In June 2010, Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, gave a TEDx talk in Houston on “the power of vulnerability,” condensing six years of research on shame resilience into a spare 20 minutes. Disarmingly hesitant at first, she didn’t so much address the audience as she seemed to confide in it, telling two interwoven stories: one about her academic research into shame and vulnerability, the other about the spiritual and psychological crisis the work precipitated in her, leading to a much deeper experience of authenticity and human connection.
The thesis of her talk went something like this: a pervasive sense of shame makes many of us—particularly in America—feel unworthy of human connection. Why the shame? Because in this perfectionistic culture, most of us believe we’re “not good enough . . . not thin enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough” to be worthy of love. So we can’t afford to let our guard down, become vulnerable, because letting others see us as we really are would mean we’d be rejected out of hand. Better to avoid emotional risk, avoid vulnerability, and numb ourselves to any pain we can’t escape.
The personal and social costs of this strategy, however, are great. “We are the most in-debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in US history,” she told audiences, with shopping, food, drugs, and alcohol being well-tested means for numbing out unpleasant emotions. Besides that, the whole shame/vulnerability-avoidance game backfires: by dodging emotional risks, we miss out on the genuine human connection we’re so terrified of losing in the first place.
But Brown’s research had shown that some people have escaped the shame trap. How? They let themselves be vulnerable. “They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful,” as Brown puts it. They somehow have developed a profound sense of inner worthiness. Rather than always thinking, I’m not good enough, they live in the belief I’m enough. Grounded in this rock-bottom sense of their fundamental acceptability as human beings, for whom being good enough is plenty good, they can take hold of their courage and accept their vulnerability, live “wholeheartedly” (a basic concept for Brown), loving without reservation or guarantees, living with the courage to be imperfect (unafraid to let others see their imperfections), opening themselves fully to whatever life brings, good or bad, pain or joy. In short, Brown said, “They were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were—which you have to absolutely do for connection.” Their mantra, so to speak, was “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulnerable means I’m alive.”
How do these paragons of mental and emotional health do it? Well, this talk, after all, lasted only 20 minutes; more on that would come later, much more. For the time being, Brown’s remarks struck a powerful chord with the few hundred people in the room. A little more than four minutes into her talk, when she first mentioned the word shame and its power to unravel human connection, the audience—respectfully quiet before—now responded as one voice with a collective, low, but distinctly audible “mmm-hmmm,” roughly translated as “yep, we know what that feels like.”
The talk was a rousing success, in good part because Brown excelled at what’s become informally known as the TED style: a blend of research or educational content, personal experience—usually including a period of struggle and failure—followed by breakthrough to new insight into an old problem and personal epiphany. When the formula works, it produces in attendees a potent mix of inspiration and aspiration. Indeed, TED speakers have been compared to secular missionaries, and the presentations often do seem to be modeled on a line from the old spiritual “Amazing Grace”: “I once was lost, but now am found.”
The ability to carry the audience aloft on a cloud of shared euphoria takes no small talent. A masterful storyteller with great stage presence, a wonderfully expressive face and voice, and the kind of timing that hopeful stand-up comedians would die for, Brown had the audience in the palm of her hand from her first sentence. It didn’t hurt that she came across as the genuine article—a smart, honest, slightly smart-alecky Texas girl with a disarming talent for self-mockery. As it turned out, her story resonated deeply with many people. Many, many, many people, not just those in the room.
Almost immediately, the number of viewers who’d seen the video online took off, and then within less than two years, grew to nearly six million people. (Since then, this talk has garnered a staggering 25.5 million views, making it one of the top-10 TED talks ever.) Unsurprisingly, Brown was asked to give another TED talk in March 2012, this one at the so-called flagship TED conference in Long Beach, California. The 2010 conference had been one of hundreds of modest, locally planned and sourced one-day community affairs (though licensed by the central TED organization), held all over the globe every year. The annual flagship conference, what we might call Big TED, is a five-day brainy extravaganza, costing attendees many thousands of dollars, and featuring as many famous or semifamous or wannabe famous thinkers, shakers, movers, doers, leaders, and “creatives” as can be assembled in one place at one time.
