“Know Thyself”. It was inscribed on the Temple of Apollo, it has been referenced by everyone from Plato, to Benjamin Franklin and Ralph Waldo Emerson. It’s an idea that is deeply ingrained in our culture…and rightfully so. Perhaps no other journey is as important as trying to figure out who you are and who you want to become. However, as with most things in life worth their salt, you gotta eat a lot of pepper to figure it out. You will learn a better description of what shame is and how it creeps into all of our lives. You will realize that EVERYONE has their insecurities, everyone has the same worries as you and it’s ok to embrace these insecurities and learn from them. When you walk into a room full of people that you don’t know, does it feel like everyone is looking at you, judging you? Well don’t worry, because they aren’t! We will discuss different guideposts such as letting go of what you’re supposed to do, perfectionism and fear that have been established over years of research. I say it in the intro and I say it again now, this is one of my favorite episodes to date!
This week, Jon and I try to help you in this journey as we speak with researcher, writer, and professor Dr. Brene Brown and discuss her AMAZING new book, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Dr. Brown is a member of the research faculty at the University of Houston Graduate College, where she has spent the past ten years studying a concept that she calls Wholeheartedness. Her work has been featured on PBS, Oprah, Self magazine and Elle magazine. She was recently named one of the “50 Most Influential Women of 2009” and she gave an amazing Ted talk that we recommend you check out as well.
SPP: The first thing I did want to say is this is probably Episode Number 50 or something. We’ve talked to a ton of people.
SPP: And I’m not even kidding your book and your Ted Talk was two of the things that fascinated me the most. And I’ve been so excited to talk to you so I really appreciate you being on this show.
Brene: Oh my God that means a lot to me. Thank you.
SPP: Seriously. And I think a lot of things you talk about touch close to home and I basically came across the title of your book “The Gifts of Imperfection” and I really like the subtitle “Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are”. And then after checking that book out and listening to your Ted Talk I saw your other book “I Thought It’s Just Me But It Isn’t”.
So basically I’m sure our listeners can gather just by those two titles a lot of what you do is kind of take things that everybody internalizes them and you make them well known and make people know it’s okay to have these vulnerabilities and these thoughts and these judgments, but everybody has them. Is that kind of a good way to put it?
Brene: Yes it is, it’s a perfect way to put it actually. And I think the further along I get in my career the more I realize that so much of what I do is languaging the experiences and the emotions that we all have that have never had words wrapped around them.
So I think that’s exactly what I do. I mean for me if I give a talk or a lecture and I’m talking to people afterward I used to I think early in my career I used to wince a little bit when people would say “I knew everything that you said before you said it.” I used to think oh, crap that’s not good. But now I think I’ve come to the understanding that what they’re saying is that that all resonated with me. That I knew exactly what you’re talking about I just didn’t think anyone really put it out there and had language for it. So I do think that’s exactly what I do.
SPP: Right. And like you said it resonates with people but they don’t know other people have the same thoughts, the same insecurities. I think that’s one of the things that’s most impressive, especially the way you kind of verbalize it.
Brene: Yes I don’t think we know that other people have the exact same experiences and it’s just part of the human experience. As more and more neurobiology research becomes available and accessible I think one of the things that I’m really starting to understand is that a lot of what I talk about from the longing, love, courage, worthiness, shame, a lot of the emotional experiences that I talk about happen in a place within the brain that has no access to language.
So these feelings that we had and these really overwhelming emotional experiences really don’t have words. It’s interesting because, let’s take shame for instance, we’ll just go full on for the big guns here.
SPP: There you go.
Brene: Here’s shame this absolutely universal experience, the most primitive human emotionally all experience, a lot o psychologists and sociologists call it the Master Emotion. Yes we can do – I can talk to 5000 people in the audience and I can talk about shame and I can describe how it works. How it makes us feel small, that we’re not good enough, we all know that warm wash. And I’ll talk for two hours about something at the end where everyone says the same. I had no idea that that feeling had a name and I had no idea that’s what shame was. It was just kind of this faceless, gremlin that’s constantly whispering in my ears, trying to undo everything I’m trying to get done. I think it’s helpful – I wish there were just a fancy –you all are the Smart people Podcast so maybe you all could come up with like a good name for what it is that I do, because like I don’t know what it is. It’s really about languaging things for some weird reason.
