Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
Researcher and thought leader Dr. Brené Brown offers a powerful new vision that encourages us to dare greatly: to embrace vulnerability and imperfection, to live wholeheartedly, and to courageously engage in our lives. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; . . . who at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.” —Theodore Roosevelt Every day we experience the uncertainty, risks, and emotional exposure that define what it means to be vulnerable, or to dare greatly. Whether the arena is a new relationship, an important meeting, our creative process, or a difficult family conversation, we must find the courage to walk into vulnerability and engage with our whole hearts. In Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown challenges everything we think we know about vulnerability. Based on twelve years of research, she argues that vulnerability is not weakness, but rather our clearest path to courage, engagement, and meaningful connection. The book that Dr. Brown’s many fans have been waiting for, Daring Greatly will spark a new spirit of truth—and trust—in our organizations, families, schools, and communities.
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Advance praise for Daring Greatly
“A wonderful book: urgent, essential, and fun to read. I couldn’t put it down, and it continues to resonate with me.”
—Seth Godin, New York Times bestselling author of Linchpin
“The brilliantly insightful Brené Brown draws upon extensive research and personal experience to explore the paradoxes of courage: We become strong by embracing vulnerability, we dare more greatly when we acknowledge our fear. I can’t stop thinking about this book.”
—Gretchen Rubin, New York Times bestselling author of
The Happiness Project and Happiness at Home
“In Daring Greatly, Brené Brown refers to herself as both a mapmaker and a traveler. In my book, that makes her a guide. And I believe the world needs more guides like her who are showing us a wiser way to our inner world. If you’d like to set your course on being more courageous and connected, engaged and resilient, leave the GPS at home. Daring Greatly is all the navigation you’ll need.”
—Maria Shriver, New York Times bestselling author of
Just Who Will You Be?
“Daring Greatly is an important book—a timely warning about the danger of pursuing certainty and control above all. Brené Brown offers all of us a valuable guide to the real reward of vulnerability: greater courage.”
—Daniel H. Pink, New York Times bestselling author of
Drive and A Whole New Mind
“What I find remarkable about this book is the unique combination of solid research and kitchen-table storytelling. Brené becomes such a real person in the book that you can actually hear her voice asking, ‘Have you dared greatly today?’ The invitation in this book is clear: We must be larger than anxiety, fear, and shame if we want to speak, act, and show up. The world needs this book and Brené’s unique blend of warmth, humor, and butt-kicking makes her the perfect person to inspire us to dare greatly.”
—Harriet Lerner, Ph.D., New York Times bestselling author of The Dance of Anger and Marriage Rules:
A Manual for the Married and the Coupled Up
“One of the tragic ironies of modern life is that so many people feel isolated from each other by the very feelings they have in common: including a fear of failure and a sense of not being enough. Brené Brown shines a bright light into these dark recesses of human emotion and reveals how these feelings can gnaw at fulfillment in education, at work, and in the home. She shows too how they can be transformed to help us live more wholehearted lives of courage, engagement, and purpose. Brené Brown writes as she speaks, with wisdom, wit, candor, and a deep sense of humanity. If you’re a student, teacher, parent, employer, employee, or just alive and wanting to live more fully, you should read this book. I double dare you.”
—Sir Ken Robinson, New York Times bestselling author of
Out of Our Minds and The Element:
How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything
“Here’s the essence of this book: Vulnerability is courage in you but inadequacy in me. Brené’s book, weaving together research and Texan anecdote, shows you the path forward. And don’t for a moment think this is only for women. Men carry the burden of being strong and never weak, and we pay a heavy price for it. Daring Greatly can help us all.”
—Michael Bungay Stanier, author of Do More Great Work
“I deeply trust Brené Brown—her research, her intelligence, her integrity, and her personhood. So when she definitively lands on the one most important value we can cultivate for professional success, relationship health, parental joy, and courageous, passionate living…well, I sit up and take notice. And even when that one most critical value turns out to be the risky act of being vulnerable. Brené dared greatly to write this book, and you will benefit greatly to read it and to put its razor-sharp wisdom into action in your own life and work.”
—Elizabeth Lesser, New York Times bestselling author of
Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow
and cofounder of the Omega Institute
“In an age of constant pressure to conform and pretend, Daring Greatly offers a compelling alternative: Transform your life by being who you really are. Embrace the courage to be vulnerable. Dare to read this book!”
—Chris Guillebeau, New York Times bestselling author of The $100 Startup
How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead
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Copyright © 2012 by Brené Brown
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LIBRARY OF CONGRESS CATALOGING-IN-PUBLICATION DATA
Brown, C. Brené.
Daring greatly : how the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead / Brené Brown.—1st ed.
Includes bibliographical references.
1. Assertiveness (Psychology) 2. Risk. 3. Courage. I. Title.
Printed in the United States of America
Set in Janson Text
Designed by Spring Hoteling
While the author has made every effort to provide accurate telephone numbers, Internet addresses, and other contact information at the time of publication, neither the publisher nor the author assumes any responsibility for errors, or for changes that occur after publication. Further, the publisher does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for author or third-party websites or their content.
Except for friends and family, names and identifying characteristics of individuals mentioned have been changed to protect their privacy.
You make the world a better place
and me a braver person.
What It Means
to Dare Greatly
My Adventures in the Arena
Scarcity: Looking Inside
Our Culture of “Never Enough”
The Vulnerability Armory
Mind the Gap: Cultivating Change and
Closing the Disengagement Divide
Daring to Rehumanize Education and Work
Daring to Be the Adults
We Want Our Children to Be
Appendix—Trust in Emergence:
Grounded Theory and My Research Process
Notes and References
About the Author
THE phrase Daring Greatly is from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship in a Republic.” The speech, sometimes referred to as “The Man in the Arena,” was delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris, France, on April 23, 1910. This is the passage that made the speech famous:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better.
The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again,
because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause;
who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.…”
The first time I read this quote, I thought, This is vulnerability. Everything I’ve learned from over a decade of research on vulnerability has taught me this exact lesson. Vulnerability is not knowing victory or defeat, it’s understanding the necessity of both; it’s engaging. It’s being all in.
Vulnerability is not weakness, and the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure we face every day are not optional. Our only choice is a question of engagement. Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.
When we spend our lives waiting until we’re perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make.
Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience. We must walk into the arena, whatever it may be—a new relationship, an important meeting, our creative process, or a difficult family conversation—with courage and the willingness to engage. Rather than sitting on the sidelines and hurling judgment and advice, we must dare to show up and let ourselves be seen. This is vulnerability. This is daring greatly.
Join me as we explore the answers to these questions:
What drives our fear of being vulnerable?
How are we protecting ourselves from vulnerability?
What price are we paying when we shut down and disengage?
How do we own and engage with vulnerability so we can start transforming the way we live, love, parent, and lead?
IN THE ARENA
I looked right at her and said, “I frickin’ hate vulnerability.” I figured she’s a therapist—I’m sure she’s had tougher cases. Plus, the sooner she knows what she’s dealing with, the faster we can get this whole therapy thing wrapped up. “I hate uncertainty. I hate not knowing. I can’t stand opening myself to getting hurt or being disappointed. It’s excruciating. Vulnerability is complicated. And it’s excruciating. Do you know what I mean?”
Diana nods. “Yes, I know vulnerability. I know it well. It’s an exquisite emotion.” Then she looks up and kind of smiles, as if she’s picturing something really beautiful. I’m sure I look confused because I can’t imagine what she’s picturing. I’m suddenly concerned for her well-being and my own.
“I said it was excruciating, not exquisite,” I point out. “And let me say this for the record, if my research didn’t link being vulnerable with living a Wholehearted life, I wouldn’t be here. I hate how it makes me feel.”
“What does it feel like?”
“Like I’m coming out of my skin. Like I need to fix whatever’s happening and make it better.”
“And if you can’t?”
“Then I feel like punching someone in the face.”
“And do you?”
“No. Of course not.”
“So what do you do?”
“Clean the house. Eat peanut butter. Blame people. Make everything around me perfect. Control whatever I can—whatever’s not nailed down.”
“When do you feel the most vulnerable?”
“When I’m in fear.” I look up as Diana responds with that annoying pause and head-nodding done by therapists to draw us out. “When I’m anxious and unsure about how things are going to go, or if I’m having a difficult conversation, or if I’m trying something new or doing something that makes me uncomfortable or opens me up to criticism or judgment.” Another annoying pause as the empathic nodding continues. “When I think about how much I love my kids and Steve, and how my life would be over if something happened to them. When I see the people I care about struggling, and I can’t fix it or make it better. All I can do is be with them.”
“I feel it when I’m scared that things are too good. Or too scary. I’d really like for it to be exquisite, but right now it’s just excruciating. Can people change that?”
“Yes, I believe they can.”
“Can you give me some homework or something? Should I review the data?”
“No data and no homework. No assignments or gold stars in here. Less thinking. More feeling.”
“Can I get to exquisite without having to feel really vulnerable in the process?”
“Well, shit. That’s just awesome.”
If you don’t know anything about me from my other books, my blog, or the TED videos that have gone viral online, let me catch you up. If, on the other hand, you’re already a little queasy from the mention of a therapist, skip this chapter entirely and go straight to the appendix about my research process. I have spent my entire life trying to outrun and outsmart vulnerability. I’m a fifth-generation Texan with a family motto of “lock and load,” so I come by my aversion to uncertainty and emotional exposure honestly (and genetically). By middle school, which is the time when most of us begin to wrestle with vulnerability, I began to develop and hone my vulnerability-avoidance skills.
