Book Review -- Daring Greatly: Part 1

Book Review, Part 1 -- Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead by Brené Brown Daring Greatly

Brené Brown is an American author, scholar and public speaker who focuses on the topics of vulnerability, courage, authenticity, empathy and shame, and works as a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. Her TEDxHouston talk on the power of vulnerability has more than 10 million views, and her work has been featured on NPR, PBS, CNN as well as published in a number of books. Daring Greatly comes in at 250+ pages, so I decided to break my review into two sections. It's definitely one of those reads that you can do a little at a time, since there is just so much to digest. I don't say this next part lightly: I'll likely recommend this book to every single person I know. Brown's theories of shame and vulnerability are rich with insight from a personal and professional perspective; she provides a ton of research in an approachable way as well as compelling anecdotes from her own studies and personal life.

She begins with an explanation of what it means to "dare greatly" and provides detailed background regarding how she stumbled onto vulnerability and shame research. The next four chapters of Daring Greatly focus on scarcity and the culture of "never enough," debunking vulnerability myths, understanding and combating shame and types of vulnerability armor. Brown writes, "When we spend our lives waiting until we're perfect or bulletproof before we walk into the arena, we ultimately sacrifice relationships and opportunities that may not be recoverable, and we squander our precious time, and we turn our backs on our gifts, those unique contributions that only we can make." (2) This is page two, folks; Brown is serious about the fact that a life worth living must include risk and vulnerability, no matter how scary or difficult that can be. She says that people spend "inordinate amounts of times calculating how much we have, want and don't have" in comparison to everyone else, from money to love. The engine of today's culture runs on principles of scarcity, for good or bad, but everything productive and lasting that we all want to do--build relationships, raise families, run organizations, nurture communities--is "fundamentally opposite" to such norms and consequently requires daily "awareness, commitment and work." (26, 29)

According to Brown, there are several myths about vulnerability. First, we think it is a weakness and/or something we can ignore or get out of entirely. Second, we think that vulnerability means "letting it all hang out" for anyone to see and criticize. Finally, we think vulnerability is something we can do alone. Brown's response: uh, no. She doesn't think any of those ideas are true, and bluntly explains why. She writes, "Yes, we are totally exposed when we are vulnerable. Yes, we are in the torture chamber that we call uncertainty. And, yes, we're taking a huge emotional risk when we allow ourselves to be vulnerable. But there's no equation where taking risks, braving uncertainty, and opening ourselves up to emotional exposure equals weakness." (32) Think about the last part for a second--when I consider the people I know who do those things (take risks, brave uncertainty, open up emotionally), I view them with respect. I wonder how they do it, and I ask to hear their story. Brown basically asks us to rewrite the script on the values associated with vulnerability, and positions it as a trait of strength, saying that it "sounds like truth and feels like courage." (36) Is vulnerability comfortable? No. But the sooner we accept that, the quicker we reap the benefits of being vulnerable with ourselves and others.

Those benefits include "love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, creativity, hope, accountability, authenticity . . .  greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives." (33) Brown argues that no matter what, human beings want all of the above for a fulfilling life, so that's why we can't opt out of vulnerability no matter how hard we try. And Brown thinks that we reject vulnerability because we associate it with  "dark emotions like fear, shame, grief, sadness, and disappointment--emotions that we don't want to discuss, even when they profoundly affect the way we live, love, work, and even lead." (33) We will always face uncertainty and risk, which tend to bring up such emotions, but we can't make them disappear--we can only choose how we're going to respond.

One of my favorite passages in this section discusses what Brown calls her "kitchen-sink self," the one without "bells and whistles, editing and impressing." (41) We're afraid to show this self to most people in our lives, even though we love seeing that side of other people. I agree with this; it seems to me that most of my deep connections with others have sprung from a moment in which one person let the other see his or her "kitchen-sink," non-perfect self. That's vulnerability. Brown continues with a beautiful passage:

"Waking up every day and loving someone who may or may not love us back, whose safety we can't ensure, who may stay in our lives or may leave without a moment's notice, who may be loyal to the day they die or betray us tomorrow--that's vulnerability. Love is uncertain. It's incredibly risky. And loving someone leaves us emotionally exposed. Yes, it's scary and yes, we're open to being hurt, but can you imagine your life without loving or being loved? To put our art, our writing, our photography, our ideas out into the world with no assurance of acceptance or appreciation--that's also vulnerability. To let ourselves sink into the joyful moments of our lives even though we know that they are fleeting, even though the world tells us not to be too happy lest we invite disaster--that's an intense form of vulnerability." (34)

Brown then totally destroys the myth that vulnerability is about "letting it all hang out." In an age of oversharing, it's pretty easy to start thinking that vulnerability equals a Facebook comment or a tweet or a blog post; additionally, we all know people who share their scars and secrets at the drop of a hat, and that actually tends to make us uncomfortable. Here's what Brown says: "Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them." (45) That's not our Facebook friends or Twitter community or new coworkers or acquaintances, at least not at the beginning, nor should we expect that. And I think Brown is careful to use the word "earned." She doesn't mean that we owe anyone intimacy after a certain time period, but that sharing our stories should be viewed as a gift we give to and receive from others, and we need to be thoughtful about that.