SPP: Right. No I agree. And actually it’s interesting you brought that up because I wanted to kind of dive into the subject of why people think that other people are so concerned with them? Like if you walked into a room of 100 people why does everybody think the whole room’s looking at them? Because my dad always says, he says “People pay way less attention to you than you think they do.” And that was one of the things, I mean I know you touched on that, I kind of just wanted to open that up to you. But what do you call that? What insight do you have on that? What do you hear from other people? Anything you got on that one.
Brene: Okay. So I know a lot about that because you’re dropping down into the heart of what I study and talk about, and your dad’s completely right. I’m going to butcher this quote but I can’t remember who it’s from so they won’t hold me too accountable. But some quote that says “In my 20s and 30s I worried about what everyone thought. In my 40s and 50s I stopped worrying about what people think. And then in my 60s I realized that no one was really even thinking about me to begin with”.
Here’s where we have to start with that. We are absolutely hardwired for connection. It is why we’re here. When I say we’re hard wired I don’t meant at in New Age sense I mean like we are neurobiologically cellular level wired to be in connection with other people.
SPP: I love that. I love that. That’s how I – sorry not to cut you off – but that’s just what I believe in and it’s so tough. But keep going.
Brene: No it’s rewired for it and when there is a lack of connection, when there’s disconnection, there’s always suffering. I don’t care whether we’re talking about a personal relationship and an organizational culture and a family, when there’s disconnection there’s always struggle, always suffering because we’re hard wired for it.
So what’s seen as is seen as the sphere that there’s something about us that makes us unworthy of being in connection. And that becomes a powerful driving force that here I am hardwired for connection I have to be in it. It gives purpose and meaning to my life but I’m pretty imperfect and I’ve got some inadequacies or flaws, whatever you want to call them.
And so what this driving consuming fear is if you see something about me that you don’t approve of or you don’t like I’m going to be unworthy of connection with you and that’s going to be painful for me. And so the whole idea of – I talk with my girlfriends about this all the time I’ll give you a total example. You’re in the pool – I’m in Texas so we’re always in a pool especially during the summer – so you’re in the pool and every woman in the whole world, with the exception of maybe four supermodels knows the stress of having to get out of the pool and the timing of that.
Brene: Like you’re looking both ways on the deck, you’re like okay this guy’s at 44 paces, this person’s at 23 which she’s facing east. I can be
out of the in 2.4 seconds and wrapped in a towel with my cover up.
Brene: And the truth is no one’s looking and the only reason why people might look is because you’re like hauling ass out of the pool and wrapping yourself out like a tornado in a blanket.
Brene: But if you’re normal everyone else has got their own stuff going on, but what drives that kind of idea that we’re always being evaluated and watched is our need for connection and our fear of disconnection, which is shame. Our fear that our belonging, just like we’re hardwired for connection we’re also loving the longing, our irreducible means of men, women and children in my opinion, based on my research and everything I know. Truth that love and belonging irreducible means.
And so again what the fear that creeps up in us is that I’m going to do something or forget to do something or be a certain way, or you’re going to find out something about me that makes me unworthy of like the longing connection. I think a lot of it is our need to be connected and believe that we’re good enough. And the directional relationship between kind of that always thinking that we’re in the spotlight when we’re not is the more sense of enoughness that we have. The more that we believe that we’re enough the more that we can embrace that we are imperfect and vulnerable, and believe that despite all those imperfections or vulnerabilities we’re enough and we’re worthy of belonging. The more we move in that direction the less we are convinced that everyone is watching.
SPP: Now you speak about that concept of I AM Enough. Can you explain how does a person eventually come to realize that they’re enough and what are some steps that people can take to help them get nudged in that direction? I mean that’s an awesome saying like to be able to say “Hey I’m enough”, but how does one know or what does it truly mean to be enough to yourself?
Brene: Well that was the question I asked. You know six years of doing shame research and I realized that I put a theory in academic literature about what shame resilience is. And I realized that in all of that interviewing I had actually sedated the answer to different question in kind of a more profound question in some ways for me. And that is in the midst of all this interviewing about scarcity and shame and fear I came across many, many people, not the majority unfortunately but a great number of people, who despite living in this culture of kind of scarcity and fear somehow managed to believe that they were enough.