Over time I tried everything from “the good girl” with my “perform-perfect-please” routine, to clove-smoking poet, angry activist, corporate climber, and out-of-control party girl. At first glance these may seem like reasonable, if not predictable, developmental stages, but they were more than that for me. All of my stages were different suits of armor that kept me from becoming too engaged and too vulnerable. Each strategy was built on the same premise: Keep everyone at a safe distance and always have an exit strategy.
Along with my fear of vulnerability, I also inherited a huge heart and ready empathy. So, in my late twenties, I left a management position at AT&T, got a job waiting tables and bartending, and went back to school to become a social worker. When I met with my boss at AT&T to resign, I’ll never forget her response: “Let me guess. You’re leaving to become a social worker or an MTV VJ on Headbanger’s Ball?”
Like many of the folks drawn to social work, I liked the idea of fixing people and systems. By the time I was done with my bachelor’s degree (BSW) and was finishing my master’s degree (MSW), though, I had realized that social work wasn’t about fixing. It was and is all about contextualizing and “leaning in.” Social work is all about leaning into the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty, and holding open an empathic space so people can find their own way. In a word—messy.
As I struggled to figure out how I could ever make a career in social work actually work, I was riveted by a statement from one of my research professors: “If you can’t measure it, it doesn’t exist.” He explained that unlike our other classes in the program, research was all about prediction and control. I was smitten. You mean that rather than leaning and holding, I could spend my career predicting and controlling? I had found my calling.
The surest thing I took away from my BSW, MSW, and Ph.D. in social work is this: Connection is why we’re here. We are hardwired to connect with others, it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it there is suffering. I wanted to develop research that explained the anatomy of connection.
Studying connection was a simple idea, but before I knew it, I had been hijacked by my research participants who, when asked to talk about their most important relationships and experiences of connection, kept telling me about heartbreak, betrayal, and shame—the fear of not being worthy of real connection. We humans have a tendency to define things by what they are not. This is especially true of our emotional experiences.
By accident, then, I became a shame and empathy researcher, spending six years developing a theory that explains what shame is, how it works, and how we cultivate resilience in the face of believing that we’re not enough—that we’re not worthy of love and belonging. In 2006 I realized that in addition to understanding shame, I had to understand the flip side: “What do the people who are the most resilient to shame, who believe in their worthiness—I call these people the Wholehearted—have in common?”
I hoped like hell that the answer to this question would be: “They are shame researchers. To be Wholehearted, you have to know a lot about shame.” But I was wrong. Understanding shame is only one variable that contributes to Wholeheartedness, a way of engaging with the world from a place of worthiness. In The Gifts of Imperfection, I defined ten “guideposts” for Wholehearted living that point to what the Wholehearted work to cultivate and what they work to let go of:
Cultivating Authenticity: Letting Go of What People Think
Cultivating Self-Compassion: Letting Go of Perfectionism
Cultivating a Resilient Spirit: Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness
Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark
Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith: Letting Go of the Need for Certainty
Cultivating Creativity: Letting Go of Comparison
Cultivating Play and Rest: Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-Worth
Cultivating Calm and Stillness: Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle
Cultivating Meaningful Work: Letting Go of Self-Doubt and “Supposed To”
Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance: Letting Go of Being Cool and “Always in Control”
As I analyzed the data, I realized that I was about two for ten in my own life when in comes to Wholehearted living. That was personally devastating. This happened a few weeks before my forty-first birthday and sparked my midlife unraveling. As it turns out, getting an intellectual handle on these issues isn’t the same as living and loving with your whole heart.
I have written in great detail in The Gifts of Imperfection about what it means to be Wholehearted and about the breakdown spiritual awakening that ensued from this realization. But what I want to do here is to share the definition of Wholehearted living and share the five most important themes that emerged from the data and which led me to the breakthroughs I share in this book. It will give you an idea of what’s ahead:
Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.
This definition is based on these fundamental ideals:
Love and belonging are irreducible needs of all men, women, and children. We’re hardwired for connection—it’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. The absence of love, belonging, and connection always leads to suffering.
If you roughly divide the men and women I’ve interviewed into two groups—those who feel a deep sense of love and belonging, and those who struggle for it—there’s only one variable that separates the groups: Those who feel lovable, who love, and who experience belonging simply believe they are worthy of love and belonging. They don’t have better or easier lives, they don’t have fewer struggles with addiction or depression, and they haven’t survived fewer traumas or bankruptcies or divorces, but in the midst of all of these struggles, they have developed practices that enable them to hold on to the belief that they are worthy of love, belonging, and even joy.
A strong belief in our worthiness doesn’t just happen—it’s cultivated when we understand the guideposts as choices and daily practices.
The main concern of Wholehearted men and women is living a life defined by courage, compassion, and connection.
The Wholehearted identify vulnerability as the catalyst for courage, compassion, and connection. In fact, the willingness to be vulnerable emerged as the single clearest value shared by all of the women and men whom I would describe as Wholehearted. They attribute everything—from their professional success to their marriages to their proudest parenting moments—to their ability to be vulnerable.
I had written about vulnerability in my earlier books; in fact, there’s even a chapter on it in my dissertation. From the very beginning of my investigations, embracing vulnerability emerged as an important category. I also understood the relationships between vulnerability and the other emotions that I’ve studied. But in those previous books, I assumed that the relationships between vulnerability and different constructs like shame, belonging, and worthiness were coincidence. Only after twelve years of dropping deeper and deeper into this work did I finally understand the role it plays in our lives. Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experiences.
This new information created a major dilemma for me personally: On the one hand, how can you talk about the importance of vulnerability in an honest and meaningful way without being vulnerable? On the other hand, how can you be vulnerable without sacrificing your legitimacy as a researcher? To be honest, I think emotional accessibility is a shame trigger for researchers and academics. Very early in our training, we are taught that a cool distance and inaccessibility contribute to prestige, and that if you’re too relatable, your credentials come into question. While being called pedantic is an insult in most settings, in the ivory tower we’re taught to wear the pedantic label like a suit of armor.
How could I risk being really vulnerable and tell stories about my own messy journey through this research without looking like a total flake? What about my professional armor?
My moment to “dare greatly,” as Theodore Roosevelt once urged citizens to do, came in June 2010 when I was invited to speak at TEDxHouston. TEDxHouston is one of many independently organized events modeled after TED—a nonprofit addressing the worlds of Technology, Entertainment, and Design that is devoted to “Ideas Worth Spreading.” TED and TEDx organizers bring together “the world’s most fascinating thinkers and doers” and challenge them to give the talk of their life in eighteen minutes or less.
The TEDxHouston curators were unlike any event organizers I’ve known. Bringing in a shame-and-vulnerability researcher makes most organizers a little nervous and compels a few to get somewhat prescriptive about the content of the talk. When I asked the TEDx people what they wanted me to talk about, they responded, “We love your work. Talk about whatever makes you feel awesome—do your thing. We’re grateful to share the day with you.” Actually, I’m not sure how they made the decision to let me do my thing, because before that talk I wasn’t aware of having a thing.
I loved the freedom of that invitation and I hated it. I was back straddling the tension between leaning into the discomfort and finding refuge in my old friends, prediction and control. I decided to go for it. Truthfully, I had no idea what I was getting into.
My decision to dare greatly didn’t stem from self-confidence as much as it did from faith in my research. I know I’m a good researcher, and I trusted that the conclusions I had drawn from the data were valid and reliable. Vulnerability would take me where I wanted or maybe needed to go. I also convinced myself that it wasn’t really a big deal: It’s Houston, a hometown crowd. Worst-case scenario, five hundred people plus a few watching the live streaming will think I’m a nut.
The morning after the talk, I woke up with one of the worst vulnerability hangovers of my life. You know that feeling when you wake up and everything feels fine until the memory of laying yourself open washes over you and you want to hide under the covers? What did I do? Five hundred people officially think I’m crazy and it totally sucks. I forgot to mention two important things. Did I actually have a slide with the word breakdown on it to reinforce the story that I shouldn’t have told in the first place? I must leave town.
But there was nowhere to run. Six months after the talk, I received an e-mail 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 terrified. First, I was just settling into the idea of “only” five hundred people thinking I’m crazy. Second, in a culture full of critics and cynics, I had always felt safer in my career flying right under the radar. Looking back, I’m not sure how I would have responded to that e-mail 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.
Today that talk is one of the most viewed on TED.com, with more than five million hits and translation available in thirty-eight languages. I’ve never watched it. I’m glad I did it, but it still makes me feel really uncomfortable.
The way I see it, 2010 was the year of the TEDxHouston talk, and 2011 was the year of walking the talk—literally. I crisscrossed the country speaking to groups ranging from Fortune 500 companies, leadership coaches, and the military, to lawyers, parenting groups, and school districts. In 2012, I was invited to give another talk at the main TED conference in Long Beach, California. For me the 2012 talk was my opportunity to share the work that has literally been the foundation and springboard for all of my research—I talked about shame and how we have to understand it and work through it if we really want to dare greatly.
The experience of sharing my research led me to write this book. After discussions with my publisher about the possibility of a business book and/or a parenting book, plus a book for teachers, I realized that there only needed to be one book because no matter where I went or with whom I was speaking, the core issues were the same: fear, disengagement, and yearning for more courage.
My corporate talks almost always focus on inspired leadership or creativity and innovation. The most significant problems that everyone from C-level executives to the frontline folks talk to me about stem from disengagement, the lack of feedback, the fear of staying relevant amid rapid change, and the need for clarity of purpose. If we want to reignite innovation and passion, we have to rehumanize work. When shame becomes a management style, engagement dies. When failure is not an option we can forget about learning, creativity, and innovation.
