recognize that we are enough — that we are worthy of love, belonging and joy? Brené is the author of I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power (2007) and the forthcoming books, The Gifts of Imperfection (2010) and Wholehearted: Spiritual Adventures in Falling Apart, Growing Up, and Finding Joy ( 2011).