The TED talks essentially skyrocketed Brown from her life as a well-regarded but relatively unknown academic researcher/professor to a pop psychology megamedia star—blessed by Oprah (on Oprah’s SuperSoul Sunday in 2013 and in her Lifeclass series and O Magazine), highlighted all over popular media platforms, including Richard Branson’s Virgin Podcasts and Chase Jarvis’s video series 30 Days of Genius, featuring interviews with “the world’s top creatives + entrepreneurs” (Richard Branson, Ariana Huffington, Jared Leto, and Mark Cuban, among others). Brown’s also written four successful books: I Thought It Was Just Me (2008), The Gifts of Imperfection (2010), Daring Greatly (2012), and Rising Strong (2015), of which the last three, boosted by the TED talks, are New York Times bestsellers.
Brown also appears to be almost continuously on the road, doing book tours or giving talks and leading seminars at numerous big corporations, organizations, and institutions; a sampling of the better known includes the United States Military Academy at West Point, Google, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Microsoft, NASA, AT&T, Facebook, Stanford Business School, and something called, seriously, the annual World Domination Summit in Portland, Oregon (which apparently only wants to “dominate” in the kindest, most liberating, creativity-encouraging, socially responsive, environmentally correct way). And, as if she didn’t have enough on her plate, Brown now has two educational companies based on her research and theories: CourageWorks (an e-learning platform offering online courses based on her research) and The Daring Way (an extensive, in-depth certification course for counselors and therapists). Oh, and she’s still a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, which now sports the Brené Brown Endowed Chair of Social Work, supported by a two-million-dollar grant from the Huffington Foundation.
By any measure, Brené Brown is a phenomenon. And yet, notwithstanding her talents as a teacher and speaker or the surprising appeal that the subject of shame apparently holds for millions of people, it’s not immediately clear why she should be such a runaway hit. Haven’t therapists and pop psychologists and self-help gurus been talking and writing about shame and its malign effects—and possible antidotes—for decades? John Bradshaw, the famous counselor and motivational speaker par excellence first shot to fame nearly 30 years ago with his concept of “toxic shame,” popularized in his workshops and bestselling book Healing the Shame that Binds You (1988), and shame as an issue in both psychotherapy and pop psychology has been on a roll ever since. So why has Brené Brown made such a splash, and why now?
It might have something to do with the internet, which has made people more aware of the vast reach that shame has in our culture. While public shaming has always been a popular sport, the advent of online shaming—did it originate in 2004 with Facebook or 2006 with Twitter?—took it to unprecedented levels. Nowadays, the mass shaming of just about anybody for just about any reason, however trivial, is much easier, longer lasting, and possibly more poisonous than at any time in human history. It isn’t just the local villagers who jeer at the shamed person in the stocks for a day, but the increasing thousands and then millions who watch and revel in someone’s downfall and maybe tweet a few punches themselves, increasing the virulence of the attack and keeping it alive, often for months.
But you don’t have to be prey to a million snarling digital curs to experience the kind of shame that, in Brown’s view, suffuses our society, and perhaps always has. After all, a society that glorifies rugged individualism and makes a fetish of the self-made man or woman—the idea that anybody who genuinely tries hard enough can make it—will look with suspicion on people who haven’t made it. The usual suspects are the poor, the old, the fat, the unbeautiful, the powerless. But, Brown suggests, the list of those not quite making it also includes millions of us who simply believe we are “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”—a self-assessment chronically internalized as shame.
Unlike the toxic shame driven generally by child abuse, trauma, and neglect that Bradshaw describes, Brown focuses on what might be called normal shame, the kind most of us experience routinely. This much more quotidian form of shame is less like a profound wound and more like a chronic low-grade fever, which spikes dramatically from time to time, often provoked by ordinary daily incidents: a hurtful putdown by a friend, the excruciating morning memory of how loud you were at last night’s party, the bored sighs and eye rolls among colleagues as you stumble through an ill-prepared presentation, the certainty that everybody in the room is younger, better looking, more stylishly dressed than you, and so forth ad infinitum. Of course, we all engage in ordinary shaming acts ourselves as well; even nice people are frequently not nice. And if we have a scintilla of empathy for others, these acts of ours cause us to feel shame for the shame we’ve caused—a perfect circle of shame begetting shame.