When it comes to parenting, the practice of framing mothers and fathers as good or bad is both rampant and corrosive—it turns parenting into a shame minefield. The real questions for parents should be: “Are you engaged? Are you paying attention?” If so, plan to make lots of mistakes and bad decisions. Imperfect parenting moments turn into gifts as our children watch us try to figure out what went wrong and how we can do better next time. The mandate is not to be perfect and raise happy children. Perfection doesn’t exist, and I’ve found that what makes children happy doesn’t always prepare them to be courageous, engaged adults. The same is true for schools. I haven’t encountered a single problem that isn’t attributed to some combination of parental, teacher, administrative, and/or student disengagement and the clash of competing stakeholders vying to define one purpose.
I have found that 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 have not been 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.
Over the years I’ve learned that a surefooted and confident mapmaker does not a swift traveler make. I stumble and fall, and I constantly find myself needing to change course. And even though I’m trying to follow a map that I’ve drawn, there are many times when frustration and self-doubt take over, and I wad up that map and shove it into the junk drawer in my kitchen. It’s not an easy journey from excruciating to exquisite, but for me it’s been worth every step.
What we all share in common—what I’ve spent the past several years talking to leaders, parents, and educators about—is the truth that forms the very core of this book: What we know matters, but who we are matters more. Being rather than knowing requires showing up and letting ourselves be seen. It requires us to dare greatly, to be vulnerable. The first step of that journey is understanding where we are, what we’re up against, and where we need to go. I think we can best do that by examining our pervasive “Never Enough” culture.
LOOKING INSIDE OUR CULTURE OF “NEVER ENOUGH”
After doing this work for the past twelve years and watching scarcity ride roughshod over our families, organizations, and communities, I’d say the one thing we have in common is that we’re sick of feeling afraid. We want to dare greatly. We’re tired of the national conversation centering on “What should we fear?” and “Who should we blame?” We all want to be brave.
YOU can’t swing a cat without hitting a narcissist.”
Granted, it wasn’t my most eloquent moment onstage. It also wasn’t my intention to offend anyone, but when I’m really fired up or frustrated, I tend to revert back to the language instilled in me by the generations of Texans who came before me. I swing cats, things get stuck in my craw, and I’m frequently “fixin’ to come undone.” These regressions normally happen at home or when I’m with family and friends, but occasionally, when I’m feeling ornery, they slip out onstage.
I’ve heard and used the swinging-cat expression my entire life, and it didn’t dawn on me that more than a few of the thousand members of the audience were picturing me knocking over self-important folks with an actual feline. In my defense, while responding to numerous e-mails sent by audience members who thought animal cruelty was inconsistent with my message of vulnerability and connection, I did learn that the expression has nothing to do with animals. It’s actually a British Navy reference to the difficulty of using a cat-o’-nine-tails in the tight quarters of a ship. I know. Not so great either.
In this particular instance, the cat-swinging was triggered when a woman from the audience shouted out, “The kids today think they’re so special. What’s turning so many people into narcissists?” My less-than-stellar response verged on smart-alecky: “Yeah. You can’t swing a cat without hitting a narcissist.” But it stemmed from a frustration that I still feel when I hear the term narcissism thrown around. Facebook is so narcissistic. Why do people think what they’re doing is so important? The kids today are all narcissists. It’s always me, me, me. My boss is such a narcissist. She thinks she’s better than everyone and is always putting other people down.
And while laypeople are using narcissism as a catchall diagnosis for everything from arrogance to rude behavior, researchers and helping professionals are testing the concept’s elasticity in every way imaginable. Recently a group of researchers conducted a computer analysis of three decades of hit songs. The researchers reported a statistically significant trend toward narcissism and hostility in popular music. In line with their hypothesis, they found a decrease in usages such as we and us and an increase in I and me.
The researchers also reported a decline in words related to social connection and positive emotions, and an increase in words related to anger and antisocial behavior, such as hate or kill. Two of the researchers from that study, Jean Twenge and Keith Campbell, authors of the book The Narcissism Epidemic, argue that the incidence of narcissistic personality disorder has more than doubled in the United States in the last ten years.
Relying on yet another fine saying from my grandmother, it feels like the world is going to hell in a handbasket.
Or is it? Are we surrounded by narcissists? Have we turned into a culture of self-absorbed, grandiose people who are only interested in power, success, beauty, and being special? Are we so entitled that we actually believe that we’re superior even when we’re not really contributing or achieving anything of value? Is it true that we lack the necessary empathy to be compassionate, connected people?
If you’re like me, you’re probably wincing a bit and thinking, Yes. This is exactly the problem. Not with me, of course. But in general…this sounds about right!
It feels good to have an explanation, especially one that conveniently makes us feel better about ourselves and places the blame on those people. In fact, whenever I hear people making the narcissism argument, it’s normally served with a side of contempt, anger, and judgment. I’ll be honest, I even felt those emotions when I was writing that paragraph.
Our first inclination is to cure “the narcissists” by cutting them down to size. It doesn’t matter if I’m talking to teachers, parents, CEOs, or my neighbors, the response is the same: These egomaniacs need to know that they’re not special, they’re not that great, they’re not entitled to jack, and they need to get over themselves. No one cares. (This is the G-rated version.)
Here’s where it gets tricky. And frustrating. And maybe even a little heartbreaking. The topic of narcissism has penetrated the social consciousness enough that most people correctly associate it with a pattern of behaviors that include grandiosity, a pervasive need for admiration, and a lack of empathy. What almost no one understands is how every level of severity in this diagnosis is underpinned by shame. Which means we don’t “fix it” by cutting people down to size and reminding folks of their inadequacies and smallness. Shame is more likely to be the cause of these behaviors, not the cure.
LOOKING AT NARCISSISM THROUGH
THE LENS OF VULNERABILITY
Diagnosing and labeling people whose struggles are more environmental or learned than genetic or organic is often far more detrimental to healing and change than it is helpful. And when we have an epidemic on our hands, unless we’re talking about something physically contagious, the cause is much more likely to be environmental than a hardwiring issue. Labeling the problem in a way that makes it about who people are rather than the choices they’re making lets all of us off the hook: Too bad. That’s who I am. I’m a huge believer in holding people accountable for their behaviors, so I’m not talking about “blaming the system” here. I’m talking about understanding the root cause so we can address the problems.
It’s often helpful to recognize patterns of behaviors and to understand what those patterns may indicate, but that’s far different from becoming defined by a diagnosis, which is something I believe, and that the research shows, often exacerbates shame and prevents people from seeking help.
We need to understand these trends and influences, but I find it far more helpful, and even transformative in many instances, to look at the patterns of behaviors through the lens of vulnerability. For example, when I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary. I see the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose. Sometimes the simple act of humanizing problems sheds an important light on them, a light that often goes out the minute a stigmatizing label is applied.
This new definition of narcissism offers clarity and it illuminates both the source of the problem and possible solutions. I can see exactly how and why more people are wrestling with how to believe they are enough. I see the cultural messaging everywhere that says that an ordinary life is a meaningless life. And I see how kids that grow up on a steady diet of reality television, celebrity culture, and unsupervised social media can absorb this messaging and develop a completely skewed sense of the world. I am only as good as the number of “likes” I get on Facebook or Instagram.
Because we are all vulnerable to the messaging that drives these behaviors, this new lens takes away the us-versus-those-damn-narcissists element. I know the yearning to believe that what I’m doing matters and how easy it is to confuse that with the drive to be extraordinary. I know how seductive it is to use the celebrity culture yardstick to measure the smallness of our lives. And I also understand how grandiosity, entitlement, and admiration-seeking feel like just the right balm to soothe the ache of being too ordinary and inadequate. Yes, these thoughts and behaviors ultimately cause more pain and lead to more disconnection, but when we’re hurting and when love and belonging are hanging in the balance, we reach for what we think will offer us the most protection.
There are certainly instances when a diagnosis might be necessary if we are to find the right treatment, but I can’t think of one example where we don’t benefit by also examining the struggle through the lens of vulnerability. Something can always be learned when we consider these questions:
What are the messages and expectations that define our culture and how does culture influence our behaviors?
How are our struggles and behaviors related to protecting ourselves?
How are our behaviors, thoughts, and emotions related to vulnerability and the need for a strong sense of worthiness?
If we go back to the earlier question of whether or not we’re surrounded by people with narcissistic personality disorder, my answer is no. There is a powerful cultural influence at play right now, and I think the fear of being ordinary is a part of it, but I also think it goes deeper than that. To find the source, we have to pan out past the name-calling and labeling.
We’ve had the vulnerability lens zoomed in here on a few specific behaviors, but if we pull out as wide as we can, the view changes. We don’t lose sight of the problems we’ve been discussing, but we see them as part of a larger landscape. This allows us to accurately identify the greatest cultural influence of our time—the environment that not only explains what everyone is calling a narcissism epidemic, but also provides a panoramic view of the thoughts, behaviors, and emotions that are slowly changing who we are and how we live, love, work, lead, parent, govern, teach, and connect with one another. This environment I’m talking about is our culture of scarcity.
SCARCITY: THE NEVER-ENOUGH PROBLEM
A critical aspect of my work is finding language that accurately represents the data and deeply resonates with participants. I know I’m off when people look as if they’re pretending to get it, or if they respond to my terms and definitions with “huh” or “sounds interesting.” Given the topics I study, I know that I’m onto something when folks look away, quickly cover their faces with their hands, or respond with “ouch,” “shut up,” or “get out of my head.” The last is normally how people respond when they hear or see the phrase: Never ________________ enough. It only takes a few seconds before people fill in the blanks with their own tapes:
Never good enough
Never perfect enough
Never thin enough
Never powerful enough
Never successful enough
Never smart enough
Never certain enough
Never safe enough
Never extraordinary enough
We get scarcity because we live it.
