Brené Brown on Vulnerability and Shame

May 3, 2013

Vulnerability and Shame


by Gabriela D. Acosta


If Brené Brown has taught us anything it is that the path to wholehearted living is not an easy one. It’s not something that you can attain overnight by making a few life tweaks and adjustments.


When presenting her theories at TED conferences, the social work research-professor openly shares her experiences with shame, emotional “breakdowns” and vulnerability. The mention of delving into those three things are probably enough to make you click this page shut without a second thought, but what the concept of wholehearted living offers in return for exploring these scary topics is worth it: It means finally feeling comfortable and happy in your skin. You can’t deny that you have experienced moments of self doubt in your life. If you are lucky enough to say you haven’t, you’re either an extremely rare case or you’re just not being honest with yourself.


Wholehearted Living


Wholehearted living is described as living your life from the standpoint of worthiness. You are worthy of love. You are worthy of belonging. You are enough. The qualities of one who is living wholeheartedly are courage, compassion and connection. Courage is telling the story of who you really are as a person. Compassion means being kind to yourself, because this is necessarily before you can be compassionate with others. And connection is about letting go of who you think you should be and being who you are in order to truly connect with others. This is the recipe for wholehearted living.


Shame and Vulnerability


Brown tells us that there are two important aspects to explore on the road to wholehearted living: shame and vulnerability. These two things can often go hand and hand. At the core of shame is vulnerability.


Brown explains that guilt and shame are not the same thing. Guilt is a positive feeling that motivates us and keeps us in check when it comes to our actions and their effect on the world. We feel guilty when we make a mistake and hurt someone. Shame, on the other hand, is the belief that we are the mistake. We are the bad thing, rather than the action we committed. You can imagine how detrimental this can be to wholehearted living. Instead of accepting that we are humans who make mistakes and fail as a natural part of being, we constantly beat ourselves up for our perceived failures. We are our own cruelest critics, telling ourselves not only that we have failed, but that it is because we aren’t good enough.


While vulnerability is the seed of shame, it is also the seed of creativity, joy, belonging and love. Contrary to popular belief, vulnerability is absolutely essential to wholehearted living. Vulnerability is risk-taking, exposure and uncertainty. It’s knowing that you might not do it well, do it right or do it at all, but you have to try. This may sound terrifying to most people. It’s not easy to be vulnerable, and we tend to associate being vulnerable with being weak. Vulnerability is not weakness. To be vulnerable is to have courage. It is scary, but only through accepting it as a part of our life can we have a chance at wholehearted living. Imagine being able to live your life without allowing concerns about what others think of you rule what you do and how you present yourself to the world. I bet it sounds freeing.


How to Live Wholeheartedly


Brown gives us four tidbits of advice for attaining wholehearted living. The first is to let yourself be seen for who truly are, vulnerability and all. The second is to love with your whole heart. This means putting yourself at risk for rejection and heartache. The third is to practice gratitude and joy, meaning that in the darkest moments when you are paralyzed by fear of your own vulnerability, you stop and give thanks for living your life so fully. Feeling that fear means that you are really living and not just hiding behind your fears.


And the final piece of advice that she shares is to believe that you are enough. With this final piece, you will approach yourself and the world in a kinder and gentler way. This is the way of wholehearted living.


Author Bio: Gabriela D. Acosta serves as the community manager for the MSW@USC, one of the most innovative and dynamic social work graduate programs online. She is passionate about social justice, mental health research, and leadership development. Connect with her on Twitter @Gabyacosta101

Image Credit: Stefano Mortellaro