As Brown points out, shame is so painful, so hard to experience, that our instinct is to haul ourselves back into our hidey-holes, go into what she calls “lizard-brain survival mode,” or else don various emotional masks and armor and try to avoid ever again being vulnerable enough to risk being so painfully exposed and belittled. In fact, we can’t stand even the word vulnerability—it sounds like sick kittens and toddlers with teddy bears and endless whining about the suffering of our “inner child.” After all, it’s the opposite of strength, toughness, and steely determination, right? And even if, as Brown defines it, vulnerability means “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” and is “the core of all emotions and feelings . . . the birthplace of love, joy, belonging, trust, intimacy, creativity, and all the good things,” who wants to be this poor, soft, soppy vulnerability baby? Certainly, vulnerability won’t get you a corner office or admission to Harvard, or even pay the rent!
But in a startling feat of semantic legerdemain, Brown has taken the concepts of shame and vulnerability and turned them completely on their heads. As she sees it, shame is universal and normal and, far from being something to hide and avoid, can be a kind of goad—however unpleasant—to making changes in our lives for the better. In short, she subversively makes shame less shameful, a part of the ordinary human condition. So the question isn’t why shame, but what to do about it. Can we really turn this sow’s ear into a silk purse?
The Power of Vulnerability
In a way, yes—which brings us yet again to vulnerability. Far from being the quintessential expression of weakness, signaling a regression into emotional infantilism, vulnerability (which, remember, leaves us exposed to the possibility of shame), when faced and accepted and fruitfully used, is a thoroughly adult form of personal and moral strength, the embodiment of what used to be called character. To allow ourselves to be vulnerable, Brown writes in Rising Strong, requires in us “the courage to show up and be seen, even if it means risking failure, hurt, shame, and possibly even heartbreak.” To willingly inhabit the vulnerability that’s truly the lot of all humans is the key to living authentically, or what she maintains in The Gifts of Imperfection is “the choice to show up and be real . . . the choice to be honest . . . the choice to let our true selves be seen.” That means, paradoxically, “leaning in” (a favorite Brown expression) to the feelings that most of us want to avoid. The very title of Daring Greatly is drawn from the words of a man who was certainly the embodiment in American history of all-out valor, derring-do, no-holds-barred commitment—the manly man famously devoted to the strenuous life, Theodore Roosevelt. And Brown quotes TR on the first page of her book: “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.”
Whew. In this muscular vision of the good life, the fear of shame—that bane of all human existence—must not be an excuse for going to the ground, but an uncomfortable prod to living as wholeheartedly as possible. In short, don’t bury your shame or hide your vulnerability, but bring them out into the light of day—suitably clothed, of course, since Brown isn’t an advocate of runaway confessionalism or baring your shame-wounds indiscriminately, but of sharing with discernment. “Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust,” she writes in Daring Greatly. “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.” Maybe it’s a kind of psychologically astute, 21st-century version of Robert Frost’s famous line “Good fences make good neighbors.” And it may be relevant that even though Frost’s narrator doesn’t seem to like the idea of walls, the joint wall-mending project with his neighbor requires both men to engage and work together. In Brown’s view, you can’t have shame-healing wholeheartedness without forging and experiencing human connection—life-giving, for sure, but also often painful and hard, leaving us (metaphorically, we hope) like TR’s hero, “marred by dust and sweat and blood.”
But what seems to resonate most with audiences and readers is Brown’s personal integrity and authenticity. In both her books and presentations, we believe her when she talks about how well she personally knows the costs of failure and shame, the resort to defensiveness, self-righteousness, blame, and revenge when cornered, the overall and under-all terror of vulnerability. Indeed, just such an open admission of vulnerability was probably what helped propel her to fame in the first place. In that first TEDx talk, for instance, she recalled her own “
breakdown spiritual awakening” (as the words appeared on a screen behind her while she talked), triggered by the discovery that the very qualities held by shame-resilient and wholehearted people were qualities she almost entirely lacked. A hard-driving, take-charge, perfectionistic, self-critical sort of person, she found out—much to her initial distress—that the valiant souls she most admired had, quite simply, the courage to be imperfect, the self-compassion not to punish themselves every time they were imperfect, and the willingness to “let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were.”