One of my very favorite writers on scarcity is global activist and fund-raiser Lynne Twist. In her book The Soul of Money, she refers to scarcity as “the great lie.” She writes:
For me, and for many of us, our first waking thought of the day is “I didn’t get enough sleep.” The next one is “I don’t have enough time.” Whether true or not, that thought of not enough occurs to us automatically before we even think to question or examine it. We spend most of the hours and the days of our lives hearing, explaining, complaining, or worrying about what we don’t have enough of.…Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds are racing with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day. We go to sleep burdened by those thoughts and wake up to that reverie of lack.…This internal condition of scarcity, this mind-set of scarcity, lives at the very heart of our jealousies, our greed, our prejudice, and our arguments with life.…(43–45).
Scarcity is the “never enough” problem. The word scarce is from the Old Norman French scars, meaning “restricted in quantity” (c. 1300). Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyperaware of lack. Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted or lacking. We spend inordinate amounts of time calculating how much we have, want, and don’t have, and how much everyone else has, needs, and wants.
What makes this constant assessing and comparing so self-defeating is that we are often comparing our lives, our marriages, our families, and our communities to unattainable, media-driven visions of perfection, or we’re holding up our reality against our own fictional account of how great someone else has it. Nostalgia is also a dangerous form of comparison. Think about how often we compare ourselves and our lives to a memory that nostalgia has so completely edited that it never really existed: “Remember when…? Those were the days…”
THE SOURCE OF SCARCITY
Scarcity doesn’t take hold in a culture overnight. But the feeling of scarcity does thrive in shame-prone cultures that are deeply steeped in comparison and fractured by disengagement. (By a shame-prone culture, I don’t mean that we’re ashamed of our collective identity, but that there are enough of us struggling with the issue of worthiness that it’s shaping the culture.)
Over the past decade, I’ve witnessed major shifts in the zeitgeist of our country. I’ve seen it in the data, and honestly, I’ve seen it in the faces of the people I meet, interview, and talk to. The world has never been an easy place, but the past decade has been traumatic for so many people that it’s made changes in our culture. From 9/11, multiple wars, and the recession, to catastrophic natural disasters and the increase in random violence and school shootings, we’ve survived and are surviving events that have torn at our sense of safety with such force that we’ve experienced them as trauma even if we weren’t directly involved. And when it comes to the staggering numbers of those now unemployed and underemployed, I think every single one of us has been directly affected or is close to someone who has been directly affected.
Worrying about scarcity is our culture’s version of post-traumatic stress. It happens when we’ve been through too much, and rather than coming together to heal (which requires vulnerability), we’re angry and scared and at each other’s throats. It’s not just the larger culture that’s suffering: I found the same dynamics playing out in family culture, work culture, school culture, and community culture. And they all share the same formula of shame, comparison, and disengagement. Scarcity bubbles up from these conditions and perpetuates them until a critical mass of people start making different choices and reshaping the smaller cultures they belong to.
One way to think about the three components of scarcity and how they influence culture is to reflect upon the following questions. As you’re reading the questions, it’s helpful to keep in mind any culture or social system that you’re a part of, whether your classroom, your family, your community, or maybe your work team:
Shame: Is fear of ridicule and belittling used to manage people and/or to keep people in line? Is self-worth tied to achievement, productivity, or compliance? Are blaming and finger-pointing norms? Are put-downs and name-calling rampant? What about favoritism? Is perfectionism an issue?
Comparison: Healthy competition can be beneficial, but is there constant overt or covert comparing and ranking? Has creativity been suffocated? Are people held to one narrow standard rather than acknowledged for their unique gifts and contributions? Is there an ideal way of being or one form of talent that is used as measurement of everyone else’s worth?
Disengagement: Are people afraid to take risks or try new things? Is it easier to stay quiet than to share stories, experiences, and ideas? Does it feel as if no one is really paying attention or listening? Is everyone struggling to be seen and heard?
When I look at these questions and think about our larger culture, the media, and the social-economic-political landscape, my answers are YES, YES, and YES!
When I think about my family in the context of these questions, I know that these are the exact issues that my husband, Steve, and I work to overcome every single day. I use the word overcome because to grow a relationship or raise a family or create an organizational culture or run a school or nurture a faith community, all in a way that is fundamentally opposite to the cultural norms driven by scarcity, it takes awareness, commitment, and work…every single day. The larger culture is always applying pressure, and unless we’re willing to push back and fight for what we believe in, the default becomes a state of scarcity. We’re called to “dare greatly” every time we make choices that challenge the social climate of scarcity.
The counterapproach to living in scarcity is not about abundance. In fact, I think abundance and scarcity are two sides of the same coin. The opposite of “never enough” isn’t abundance or “more than you could ever imagine.” The opposite of scarcity is enough, or what I call Wholeheartedness. As I explained in the Introduction, there are many tenets of Wholeheartedness, but at its very core is vulnerability and worthiness: facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks, and knowing that I am enough.
If you go back to the three sets of questions about scarcity that I just posed and ask yourself if you’d be willing to be vulnerable or to dare greatly in any setting defined by these values, the answer for most of us is a resounding no. If you ask yourself if these are conditions conducive to cultivating worthiness, the answer is again no. The greatest casualties of a scarcity culture are our willingness to own our vulnerabilities and our ability to engage with the world from a place of worthiness.
After doing this work for the past twelve years and watching scarcity ride roughshod over our families, organizations, and communities, I’d say the one thing we have in common is that we’re sick of feeling afraid. We all want to be brave. We want to dare greatly. We’re tired of the national conversation centering on “What should we fear?” and “Who should we blame?”
In the next chapter we’ll talk about the vulnerability myths that fuel scarcity and how courage starts with showing up and letting ourselves be seen.
Yes, we are totally exposed when we are vulnerable. Yes, we are in the torture chamber that we call uncertainty. And, yes, we’re taking a huge emotional risk when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. But there’s no equation where taking risks, braving uncertainty, and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure equals weakness.
MYTH #1: “VULNERABILITY IS WEAKNESS.”
The perception that vulnerability is weakness is the most widely accepted myth about vulnerability and the most dangerous. When we spend our lives pushing away and protecting ourselves from feeling vulnerable or from being perceived as too emotional, we feel contempt when others are less capable or willing to mask feelings, suck it up, and soldier on. We’ve come to the point where, rather than respecting and appreciating the courage and daring behind vulnerability, we let our fear and discomfort become judgment and criticism.
Vulnerability isn’t good or bad: It’s not what we call a dark emotion, nor is it always a light, positive experience. Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.
Our rejection of vulnerability often stems from our associating it with dark emotions like fear, shame, grief, sadness, and disappointment—emotions that we don’t want to discuss, even when they profoundly affect the way we live, love, work, and even lead. What most of us fail to understand and what took me a decade of research to learn is that vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave. Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.
I know this is hard to believe, especially when we’ve spent our lives thinking that vulnerability and weakness are synonymous, but it’s true. I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. With that definition in mind, let’s think about love. Waking up every day and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we can’t ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment’s notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow—that’s vulnerability. Love is uncertain. It’s incredibly risky. And loving someone leaves us emotionally exposed. Yes, it’s scary and yes, we’re open to being hurt, but can you imagine your life without loving or being loved?
To put our art, our writing, our photography, our ideas out into the world with no assurance of acceptance or appreciation—that’s also vulnerability. To let ourselves sink into the joyful moments of our lives even though we know that they are fleeting, even though the world tells us not to be too happy lest we invite disaster—that’s an intense form of vulnerability.
The profound danger is that, as noted above, we start to think of feeling as weakness. With the exception of anger (which is a secondary emotion, one that only serves as a socially acceptable mask for many of the more difficult underlying emotions we feel), we’re losing our tolerance for emotion and hence for vulnerability.
It starts to make sense that we dismiss vulnerability as weakness only when we realize that we’ve confused feeling with failing and emotions with liabilities. If we want to reclaim the essential emotional part of our lives and reignite our passion and purpose, we have to learn how to own and engage with our vulnerability and how to feel the emotions that come with it. For some of us, it’s new learning, and for others it’s relearning. Either way, the research taught me that the best place to start is with defining, recognizing, and understanding vulnerability.
What really brings the definition of vulnerability up close and personal are the examples people shared when I asked them to finish this sentence stem: “Vulnerability is ______________.” Here are some of the replies:
Sharing an unpopular opinion
Standing up for myself
Asking for help
Starting my own business
Helping my thirty-seven-year-old wife with Stage 4 breast cancer make decisions about her will
Initiating sex with my wife
Initiating sex with my husband
Hearing how much my son wants to make first chair in the orchestra and encouraging him while knowing that it’s probably not going to happen
Calling a friend whose child just died
Signing up my mom for hospice care
The first date after my divorce
Saying, “I love you,” first and not knowing if I’m going to be loved back
Writing something I wrote or a piece of art that I made
Getting promoted and not knowing if I’m going to succeed
Falling in love
Trying something new
Bringing my new boyfriend home
Getting pregnant after three miscarriages
Waiting for the biopsy to come back
Reaching out to my son who is going through a difficult divorce
Exercising in public, especially when I don’t know what I’m doing and I’m out of shape
Admitting I’m afraid
Stepping up to the plate again after a series of strikeouts
Telling my CEO that we won’t make payroll next month
Laying off employees
Presenting my product to the world and getting no response
Standing up for myself and for friends when someone else is critical or gossiping
Asking for forgiveness
Do these sound like weaknesses? Does showing up to be with someone in deep struggle sound like a weakness? Is accepting accountability weak? Is stepping up to the plate after striking out a sign of weakness? NO. Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.