And so that’s when I went back and did the research asking the question kind of what you’re asking and that is what does that mean and what does that look like? And it is a great thing but is there anything behind it that’s specific and tangible that we can get our hands around and kind of emulate. So what’s interesting is if you took the people I interviewed, and I talk about this in the Ted Talk, you break them into two categories. People who had a deep believe in their lovability. They believe they had a deep sense of love and belonging.
And the second group of people who struggled for it and really didn’t operate from a place of believing they were enough. The only difference between those two groups of people is the people who felt the deep sense of belonging simply believed that they were worthy of love and belonging. So the question for me became a question of worthiness. What does that mean to believe that you’re worthy of love and belonging. And what I found is what I write about in “The Gifts of Imperfection” there were very specific choices, I guess that’s the best word really, that these folks made every day, practices that they engaged in that were tangibly different in the lives that the other folks led.
So for example, I’ll give one that’s related to all of us, creativity. One way we start to cultivate a belief in our own worthiness, that’s the belief that we’re enough, is every single person in that category engaged in creativity, practiced some kind of creativity. For me that was personally very difficult to get my head around because I’m one of those people before I did this research I was one of those people who often said “Like I don’t do creativity. I’m not a creative person.”
And almost because I’m kind of a worker kind of person almost this miscreativity is a little bit flaky and self-indulgent. I would say things like, someone says “Hey Brene do you want to go to this photography class or do you want a scrapbook with us?” And I’m like oh that’s really cute. You have your ART, I have a JOB, and do your little art project and I’m going to be over here working. And what I realized in doing this research is that there is no such thing as creative people and not creative people. There are only people who exercise their creativity and people who don’t.
And more importantly that unused creativity is not benign. It doesn’t just dissipate in us, it metastasizes into judgment like I had, fear, grief, all kinds of it plays out in our lives, and it shows up in our work life, it shows up in a lot of different ways. And one of the things I’ve been doing a lot of this past year is a lot of work with large organizations and Fortune 100 companies asking you to come in and talk about wholeheartedness and worthiness and vulnerability as it relates to innovation and creativity. And how this pulled back is that without vulnerability, without a sense of worthiness, creativity is impossible.
Brene: I mean when people tell me barriers on an option then my response now is then never is innovation, because to risk and innovate is inherently vulnerable.
SPP: Absolutely. The whole part about being creative and putting art out there you kind of have to let go if you paint something or sculpt something you’re trusting that other people are going to enjoy it and not really worry that people are going to think something about you and that kind of stuff. It’s one of those things where you really do have to let go of what other people think. Create what you want to create, what makes you happy, and there’s other people out there who are going to enjoy it as well.
Brene: That’s exactly right. And that translates, I mean we don’t think about this as much in kind of organizational culture, but it absolutely plays out at work all the time. I mean to put an idea I did a really interesting – I did a talk for 50 CEOs in Silicon Valley and the other person presenting I was very intimidated, because I was just very intimidated. Got very vulnerable and like your dad I should have had a talk with your dad before that because I did feel like everyone’s watching and waiting for me to screw up because that’s not my background.
Brene: But the guy who was also presenting that day he was on the cover of “Fast Company Magazine” the month we were presenting for being a disruptive innovator. And when we were talking I asked him and he had no idea what I studied or did. I said “What is the one thing that you think gets in the way of innovation more than anything in the corporate culture?” And he said “Well it doesn’t really have a name or at least I don’t know it, but it’s this fear of being laughed at and put down.
Brene: And so creativity is necessary in every aspect of our lives. So that’s one of the guides that these folks have in common. Cultivating play and rest, playing more, taking care of ourselves in terms of sleeping and resting, this is something that folks who had that sense of being enough wholeheartedness had in common. On the other side you saw folks like myself who I’m kind of a reformed near wholehearted person, I’m working at it, who rather than playing and resting were folks who look at exhaustion as a status symbol.
