Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW Interview by Grover Gardner
GROVER GARDNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Brené Brown. Brené is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She is the author of The Gifts of Imperfection and I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t). Her latest book is Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, which is a One Spirit Book Club selection. Brené is also a nationally renowned speaker and has received numerous teaching awards, including the college’s Outstanding Faculty Award. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Psychology Today, and has been featured on NPR, PBS, and CNN. Blackstone Audio is publishing the audio version of Daring Greatly, narrated by Karen White, simultaneously with the hardcover on September 11, 2012. Welcome, Brené. Thank you for joining us today.
BRENÉ BROWN: I’m excited to be here with you.
GG: Before we get to the new book, I want to talk a little about the general background of your work. We know the shelves are groaning with self-help books, confidence-building, “doggone it, I’m a nice guy and people like me,” and that sort of superficial approach, but your work is very different. Much more profound. Your research into issues of shame and vulnerability—could you tell us how your approach differs from the topical, think-positive sort of thing?
BB: I really had no intention of having a career that looked anything like this. As a young doctoral student, I was really interested in understanding the anatomy of connection. I have a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in social work, and I was getting my PhD, and the one thing that I’ve learned from all that education is that connection is why we’re here. We’re neurobiologically hardwired for it, which is not something that we talked about when I was in school, but certainly something that we have a lot of data to support now. We’re hardwired for connection. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives, and the thing that I was really interested in understanding is the anatomy of connection. It’s such a gauzy word. It’s hard to get our hands and our head around it and so I started off doing—I’m a qualitative researcher—some interviewing around connection and asking people, “Tell me about the most important relationships in your life. Tell me about the most valuable connections you feel with different people.” And as people often do, they described connections to me by telling me their stories of disconnection and heartbreak. Very quickly in that process—really a matter of a couple of months—I ran into this thing that violently unraveled connections between people. And it turned out to be shame. I was very interested in this topic because it was so powerful. I couldn’t believe, even having three degrees and being a mental health professional, that I’d never really studied it or read about it. So I spent six years studying shame and fear and scarcity and what are the messages and expectations that fuel this feeling that we’re not good enough, rich enough, beautiful enough, powerful enough. Then, in year seven, I turned everything on its head and said, “Okay, I get how shame works. I’ve written a book. I’ve put a theory into the academic literature.”But what about all these people I’ve interviewed over the last six years who wake up in the morning in the same world I wake up in, but rather than the litany of “not enough,” they say, “You know what, I’m imperfect. I screw things up. Things are messy right now. But I’m enough.” So I called them the Wholehearted, and I spent the next several years asking the question: What does it take to live and love with our whole hearts? And the answer was twofold. The two biggest things were engaging with the world from a place of worthiness, really staring down shame and understanding how it operates in our lives. And the second piece was engaging with vulnerability. Wholehearted men and women embrace and accept and engage with vulnerability where (laughs) I think the rest of us run like the wind from it. At least I do, or I did. I know until I not only did the research but then started to apply it in my own life that I had spent most of my life like many people, trying to outrun and outsmart vulnerability, trying to stay ahead of uncertainty and risk and emotional exposure. And so that’s what led me to Daring Greatly.
GG: Where does this come from? Biologically aren’t we supposed to be whole? Where does all the shame crop up in our lives?