Yes, we are totally exposed when we are vulnerable. Yes, we are in the torture chamber that we call uncertainty. And, yes, we’re taking a huge emotional risk when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. But there’s no equation where taking risks, braving uncertainty, and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure equals weakness.
When we asked the question “How does vulnerability feel?” the answers were equally as powerful:
It’s taking off the mask and hoping the real me isn’t too disappointing.
Not sucking it in anymore.
It’s where courage and fear meet.
You are halfway across a tightrope, and moving forward and going back are both just as scary.
Sweaty palms and a racing heart.
Scary and exciting; terrifying and hopeful.
Taking off a straitjacket.
Going out on a limb—a very, very high limb.
Taking the first step toward what you fear the most.
Being all in.
It feels so awkward and scary, but it makes me human and alive.
A lump in my throat and a knot in my chest.
The terrifying point on a roller coaster when you’re about to tip over the edge and take the plunge.
Freedom and liberation.
It feels like fear, every single time.
Panic, anxiety, fear, and hysteria, followed by freedom, pride, and amazement—then a little more panic.
Baring your belly in the face of the enemy.
Infinitely terrifying and achingly necessary.
I know it’s happening when I feel the need to strike first before I’m struck.
It feels like free-falling.
Like the time between hearing a gunshot and waiting to see if you’re hit.
Letting go of control.
And the answer that appeared over and over in all of our efforts to better understand vulnerability? Naked.
Vulnerability is like being naked onstage and hoping for applause rather than laughter.
It’s being naked when everyone else is fully clothed.
It feels like the naked dream: You’re in the airport and you’re stark naked.
When discussing vulnerability, it is helpful to look at the definition and etymology of the word vulnerable. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the word vulnerability is derived from the Latin word vulnerare, meaning “to wound.” The definition includes “capable of being wounded” and “open to attack or damage.” Merriam-Webster defines weakness as the inability to withstand attack or wounding. Just from a linguistic perspective, it’s clear that these are very different concepts, and in fact, one could argue that weakness often stems from a lack of vulnerability—when we don’t acknowledge how and where we’re tender, we’re more at risk of being hurt.
Psychology and social psychology have produced very persuasive evidence on the importance of acknowledging vulnerabilities. From the field of health psychology, studies show that perceived vulnerability, meaning the ability to acknowledge our risks and exposure, greatly increases our chances of adhering to some kind of positive health regimen. In order to get patients to comply with prevention routines, they must work on perceived vulnerability. And what makes this really interesting is that the critical issue is not about our actual level of vulnerability, but the level at which we acknowledge our vulnerabilities around a certain illness or threat.
From the field of social psychology, influence-and-persuasion researchers, who examine how people are affected by advertising and marketing, conducted a series of studies on vulnerability. They found that the participants who thought they were not susceptible or vulnerable to deceptive advertising were, in fact, the most vulnerable. The researchers’ explanation for this phenomenon says it all: “Far from being an effective shield, the illusion of invulnerability undermines the very response that would have supplied genuine protection.”
One of the most anxiety-provoking experiences of my career was speaking at the TED Conference in Long Beach that I referenced in the Introduction. In addition to all of the normal fears associated with giving a filmed, eighteen-minute talk in front of an intensely successful and high-expectation audience, I was the closing speaker for the entire event. For three days I sat and watched some of the most amazing and provocative talks that I’ve ever seen.
After each talk I slumped a little lower in my chair with the realization that in order for my talk “to work” I’d have to give up trying to do it like everyone else and I’d have to connect with the audience. I desperately wanted to see a talk that I could copy or use as a template, but the talks that resonated the most strongly with me didn’t follow a format, they were just genuine. This meant that I’d have to be me. I’d have to be vulnerable and open. I’d need to walk away from my script and look people in the eye. I’d have to be naked. And, oh, my God…I hate naked. I have recurring nightmares about naked.
When I finally walked onto the stage the first thing I did was make eye contact with several people in the audience. I asked the stage managers to bring up the houselights so I could see people. I needed to feel connected. Simply seeing people as people rather than “the audience” reminded me that the challenges that scare me—like being naked—scare everyone else. I think that’s why empathy can be conveyed without speaking a word—it just takes looking into someone’s eyes and seeing yourself reflected back in an engaged way.
During my talk I asked the audience two questions that reveal so much about the many paradoxes that define vulnerability. First I asked, “How many of you struggle to be vulnerable because you think of vulnerability as weakness?” Hands shot up across the room. Then I asked, “When you watched people on this stage being vulnerable, how many of you thought it was courageous?” Again, hands shot up across the room.
We love seeing raw truth and openness in other people, but we’re afraid to let them see it in us. We’re afraid that our truth isn’t enough—that what we have to offer isn’t enough without the bells and whistles, without editing, and impressing. I was afraid to walk on that stage and show the audience my kitchen-table self—these people were too important, too successful, too famous. My kitchen-table self is too messy, too imperfect, too unpredictable.
Here’s the crux of the struggle:
I want to experience your vulnerability but I don’t want to be vulnerable.
Vulnerability is courage in you and inadequacy in me.
I’m drawn to your vulnerability but repelled by mine.
As I walked on the stage, I focused my thoughts on Steve, who was sitting in the audience, my sisters back in Texas, and some friends who were watching live from TEDActive—an offsite location. I also drew courage from something that I learned at TED—a very unexpected lesson on failure. The vast majority of folks whom Steve and I met during the three days leading up to my talk spoke openly about failing. It wasn’t unusual for someone to tell you about the two or three ventures or inventions that had failed as they explained their work or talked about their passions. I was blown away and inspired.
I took a deep breath and recited my vulnerability prayer as I waited for my turn: Give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen. Then, seconds before I was introduced, I thought about a paperweight on my desk that reads, “What would you attempt to do if you knew you could not fail?” I pushed that question out of my head to make room for a new question. As I walked up to the stage, I literally whispered aloud, “What’s worth doing even if I fail?”
I honestly don’t remember much of what I said, but when it was over I was back knee-deep in the vulnerability hangover AGAIN! Was the risk worth it? Absolutely. I am passionate about my work and I believe in what I’ve learned from my research participants. I believe honest conversations about vulnerability and shame can change the world. Both of the talks are flawed and imperfect, but I walked into the arena and gave it my best shot. The willingness to show up changes us. It makes us a little braver each time. And, I’m not sure how one measures the success or failure of a talk, but the minute I was done I knew that even if it flopped or drew criticism, it had been totally worth doing.
In the song “Hallelujah,” Leonard Cohen writes, “Love is not a victory march, it’s a cold and it’s a broken hallelujah.” Love is a form of vulnerability and if you replace the word love with vulnerability in that line, it’s just as true. From calling a friend who’s experienced a terrible tragedy to starting your own business, from feeling terrified to experiencing liberation, vulnerability is life’s great dare. It’s life asking, “Are you all in? Can you value your own vulnerability as much as you value it in others?” Answering yes to these questions is not weakness: It’s courage beyond measure. It’s daring greatly. And often the result of daring greatly isn’t a victory march as much as it is a quiet sense of freedom mixed with a little battle fatigue.
MYTH #2: “I DON’T DO VULNERABILITY”
When we were children, we used to think that when we were grown up we would no longer be vulnerable. But to grow up is to accept vulnerability. To be alive is to be vulnerable.
The definition and examples that you just read make busting the second vulnerability myth a lot easier. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard people say, “Interesting topic, but I don’t do vulnerability.” It’s often buttressed by a gender or professional explanation: “I’m an engineer—we hate vulnerability.” “I’m a lawyer—we eat vulnerability for breakfast.” “Guys don’t do vulnerability.” Trust me, I get it. I’m not a guy or an engineer or a lawyer, but I’ve spoken these exact words a hundred times. Unfortunately, there is no “get out of vulnerability free” card. We can’t opt out of the uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure that’s woven through our daily experiences. Life is vulnerable.
Look back at the list of examples. These are the challenges of being alive, of being in a relationship, of being connected. Even if we choose to stay out of relationships and opt for disconnection as a form of protection, we’re still alive and that means vulnerability happens. When we operate from the belief that we “don’t do vulnerability” it’s extremely helpful to ask ourselves the following questions. If we truly don’t know the answers, we can bravely ask someone with whom we are close—they’ll probably have an answer (even if we don’t want to hear it):
“What do I do when I feel emotionally exposed?”
“How do I behave when I’m feeling very uncomfortable and uncertain?”
“How willing am I to take emotional risks?”
Before I started doing this work, my honest answers would have been:
Scared, angry, judgmental, controlling, perfecting, manufacturing certainty.
Scared, angry, judgmental, controlling, perfecting, manufacturing certainty.
At work, very unwilling if criticism, judgment, blame, or shame was possible. Taking emotional risks with the people I love was always mired in fear of something bad happening—a total joy killer that we’ll explore in the “Armory” chapter.
This questioning process helps because, as you can see from my answers, regardless of our willingness to do vulnerability, it does us. When we pretend that we can avoid vulnerability we engage in behaviors that are often inconsistent with who we want to be. Experiencing vulnerability isn’t a choice—the only choice we have is how we’re going to respond when we are confronted with uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. As a huge fan of the band Rush, this seems like the perfect place to throw in a quote from their song “Freewill”: “If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice.”
