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← The power of vulnerability

Brene Brown studies human connection -- our ability to empathize, belong, love. In a poignant, funny talk at TEDxHouston, she shares a deep insight from her research, one that sent her on a personal quest to know herself as well as to understand humanity. A talk to share.

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Showing Revision 9 created 08/28/2015 by Joanna Pietrulewicz.

  1. So, I'll start with this: a couple
    years ago, an event planner called me
  2. because I was going
    to do a speaking event.
  3. And she called, and she said,
  4. "I'm really struggling with how
    to write about you on the little flyer."
  5. And I thought,
    "Well, what's the struggle?"
  6. And she said, "Well, I saw you speak,
  7. and I'm going to call you
    a researcher, I think,
  8. but I'm afraid if I call you
    a researcher, no one will come,
  9. because they'll think
    you're boring and irrelevant."
  10. (Laughter)

  11. And I was like, "Okay."

  12. And she said, "But the thing
    I liked about your talk
  13. is you're a storyteller.
  14. So I think what I'll do
    is just call you a storyteller."
  15. And of course, the academic,
    insecure part of me
  16. was like, "You're going
    to call me a what?"
  17. And she said, "I'm going
    to call you a storyteller."
  18. And I was like, "Why not 'magic pixie'?"
  19. (Laughter)

  20. I was like, "Let me think
    about this for a second."

  21. I tried to call deep on my courage.
  22. And I thought, you know,
    I am a storyteller.
  23. I'm a qualitative researcher.
  24. I collect stories; that's what I do.
  25. And maybe stories
    are just data with a soul.
  26. And maybe I'm just a storyteller.
  27. And so I said, "You know what?
  28. Why don't you just say
    I'm a researcher-storyteller."
  29. And she went, "Ha ha.
    There's no such thing."
  30. (Laughter)

  31. So I'm a researcher-storyteller,
    and I'm going to talk to you today --

  32. we're talking about
    expanding perception --
  33. and so I want to talk to you
    and tell some stories
  34. about a piece of my research
    that fundamentally expanded my perception
  35. and really actually changed
    the way that I live and love
  36. and work and parent.
  37. And this is where my story starts.

  38. When I was a young researcher,
    doctoral student,
  39. my first year, I had
    a research professor who said to us,
  40. "Here's the thing, if you cannot
    measure it, it does not exist."
  41. And I thought he was just
    sweet-talking me.
  42. I was like, "Really?"
    and he was like, "Absolutely."
  43. And so you have to understand
  44. that I have a bachelor's
    and a master's in social work,
  45. and I was getting my Ph.D. in social work,
    so my entire academic career
  46. was surrounded by people who kind of
    believed in the "life's messy, love it."
  47. And I'm more of the, "life's messy,
    clean it up, organize it
  48. and put it into a bento box."
  49. (Laughter)

  50. And so to think that I had found my way,
    to found a career that takes me --

  51. really, one of the big sayings
    in social work is,
  52. "Lean into the discomfort of the work."
  53. And I'm like, knock discomfort
    upside the head
  54. and move it over and get all A's.
  55. That was my mantra.
  56. So I was very excited about this.
  57. And so I thought, you know what,
    this is the career for me,
  58. because I am interested
    in some messy topics.
  59. But I want to be able
    to make them not messy.
  60. I want to understand them.
  61. I want to hack into these things
    that I know are important
  62. and lay the code out for everyone to see.
  63. So where I started was with connection.

  64. Because, by the time
    you're a social worker for 10 years,
  65. what you realize is that connection
    is why we're here.
  66. It's what gives purpose
    and meaning to our lives.
  67. This is what it's all about.
  68. It doesn't matter whether
    you talk to people
  69. who work in social justice,
    mental health and abuse and neglect,
  70. what we know is that connection,
    the ability to feel connected, is --
  71. neurobiologically
    that's how we're wired --
  72. it's why we're here.
  73. So I thought, you know what,
    I'm going to start with connection.

  74. Well, you know that situation
  75. where you get an evaluation
    from your boss,
  76. and she tells you 37 things
    that you do really awesome,
  77. and one "opportunity for growth?"
  78. (Laughter)

  79. And all you can think about
    is that opportunity for growth, right?

  80. Well, apparently this is the way
    my work went as well,
  81. because, when you ask people about love,
    they tell you about heartbreak.
  82. When you ask people about belonging,
  83. they'll tell you their most excruciating
    experiences of being excluded.
  84. And when you ask people about connection,
  85. the stories they told me
    were about disconnection.
  86. So very quickly -- really about six weeks
    into this research --