SPP: I read that in your book and I was actually going to touch on that because I know people that go both ways. And the thing about I’ve been at the company where the boss says “You’re not allowed to leave before I do” and he’s there until 10. Not because he’s getting all that work done but because that makes him seem like the most important guy at the company.
Brene: No I mean it’s true. I mean I have the idea to eavesdrop on conversations when I was doing this work. And I rode up and down until I was so nauseous I couldn’t do it anymore, in an elevator in one of the big buildings in downtown Houston just listening to people talk, a building where there were a lot of law practices. And the conversations were obscene. I mean you know oh what time did you leave last night? I left at 1:00. When did you leave? Oh dude, I didn’t leave.
SPP: Yes. I slept here.
Brene: Yes. And the thing is that it becomes a status symbol and it’s not just in a corporate milu. Like if I walked up to a group of friends, you know PTO friends at my son’s school, and they said “How are you?” And I said “I’m doing really great. Well rested. I don’t have really more work than I can handle. I’m taking care of myself. It beat me up everywhere.
SPP: You’ve talked to a ton of people, you’ve interviewed, done a lot of research. In your professional and personal opinion if you can’t be creative or are held back creatively in your job, is that something that people should get out of and look for something that they can be creative? I mean even if it’s a great well paying job you always hear the term soul sucking job and I look at it that way where if you can’t be creative about your job eventually your entire soul just gets sucked out of you.
Brene: Yes and I think I use the term soul sucking job.
Brene: I have a chapter in Meaningful Work that I actually kind of talk about this a little bit and I have mixed feelings like the passionate emotional side of me, which is a big side of me. I wanted to say “Yes leave.” But I’m 46 and I’ve seen just enough for me in life to know that that can almost be a dangerous mandate. Because I have a lot of friends who, if you have a child who has got a chronic illness and your soul sucking job is got great insurance, then that’s how you pay that and that’s how you keep your family well.
Or I have had friends who have jumped off a cliff, they’ve made their leap and that I have a soul sucking job, I want to do creative work, I want to do meaningful work, and they’d one it and it’s worked out well. And I’ve had friends who jumped in it’s been dangerous and hard. And I guess I would say is that when we talk about engagement and work and meaning and creativity I think some people can figure out a way to get their meaning, their creativity from the same place they get their paycheck, and other people have done incredible jobs where they have a job that may not reasonable meaning or unleashed their greatest creativity, but they have other parts of their lives where they do that. And I don’t think that’s any less meaningful.
There’s a book that I quote from a lot called “The Slash Effect”. And it’s about people who have put together multiple careers and do multiple things a Rabbi who’s also a standup comic, a longshoreman who’s also a documentary filmmaker. I think as we move into this new idea of kind of co-creation and a more creativity, I guess, a creative generation and more creativity and hopefully infusing all jobs. I think sometimes you can get that but just because you have to be an accountant during the day and you really don’t love it but you make jewelry at night doesn’t mean you’re an accountant with a little hobby, it means you’re an accountant and a jeweler and those are equally important. So I think that there’s a lot of different life to do it.
SPP: Yes it’s funny that you mentioned you have friends who do both. And I’ve talked about it on a podcast a little bit, but I worked in a finance field for about five years and it was kind of the long hour things and talk about how long you’ve been there. But I never thought I was creative. It was kind of what you talked about earlier. I was just like my brother’s the creative one. I like to play sports and try to make money, and that’s just what I do. But for some reason I wasn’t getting this fulfillment.
So I did the thing where I pretty much completely left, didn’t have a job for awhile really, but started this podcast, found a little creative voice, and now for the first time I’m in a company that is way outside of pretty much what I went to school for, what I thought I would do, and it is the right path. So I’ve kind of been in both places where I had money didn’t like, didn’t have money didn’t like it, and now there’s a zone in the middle. So I think you got to take your own track towards it maybe.
Brene: Yeah and I think a lot of times when people, some of the most creative people I know and people who are really exercising their creativity, are in jobs that you would think are completely void of creativity. I don’t think it’s always about something that most of us readily identify as creative arts, it’s photography, painting. It can be creative problem solving. I think the ability to express yourself pass an autonomy and feel seen and heard in terms of your ideas. I think that’s creative engagement.