In Chapter 4 we’ll take a closer look at the conscious and unconscious behaviors we use to protect ourselves when we believe we’re “not doing vulnerability.”
MYTH #3: VULNERABILITY IS LETTING IT ALL HANG OUT
One line of questioning that I often get is about our “let it all hang out” culture. Can’t there be too much vulnerability? Isn’t there such a thing as oversharing? These questions are inevitably followed by examples from celebrity culture. What about when Movie Star X tweeted about her husband’s suicide attempt? Or what about reality TV stars who share the intimate details of their lives and their children’s lives with the world?
Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust. It’s not oversharing, it’s not purging, it’s not indiscriminate disclosure, and it’s not celebrity-style social media information dumps. Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them. Being vulnerable and open is mutual and an integral part of the trust-building process.
We can’t always have guarantees in place before we risk sharing; however, we don’t bare our souls the first time we meet someone. We don’t lead with “Hi, my name is Brené, and here’s my darkest struggle.” That’s not vulnerability. That may be desperation or woundedness or even attention-seeking, but it’s not vulnerability. Why? Because sharing appropriately, with boundaries, means sharing with people with whom we’ve developed relationships that can bear the weight of our story. The result of this mutually respectful vulnerability is increased connection, trust, and engagement.
Vulnerability without boundaries leads to disconnection, distrust, and disengagement. In fact, as we’ll explore in Chapter 4, “letting it all hang out” or boundaryless disclosure is one way we protect ourselves from real vulnerability. And the TMI (too much information) issue is not even a case of “too much vulnerability”—vulnerability is bankrupt on its own terms when people move from being vulnerable to using vulnerability to deal with unmet needs, get attention, or engage in the shock-and-awe behaviors that are so commonplace in today’s culture.
To more effectively dispel the myth that vulnerability is a secret-sharing-free-for-all, let’s examine the issue of trust.
When I talk to groups about the importance of being vulnerable, there’s always a flood of questions about the need for trust:
“How do I know if I can trust someone enough to be vulnerable?”
“I’ll only be vulnerable with someone if I’m sure they won’t turn on me.”
“How can you tell who’s got your back?”
“How do we build trust with people?”
The good news is that the answers to these questions emerged from the data. The bad news is that it’s a chicken-or-the-egg issue: We need to feel trust to be vulnerable and we need to be vulnerable in order to trust.
There is no trust test, no scoring system, no green light that tells us that it’s safe to let ourselves be seen. The research participants described trust as a slow-building, layered process that happens over time. In our family, we refer to trust as “the Marble Jar.”
In the middle of third grade, Ellen had her first experience with betrayal. In many elementary school settings, third grade is a big move. Students are no longer clustered with the K–2 crowd; they’re now navigating the Grade 3–5 group. During recess, she had confided in a friend from her class about a funny, slightly embarrassing thing that had happened to her earlier in the day. By lunchtime, all of the girls in her peer group knew her secret and were giving her a hard time. It was an important lesson, but also a painful one, because up to that point she had never considered the possibility that someone would do that.
When she came home, she burst into tears and told me that she was never going to tell anyone anything again. Her feelings were so hurt. Listening, I felt my heart aching for her. To make matters worse, Ellen told me that the girls were still laughing at her when they returned to the classroom, so much so that her teacher separated them and took some marbles out of the marble jar.
Ellen’s teacher had a large, clear glass vase that she and the kids referred to as “the marble jar.” She kept a bag of colored marbles next to the jar, and whenever the class was collectively making good choices, she would throw some marbles into the jar. Whenever the class was acting out, breaking rules, or not listening, the teacher would take marbles out of the jar. If and when the marbles made it to the top of the jar, the students would be rewarded with a celebration party.
As much as I wanted to pull Ellen close and whisper, “Not sharing with those girls is a great idea! That way they’ll never hurt us you again,” I put my fears and anger aside, and started trying to figure out how to talk to her about trust and connection. As I was searching for the right way to translate my own experiences of trust, and what I was learning about trust from the research, I thought, Ah, the marble jar. Perfect.
I told Ellen to think about her friendships as marble jars. Whenever someone supports you, or is kind to you, or sticks up for you, or honors what you share with them as private, you put marbles in the jar. When people are mean, or disrespectful, or share your secrets, marbles come out. When I asked her if it made sense, she nodded her head with excitement and said, “I’ve got marble jar friends! I’ve got marble jar friends!”
When I asked her to tell me about it, she described four friends whom she could always count on, who knew some of her secrets and would never tell, and who told her some of their secrets too. She said, “These are the friends who ask me to sit with them, even if they’ve been asked to sit at the popular kids’ table.”
It was such a great moment for both of us. When I asked her how her marble jar friends became marble jar friends, she thought about it for a minute and replied, “I’m not sure. How did your marble jar friends get their marbles?” After thinking about it for a while, we both started blurting out our answers. Some of hers were:
They keep our secrets.
They tell us their secrets.
They remember my birthday!
They know who Oma and Opa are.
They always make sure I’m included in fun things.
They know when I’m sad and ask me why.
When I miss school because I’m sick, they ask their moms to call to check on me.
And mine? Exactly the same (except for me, Oma and Opa are Deanne and David, my mom and stepdad). When my mom comes to Ellen or Charlie’s events, it’s a great feeling to hear one of my friends say, “Hey, Deanne! Good to see you.” I always think, She remembered my mom’s name. She cares. She’s paying attention.
Trust is built one marble at a time.
The chicken-or-the-egg dilemma comes into play when we think about the investment and leap that people in relationships have to make before the building process ever begins. The teacher didn’t say, “I’m not buying a jar and marbles until I know that the class can collectively make good choices.” The jar was there on the first day of school. In fact, by the end of the first day, she had already filled the bottom with a layer of marbles. The kids didn’t say, “We’re not going to make good choices because we don’t believe you’ll put marbles in the jar.” They worked hard and enthusiastically engaged with the marble jar idea based on their teacher’s word.
One of my favorite scholars in the field of relationships is John Gottman. He’s considered the country’s foremost couples researcher because of the power and accessibility of his pioneering work on how we connect and build relationships. His book The Science of Trust: Emotional Attunement for Couples is an insightful and wise book on the anatomy of trust and trust building. In an article on the University of California–Berkeley’s “Greater Good” website (www.greatergood.berkeley.edu), Gottman describes trust building with our partners in a manner totally consistent with what I found in my research and what Ellen and I call the marble jar:
What I’ve found through research is that trust is built in very small moments, which I call “sliding door” moments, after the movie Sliding Doors. In any interaction, there is a possibility of connecting with your partner or turning away from your partner.
Let me give you an example of that from my own relationship. One night, I really wanted to finish a mystery novel. I thought I knew who the killer was, but I was anxious to find out. At one point in the night, I put the novel on my bedside and walked into the bathroom.
As I passed the mirror, I saw my wife’s face in the reflection, and she looked sad, brushing her hair. There was a sliding door moment.
I had a choice. I could sneak out of the bathroom and think, I don’t want to deal with her sadness tonight; I want to read my novel. But instead, because I’m a sensitive researcher of relationships, I decided to go into the bathroom. I took the brush from her hair and asked, “What’s the matter, baby?” And she told me why she was sad.
Now, at that moment, I was building trust; I was there for her. I was connecting with her rather than choosing to think only about what I wanted. These are the moments, we’ve discovered, that build trust.
One such moment is not that important, but if you’re always choosing to turn away, then trust erodes in a relationship—very gradually, very slowly.
When we think about betrayal in terms of the marble jar metaphor, most of us think of someone we trust doing something so terrible that it forces us to grab the jar and dump out every single marble. What’s the worst betrayal of trust you can think of? He sleeps with my best friend. She lies about where the money went. He/she chooses someone over me. Someone uses my vulnerability against me (an act of emotional treason that causes most of us to slam the entire jar to the ground rather than just dumping the marbles). All terrible betrayals, definitely, but there is a particular sort of betrayal that is more insidious and equally corrosive to trust.
In fact, this betrayal usually happens long before the other ones. I’m talking about the betrayal of disengagement. Of not caring. Of letting the connection go. Of not being willing to devote time and effort to the relationship. The word betrayal evokes experiences of cheating, lying, breaking a confidence, failing to defend us to someone else who’s gossiping about us, and not choosing us over other people. These behaviors are certainly betrayals, but they’re not the only form of betrayal. If I had to choose the form of betrayal that emerged most frequently from my research and that was the most dangerous in terms of corroding the trust connection, I would say disengagement.
When the people we love or with whom we have a deep connection stop caring, stop paying attention, stop investing, and stop fighting for the relationship, trust begins to slip away and hurt starts seeping in. Disengagement triggers shame and our greatest fears—the fears of being abandoned, unworthy, and unlovable. What can make this covert betrayal so much more dangerous than something like a lie or an affair is that we can’t point to the source of our pain—there’s no event, no obvious evidence of brokenness. It can feel crazy-making.
We may tell a disengaged partner, “You don’t seem to care anymore,” but without “evidence” of this, the response is “I’m home from work every night by six P.M. I tuck in the kids. I’m taking the boys to Little League. What do you want from me?” Or at work, we think, Why am I not getting feedback? Tell me you love it! Tell me it sucks! Just tell me something so I know you remember that I work here!
With children, actions speak louder than words. When we stop requesting invitations into their lives by asking about their day, asking them to tell us about their favorite songs, wondering how their friends are doing, then children feel pain and fear (and not relief, despite how our teenagers may act). Because they can’t articulate how they feel about our disengagement when we stop making an effort with them, they show us by acting out, thinking, This will get their attention.