  87. I ran into this unnamed thing
    that absolutely unraveled connection
  88. in a way that I didn't understand
    or had never seen.
  89. And so I pulled back out of the research
  90. and thought, I need
    to figure out what this is.
  91. And it turned out to be shame.
  92. And shame is really easily understood
    as the fear of disconnection:
  93. Is there something about me that,
    if other people know it or see it,
  94. that I won't be worthy of connection?
  95. The things I can tell you about it:

  96. It's universal; we all have it.
  97. The only people who don't experience shame
  98. have no capacity for human
    empathy or connection.
  99. No one wants to talk about it,
  100. and the less you talk about it,
    the more you have it.
  101. What underpinned this shame,
    this "I'm not good enough," --
  102. which, we all know that feeling:
  103. "I'm not blank enough.
    I'm not thin enough,
  104. rich enough, beautiful enough,
    smart enough, promoted enough."
  105. The thing that underpinned this
    was excruciating vulnerability.
  106. This idea of, in order
    for connection to happen,
  107. we have to allow ourselves
    to be seen, really seen.
  108. And you know how I feel
    about vulnerability. I hate vulnerability.

  109. And so I thought, this is my chance
    to beat it back with my measuring stick.
  110. I'm going in, I'm going
    to figure this stuff out,
  111. I'm going to spend a year,
    I'm going to totally deconstruct shame,
  112. I'm going to understand
    how vulnerability works,
  113. and I'm going to outsmart it.
  114. So I was ready, and I was really excited.
  115. As you know,
    it's not going to turn out well.
  116. (Laughter)

  117. You know this.

  118. So, I could tell you a lot about shame,
  119. but I'd have to borrow
    everyone else's time.
  120. But here's what I can tell you
    that it boils down to --
  121. and this may be one of the most important
    things that I've ever learned
  122. in the decade of doing this research.
  123. My one year turned into six years:

  124. Thousands of stories, hundreds
    of long interviews, focus groups.
  125. At one point, people were
    sending me journal pages
  126. and sending me their stories --
  127. thousands of pieces of data in six years.
  128. And I kind of got a handle on it.
  129. I kind of understood, this is
    what shame is, this is how it works.
  130. I wrote a book, I published a theory,
    but something was not okay --
  131. and what it was is that, if I roughly
    took the people I interviewed
  132. and divided them into people who really
    have a sense of worthiness --
  133. that's what this comes down to,
    a sense of worthiness --
  134. they have a strong sense
    of love and belonging --
  135. and folks who struggle for it,
  136. and folks who are always wondering
    if they're good enough.
  137. There was only one variable that separated

  138. the people who have a strong sense
    of love and belonging
  139. and the people who really struggle for it.
  140. And that was, the people who have
    a strong sense of love and belonging
  141. believe they're worthy
    of love and belonging.
  142. That's it.
  143. They believe they're worthy.
  144. And to me, the hard part of the one thing
    that keeps us out of connection
  145. is our fear that we're not
    worthy of connection,
  146. was something that,
    personally and professionally,
  147. I felt like I needed to understand better.
  148. So what I did is I took
    all of the interviews
  149. where I saw worthiness,
    where I saw people living that way,
  150. and just looked at those.
  151. What do these people have in common?

  152. I have a slight office supply addiction,
    but that's another talk.
  153. So I had a manila folder,
    and I had a Sharpie,
  154. and I was like, what am I going
    to call this research?
  155. And the first words that came
    to my mind were "whole-hearted."
  156. These are whole-hearted people,
    living from this deep sense of worthiness.
  157. So I wrote at the top
    of the manila folder,
  158. and I started looking at the data.
  159. In fact, I did it first in a four-day,
    very intensive data analysis,
  160. where I went back, pulled the interviews,
    the stories, pulled the incidents.
  161. What's the theme? What's the pattern?
  162. My husband left town with the kids
  163. because I always go into this
    Jackson Pollock crazy thing,
  164. where I'm just writing
    and in my researcher mode.
  165. And so here's what I found.

  166. What they had in common
    was a sense of courage.
  167. And I want to separate courage
    and bravery for you for a minute.
  168. Courage, the original
    definition of courage,
  169. when it first came
    into the English language --
  170. it's from the Latin word "cor,"
    meaning "heart" --
  171. and the original definition was to tell
    the story of who you are
  172. with your whole heart.
  173. And so these folks had, very simply,
    the courage to be imperfect.
  174. They had the compassion to be kind
    to themselves first and then to others,
  175. because, as it turns out,
  176. we can't practice compassion
    with other people
  177. if we can't treat ourselves kindly.
  178. And the last was they had connection,
    and -- this was the hard part --
  179. as a result of authenticity,
  180. they were willing to let go
    of who they thought they should be
  181. in order to be who they were,
    which you have to absolutely do that
  182. for connection.
  183. The other thing that they had
    in common was this:

  184. They fully embraced vulnerability.
  185. They believed that what made them
    vulnerable made them beautiful.
  186. They didn't talk about vulnerability
    being comfortable,
  187. nor did they really talk
    about it being excruciating --
  188. as I had heard it earlier
    in the shame interviewing.
  189. They just talked about it being necessary.
  190. They talked about the willingness
    to say, "I love you" first ...
  191. the willingness to do something
    where there are no guarantees ...
  192. the willingness to breathe
    through waiting for the doctor to call
  193. after your mammogram.
  194. They're willing to invest
    in a relationship
  195. that may or may not work out.
  196. They thought this was fundamental.
  197. I personally thought it was betrayal.

  198. I could not believe I had pledged
    allegiance to research, where our job --
  199. you know, the definition of research
    is to control and predict,
  200. to study phenomena for the explicit
    reason to control and predict.
  201. And now my mission to control and predict
  202. had turned up the answer
    that the way to live is with vulnerability
  203. and to stop controlling and predicting.
  204. This led to a little breakdown --
  205. (Laughter)

  206. -- which actually looked more like this.

  207. (Laughter)

  208. And it did.

  209. I call it a breakdown; my therapist
    calls it a spiritual awakening.

  210. (Laughter)

  211. A spiritual awakening
    sounds better than breakdown,

  212. but I assure you, it was a breakdown.
  213. And I had to put my data away
    and go find a therapist.
  214. Let me tell you something:
    you know who you are
  215. when you call your friends and say,
    "I think I need to see somebody.
  216. Do you have any recommendations?"
  217. Because about five
    of my friends were like,
  218. "Wooo, I wouldn't want
    to be your therapist."
  219. (Laughter)

  220. I was like, "What does that mean?"

  221. And they're like,
    "I'm just saying, you know.
  222. Don't bring your measuring stick."
  223. (Laughter)

  224. I was like, "Okay."

  225. So I found a therapist.
  226. My first meeting with her, Diana --
  227. I brought in my list of the way
    the whole-hearted live, and I sat down.
  228. And she said, "How are you?"
  229. And I said, "I'm great. I'm okay."
  230. She said, "What's going on?"
  231. And this is a therapist
    who sees therapists,
  232. because we have to go to those,
    because their B.S. meters are good.
  233. (Laughter)

  234. And so I said, "Here's the thing,
    I'm struggling."

  235. And she said, "What's the struggle?"
  236. And I said, "Well, I have
    a vulnerability issue.
  237. And I know that vulnerability
    is the core of shame and fear
  238. and our struggle for worthiness,
  239. but it appears that it's also
    the birthplace of joy, of creativity,
  240. of belonging, of love.
  241. And I think I have a problem,
    and I need some help."
  242. And I said, "But here's the thing:
    no family stuff, no childhood shit."
  243. (Laughter)

  244. "I just need some strategies."

  245. (Laughter)

  246. (Applause)

  247. Thank you.

  248. So she goes like this.
  249. (Laughter)

  250. And then I said, "It's bad, right?"

  251. And she said, "It's neither good nor bad."
  252. (Laughter)

  253. "It just is what it is."

  254. And I said, "Oh my God,
    this is going to suck."
  255. (Laughter)

  256. And it did, and it didn't.

  257. And it took about a year.
  258. And you know how there are people
  259. that, when they realize that vulnerability
    and tenderness are important,
  260. that they surrender and walk into it.
  261. A: that's not me,
  262. and B: I don't even hang out
    with people like that.
  263. (Laughter)

  264. For me, it was a yearlong street fight.

  265. It was a slugfest.
  266. Vulnerability pushed, I pushed back.
  267. I lost the fight,
  268. but probably won my life back.
  269. And so then I went back into the research

  270. and spent the next couple of years
  271. really trying to understand
    what they, the whole-hearted,
  272. what choices they were making,
    and what we are doing with vulnerability.
  273. Why do we struggle with it so much?
  274. Am I alone in struggling
    with vulnerability?
  275. No.
  276. So this is what I learned.