BB: That’s a good question. I think it comes from a lot of different places. A great way to think about shame to me is prerequisites for worthiness. If I took the men and women I’ve interviewed over the last dozen years and divided them crudely into two groups, people who have a strong sense of love and belonging—which I would argue is an irreducible need of men, women, and children, that we have a sense of love and belonging. If you took that group and then you took another group of people, which would be the larger group. That’s the group of people who struggle for a sense of love and belonging. They struggle to believe they’re deeply lovable. They struggle to feel like they belong. The only variable that was really different between these two groups is that the people who believe—the people who have a sense of love and belonging—believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. This made me crazy. It actually pissed me off a little bit because I thought, “What does that mean? How do you get to a place where you believe you’re worthy of love and belonging?” And I thought maybe these are the people whose lives have turned out really beautifully. But as it turns out, that’s not the case. These were not folks who had fewer divorces or histories of trauma or addiction or bankruptcies. They’re just people who in the midst of struggle believed they were still worthy of love and belonging. So when you ask where does the shame come from, I think—from our families of origin forward—we get these subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle messages: “Well, you’ll be more worthy of love and belonging if, or when—if you make partner, when you lose ten pounds, if your husband doesn’t leave, if you stay sober, when your daughter gets into Stanford.” These really subtle ideas that our worthiness is not inherent—that’s where I think shame comes from, and we have lots of them. I think again the majority of them probably … they always say, “I have a therapist who’s a good friend who says, ‘Our family pushes our buttons the best because they’re the ones who set them.’”
BB: Which I think is so true. I think a lot of it comes from families of origin, but also when you turn on the TV. I’ve never been a parent and not been a shame researcher, so I spend a lot of time talking to my kids about body image and critical awareness and privilege and entitlement and gratitude and the things that I think make a difference, but I often tell parents to safeguard your children from the media.
BB: By turning off the television to try to protect them is like protecting them from air pollution by asking them not to breathe.
BB: So I think it starts in families, but we have a culture that’s very pervasive around perfection.
GG: So we have to recognize this and in a sense be proactive in our families and raising our children and we can’t ignore it.
BB: No. Part of the last chapter of Daring Greatly is about wholehearted parenting. I said earlier that love and belonging are irreducible needs of men, women, and children. And I believe that with every fiber of my being. I mean not just my heart, but intellectually. As a researcher there’s no question in my mind that that’s true. And so, when I talk to groups of kids, high schoolers, junior high kids, I always ask them this question: “What do you think is the difference between fitting in and belonging?” And it’s an interesting question that I’d never thought of, but it emerged as very important in my data because the biggest barrier to belonging is fitting in. Fitting in is about accessing the situation and acclimating. Belonging is about showing up and letting yourself be seen. And so when I asked kids that question, of course, they immediately knew what the difference was.
BB: They’d say things like, “Fitting in is wanting to be with people you want to be with. Belonging is being with the people who want you.” And one of the things I heard over and over from teens and tweens was, “Not belonging at school is really hard, but nothing is as painful as not belonging at home.”
BB: So when you say to me we have to have an awareness and an awakening about these issues, we have to do something with our families. We have to have conversations about belonging and shame and vulnerability with our kids.
GG: Mm. Is this an American syndrome? Western syndrome? Is this worldwide?
BB: I think that’s a great question. We don’t have very many cross-cultural shame studies just because there are a lot of language issues, which I see all the time because I work with translators when the book gets published in other countries. Translators will call me and say, “Oh God, these words are tough,” and, “We’ve got twenty words for shame.”
GG: Right, right.
BB: English interestingly has one, but this is not an American phenomenon. The TED Talk on vulnerability has been translated into something like forty languages. This is about being human.
GG: Presumably, people have been dealing with this for centuries. Why is it important now?
BB: One, I think it’s more pervasive now. Daring Greatly, the title of the book, is based on a quote by Theodore Roosevelt, often called the “Man in the Arena” quote or “Citizen in a Republic” speech, where he says: “It’s not the critic who counts. It’s not the man who points as the strong man stumbles. The credit goes to the man who’s actually in the arena, fighting, coming up short again and again”—I’m paraphrasing—“because whether he wins or loses, whether he’s valiant or he fails, he’s in there trying and he’s daring greatly.”
BB: And the question becomes, in this culture today, which is so critical—I call it projectile criticism and reflexive cynicism.
BB: If you’ve ever raised a toddler, you know exactly what that looks like.
