I recently had the great privilege and pleasure of interviewing Brené Brown, one of the world’s most original and exciting thinkers about emotional life, before a packed audience at London’s historic Conway Hall. It was no surprise that the event, organised by The School of Life, sold out its five hundred tickets within a record time of 48 hours. Brené – a research professor at the University of Houston – is seriously popular. Her 2010 TED talk on The Power of Vulnerability has been seen by over six million people, and her new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead, is at the top of the New York Times best-sellers chart.
To give you a taste of her book, and the conversation we had, I’d like to pick out five of Brené’s ideas that I find to be particularly insightful, original and applicable to everyday life.
1. Having a ‘vulnerability hangover’ is good for you
Brené’s big idea is that vulnerability is good for you, or as she puts it, ‘vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage’. We live in a culture where making yourself vulnerable – exposing your fears and uncertainties, taking emotional risks – is considered a form of weakness, and something most of us want to run away from. But Brené’s research reveals the hugely positive outcomes that emerge from stepping into the arena of vulnerability. It is precisely when we expose ourselves – perhaps in a relationship or at work – that ‘we have experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives’.
But the bit I like best is the concept of the ‘vulnerability hangover’. If you really take that big step and make yourself vulnerable, then it is pretty likely that the next morning you’ll wake up thinking, ‘Oh my God! Why did I share that? What was I thinking?’ In fact, if you don’t feel any vulnerability hangover, then maybe you didn’t go far enough.
2. Narcissism is the fear of being ordinary
We live in a ‘culture of scarcity’, according to Brené. But she’s not talking about material scarcity. To understand what she means you need to grasp her idea of the ‘never enough problem’. Most of us, she argues, see ourselves as ‘never X enough’. And that X could stand for ‘never GOOD enough’, ‘never PERFECT enough’, ‘never SUCCESSFUL enough’, or maybe never SMART, THIN or EXTRAORDINARY enough. In other words, we are always striving but inevitably find ourselves lacking in some fundamental way. And that erodes us and diminishes our self-esteem. ‘Worry about scarcity is our culture’s version of post-traumatic stress,’ she writes.
Now let’s focus on the idea of ‘never EXTRAORDINARY enough’. One of my favourite sentences in Brené’s latest book is this: ‘when I look at narcissism through the vulnerability lens, I see the shame-based fear of being ordinary.’ I think this offers a really unusual and insightful way of thinking about narcissism. Forget the standard idea that narcissism is about an excessive and self-indulgent form of self love. Rather, it is ‘the fear of never feeling extraordinary enough to be noticed, to be lovable, to belong, or to cultivate a sense of purpose’.
The message, perhaps, is not simply that being ordinary is OK, but also to embrace the beauties of the ordinary moments in life, like sharing a meal with close friends and family, rather than constantly striving for the extraordinary.
3. Women and men experience shame differently
Alongside vulnerability, Brené’s other major area of research is shame. Probably the best place to start with her thinking is to watch her 2012 TED talk on Listening to Shame. She defines shame as ‘the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging’. And there are three things we really need to know about shame: we all have it, we’re all afraid to talk about it, and the less we talk about it, the more control it has over our lives.
Yet what I find especially compelling is her argument that women and men experience shame differently. She sums it up like this: ‘For women, shame is a web of unattainable expectations that say, Do it all, Do it perfectly, and Never let them see you struggle. For men, the primary shame mandate is, Do not be perceived as weak.’
When she asked women what tended to trigger shame, the primary response was how they looked – despite years of consciousness raising and critical awareness, women still tend to feel shame about not being thin, young and beautiful enough. Men’s most common response was that shame was triggered by a sense of failure – whether it was at work, on the football field, in bed, in marriage or with children.
4. Empathy is the antidote to shame
But if shame is such a burden, what are we supposed to do about it? The answer is developing ‘shame resilience’, and it is empathy that is the ‘real antidote to shame’. What does she mean? ‘If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.’
So we can’t really get over shame without other people. We can’t keep shutting it out by keeping ourselves busy (or distracted). We can’t wish it away by denying our feelings. What we really need to do is seek connection with someone who is going to lend us an empathic ear, someone who is able to listen to us and endeavour to understand our fears, anxieties and uncertainties.
The implication, as I see it, is that our emotional health requires socially positioning ourselves within a community of empathy. This is not to say that every friend we have has to be an empathic genius. But rather we should be wary of being without empathic support. If you drew a map of your social support network, how many people could really offer you the gift of deep empathy?
Of course, the flip side is that if we want people to display empathy towards us, this is most likely to happen when we display our vulnerability to them. Without exposing ourselves, making that human connection we need to combat shame is nearly impossible.
5. The Museum of Epic Failure
One of my personal pet projects is to create the world’s first Empathy Museum. With this in mind, my final question to Brené was as follows: ‘Imagine you could create a Museum of Daring Greatly. Not a dusty Victorian museum full of displays behind glass cabinets, but an experiential and conversational public space that could really transform people. What would you put in the museum?’
To which she replied, without a moment’s pause, ‘I wouldn’t found a Museum of Daring Greatly. I would found a Museum of Epic Failure.’
I love that idea – a museum full of examples of people who failed at what they strived to achieve, who took risks, who made themselves vulnerable. Only when we realise how much failure has been a staple of human affairs, and how many people – often renowned figures – have failed in their endeavours, will we be ready to embrace failure, like vulnerability, as a kind of virtue.
In answering my question Brené was no doubt thinking of the 1910 speech delivered by Theodore Roosevelt that gave the title to her new book – and which applauds a certain kind of epic failure:
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.
Roman Krznaric is the author The Wonderbox: Curious Histories of How to Live and How to Find Fulfilling Work. He is a founding faculty member of The School of Life, and blogs on empathy and the art of living at www.outrospection.org. Watch his RSA talk on The Six Habits of Highly Empathic People. Follow him @romankrznaric