Since then, she’s candidly spoken and written of numerous such incidents of shame and hard-fought recovery, falling and floundering and getting up again, both from her own life and from her research. All the while, one book to the next, one presentation to the next, we not only feel she’s in some degree just like us, but see her grow, gradually relaxing into her genuine self, albeit not always without certain qualms. As she charmingly writes in Rising Strong, becoming herself meant coming to terms with the fact that she wasn’t and never would be a “sophisticated New York intellectual with a loft in SoHo and a weekly appointment with an expensive analyst.” She wanted to be Annie Hall, she writes, but discovered that she had more in common with Annie Oakley, “a cusser from a long maternal line of cussers,” who grew up hunting deer and shooting skeet, and can’t understand why everybody doesn’t say y’all and fixin’ and tump, as in “Kids! Be careful! Y’all are fixin’ to tump those glasses over.”
Brown can be funny and engaging, but at bottom she’s profoundly serious about what she calls “the work,” which seems to be as much a spiritual as psychological quest. Her own life looks a bit like a spiritual pilgrimage, from a worldview that venerated certainty, self-sufficiency, control, predictability—in fact, perfect invulnerability—to one that was richer, more promising in its rewards, but also implicitly riskier, less secure. In one interview, she talks about “leaning into what you cannot see, knowing somehow you will come out the other side okay.” A member of the Episcopal Church (she joined at the height of her own emotional crisis), she described her research—and in fact, life itself—as a constant “tension between qualitative and quantitative, what’s measurable and not measurable, what’s known and what’s mystery. . . . It is a dance, and sometimes the dance is choreographed steps and to know them is beautiful. But sometimes you just shut your eyes and twirl.” Brown seems to be trying to help us live less choreographed lives and do a little more wholehearted twirling.
In the following interview with Networker editor Rich Simon, Brown, who will be the keynote speaker at the 2017 Networker Symposium, discusses the applications of her work for the practice of psychotherapy, as well as facing the challenges of her own unexpected media celebrity.
An Interview with Brené Brown
NETWORKER: Most therapists spend a lot of time addressing the same issues you highlight in your work: people’s experience of shame, guilt, blame, and self-judgment. But over the past few years, beginning with the incredible popularity of your 2010 TED talk, it’s hard to think of anyone in our profession who’s sparked more of a response in the broader culture than you have. What is it about your work that you think has generated so much attention?
BRENÉ BROWN: First, I want to say that I started my research on shame and vulnerability as a graduate student by talking to therapists who helped me understand these constructs and how they fit together. But until recently, the social processes underlying shame haven’t received the attention they deserve in the research community. Nonetheless, I think so many people resonate with my research because I use simple language to describe things and share my own story and struggles. I know from my personal experience that these topics can be uncomfortable and painful. I’m not always comfortable relating the research to my own experiences, but I think facing that fear and unwillingness, and translating the research, can change lives.
NW: Within the therapy world, it was probably John Bradshaw who first explored the central role of shame in personal transformation. How would you compare Bradshaw’s perspective with your own?
BROWN: I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t be doing this work without Bradshaw’s book Healing the Shame that Binds You. But his perspective was shaped by the recovery movement and his own interest in evolutionary biology. As a grounded theory researcher and social scientist, I come at the subject differently. Rather than starting with existing theories, grounded theory researchers build an understanding of a concept based on people’s lived experiences. The theory emerges fully from the data collected from research participants and is then placed in the context of existing theories. One of the reasons grounded theories feel relevant to people is simply because the work is built on their experiences. Our job is to stay out of the way, keep our preconceived ideas in check, and use powerful, resonating language to make connections and conceptualize what we’ve learned. In many ways, it’s similar to clinical work.
NW: Your work is filled with unique expressions describing the ways we all try to cover up our sense of shame and inadequacy. I love the image of the “vulnerability hangover”! It seems to give people a sense of discovering something inside themselves that was always there right below the surface but that they hadn’t noticed quite so clearly before. Does that come naturally to you?
