Houston, USA & Melbourne, Australia
Melbourne, crashing thunderstorms – biblical
Brené Brown is everything you would expect her to be—warm, funny, gracious, articulate and engaging. That’s partly why over two million people have watched her TED talk, ‘The Power of Vulnerability’, which was nominated by our readers as one of their standout favourites after our interview with curator Chris Anderson. A professor of sociology at Houston University, she studies human connection and all the nasty things that get in the way, like shame, and fear.
In her talk, she candidly describes a day in 2006 when, while putting together years of collated data, an unexpected discovery caused her to have a breakdown, or ‘spiritual awakening’, as her therapist called it. She had identified a unique group of people who “fully embraced vulnerability… [who] believed what made them vulnerable made them beautiful.” She named them the Wholehearted. The scary part was that her life looked nothing like theirs. Like most of us, she avoided feeling vulnerable at all costs, but the problem was, it was costing her too much. What had begun as a research project became a calling.
Her honesty about her own story has seen millions of people connect with her and realise that we are not alone. Sitting in the uncomfortable space we all try to avoid, Brené asks the questions we run from. What makes us feel shame? What makes us afraid? Why do we never feel we are enough? As it turns out, all of us have a heartbreaking story to tell, and all of us are capable of connection. It’s why we are here.
On the day of our interview, a wild storm whipped through Melbourne and the babysitter was forty-five minutes late. As our interview time, so carefully coordinated, drew nearer, I was a dangerously disintegrating shame minefield. As a mother juggling work and family, there is always a tenuous line between being on top of things and total chaos. There’s also this awful, sinking feeling that everyone is watching. I had to answer the call to Brené, with my twenty-month-old daughter, Willow, on my lap, waving and smiling sheepishly. I was sorry, but could I call back in ten minutes? Brené laughed a big, hearty, Texan laugh and almost cheered. Phew. Fingers crossed the babysitter came in ten minutes…
BERRY LIBERMAN: I figured there was no better person to be imperfect with! [laughing]
BRENÉ BROWN: Around motherhood issues especially…yeah, in fact I was like ‘oh good she’s gotta call me back!’ I’m frantically texting my daughter saying, “Back door open, take dog out, start homework immediately!”. We can do it all, we just can’t do it all at the same time
Your TED talk changed my life
It’s true. You do such meaningful work that traverses science and the unquantifiable realms of the heart and soul. How do you describe what you do exactly?
Very specifically, I’m a Grounded Theory researcher. The idea behind Grounded Theory is that you don’t take existing theories and prove or disprove them, you develop new theories based on the lived experience of people. I focus on a question that I want the answer to, and I sit down across from people and conduct long interviews or in focus groups. I ask very open-ended questions and take anthropological field notes on the responses, and I then analyse that data and look for patterns and themes and categories—where I hear something over and over so much that it becomes a predictable pattern in people’s behaviour. So for example, when I was looking at the question of men and women who feel a deep sense of love and belonging, what is it that they have in common? The primary thing that emerged from that question is that they believe they are worthy of love and belonging. And so then the question becomes, what does that look like? How can I get my hands and head around that?
Do you just wake up one morning and say ‘I’m worthy’ and angels sing and it’s great? No.
They had behaviours and choices in common. They had ways of thinking about the world in common. They cultivate creativity in their lives and they work mindfully to let go of constantly comparing who they are and what they produce to other people. They absolutely honour things like play and rest. They stay very aware of the culture that tells us being exhausted is a status symbol and they work to overcome that. Before I did this research, I had no idea what the values were that these people held or what their everyday choices and behaviours were that aligned with those values. And then once I ask enough people… The thing about Grounded Theory is that there are no outliers. So if you didn’t fit the pattern that was emerging, I would have to change the theory that I’m developing to fit everything. The goal for Grounded Theorists is to develop theories that explain basic social processes, and to name what we find in such a way that it is both compelling and feels like truth to the people reading it. So we often end up naming behaviours that we engage in that we’ve never even thought about or discussed.
And you call it data with a soul…
Basically, with the type of research I do, I’m a story-catcher. I listen to people’s stories and then subject those stories to a rigorous methodology of making sense of them. I want to come up with concepts and ideas that are broad enough to capture everyone’s experience but deep enough to be meaningful. So when you ask people to talk about connection, they talk about disconnection, they talk about betrayal, they talk about being hurt. If you bring up the fear of disconnection, which is shame, and you say “and here’s what gets in the way [of connection]” everyone goes, “Oh my God you’re not supposed to know that”. I was just so fascinated by this idea that the things that make us feel the most alone are really what connect us the most passionately, and that’s our fear of not being enough. After falling apart, and talking about that honestly and including storytelling and being more vulnerable in the way I present the information I think that’s what shifted everything.