Chapter three delves into the intricacies of shame, as based on what Brown has discovered through her research: how shame affects our creative output, sense of self-worth, innovation in the workplace; why shame is so hard to talk about it; how shame relates to guilt, humiliation and embarrassment, and what we can do about it; how men and women experience shame differently and how it relates to sex and body image, and more. Brown says that when we attach self-worth to what we create, we become prisoners of "pleasing, performing and perfecting." Instead, she recommends remembering that while it may be disappointing or difficult if our creative endeavors don't go well, these efforts are about what we do, not who we are. (63) Brown references a conversation with well-known behavioral change author Peter Sheahan; he says, "Every time someone holds back on a new idea, fails to give their manager much needed feedback, and is afraid to speak up in front of a client you can be sure shame played a part." Both Brown and Sheahan note that shame leads to fear, which leads to risk aversion, which then kills innovation on both a personal and professional level. (65)

Brown states that we all have internal "shame tapes" that naysay our every move. She calls hers the "gremlins," and when she is working on a project, she'll often ask herself, "What are the gremlins saying?" instead of immediately accepting any critical thoughts for truth. Brown believes that disappointment, hurt feelings and heartbreaks of all sorts are inevitable in life, and part of coping requires that we show up in the fact of all that repeatedly. She says that a deep fear that we are unworthy of connection serves as the foundation of shame, and we have to believe otherwise. Getting there is its own battle. Brown writes, "In order to deal with shame, some of us move away by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, and keeping secrets. Some of us move toward by seeking to appease and please. And some of us move against by trying to gain power over others, by being aggressive, and by using shame to fight shame (like sending really mean emails)." (77) And most people partake in all three, depending on one's circumstances, but the key here is that none of these are healthy or sustainable. This relates back to Brown's argument that we can't escape the web of shame and vulnerability; we think we are "dealing with it" because we're moving in one of the above ways, but we're not actually finding our way through. Brown also found, unsurprisingly, that men and women face different challenges during this process:

"But the real struggle for women--what amplifies shame regardless of the category--is that we've expected (and sometimes desire) to be perfect, yet we're not allowed to look as if we're working for it. We want it to just materialize somehow. Everything should be effortless. The expectation is to be natural beauties, natural mothers, natural leaders, and naturally good parents, and we want to belong to naturally fabulous families." (86)

"Here's the painful pattern that emerged from my research with men: We ask them to be vulnerable, we beg them to let us in, and we plead with them to tell us when they're afraid, but the truth is that most women can't stomach it. In those moments, when real vulnerability happens in men, most of us recoil with fear and that fear manifests as everything from disappointment to disgust. And men are very smart. They know the risks, and they see the look in our eyes when we're thinking, C'mon! Pull it together. Man up."  (95-96)

Basically, we contradict ourselves. We want vulnerability from the people in our lives, but only the amount we can handle; we want to be our "kitchen-sink" selves, but at no cost. Brown says that we can't have it both ways.

At this point in Daring Greatly, I started to think, Okay. We all kind of suck at being vulnerable. Now what? Here's where Brown details the types of shields we use against vulnerability, and what we can do to "dare greatly instead. First, she recommends a major dose of empathy as a form of initial connection; when someone chooses to be vulnerable with us, the best thing we can do is listen, hold space, withhold judgment and basically find a way to communicate that he or she is not alone. Brown describes these vulnerability shields at length, as well as what we can do instead. The short version of a few: instead of foreboding joy, practice gratitude. Instead of being a perfectionist, appreciate the beauty of cracks. Instead of numbing ourselves, stay mindful. Don't use vulnerability as a manipulation tool or an attempt to fast-forward connection in relationships. Stop buying into the idea that "if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won't catch up with us." (125) Seek joy in ordinary moments, and celebrate what you have. Ask yourself if your choices comfort and nourish your spirit, or offer diminished reprieve. For Brown, "Living a connected life ultimately is about setting boundaries, spending less time and energy hustling and winning over people who don't matter, and seeing the value of working on cultivating connection with family and close friends." (145)

In the second half of Daring Greatly, Brown discusses how shame resilience and honest conversations about vulnerability can cultivate change in ourselves, our families, and our communities. Stay tuned for part two.