BROWN: Earlier I said something about using “simple” language—but for me, finding the right words is so painstaking. Maybe it’s a sophistication-in-simplicity kind of thing, but it’s laborious. I can struggle over the single right word for months. I’ve had to unlearn what I was taught in my doctoral work—-that being too accessible can be hazardous to your career. In the eyes of some people, it means that you’re not smart. But I’ve overcome my need to sound like an expert and prove myself constantly. In fact, a central part of my research method is finding a way to name basic human processes that enables people to recognize them in themselves and realize that everyone else can recognize them too.
NW: So tell me a story about how your choice of words helps draw people more into your work.
BROWN: When I told my publisher that I wanted to call my third book Daring Greatly, and to use part of Theodore Roosevelt’s “man in the arena” speech as the epigraph, he said, “No, no, absolutely not.” The publishing team thought it was awkward English and no one would get the concept of “daring greatly.” But I felt that I had to go to battle for it, especially since this was the first book where I was including my research on men, and I wanted men to read it. My previous book, The Gift of Imperfection, was more gendered, in terms of how the book looked and even its title. So I flew to New York to discuss it with my publisher face-to-face. It was that important to me. They were like, “‘Daring greatly?’ Come on, no one speaks like that anymore.” And I said, “But it’s aspirational. Everyone wants to dare. Everyone wants to dare greatly.” And they came back by saying, “It’s 2012, we’re not gladiators any more. People don’t resonate with Roosevelt’s image of being in an arena.” But I told them that I thought people felt like they were in the arena every day, especially when they were having a difficult conversation with their partner or inside a tough parenting moment, or negotiating something at work. And so I wound up giving what turned out to be a long speech, explaining how the quote had been transformative for me.“This is vulnerability,” I said. “Everything I’ve learned from over a decade of research on vulnerability has taught me this exact lesson. Vulnerability isn’t knowing victory or defeat: it’s understanding the necessity of both. It’s engaging. It’s being all in. It’s daring 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. We live in a culture of cruelty and cynicism. It can be scary to be real. It’d feel safer to be perfect or bulletproof before we walk into that arena—but as seductive as that sounds, perfection and bulletproof don’t exist in the human experience. Daring greatly is an invitation to be courageous, to show up and let ourselves be seen, even when there are no guarantees.”
By the time I was done, we were all in tears. I think we want to be inspired, and maybe it comes down to the fact that I’m not embarrassed about the parts of myself that get goosebumps when the marching band takes the field at halftime, or when someone gives a rousing speech or gets the golden buzzer on one of those hidden-talent-in-America shows. Inspiration and aspiration are important!
NW: Therapists are often criticized because our language is too sensitive and feminized. As one of your male readers, I think a big part of your appeal is that you’re so comfortable around what are usually seen as traditionally masculine qualities, like courage and daring. You’re also comfortable with earthy language and referring to things as shitty, instead of using euphemisms. You’re like the girl who grew up hanging out with the guys.
BROWN: I’m very Texan, and that’s how we’re raised. Girls play sports, fish, hunt, and spit, at least up to a certain age. So, yes, I’m very comfortable with the male perspective, and I think that’s served me incredibly well. I’ve seen and lived the pain men feel when they have to orphan the parts of themselves that are vulnerable and sensitive. I know what it looks like when men and boys have to maintain emotional stoicism in the face of pain and even trauma. I know the underbelly of the “get ’er done” and “suck it up” family and culture. The tenacity and grit part of that upbringing has served me, but I wasn’t taught how to deal with uncertainty or how to manage emotional risk. I spent a lot of years trying to outrun or outsmart vulnerability by making things certain and definite, black and white, good and bad. My inability to lean into the discomfort of vulnerability limited the fullness of those important experiences that are wrought with uncertainty: love, belonging, trust, joy, and creativity, to name a few. Learning how to be vulnerable has been a street fight for me, but it’s been worth it. I think I can talk to men about this in a way that resonates and doesn’t come off as judgmental.
NW: Among the many things that stood out about your famous TED talk was your famous jean jacket. I can’t think of many speakers who’d wear a jean jacket when they’re having their big, national moment on the TED stage. I love that!
BROWN: I wear jeans everywhere, whether I’m giving a talk at IBM, or just going out shopping. It’s just who I am. Denim is to Texas what wool and tartan are to Scotland. It’s so important to me that people see themselves in my stories and in my work, and for that to happen, I have to be brutally authentic. I can’t show up in a Brooks Brothers suit all botoxed with big hair. That’s not who I am.
Every time I speak to a faith organization, they say, “Look, we need you to watch your language.” And every time I talk to a large corporation, they say, “Look, we need you to leave out the part where you talk about spirituality and faith.” And my message to both of them is “I’ve spent my entire career sitting across from people, listening to them talk about the most painful and difficult moments in their lives, and two things are always involved—cussing and praying. So if you’re looking for someone who’s going to change what they’re going to say based on your audience, I’m not the person to bring in.”
The Daring Way
NW: You’ve developed your own training program for mental health professionals called The Daring Way. How is it different from the training that therapists might get elsewhere?
BROWN: At the core of The Daring Way is the axiom that you have to do this work in order to do this work. It’s based on the idea that what gets in the way of therapists’ being more effective usually isn’t professional development: it’s personal development in the context of the work. I also think it’s important to put together a community of people who are not only applying the work in their practices, but also doing the work themselves. The first day of all The Daring Way trainings, we ask people the same five questions, and keep referring to them throughout our time together: What brought you here? What are your fears/concerns? What would a successful experience look like for you? What support do you need from this group to do the experential work that’s part of this training? What boundaries need to be put in place for you to feel safe?
One of the main shame triggers for therapists is the fear of not being perceived as good enough by other therapists. They don’t want other people to know things about them that might indicate that they don’t have their shit together, like “I’m going through a divorce right now” or “I’ve got a son in rehab.” But the whole idea of The Daring Way is that everybody has a life story filled with heartaches and experiences where they’ve fallen. If not, they’re not in a position to help others. Part of what makes The Daring Way unique is the importance of recognizing the strengths in our imperfections. We need to stay aware of our darkness in order to bring the light to those we’re trying to serve. For example, I can’t imagine a client wanting to work through shame with a therapist who can’t relate to what shame feels like and how scary it is to surface it and talk about it. Shared vulnerability to human experiences like shame, grief, and scarcity is such an important core of the therapeutic relationship.
NW: Specifically, how do you bring the participants’ struggles with their own sense of shame and vulnerability into the training process?
BROWN: When I ask a room of 200 therapists, “How many of you believe shame is the cornerstone of what you deal with every day in your practices?” 100 percent of the hands go up. And then when I ask, “How many of you have actually studied shame, dug into shame as a construct, really looked at it in your formal training?” probably four or five hands go up. The work around this in The Daring Way is very experiential. Everyone creates what we call shame art. For this project, one young woman I remember composed and played a haunting melody on the oboe, an instrument she hadn’t picked up for seven years. The last time she’d played was when she’d been an undergrad music major and had been told that she’d never make it as an oboist.
There was a single dad in that same group, who’d told his son about his shame art project while he was tucking the boy in one night. The boy said, “I know what that means. Shame is when you look like this,” and the kid crouched in the corner of his bedroom like a scared animal. So the dad said, “Let’s make this art project together.” And together they built a box that had a giant hand in it pointing at a child in the corner. All around the box were expressions like “You’re stupid,” “You’re not smart enough,” “You belong in the slow class.”
When people present their shame art, it’s profoundly transformative for everyone involved. Throughout the training, we talk about the importance of therapists’ finding appropriate ways to share their vulnerability with clients. We believe that a big part of what makes therapy work is the client’s seeing the therapist as a person who intimately knows shame and vulnerability. And so being able to externalize through art the things that are usually unnamed and unspeakable inside of us is very powerful.
NW: What else is distinctive about The Daring Way?
BROWN: At the end of a training program, we ask participants what the most transformative learning experience was, and it’s always the psychoeducational parts, like understanding the differences among shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment. It’s getting them to the point where they can say, “Okay, now I’m clear what shame is. Oh, okay, guilt, that’s different.” Or it’s debunking the myths of vulnerability so they can say, “Oh, vulnerability isn’t weakness; being vulnerable is actually an act of courage. Real vulnerability isn’t oversharing: it’s sharing with boundaries.” There’s a tremendous power in finding the right language for describing things. Early on, we asked more than 1,000 people to name every emotion that they’ve experienced in their lives. Do you know what the mean number of emotions is? Three: happy, sad, pissed off.
NW: There’s a kind of a waked-up quality to what you’re calling psychoeducation that owes a lot to your abilities as a wordsmith and storyteller. For your huge audience, you’ve become such an immediate presence as a kind of companion on their personal journey.
BROWN: I think that’s the connective tissue of what I’m trying to do. But I also think people have been drawn to my work because my research asks the basic question about meeting the challenges in our lives: what do men and women who manage to get back up after deep disappointment, heartbreak, grief, and failure share in common? What enables some people to become even more tenacious and courageous as a result of falling? In Rising Strong, I show that what they share is a three-stage process: the Reckoning, the Rumble, and the Revolution. People have to reckon with difficult and intense emotions. They then have to rumble with the hard stories they’re telling themselves that can sometimes get in their way of growing and moving on in their lives. Finally, the revolution comes when they recognize their part in making up the stories they’re telling themselves that are getting in their way.
So one of the things we’ve developed is what we call the “rumble glossary.” It gives people language for emotions and experiences that they literally don’t have words for. For example, we’ve identified anger as a secondary emotion. So if you’re pissed off, what’s under that? Is this really disappointment, or is this grief? There was just an interesting article in the New York Times that talks about the importance of distinguishing between the nuances of difficult emotions and how that capacity is positively correlated with recovery time from difficult setbacks in life. Everyone wants to be brave enough to rumble with these challenging emotions, but what are they? First you’ve got to name them.
NW: You’ve talked about your mission being to start a global conversation about shame and vulnerability. Aside from your TED talks and books, what are the main instruments that you’ve developed for doing that?
BROWN: After the TED talks and after the books really started taking off, and I was doing things that attracted a lot of attention, like SuperSoul Sunday with Oprah, I started getting emails from people saying, “I just read your book and I didn’t realize what shame was before. Now I’m in the middle of understanding how it’s shaped my life. So what do I do next?” So I started feeling an ethical imperative to go from being just a researcher to taking the next step and training some people who could serve as guides and coaches. There’s very little research on helpful interventions around shame. And the research we do have indicates that a lot of interventions can exacerbate shame in clients, rather than heal it. That’s what led to creating The Daring Way and developing a group of licensed practitioners we can refer people to all around the country.
Online courses can be transformative. Reading a book or listening to a talk have potential for transformation too. But we knew we had to offer a high-touch, face-to-face training program and that doing that would be really expensive. And I thought, You know what? Even if I have to fund it personally, I don’t care. We now have about 1,500 Daring Way practitioners around the world. I’ve never drawn a salary from The Daring Way. That’s not the purpose of it.
NW: Since that first TED talk, you’ve been on the extraordinary ride of becoming someone whose work is known around the world and who’s become a media celebrity. I wonder if you could talk about what that’s been like for you personally.
BROWN: I think if I’d had a way to stand under the work and push it into the spotlight while also staying out of it, that would’ve been ideal. I’m very, very, very, very introverted. I’m completely missing the fame gene. Sometimes people will say, “Can you come talk at this event? If you do, you can meet this famous person.” That has zero appeal to me. It’s not that I’m repelled by it as much as I’m just not attracted to it. At a personal level, if I’m out in public and in a good place and someone asks, “Are you Brené Brown? Can we take a picture together?” That’s fine, but if I’m tired or stressed and somebody does that, it can almost be anxiety-producing for me. So if we’re talking about my work, that’s great, but if I’m taking a selfie with you, sometimes that’s hard. I’ve learned that the first question I ask myself about every offer and opportunity that comes my way is: does it serve the work? As our prominence starts to get larger, bright and shiny things get thrown at us all the time. Lots of opportunities to make money and receive recognition come in. But at the end of the day, it’s about getting the work out to the widest range of people while maintaining its integrity. So I keep grounded by asking, “Does this offer or invitation really serve the work?” And the reality is that 90 percent of the time, it doesn’t. What does matter is being able to offer people an opportunity to engage in the work in the most meaningful way possible.
Photo © Maile Wilson
Richard Simon, PhD, founded Psychotherapy Networker and served as the editor for more than 40 years. He received every major magazine industry honor, including the National Magazine Award. Rich passed away November 2020, and we honor his memory and contributions to the field every day.