SPP: No I like that. You mentioned this a couple of times I don’t think we touched on it enough because it is also a little subtitle to your book “Your Guide to a Whole Hearted Life” and whole hearted is kind of a genre of person, I guess that you created. And I really like it, it stuck with me, especially through your Ted Talk and everything because you talk about what makes a whole hearted person. And one of the things that really, really stuck out to me is they embrace vulnerability. And I don’t know it’s so strong or powerful for me because it’s so bizarre. Like why would you ever want to like being vulnerable? It’s stupid right like in my opinion.
Brene: It’s totally stupid.
SPP: Yeah and you talk about you were the same way. You were like I’m going to beat this vulnerability down. I’m going to figure it out, I’m going to solve it. And that’s the exact approach that I would take no joke. But the way you verbalized it made me a believer in a 20 minute speech or whatever, so I was hoping you could kind of tell a little bit more about embracing vulnerability?
Brene: Yeah it’s so funny because, this is my nervous laughter, I don’t like it either. I guess I could start with I mean Whole Heartedness was the name I gave to the group of people who really felt this deep sense of love belonging, who had a lot of – three things I think would define them as immense courage, total engagement, and a clear sense of purpose and meanings. And I wanted to be that but unfortunately what I found, really when I thought I asked the question like what do the whole hearted have in common I was hoping like hell the answer was going to be their all shame researchers.
And then I was thinking it might be it, but the answer was that they all embrace vulnerability and I couldn’t believe it, because I became a researcher specifically to avoid vulnerability.
Brene: But I guess the easiest way to start this is to bust the two big vulnerability myths. The first is that vulnerability is weakness. We live in a culture that abhors weakness. We hate weakness in people. We don’t like it in ourselves. And so we’ve kind of convinced ourselves that being vulnerable is about being weak. But when you ask people, like really ask hundreds of people what is vulnerability to you? What does it mean? What does it look like? What does it feel like? And what you come up with very quickly and what you hear very quickly has nothing do with weakness.
So let me give you some examples. I’m going to read, and I haven’t published this information yet it’s actually going into a book that I’m literally turning in the next couple of weeks. So vulnerability is sharing an idea at work, taking accountability for something that went wrong, calling a friend whose child just died, being with my wife while she’s in chemotherapy, initiating sex with my wife, initiating sex with my husband. Knowing my kid’s getting pushed around at school and knowing that I’m doing everything I can but he’s got to figure out some of it on his own. Vulnerability is loving someone who’s struggling, loving anyone period.
SPP: Right. You used the term saying I love you first. I mean how much more vulnerable can you get right.
Brene: Yes. I mean that’s the big one. If you really look at what vulnerability is, if you look at every example starting a podcast when you had no idea. I read your bios no idea probably for what you were doing.
SPP: Not a clue. The first episode is embarrassing to listen to.
Brene: Yes no idea if you’d be successful but doing it right.
Brene: And that’s vulnerability it has nothing to do with weakness, it’s all about the extent to which we are willing to be vulnerable is the most accurate measure of our depth of courage.
SPP: Do you see, especially with people in America, that we’re going to become more vulnerable? And just to let you know my verbal crutch that word is very hard for me. I don’t know why. But you talk about people being selectively numb and we’re overmedicated, we’re over addicted, we’re in debt, everything out there, and it just keeps getting worse and worse. Do you see this getting better for us?
Brene: I see people sick and tired of being afraid.
Brene: I would define the last. And I think I read that you all are maybe in your 20s.
Brene: Which is very formative because I would define the last decade as a decade absolutely of scarcity and fear, never enough, never good enough, never rich enough, never powerful enough, never promoted enough, never enough.
SPP: Oh yes.
Brene: What is interesting to me is I think we have grown weary of that and I think courage, I do I think courage is going to be the new thing. I mean and not in a sad way, but I think at some point there’s that quote I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired. I think when people understand vulnerability and start having conversations about it what I think we’ll see is like small campfires lining up all over a dark area. We’ll see people start changing their immediate cultures like my family culture, our work culture, our culture at church, our culture at this school. That we’ll start to see shifts in smaller cultures and at some point I think that will hit critical mass.