What gives you the courage to say, okay, if I lean into the discomfort of these feelings and name them, then I can make more authentic choices and be more authentically myself?
Sometimes I feel like a cheater when it comes to this. The truth is really, because of my work, I know everyone has a story that will break your heart. Everyone is completely feeling isolated and alone and ‘less-than’ and those feelings are the one thing that we all share in common. I know there’s no mansion that I could pull up in front of, no perfect group of Junior League moms or no group of successful CEOs that I could ever look at in the eye and believe that there’s no brokenheartedness there. I’ve been doing this work too long.
I think courage is the ability to tell your story.
I’ve heard so many stories in my life that I know I’m not alone. Everyone has a struggle. It’s what I say about empathy in my shame work. If you have a petri dish and you have shame in there, this pervasive feeling of not being good enough and not being ‘whatever’ enough—thin enough, rich enough, popular enough, promoted enough, loved enough. It only needs three things to survive in this little Petri dish and actually to grow exponentially and creep into every corner and crevice of your life and those are secrecy, silence and judgement. If you have the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and you douse it with some empathy, you share your story with someone who can hear you and look back at you and say you’re not alone, shame dies. You’ve created a hostile environment for those gremlins who keep saying to you ‘you’re not enough, you’re not enough, nothing you do is enough’. So I believe with my whole heart there are only two options; to let what scares us stay inside of us—and fester and grow and take over everything—or to share it. I think that we have to share our stories with people who’ve earned the right to hear them.
We hide our vulnerability because it’s quite a journey to find the ‘grown ups’ who can hold the space and sit into the discomfort with you.
Pema Chödrön, she’s an American Buddhist nun, defines compassion as knowing your darkness well enough that you can sit in the dark with others. For me, when I say you share your most difficult stories with people who’ve earned the right to hear them, those are people that you can count on to put on some wellies and slush through the swamp with you. It’s kind of a cultural message that we need to have a big crew of friends with whom we can share all these things. In my experience as a researcher if you have one or two people in your life who you can really, honestly share with, you are beyond lucky. There are many people who die with their stories in them. And those stories become malignant and they metastasise and they eat us alive.
You coined the term ‘Wholehearted’. What does that mean?
One of the things that’s very important in Grounded Theory is that when you identify a category that helps explain a basic social process, you name it with something that’s powerful, accurate and resonates deeply with people. Having spent six years studying shame, scarcity and fear, I wanted to turn that research upside down. I wanted to ask a new question. Going back into the data, there were clearly people who stand right next to us in this culture of scarcity, of ‘not good enough’, but they wake up in the morning and they say, ‘Phew, it’s scary out there, I’ve no idea what’s going on, I’m really imperfect, I’m feeling incredibly vulnerable but I’m enough.’ I wanted to know what they had in common. I wanted to understand people who, despite shame and fear and scarcity, engaged with the world from a place of worthiness. So I thought about what that meant. I can’t call them ‘the people who engage with the world from a place of worthiness’ because that’s not very catchy! [laughs] You know the funny thing was the first thing that actually came to mind was, these are abundance people but the data didn’t bear that out.
What do you mean?
I always thought of the opposite of scarcity being abundance, but these are people who are as wary of abundance as they are of scarcity. These were folks who really believed in enough. I thought about that. This usually takes months. When you’re in this phase of sorting memos, the axiom for Grounded Theory is, there’s two; ‘Everything is Data’ and ‘Trust in Emergence’. Trust if you’re doing your job and coding the data and listening to people that the theory will emerge from the data. You don’t have to make shit up. You don’t have to guess. It’ll emerge, which I experienced as very true, because what emerged was not what I wanted to emerge. When I started thinking about it I just kept saying to myself, like poker,
‘Man, these people are all in.’ They’re just living and loving fully. Then I thought, there’s nothing halfhearted about these folks. They feel the dark emotions wholeheartedly, they feel joy wholeheartedly.