BB: Projectile criticism, reflexive cynicism. It’s so hard to walk into that arena and say I’m going to give this a shot. I’m going to put this idea on the table at work. I’m going to tell this person I love them. I’m going to say it first. I’m going to send my child to school and get excited for them because they’re trying out for first chair in the band, when I know that’s probably not going to happen. But I’m going to dare greatly and walk into the arena. That is so hard in this culture today because we are so cynical and so critical that we may have always struggled with vulnerability and we may have always struggled with shame, but this is the first time in my life as a researcher—and I started this, ironically, right before September 11, so I’ve seen a huge change in the zeitgeist around fear and fear of being vulnerable, and uncertainty. This is the first time ever where I think that we have forgotten that the heart of courage is vulnerability.
BB: I challenge people to give me an example of moral courage, of leadership, of something exciting in the classroom that’s not born of vulnerability.
GG: What is authentic leadership? What does that mean? I see the term but what’s behind that?
BB: Well, I think to me … I’m very specific in my work around leadership and I define a leader as anyone who holds him or herself responsible and accountable for finding the potential in people and processes. I don’t think there’s any correlation between being a leader and the number of direct reports you have.
BB: I have talked with CEOs who in no way, shape, or form—in my opinion—are leaders, and I’ve talked to frontline people who are some of the strongest leaders I’ve ever seen. So to me, authentic leadership is about the willingness to be vulnerable, to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and the willingness to have the courage to try things without guarantees. I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure, and someone who can find the potential in people and processes in the midst of uncertainty and risk and exposure, that’s authentic leadership to me.
GG: Your talks and your books seem to resonate with women, but it’s not just about women.
BB: No. I think probably my readers and viewers of the TED Talks are probably fifty-fifty now, and I think that was very purposeful with Daring Greatly because it’s the first place I write about my research on men and shame. It’s the first place I write about things from both sides and both perspectives. And early in my career, when I first started studying shame, I didn’t study both men and women. I just studied women because there was a lot of controversy and debate in the literature about how men and women experience shame. Do they experience it the same way? Are women more susceptible or are men more susceptible? In the last five years, I’ve focused a lot on men and their experiences. So this is for all of us.
GG: So Daring Greatly, the new book, how having the courage to be vulnerable and how this transforms the way we live, love, parent, and lead, this is kind of summarizing, bringing us up to date on the vulnerability issue and the shame issue.
BB: Absolutely. I’m really excited—I think this is the heart of my work. This is the big stuff. I think the book is a rollicking adventure, everything from very personal, intimate—there are some parts in there on intimacy and vulnerability and sex and body image—to what’s happening in leadership and schools and corporations, to parenting. In the beginning, the publisher thought that maybe we should do a book for everyone—a book on leadership, a book on men, a book on women, a book on parenting, schools. And I thought no, because the lessons are the same and we’re whole people and we have multiple roles in our lives. I mean, I’m a mother, I’m a wife, I’m a professor, I’m a researcher, I’m a sister, daughter, friend. Vulnerability’s a full-body experience, a full-contact sport, and so I think the best way to do it is to sit down with this and talk about how this works itself through our lives and how it shows up in every part of our lives.
GG: Well, I could go on all day. This is fascinating. We probably should leave something for the book, so I’ll let you go. And thank you. I can’t imagine a better lead-in to wanting to explore the new book and also your previous work, so I really appreciate you talking with us today.
BB: Thank you so much, and I’m looking forward to the collaboration.
GG: Yes, thanks. Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview with Brené Brown. You can find Daring Greatly and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in September 2012.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
Researcher and thought leader Dr. Brené Brown offers a powerful new vision that encourages us to dare greatly: to embrace vulnerability and imperfection, to live wholeheartedly, and to courageously engage in our lives.
“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 at best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”—Theodore Roosevelt
Every day we experience the uncertainty, risks, and emotional exposure that define what it means to be vulnerable, or to dare 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.
In Daring Greatly, Dr. Brown challenges everything we think we know about vulnerability. Based on twelve years of research, her book argues that vulnerability is not weakness but rather our clearest path to courage, engagement, and meaningful connection. The book that Dr. Brown’s many fans have been waiting for, Daring Greatly will spark a new spirit of truth—and trust—in our organizations, families, schools, and communities.