But let me tell you the work will be tremendous for this region. That scarcity culture depends on three things: 1) a prominence of people struggling with shame which we absolutely have right now, a pandemic on disengagement which I see everywhere I go, whether I’m speaking at a huge corporation or I’m at a school, or I’m speaking with at group of parents disengagement is the issue. And it takes comparison like we are a very comparing culture. Not only do I feel like I don’t have enough I want to know exactly how much you’re getting. What will have to happen is there will have to be enough leaders within families, schools and organizations, enough leaders who are saying “I’m going counter culture on this.”
I’ll give you a perfect example of what that looks like. One of the things that happens in a culture scarcity is a mantra becomes fun, fast and easy. If it’s not fun, fast and easy I’m not doing it. Well I don’t believe in that at all. As a professional, as a person, as a mom, I have a 12-year-old and a 6-year-old, I don’t believe in that. So one of the things that the counter culture message in our house is we have this great plaque that hangs. It’s big it’s 20×20. That says “We can do hard things.”
And I’m going to work every day in the culture of my family with my husband Steve to send different messages that are coming. And I tell my kids you don’t have to win your heat in the swimming, you don’t have to score the most goals in the soccer game, what you do have to do is work hard and show up. And what I see leaders at work doing is coming forward and saying “Screw the exhaustion metric we’re done with this. I’m going to ask you to take care of yourself because when you’re here I need you to be engaged.”
SPP: My God I would love to see that happen.
Brene: Yes. And maybe the whole organization doesn’t go but maybe one team goes and then maybe a couple of teams go. But what I see is I see people hungry for engagement, hungry for clarity, hungry for courage, but that is not going to be a wakeup one day and everything shifts. It’s going to be a lot of us. You doing interviews with interesting people, talking about ideas, whether people will agree with my ideas or anyone’s ideas you’re putting out a respectful engaged discourse. That’s how we change the world. So I do think it’s going to change but it’s going to take critical mass.
SPP: I definitely agree with that, like that idea, and hope to be one of those people that can spread that so. And I know you do it well and that’s why I wanted to speak with you. I know we’ve gone over on time, but one last thing.
SPP: And I hope this isn’t giving too much away because obviously we want to people to purchase your book, but one of the best things I have ever read in a book was at the end of your book you say “What’s the greater risk, letting go of what people think or letting go of how I feel, what I believe and who I am?” And that’s so crazy because at the time you’re not going to think that right. You walk in or say you get out of that pool you’re going to be constantly wondering about how you feel and what other people think. But the greater risk really on the grand scheme of things is not at all that. It’s the fact that you put all this energy into worrying about it rather than yourself and bettering and things like that.
Brene: Absolutely. I think this external focus that we talked about from like the earlier part of our conversation about your dad through right now all comes from the courage to be who we are, the courage to put how we feel and what we need and believe first, all stems from this idea of worthiness. And it all stems from the idea of practicing, putting into practice these ideas. Like every time I go into a difficult situation where I really want to practice authenticity I have to do my whole little mantra. I have to do a whole little like routine in my head. And one of the reasons I don’t like the fun, fast and easy axiom is that every single one of the things that a whole hearted group of people talked to me about was a practice.
There’s a quote in my book that says “You learn courage by couraging” from a theologist. And I think we learn how to be authentic and whole hearted by practicing it and screwing it up and getting back up and doing it again. And in order to do that I think we have to have connection with a few people in our lives who while we’re down on the ground won’t kick us will just put a hand out and help us up and say “Dude, you tried and that’s awesome.
SPP: Yes. And Brene again thank you so much for being on the show. You are such a joy to talk to. It was a lot of fun and both Chris and I side. Your book again “The Gifts of Imperfection” is available at bookstores on Amazon. Did you have any Web sites or anything you wanted to plug? You mentioned that you had a book coming out soon. Can you give our listeners anything about that?
Brene: Well I’m going to have a book coming out in September and it’s going to be all about the power of vulnerability.
Brene: The whole book is on vulnerability so I’m really excited. Title yet to be announced but if you want to stay in touch with what’s going on you can go to www.brenebrown.com and you can find links to my blog and all kinds of stuff. And I really appreciate my time with you all, it was a lot of fun.
SPP: Yep it was. It was great. Thank you so much.