So then I came up with Wholehearted. That’s the litmus test, the way that you check for credibility on something like that—you take a concept once you name it and you hold it up against the data, and ask if it works. And it did, I mean Wholehearted is not a very ‘researchy’ word but it’s not my goal to do research and then talk about it in a researchy way with researchy words. That’s not the purpose of Grounded Theory. The purpose of Grounded Theory is to identify basic social processes so that people understand more about what they do and often what you end up doing is naming things that people are engaged in every day and then when you tell them about it they go, “Oh My God! Yeah! I just never thought about it as a concept or a word but yeah I do that!” There is a whole collection of academics who never talk about shame without really academic language and I was one of those at the beginning. But no one can hear you and it doesn’t make sense. You know, when I first started giving lectures about my findings, the name of the lecture was ‘Variables Predicting Self Conscious Affect’. Well, it’s my armour, you know? That was my way of protecting myself.
You talk about it a little bit in your TED talk. What happened to you with the data? There was a point in your research where you saw a pattern, you started to develop a conclusion or concept of wholeheartedness and then something happened to you.
Oh yeah. It was the shit-list basically. I was coding data and I was looking at all these words and these phrases and these incidents that were re-emerging and re-emerging and re-emerging and I started listing them on big poster-sized post-it notes all over my house. Authenticity. Creativity. Rest. Compassion. Boundaries. Worthiness. Joy. Then I started making a separate list of words and ideas that clearly the men and women who we’re trying to learn more from, the Wholehearted, were mindfully trying to stay away from: Comparison. Perfection. Status. Exhaustion. Basically I just saw that whole list of, overly simplified, the ‘Do Nots’ just defining my life. That’s exactly what my life looked like. I’m looking at this data saying ‘Here are the guide posts’, here are the properties of this category of ‘worthiness' and I’m living contrary to them. Had you asked me—before I started analysing that data—what I thought the Wholehearted have in common, I would have honest-to-god told you, I think they’re very knowledgeable about shame. [laughs] Because that was me! Because I thought, I frickin' earned that! The answer to Wholeheartedness should be a deep understanding of shame! Because I spent six years studying this shit that no one wants to talk about and that should be the prize, right? And it wasn’t. The prize was not that. I would rephrase that from a research perspective. They did have a healthy understanding of shame but that was just a small part of it. Here’s the problem I have with a lot of research; there are a lot of researchers who I love, but researchers have a tendency when they find something meaningful to say, “The key to change is to change your behaviours”. Or they’ll say, “If you change how you think, you can change your life” or they’ll say, “If you get a hold of your emotions, and understand your emotions, you change your life”. Well I don’t see any evidence of that in my work.
What I see is a three-legged stool. That the way we feel, behave and think is the Holy Trinity. They’re so inextricably connected to each other that real change requires us to address emotion, thought and behaviour.
So as I started trying to understand the emotions, thoughts and behaviours behind worthiness, what I ran into were a lot of behaviours and thoughts that I didn’t have. Ergo breakdown. When I say breakdown, I would say the two things that the Wholehearted have in common that are the most important to understand are worthiness and vulnerability. An expertise in shame does not make you a person who has a deep sense of worthiness. Understanding vulnerability does not make you someone who can hold space for vulnerability. I became a researcher, really, specifically, to avoid vulnerability. So really for me my breakdown was about putting the data away. I trusted myself far more professionally than I did personally and I knew I trusted the data. Had these ideas emerged in therapy for me I would have been like, hell no. But they emerged from data. For me that’s as real as it gets because I know the process, I know it. I needed to figure out a way to experience and be okay with vulnerability and to cultivate worthiness in my life that did not hinge upon things like being a perfect mom, being a perfect professor, teaching evaluations, tenure, the size of my house, what car I drove, how my kids did. Clearly, what emerged was that worthiness has no prerequisites. Vulnerability is not something we can spend our lives outrunning and outsmarting, and I think I tried to do that.
Was there a difference between men and women in your research?
Around shame and worthiness? Yes and no. If shame washes over me it’s gonna be the same as if it washes over a man. Shame is biology, shame is biography. We have a huge physiological response to it and it triggers all the old messages. What is very different is that the messages and expectations that trigger shame are organized by gender. So what’s shaming for you and I… you know for women it’s: be everything to everyone and happy while you’re doing it. For men what drives shame is: do not be perceived as weak. I didn’t study men for the first four years that I did the work. It’s only been in the last five years that I have a full understanding of how shame works with men and the next thing I’ll be doing will be bringing that to light. It was possibly the most heart-wrenching work I’ve ever done. It was heart-wrenching because men are deeply feeling and men are often very lonely. It was heart-wrenching because women are harder on men than anyone. Myself included. Women say to men, ‘Be open, be vulnerable, let me see your fear’ but the truth is most women are absolutely disgusted and repelled by it. Men are smart. They know what they’re up against if they do that. I think it was heart-wrenching because I never knew and because of the culpability. As it turns out, I am the patriarchy.
For women, we have a lot of different shame triggers but the number one with women is appearance and body image. For men the number one shame trigger is professional identity and status.
So when men start losing jobs… phew! What I heard over and over again was the person I was afraid to tell the most was my wife. I don’t want to be that! I want to be the person who Steve would tell first. I interviewed one guy who every morning got dressed—I cry every time I say it—and sat in a coffee shop across town for six months. When I interviewed him he said, “My buddies know, my dad knows, I can’t tell my wife”. Show me a woman who can sit with a man in vulnerability and I’ll show you someone who’s done her work. Show me a man who can sit with a woman in struggle and not try to fix it but just hear her and just hold space for it and I’ll show you a guy who’s done his work. That’s it. It’s how we’re programmed. I’m programmed to look for the knight in shining armour, he’s programmed to fix things. It’s a little bit in our DNA but it’s really the culture. That’s why men are lonely and they die earlier and they die more violent deaths… it’s not good. The consequences of shame are lethal. It robs us of who we are. People die in its wake. You take hopelessness and you compound it with shame and you’ve got violence. There’s nothing constructive about shame and no one will talk about it. We hate it.
Inside this journey of your research, collecting all this data and thousands of interviews, who was Brené at the start going into the research and then—you talk about having a breakdown, a spiritual awakening—who emerged?
[long silence] That’s a hard question.
Would you like me to rephrase it?
No. [silence] I think going into it, phew… Going into it I was absolutely just a head person. I thought I could think my way and analyse my way and study my way to a sense of worthiness, a sense of being enough, a sense of joy and love and belonging. I still have a profound respect for science and research but there’s something… my call to do this work is different now. I don’t think I knew why I was doing it. I knew it was important. I knew that for me as someone who has experienced shame, like we all do, I wanted to know more about it. I was passionate but I had something to prove. I was fearless because I was so afraid, so I pushed and I pushed and I studied this hard topic that made everybody make the ‘bad cheese smell’ face. For the same reasons I was a radical, rowdy activist for many years. I operated from a place of proving and performing and pleasing. The more I learned the more I realised that the work is really important but it’s not what you know, it’s who you are. If it was just about what we know, if it’s just about how many parenting books can you digest, how much research can you do and how many scientific articles can you read, then we wouldn’t have the world we have today. Because we’d know that all the shit that we’re doing is horrible for us and our world and each other. But there’s just some darkness that we have to walk our way through and feel our way through and that we can’t rationalise and we can’t put into a statistics programme. There’s a deeply human spirit that is more important to understand than maybe anything else. We’re never going to have all the answers but that just being in the question is what it’s really all about. I guess I started as someone looking for answers and ended as someone who has found joy living in the questions. I just want us to be talking about shame and naming it because it hates to be named. When I give talks the feedback that I normally get, and it’s the biggest compliment, is ‘I already knew everything that you said, I just had no idea what it was called and I thought I was the only one’. When I talk about standing over our children sleeping and thinking about how much we love them and in that same moment picturing something horrible happening to them, I never talk about that without thirty people bursting into tears, you know? How we go from one minute of ‘God I love you so much…’ to ‘I wonder who’s going to be the person who tells me when this bad thing happens to you and what am I going to wear? I wonder, what am I going to do with your room? You know like…
Yeah, I mean I can see by your face that you know!
It is terror, how much you love your kids and then those moments of just pure joy I catastrophise. To kind of just cancel it out. You know, just to even the odds and…I don’t know…not feel it I suppose…Why do we do that?
Because it is a casualty of a culture that rejects vulnerability. When we wake up every morning and armour up and say, ‘I’m not gonna let myself be hurt, I’m not gonna let myself be seen, I’m not gonna let myself be emotionally wrung out, I’m gonna protect my vulnerability.’
When we lose that capacity for vulnerability,
joy becomes foreboding, because in those moments where we feel joy, the first thing we think is, ‘Uh-uh. You will not blindside me, Vulnerability. I will beat you to the punch. I’m gonna stand here, squander this incredible moment with my child or my partner, or this incredible moment about my promotion, and I’m gonna imagine the worst case scenario.’ That way, if it happens it will hurt less. Which is why it’s so ironic to me that people think that vulnerability is weakness, when really, letting ourselves fully soften into feeling is one of the most courageous things we do. It’s ballsy to let yourself feel. I don’t know if there’s an emotion more vulnerable than joy. I think it is one of the most difficult emotions to feel. Emotions won’t kill you but not feeling them will. Our fear of emotion can absolutely kill us. Pain won’t kill us but numbing pain kills people every single day. We’re the most obese, in debt, medicated, workaholic, addicted adults in human history. Pain won’t kill you, numbing pain kills people every minute of every day.