Like trust, most experiences of betrayal happen slowly, one marble at a time. In fact, the overt or “big” betrayals that I mentioned before are more likely to happen after a period of disengagement and slowly eroding trust. What I’ve learned about trust professionally and what I’ve lived personally boils down to this:
Trust is a product of vulnerability that grows over time and requires work, attention, and full engagement. Trust isn’t a grand gesture—it’s a growing marble collection.
MYTH #4: WE CAN GO IT ALONE
Going it alone is a value we hold in high esteem in our culture, ironically even when it comes to cultivating connection. I get the appeal; I have that rugged individualism in my DNA. In fact, one of my very favorite break-up-kick-ass-no-one-can-hurt-me songs is Whitesnake’s “Here I Go Again.” If you’re a person of a certain age, I’d put money down that you’ve rolled down the window and defiantly sung: “And here I go again on my own.…Like a drifter I was born to walk alone.…” If Whitesnake isn’t your cup of tea, there are bootstrapping anthems in every imaginable genre. In reality, walking alone can feel miserable and depressing, but we admire the strength it conveys, and going it alone is revered in our culture.
Well, as much as I love the idea of walking alone down a lonely street of dreams, the vulnerability journey is not the kind of journey we can make alone. We need support. We need folks who will let us try on new ways of being without judging us. We need a hand to pull us up off the ground when we get kicked down in the arena (and if we live a courageous life, that will happen). Across the course of my research, participants were very clear about their need for support, encouragement, and sometimes professional help as they reengaged with vulnerability and their emotional lives. Most of us are good at giving help, but when it comes to vulnerability, we need to ask for help too.
Gifts of Imperfection, I write, “Until we can receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart. When we attach judgment to receiving help, we knowingly or unknowingly attach judgment to giving help.” We all need help. I know I couldn’t have done it without reinforcements that included my husband Steve, a great therapist, a stack of books a mile high, and friends and family members who were on a similar journey. Vulnerability begets vulnerability; courage is contagious.
There’s actually some very persuasive leadership research that supports the idea that asking for support is critical, and that vulnerability and courage are contagious. In a 2011 Harvard Business Review article, Peter Fuda and Richard Badham use a series of metaphors to explore how leaders spark and sustain change. One of the metaphors is the snowball. The snowball starts rolling when a leader is willing to be vulnerable with his or her subordinates. Their research shows that this act of vulnerability is predictably perceived as courageous by team members and inspires others to follow suit.
Supporting the metaphor of the snowball is the story of Clynton, the managing director of a large German corporation who realized that his directive leadership style was preventing senior managers from taking initiative. The researchers explain, “He could have worked in private to change his behavior—but instead he stood up at an annual meeting of his top sixty managers, acknowledged his failings, and outlined both his personal and organizational roles. He admitted that he didn’t have all of the answers and asked his team for help leading the company.” Having studied the transformation that followed this event, the researchers report that Clynton’s effectiveness surged, his team flourished, there were increases in initiative and innovation, and his organization went on to outperform much larger competitors.
Similar to the story above, my greatest personal and professional transformations happened when I started asking hard questions about how my fear of being vulnerable was holding me back and when I found the courage to share my struggles and ask for help. After running from vulnerability, I found that learning how to lean into the discomfort of uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure was a painful process.
I did believe that I could opt out of feeling vulnerable, so when it happened—when the phone rang with unimaginable news; or when I was scared; or when I loved so fiercely that rather than feeling gratitude and joy I could only prepare for loss—I controlled things. I managed situations and micromanaged the people around me. I performed until there was no energy left to feel. I made what was uncertain certain, no matter what the cost. I stayed so busy that the truth of my hurting and my fear could never catch up. I looked brave on the outside and felt scared on the inside.
Slowly I learned that this shield was too heavy to lug around, and that the only thing it really did was keep me from knowing myself and letting myself be known. The shield required that I stay small and quiet behind it so as not to draw attention to my imperfections and vulnerabilities. It was exhausting.
I remember a very tender moment from that year, when Steve and I were lying on the floor watching Ellen do a series of crazy, arm-flinging, and knee-slapping dances and tumbles. I looked at Steve and said, “Isn’t it funny how I just love her that much more for being so vulnerable and uninhibited and goofy. I could never do that. Can you imagine knowing that you’re loved like that?” Steve looked at me and said, “I love you exactly like that.” Honestly, as someone who rarely risked vulnerability and always steered clear of silly or goofy, it never dawned on me that adults could love each other like that; that I could be loved for my vulnerabilities, not despite them.
All of the love and support I received—especially from Steve and Diana, my therapist—allowed me to slowly begin to take more risks, to show up at work and at home in new ways. I took more chances and tried new things, like storytelling. I learned how to set new boundaries and say no, even when I was terrified that I was going to piss off a friend or squander a professional opportunity that I’d regret. So far, I haven’t regretted a single no.
Going back to Roosevelt’s “Man in the Arena” speech, I also learned that the people who love me, the people I really depend on, were never the critics who were pointing at me while I stumbled. They weren’t in the bleachers at all. They were with me in the arena. Fighting for me and with me.
Nothing has transformed my life more than realizing that it’s a waste of time to evaluate my worthiness by weighing the reaction of the people in the stands. The people who love me and will be there regardless of the outcome are within arm’s reach. This realization changed everything. That’s the wife and mother and friend that I now strive to be. I want our home to be a place where we can be our bravest selves and our most fearful selves. Where we practice difficult conversations and share our shaming moments from school and work. I want to look at Steve and my kids and say, “I’m with you. In the arena. And when we fail, we’ll fail together, while daring greatly.” We simply can’t learn to be more vulnerable and courageous on our own. Sometimes our first and greatest dare is asking for support.
UNDERSTANDING AND COMBATING SHAME
(AKA, GREMLIN NINJA WARRIOR TRAINING)
Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That’s why it loves perfectionists—it’s so easy to keep us quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither. Just the way exposure to light was deadly for the gremlins, language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.
VULNERABILITY AND SHAME IN ONE BOOK!
ARE YOU TRYING TO KILL US?
DEFENSE AGAINST THE DARK ARTS
Last year, after I had finished a talk on Wholehearted families, a man approached me on the stage. He stuck out his hand and said, “I just want to say thank you.” I shook his hand and offered a kind smile as he looked down at the floor. I could tell that he was fighting back tears.
He took a deep breath and said, “I have to tell you that I really didn’t want to come tonight. I tried to get out of it, but my wife made me.”
I chuckled. “Yeah, I get that a lot.”
“I couldn’t understand why she was so excited. I told her that I couldn’t think of a worse way to spend a Thursday night than listening to a shame researcher. She said that it was really important to her and I had to stop complaining, otherwise I’d ruin it for her.” He paused for a few seconds, then surprised me by asking, “Are you a Harry Potter fan?”
I stalled for a second while I tried to connect everything he was saying. When I finally gave up, I answered his question. “Yes, I am a huge fan. I’ve read all of the books several times, and I’ve watched and rewatched the movies. I’m hardcore. Why?”
He looked a little embarrassed before he explained, “Well, I didn’t know anything about you, and as my dread built up about coming tonight, I kept picturing you as Snape. I thought you’d be scary. I thought you’d be wearing all black and that you’d talk slowly and in a deep, haunting voice—like the world was ending.”
I laughed so hard that I almost spit out the water I was drinking. “I love Snape! I’m not sure that I want to look like him, but he’s my favorite character.” I immediately glanced over at my purse, which was still tucked under the bottom of the podium. In it my keys were (and are) attached to my beloved LEGO Snape keychain.
We shared a laugh about his Snape projection, then things got more serious. “What you said really made sense to me. Especially the part about us being so afraid of the dark stuff. What’s the quote that you shared with the picture of the twinkle lights?”
“Oh, the twinkle light quote. It’s one of my favorites: ‘Only when we’re brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.’”
He nodded. “Yes! That one! I’m sure that’s why I didn’t want to come. It’s crazy how much energy we spend trying to avoid these hard topics when they’re really the only ones that can set us free. I was shamed a lot growing up and I don’t want to do that to my three kids. I want them to know they’re enough. I don’t want them to be afraid to talk about the hard shit with us. I want them to be shame resilient.”
At this point we were both teary-eyed. I reached up and did that awkward “are you a hugger?” gesture, then I gave him a big ol’ hug. After we let go of our this-stuff-is-hard-but-we-can-do-it embrace, he looked at me and said, “I’m pretty bad at vulnerability, but I’m really good at shame. Is getting past shame necessary for getting to vulnerability?”
“Yes. Shame resilience is key to embracing our vulnerability. We can’t let ourselves be seen if we’re terrified by what people might think. Often ‘not being good at vulnerability’ means that we’re damn good at shame.”
As I stumbled for better language to explain how shame stops us from being vulnerable and connected, I remembered my very favorite exchange from Harry Potter. “Do you remember when Harry was worried that he might be bad because he was angry all of the time and had dark feelings?”
He enthusiastically answered, “Yes! Of course! The conversation with Sirius Black! That’s the moral of the entire story.”
“Exactly! Sirius told Harry to listen to him very carefully, then he said, ‘You’re not a bad person. You’re a very good person who bad things have happened to. Besides, the world isn’t split into good people and Death Eaters. We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.’”
“I get it,” he sighed.