  277. We numb vulnerability --
  278. when we're waiting for the call.
  279. It was funny, I sent something out
    on Twitter and on Facebook
  280. that says, "How would you
    define vulnerability?
  281. What makes you feel vulnerable?"
  282. And within an hour and a half,
    I had 150 responses.
  283. Because I wanted to know what's out there.
  284. Having to ask my husband for help
    because I'm sick, and we're newly married;
  285. initiating sex with my husband;
  286. initiating sex with my wife;
  287. being turned down; asking someone out;
  288. waiting for the doctor to call back;
  289. getting laid off; laying off people.
  290. This is the world we live in.
  291. We live in a vulnerable world.
  292. And one of the ways we deal
    with it is we numb vulnerability.
  293. And I think there's evidence --

  294. and it's not the only reason
    this evidence exists,
  295. but I think it's a huge cause --
  296. We are the most in-debt ...
  297. obese ...
  298. addicted and medicated
    adult cohort in U.S. history.
  299. The problem is -- and I learned this
    from the research --
  300. that you cannot selectively numb emotion.
  301. You can't say, here's the bad stuff.
  302. Here's vulnerability,
    here's grief, here's shame,
  303. here's fear, here's disappointment.
  304. I don't want to feel these.
  305. I'm going to have a couple of beers
    and a banana nut muffin.
  306. (Laughter)

  307. I don't want to feel these.

  308. And I know that's knowing laughter.
  309. I hack into your lives for a living.
  310. God.
  311. (Laughter)

  312. You can't numb those hard feelings

  313. without numbing
    the other affects, our emotions.
  314. You cannot selectively numb.
  315. So when we numb those,
  316. we numb joy,
  317. we numb gratitude,
  318. we numb happiness.
  319. And then, we are miserable,
  320. and we are looking
    for purpose and meaning,
  321. and then we feel vulnerable,
  322. so then we have a couple of beers
    and a banana nut muffin.
  323. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.
  324. One of the things that I think
    we need to think about

  325. is why and how we numb.
  326. And it doesn't just have to be addiction.
  327. The other thing we do is we make
    everything that's uncertain certain.
  328. Religion has gone from a belief
    in faith and mystery to certainty.
  329. "I'm right, you're wrong. Shut up."
  330. That's it.
  331. Just certain.
  332. The more afraid we are,
    the more vulnerable we are,
  333. the more afraid we are.
  334. This is what politics looks like today.
  335. There's no discourse anymore.
  336. There's no conversation.
  337. There's just blame.
  338. You know how blame
    is described in the research?
  339. A way to discharge pain and discomfort.
  340. We perfect.
  341. If there's anyone who wants their life
    to look like this, it would be me,
  342. but it doesn't work.
  343. Because what we do is we take fat
    from our butts and put it in our cheeks.
  344. (Laughter)

  345. Which just, I hope in 100 years,
    people will look back and go, "Wow."

  346. (Laughter)

  347. And we perfect,
    most dangerously, our children.

  348. Let me tell you what we think
    about children.
  349. They're hardwired for struggle
    when they get here.
  350. And when you hold those perfect
    little babies in your hand,
  351. our job is not to say,
    "Look at her, she's perfect.
  352. My job is just to keep her perfect --
  353. make sure she makes the tennis team
    by fifth grade and Yale by seventh."
  354. That's not our job.
  355. Our job is to look and say,
  356. "You know what? You're imperfect,
    and you're wired for struggle,
  357. but you are worthy of love and belonging."
  358. That's our job.
  359. Show me a generation
    of kids raised like that,
  360. and we'll end the problems,
    I think, that we see today.
  361. We pretend that what we do
    doesn't have an effect on people.
  362. We do that in our personal lives.
  363. We do that corporate --
  364. whether it's a bailout, an oil spill ...
  365. a recall.
  366. We pretend like what we're doing
  367. doesn't have a huge impact
    on other people.
  368. I would say to companies,
    this is not our first rodeo, people.
  369. We just need you to be authentic
    and real and say ...
  370. "We're sorry. We'll fix it."
  371. But there's another way,
    and I'll leave you with this.

  372. This is what I have found:
  373. To let ourselves be seen,
    deeply seen, vulnerably seen ...
  374. to love with our whole hearts,
    even though there's no guarantee --
  375. and that's really hard,
  376. and I can tell you as a parent,
    that's excruciatingly difficult --
  377. to practice gratitude and joy
    in those moments of terror,
  378. when we're wondering,
    "Can I love you this much?
  379. Can I believe in this this passionately?
  380. Can I be this fierce about this?"
  381. just to be able to stop and, instead of
    catastrophizing what might happen,
  382. to say, "I'm just so grateful,
  383. because to feel this vulnerable
    means I'm alive."
  384. And the last, which I think
    is probably the most important,
  385. is to believe that we're enough.
  386. Because when we work from a place,
    I believe, that says, "I'm enough" ...
  387. then we stop screaming
    and start listening,
  388. we're kinder and gentler
    to the people around us,
  389. and we're kinder and gentler to ourselves.
  390. That's all I have. Thank you.

  391. (Applause)