So what’s the antidote?
To increase our tolerance for discomfort.
I understand that but how do you put that into practice? Loving with our whole hearts even though there’s no guarantee…
I think you practice being uncomfortable.
Because to lean into joy is to lean into discomfort.
It’s beautiful and true. When something uncomfortable is in front of me, an uncomfortable conversation, an uncomfortable choice, I’ve done it enough and practiced it enough to know that A—I will live through it, B—that I have three or four people that I have to call in for support. That I need to be kind and gentle with myself, that I need to eat better and sleep more during these periods of time and that I can do this and come out the other side of it and that choice to be in the discomfort and lean into it and do what I need to get done and feel what I need to feel is better than drowning in a vat of peanut butter. Or…
Screaming at your kids.
Screaming at my kids, pretending like it’s not happening, taking it out on a doctoral student, disconnecting from my life, pretending like I don’t care…
You did all of this as a mother. How did you do that? How, as a mother, did you go from living with one paradigm to having a breakdown of that paradigm and finding a new one?
You know, that day in November of 2006 when I was coding all that data, one of the things I was thinking about a lot was parenting. One of the things that emerged during that transformative four-day period was really about parenting. It’s probably what drove me to get help. What emerged from the research along with concepts like creativity, wholeheartedness, authenticity, belonging and rest was the idea that we can’t give our children what we don’t have. When I started seeing all these concepts emerge I’m like, where do these come from? I honestly thought that I could give Ellen and Charlie what I didn’t have. I thought I could raise them with a sense of worthiness without having one. I thought I could raise them with shame resilience because I knew all about it, not that I really had a lot. I thought I could give them a joy and a love of being creative through really being creative. What clearly emerged during that four day period is that where we are on our own journey toward wholeheartedness is a much more accurate predictor of how our children will do than what we know about parenting and I think that was enough for me to say, I’m not living like this any longer. Now that I know I’m heading the wrong way I’m not gonna keep walking knowing that. My mom turned a lot of things around for our family, she was the first person to go to therapy, she ended a long line of addiction. The very least I can do is keep moving in the right direction and point my kids that way. The good parent/bad parent dichotomy, that’s a binary that doesn’t work at all. What it really comes down to is, are we engaged? The truth is, for most of us, if we’re willing to do that, our kids will scurry along in front of us on this journey because they have less barriers. If we point them towards creativity and don’t laugh at their mistakes and say, “That don’t look like a cat to me! You’re not a very good artist!”—if we don’t do those things, they’ll get ahead of us and then we’ll learn from them. I tell my daughter all the time, I want to grow up and be her! Because she’s brave. She does stuff that I don’t know if I could do and Charlie has a curiosity and a capacity to be vulnerable in a way that I can’t—so I think Wholeheartedness is an absolute family affair. It is not the job of parents to have children and then spend the rest of our lives after we have them setting them up for a happy life. The majority of important stuff that happens to us when we’re adults will happen to us after we’re parents—we will bury our parents, we will build our careers, we will struggle through marriages—all those things with kids in tow. One of the most profound experiences I’ve ever had in this work was a letter I got from a woman who said ‘my mom saw you speak at a church, and she wrote me a letter that said,
I just learned there’s a difference between shame and guilt. I think I shamed you growing up.
I’m so sorry that I did that. I meant to guilt you’. [laughter] Which I thought was great. And then it said, ‘I disagreed with a lot of the choices that you made but I never thought you were anything less than extraordinary.’ She was 55 and her mother was 75. So wholehearted parenting doesn’t end. Once you have kids it’s not time to set your life aside and figure out how to get them on the right track. It’s time to live your life in a way that we want our children to. So for me, ironically I became more passionate about my work and less guilty about it. I want my children to do work they love and I want them to grow up seeing me doing work I love. I want them to, in some way, contribute to the big wholehearted journey that we’re making as a collective. I don’t think Wholeheartedness is something we achieve. I think it’s something we spend our life walking towards. The metaphor of the North Star. You never get there but you know if you’re walking in the right direction.