“We all have shame. We all have good and bad, dark and light, inside of us. But if we don’t come to terms with our shame, our struggles, we start believing that there’s something wrong with us—that we’re bad, flawed, not good enough—and even worse, we start acting on those beliefs. If we want to be fully engaged, to be connected, we have to be vulnerable. In order to be vulnerable, we need to develop resilience to shame.”
At this point, his wife was waiting by the stage stairs. He thanked me, gave me another quick hug, and walked away. Just as he reached the bottom of the stairs, he turned back and said, “You may not be Snape, but you’re a damn good Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher!”
It was a conversation and a moment that I’ll never forget. On the way home that night, I thought about a line from one of the books where Harry Potter was detailing the fate of several unsuccessful Defense Against the Dark Arts teachers: “One sacked, one dead, one lost his memory, and one was locked in a trunk for nine months.” I remember thinking, “Sounds about right.”
I won’t go on with the Harry Potter metaphor because I’m sure there’s one or two of you out there who haven’t had the chance to read the books or see the films, but I have to say that J. K. Rowling’s incredible imagination has made teaching shame a lot easier and way more fun. The allegorical power of Harry Potter lends itself to talking about everything from the struggle between light and dark to the hero’s journey and why vulnerability and love are the truest marks of courage. Having spent so long trying to describe and define unnamed emotions and experiences, I find that Harry Potter has given me a treasure trove of characters, monsters, and images to use in my teaching. For that, I’ll be forever grateful.
I didn’t set out to become a wild-eyed shame evangelist or a Defense Against the Dark Arts teacher, but after spending the past decade studying the corrosive effect that shame has on how we live, love, parent, work, and lead, I’ve found myself practically screaming from the top of my lungs, “Yes, shame is tough to talk about. But the conversation isn’t nearly as dangerous as what we’re creating with our silence! We all experience shame. We’re all afraid to talk about it. And, the less we talk about it, the more we have it.”
We have to be vulnerable if we want more courage; if we want to dare greatly. But as I told my Harry Potter friend, how can we let ourselves be seen if shame has us terrified of what people might think?
Let me give you an example.
You’ve designed a product or written an article or created a piece of art that you want to share with a group of friends. Sharing something that you’ve created is a vulnerable but essential part of engaged and Wholehearted living. It’s the epitome of daring greatly. But because of how you were raised or how you approach the world, you’ve knowingly or unknowingly attached your self-worth to how your product or art is received. In simple terms, if they love it, you’re worthy; if they don’t, you’re worthless.
One of two things happens at this point in the process:
Once you realize that your self-worth is hitched to what you’ve produced or created, it’s unlikely that you’ll share it, or if you do, you’ll strip away a layer or two of the juiciest creativity and innovation to make the revealing less risky. There’s too much on the line to just put your wildest creations out there.
If you do share it in its most creative form and the reception doesn’t meet your expectations, you’re crushed. Your offering is no good and you’re no good. The chances of soliciting feedback, reengaging, and going back to the drawing board are slim. You shut down. Shame tells you that you shouldn’t have even tried. Shame tells you that you’re not good enough and you should have known better.
If you’re wondering what happens if you attach your self-worth to your art or your product and people love it, let me answer that from personal and professional experience. You’re in even deeper trouble. Everything shame needs to hijack and control your life is in place. You’ve handed over your self-worth to what people think. It’s panned out a couple of times, but now it feels a lot like Hotel California: You can check in, but you can never leave. You’re officially a prisoner of “pleasing, performing, and perfecting.”
With an awareness of shame and strong shame resilience skills, this scenario is completely different. You still want folks to like, respect, and even admire what you’ve created, but your self-worth is not on the table. You know that you are far more than a painting, an innovative idea, an effective pitch, a good sermon, or a high Amazon.com ranking. Yes, it will be disappointing and difficult if your friends or colleagues don’t share your enthusiasm, or if things don’t go well, but this effort is about what you do, not who you are. Regardless of the outcome, you’ve already dared greatly, and that’s totally aligned with your values; with who you want to be.
When our self-worth isn’t on the line, we are far more willing to be courageous and risk sharing our raw talents and gifts. From my research with families, schools, and organizations, it’s clear that shame-resilient cultures nurture folks who are much more open to soliciting, accepting, and incorporating feedback. These cultures also nurture engaged, tenacious people who expect to have to try and try again to get it right—people who are much more willing to get innovative and creative in their efforts.
A sense of worthiness inspires us to be vulnerable, share openly, and persevere. Shame keeps us small, resentful, and afraid. In shame-prone cultures, where parents, leaders, and administrators consciously or unconsciously encourage people to connect their self-worth to what they produce, I see disengagement, blame, gossip, stagnation, favoritism, and a total dearth of creativity and innovation.
Peter Sheahan is an author, speaker, and CEO of ChangeLabs™, a global consultancy building and delivering large-scale behavioral change projects for clients such as Apple and IBM. Pete and I had the chance to work together last summer and I think his perspective on shame is spot on. Pete says,
The secret killer of innovation is shame. You can’t measure it, but it is there. Every time someone holds back on a new idea, fails to give their manager much needed feedback, and is afraid to speak up in front of a client you can be sure shame played a part. That deep fear we all have of being wrong, of being belittled and of feeling less than, is what stops us taking the very risks required to move our companies forward.
If you want a culture of creativity and innovation, where sensible risks are embraced on both a market and individual level, start by developing the ability of managers to cultivate an openness to vulnerability in their teams. And this, paradoxically perhaps, requires first that they are vulnerable themselves. This notion that the leader needs to be “in charge” and to “know all the answers” is both dated and destructive. Its impact on others is the sense that they know less, and that they are less than. A recipe for risk aversion if ever I have heard it. Shame becomes fear. Fear leads to risk aversion. Risk aversion kills innovation.
The bottom line is that daring greatly requires worthiness. Shame sends the gremlins to fill our heads with completely different messages of:
Dare not! You’re not good enough!
Don’t you dare get too big for your britches!
The term gremlin—as we are most familiar with it—comes from Steven Spielberg’s 1984 horror comedy Gremlins. Gremlins are those evil little green tricksters who wreak havoc everywhere they go. They’re manipulative monsters that derive pleasure from destruction. In many circles, including my own, the word gremlin has become synonymous with “shame tape.”
For example, I was recently struggling to finish an article. I called a good friend to tell her about my writer’s block, and she immediately responded by asking, “What are the gremlins saying?”
This is a very effective way of asking about the shame tapes—the messages of self-doubt and self-criticism that we carry around in our heads. My answer was “There are a few of them. One’s saying that my writing sucks and that no one cares about these topics. Another one’s telling me that I’m going to get criticized and I’ll deserve it. And the big one keeps saying, ‘Real writers don’t struggle like this. Real writers don’t dangle their modifiers.’”
Understanding our shame tapes or gremlins is critical to overcoming shame because we can’t always point to a certain moment or a specific put-down at the hands of another person. Sometimes shame is the result of us playing the old recordings that were programmed when we were children or simply absorbed from the culture. My good friend and colleague Robert Hilliker says, “Shame started as a two-person experience, but as I got older I learned how to do shame all by myself.” Sometimes when we dare to walk into the arena the greatest critic we face is ourselves.
Shame derives its power from being unspeakable. That’s why it loves perfectionists—it’s so easy to keep us quiet. If we cultivate enough awareness about shame to name it and speak to it, we’ve basically cut it off at the knees. Shame hates having words wrapped around it. If we speak shame, it begins to wither. Just the way exposure to light was deadly for the gremlins, language and story bring light to shame and destroy it.
Just like Roosevelt advised, when we dare greatly we will err and we will come up short again and again. There will be failures and mistakes and criticism. If we want to be able to move through the difficult disappointments, the hurt feelings, and the heartbreaks that are inevitable in a fully lived life, we can’t equate defeat with being unworthy of love, belonging, and joy. If we do, we’ll never show up and try again. Shame hangs out in the parking lot of the arena, waiting for us to come out defeated and determined to never take risks. It laughs and says, “I told you this was a mistake. I knew you weren’t _________ enough.” Shame resilience is the ability to say, “This hurts. This is disappointing, maybe even devastating. But success and recognition and approval are not the values that drive me. My value is courage and I was just courageous. You can move on, shame.”
So, I’m not trying to kill you. I’m just saying, “We can’t embrace vulnerability if shame is suffocating our sense of worthiness and connection.” Strap yourself in, and let’s get our heads and hearts around this experience called shame, so we can get about the business of truly living.
WHAT IS SHAME AND WHY IS IT SO HARD TO TALK ABOUT IT?
(If you’re pretty sure that shame doesn’t apply to you, keep reading; I’ll clear that up in the next couple of pages.)
I start every talk, article, and chapter on shame with the Shame 1-2-3s, or the first three things that you need to know about shame, so you’ll keep listening:
We all have it. Shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience. The only people who don’t experience shame lack the capacity for empathy and human connection. Here’s your choice: Fess up to experiencing shame or admit that you’re a sociopath. Quick note: This is the only time that shame seems like a good option.
We’re all afraid to talk about shame.
The less we talk about shame, the more control it has over our lives.
There are a couple of very helpful ways to think about shame. First, shame is the fear of disconnection. We are psychologically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually hardwired for connection, love, and belonging. Connection, along with love and belonging (two expressions of connection), is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Shame is the fear of disconnection—it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging, or connection. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong. Here’s the definition of shame that emerged from my research:
Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.
People often want to believe that shame is reserved for people who have survived an unspeakable trauma, but this is not true. Shame is something we all experience. And while it feels as if shame hides in our darkest corners, it actually tends to lurk in all of the familiar places. Twelve “shame categories” have emerged from my research:
Appearance and b