Dr. Brené Brown is a researcher at the University of Houston and the author of the September 2012 release: Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Krista Tippett interviewed Brené on ON BEING on NPR that aired yesterday. Dr. Brown shared some of her research on VULNERABILITY.
Dr. Brown is a social worker and researcher and has found that our ability to feel connected is why we are here. She illustrates laughingly that when your boss tells you 37 things that you do well and one that “needs improvement” on your annual evaluation, you dwell on the one item that needs improvement. When she asked people she interviewed about love, they talked about heartbreak, when she asked them about belonging, they told of times when they were excluded, and when she asked about connection, the stories she heard were about disconnection.
Early in her research Dr. Brown figured out that SHAME is actually the fear of disconnection, that if “I’m not good enough” (whether it is thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough, “blank” enough), I won’t be connected. So in order for connection to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen and that is VULNERABILITY.
Dr. Brown belongs to an Episcopal Church in Houston and one of the prayers of confession from the Book of Common Prayer says: “We have not loved you with a whole heart.” Dr. Brown uses the term “whole-heartedness” to describe people who live from a deep sense of worthiness.
Brené found that the people she interviewed who were “whole-hearted” had two common elements. The first was courage, not in today’s definition, but the original definition meaning “to tell the story of who you are from the heart” or simply put, the courage to be imperfect. The second commonality was that they 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. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out.”
Through self-inspection and more research, Dr. Brown learned that as a society we try to numb vulnerability. She sent out a TWITTER and FACEBOOK question asking, “How do you define vulnerability?” In 90 minutes she had 150 responses including: having to ask my husband for help because I’m sick and we’re newly married; initiating sex with my husband; initiating sex with my wife, being turned down; asking someone out; waiting for the doctor to call back; getting laid off; laying off people. We live in a vulnerable world. Perhaps our in-debt, obese, medicated society is an attempt to numb vulnerability, but we can’t selectively numb emotion. So when we numb vulnerability, grief, shame, fear and disappointment, we are also numbing joy, gratitude, and happiness. “We then are miserable, looking for meaning and purpose in our life. Then we feel vulnerable so we have another beer and banana nut muffin.”
Dr. Brown suggests that we numb things by trying to make everything certain. For example, “religion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up. That’s it. Just certain. It even describes our political system. There’s no discourse anymore, no conversation. There’s just blame. Blame is described in research as a way to discharge pain and discomfort. So we try to perfect everything and make the imperfections and uncertainty go away.”
Dr. Brown’s conclusion: instead of numbing cocktails and binge eating, we need to be real and authentic, letting ourselves be seen, deeply seen and vulnerable to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guarantee. It is excruciatingly difficult to practice gratitude and joy in moments of terror when we are wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I feel this passionately about something? Instead of catastrophizing about what might happen, we need to say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive and it also means that I am enough.”
Have you built a wall around your emotions so you won’t ever be hurt again? You’ll need to re-learn to love with your whole heart to experience the true joy that comes with vulnerability.
Brené Brown on YOUTUBE: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o&feature=em-share_video_user
“On Being” website: MP3 file of interview to download: