Living Wholeheartedly: Why Vulnerability and Failure Are Part of Your Path to Success
The road to success, according to Brené Brown, is paved with failures.
Which is why Chainsaw Communications is reviewing her book, “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.” Like you, we’ve gotten knocked down, and like Chumbawumba, we get back up again. According to shame and vulnerability researcher Brené Brown, we’re doing it right.
Yes, it looks like a self-help book, and you aren’t really one of those people, right? Neither are we. Brown, however, is a PhD researcher who spent years studying shame, vulnerability, and other squishy, unpleasant emotions, then used solid deductive reasoning to come to some quantifiable conclusions. In a nutshell: Vulnerable people are more successful. So check it out. By the end of the book, you might not even need to hide this cover from everyone else on the plane.
In both of her top-rated Ted Talks, Brown—a reformed perfectionist—announced to millions of people that her research into shame and vulnerability led to a full-on b̶r̶e̶a̶k̶d̶o̶w̶n̶ spiritual awakening. You’ll understand why that’s a big deal in a few paragraphs.
Then, she calls Ted a “failure conference.” Because just about every single person ever invited to speak has tried, and failed, dozens of times. Just like you.
As a qualitative researcher, her mantra was, “If you cannot measure it, it does not exist.” Shame and vulnerability definitely exist.
Are you afraid of failure? Join the crowd. Are you deeply ashamed of something? Almost certainly. Do you want to talk about it? Probably not.
And that’s where Brown comes in. You really aren’t the only deeply flawed, tragically imperfect failure out there. The difference between miserable, unhappy failures—the blamers and shamers—and joyful, successful failures, like so many of the public speakers you’re trying to emulate, is vulnerability.
“Vulnerability is not weakness,” says Brown. “Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experiences.” Without vulnerability, there can be no love, no achievement, no greatness.
The Path from Shame to Vulnerability, or “Wholehearted Living”
This book wants you to move from a place of being ashamed of your imperfections, to an acceptance of vulnerability. It’s not a recipe, it’s a process, and you don’t have to complete it before your next big speech to reap the benefits. For instance, you can become courageous by “couraging.”
The book offers ten guideposts on the path to what Brown calls Wholehearted Living, finding grace and success in imperfection, failure, and vulnerability. A chapter is devoted to each, explaining what made her tens of thousands of research subjects happiest and most successful: What they chose to embrace, and what they decided let go.
You should probably read the book in its entirety—it’s short—but here are some of our takeaways from each chapter.
- Authenticity: Be yourself, flaws and all. You are worthy of acceptance and success. And there are better ways to navigate the harsh world than wearing that suffocating mask every day.
- Self-compassion: On some level, you’re criticizing everyone around you as harshly as you criticize yourself. Even worse, on some level, they realize it. Treat yourself better and your whole world will benefit.
- Resilience: Without the emotional crutches of addiction, obsession, and psychological shields, you’re going to need to bounce back from failure on your own.
- Gratitude: Brown’s happiest, most successful interview subjects deliberately practice gratitude every single day. Why not give it a try?
- Intuition: Life is uncertain, so trust your gut. The worst thing that can happen is that you’ll be wrong.
- Creativity: Because, as Brown says, “the only unique contribution we will ever make in this world will be born of our creativity.”
- Play: Dull people who work all the time are never the most successful people. Play (and rest), if you want to achieve more on a higher level.
- Calm: Anxiety can be beneficial in spurts, but as a lifestyle just wears you down.
- Meaningful Work: Status and sustenance are just two thirds of the success equation. The happiest people are also doing something that matters.
- Laughter: Brown summarizes this one with a quote from the movie Almost Famous: “The only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you share with someone else when you’re uncool.”
If you try, you will fail. If you cower in your comfort zone, you will fail. Failure is part of the human experience.
But, you will never find true success by building a psychological suit of armor to fend off that inevitability. Instead, you’ll keep wasting precious time shaming, blaming, judging, and critiquing all those around you, avoiding connection, indulging in addictions, and secretly nursing a profound feeling of unworthiness.
Your family, your career, your health, and your social life all suffer for it. And, more to the point of a Chainsaw Communications blog, how do you expect to give a great presentation if that’s where you’re coming from?
Consider giving Brown’s wholehearted method a try instead.
Connect to Your Family, Audience, and Organization, with this One Weird Trick
Whether you’re a public speaker, a rock star, or just an average person leading an average life, connection with others is of paramount importance. “Connection is why we’re here,” says Brown. “It’s what give meaning to our lives.”
We’re wired for connection to other people, whether by design or evolution, and without it we simply cannot function.
“In my research, I came across something that absolutely unraveled connection in a way I couldn’t understand and had never seen,” says Brown “It turned out to be shame.”
Unless you’re a full-blown sociopath, you are deeply ashamed of something. Probably lots of things. If anyone finds out about your mistake, failing, or sin, they’ll never look at you the same way again, right?
This is why so many people bury their shame, and in the process cut themselves—their real, authentic selves—off from the world. We feel unworthy. We stop taking unnecessary risks. We numb ourselves to failure.
The ways we choose to do this not only sabotage our path to success, they can sabotage everything.
Shame may be Jung’s “Swampland of the soul,” but you’ve got to go in if you want to learn to be vulnerability. And as Brown says, “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” Courtesy of Ted
You Can’t Selectively Numb Emotions
We are awash in heavily edited perfection: Curated social media profiles, Photoshopped celebrities, professional messaging. We mere mortals too often react to our blemish-free surroundings by burying our failure and shame.
We turn to prescription pharmaceuticals, alcohol, illegal drugs, and other addictive behaviors—compulsive eating, shopping, Facebooking, and gambling, to name a very few—in order to numb those negative emotions.
It works. Sort of.
The problem is that you can’t selectively numb bad feelings. When you drown shame, fear, and anxiety in a sea of addiction and abuse, you end up suffocating everything. Including joy, passion, empathy, and love. Go too far down the perfectionism hole, and you may start trying to avoid even those.
“Joy is as thorny and sharp as any of the dark emotions,” writes Brown. “To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees—these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain.”
Is this why so many of us spend every single evening in front of the television or computer, rather than interacting with friends and family?
If you want to let go of the defense mechanisms, you need to let go of shame.
Great. So How Do I Do That?
Shame may be why you are in debt, obese, addicted, medicated, and/or on Facebook seven hours a day.
You can see how any of those coping methods could lead to even more shame.
Instead of drowning their sorrows, Brené Brown found that if you tell someone about your foibles, failures, sins, and mistakes, you will be able to let them go. For real and forever.
“Shame loves secrecy,” explains Brown. “The most dangerous thing you can do after a shaming experience is hide or bury that story.”
We’ve all given a terrible speech, and Brown double down on a doozy. She was nervous, uncomfortable, and did everything wrong, despite knowing better. Her audience was downright pissed off.
Afterward, she was deeply ashamed of her very public failure.
We’ve all been there, right? Or did you think it was just you?
Unlike most of us, however, Brown decided to talk about the embarrassing incident immediately, before it metastasized. Before it sent her running to the nearest banana-nut muffin or Xanax for relief.
The trick, says Brown, is choosing the right person to talk to. You don’t want someone who will sympathize (rather than empathize) with you: “Oh, you poor thing” or “bless your heart” will just add to your burden. Also avoid anyone you’ll be letting down; they may blame you for being imperfect, or others for bringing out your flaws.
Brown, instead, chose to talk to her sister, who simply said, “That’s so hard. I’ve done that dance. I hate that feeling.”
It worked. Brown let herself be vulnerable, opened up to an empathic loved one, and released her shame into the ether before it could hurt her
Do you have an empathy expert in your life, someone who accepts you for who you are? Work your shame out with them. You’re taking a risk, yes, but that is the only way to defeat shame.
Perhaps you can’t tell anyone in your life. Your shame is illegal, immoral, or otherwise needs to be kept from public consumption. This is, of course, the rational behind Catholic confessionals and professional therapists. Not religious or wealthy? Try PostSecret, Reddit Confessions, or any number of anonymized online places to let it go. Write in a journal. Just get it all out.
OK, I’m Free of Shame. What Now?
Courage and compassion are at the heart of being vulnerable. You can’t open yourself up to real connections with others unless you’re willing to risk rejection, criticism, and shaming-and-blaming types of abuse. Hey, everyone is trying to navigate this messed up world.
Instead of closing yourself off to it, however, you can set boundaries and hold people accountable for their actions. That’s part of vulnerability. “It’s difficult to accept people when they are hurting us, or taking advantage of us, or walking all over us,” says Brown.
Vulnerability is kind, but firm.
Courage requires that we let go of what other people think. We’re social creatures, hence our deep need for connection, but that doesn’t mean we can’t say no. If you are worthy of love and acceptance, then the path you choose to follow is worth your time.
Many of us say “yes,” or are deliberately manipulated and bullied into saying “yes,” because our deep-seated shame. It says you are “never good enough,” not until you lose the weight, make more money, get a degree, or whatever it is between you and self acceptance. Shame asks, “Who do you think you are?” To believe your path, your work, your life, is worth living. And perhaps more important than their request.
Get rid of the shame, and you get rid of that Achilles Heel. Get rid of shame, and you will be better able to embrace and enjoy your life, and your challenges, and your failures.
Take it from Teddy, who was so busy risking, failing, and living courageously that he had no time for cowardice. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
“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, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Where does this authentic, wholehearted path, untainted with shame, blame, fear, or criticism lead? According to Brown, it will lead us back to each other. And that may be the true meaning of success.