Daring Greatly


My adult son called a few weeks ago and asked if his mom and I would join him for a few vacation days beside the ocean. My first thought was, “An adult son wants to spend some vacation time, by the ocean, with his mom and dad?” My second thought was, “What a fine job his mother and I did parenting this child?” Of course I knew better, but it was still a nice thought. My third thought was, “By the ocean? Heck yeah!” Knowing myself, that it’s hard for me to spend unstructured time without a book in my hands (you’re thinking compulsive, right?), I took Brene’ Brown’s Daring Greatly (2012). Brene’ Brown, PhD, is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, especially noted for her research on vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame. Brene’ is also a prolific author (for example, I Thought It Was Just Me (2007); The Gifts of Imperfection, 2010; Rising Strong, 2015) and public speaker, whose 2010 TEDxHouston (Technology, Entertainment, Design) talk is one of the most watched talks on TED.com.

Brene’s research debunks the cultural myth that “vulnerability is weakness.” Instead, she writes, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity….If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path….I define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. With that definition in mind, let’s think about love. 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?….The profound danger is that…we start to think of feeling as weakness.” “To feel is to be vulnerable.”

Because vulnerability is so threatening, we protect ourselves. We fiercely (!) protect ourselves. Brene’ calls it “armoring” ourselves. She writes: “As children we found ways to protect ourselves from vulnerability, from being hurt, diminished, and disappointed. We put on armor; we used our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors as weapons; and we learned how to make ourselves scarce, even to disappear. Now as adults we realize that to live with courage, purpose, and connection – to be the person whom we long to be – we must again be vulnerable. We must take off the armor, put down the weapons, show up, and let ourselves be seen.”

Three forms of armoring, or shielding, are discussed; what she calls the “common vulnerability arsenal.” They are, in her words: foreboding joy, perfectionism, and numbing.


Foreboding Joy (“the paradoxical dread that clamps down on momentary joyfulness”)

“In a culture of deep scarcity – of never feeling safe, certain, and sure enough – joy can feel like a setup. We wake up in the morning and think, ‘Work is going well. Everyone in the family is healthy. No major crises are happening. The house is still standing. I’m working out and feeling good.  Oh, shit. This is bad.  This is really bad. Disaster must be lurking right around the corner’….We’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop….Once we make the connection between vulnerability and joy, the answer is pretty straightforward: We’re trying to beat vulnerability to the punch. We don’t want to be blindsided by hurt. We don’t want to be caught off-guard, so we literally practice being devastated….And our (media-driven) culture assists in this doom-filled rehearsal (with) a stockpile of terrible images that we can pull from at the instant we’re grappling with vulnerability.”

Basically, Brene’s “foreboding joy” is what we mean by the term “catastrophize.” Her antidote? Practicing gratitude. “(T)he shudder of vulnerability that accompanies joy is an invitation to practice gratitude, to acknowledge how truly grateful we are for the person, the beauty, the connection, or simply the moment before us. Gratitude, therefore, emerged from the data as the antidote to foreboding joy.”


Perfectionism (“believing that doing everything perfectly means you’ll never feel shame”)

“Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, rule following, people pleasing, appearance, sports). Somewhere along the way, they adopted this dangerous and debilitating belief system: ‘I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it. Please. Perform. Perfect.’ Healthy striving is self-focused: How can I improve? Perfectionism is other-focused: What will they think?” Once again, perfectionism is the “belief system…’If I look perfect and do everything perfectly, I can avoid or minimize the painful feelings of shame, judgment, and blame.’”

Brene’s antidote? Appreciating the beauty of cracks. “Regardless of where we are on this continuum, if we want freedom from perfectionism, we have to make the long journey from ‘What will people think?’ to ‘I am enough.’ That journey begins with shame resilience, self-compassion, and owning our stories….(W)e have to be willing to give ourselves a break and appreciate the beauty of our cracks or imperfections. To be kinder and gentler with ourselves and each other. To talk to ourselves the same way we’d talk to someone we care about.”


Numbing (“the embrace of whatever deadens the pain of discomfort and pain”)

“(S)tatistics dictate that there are very few people who haven’t been affected by addiction. I believe we all numb our feelings. We may not do it compulsively and chronically, which is addiction, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t numb our sense of vulnerability. And numbing vulnerability is especially debilitating because it doesn’t just deaden the pain of our difficult experiences; numbing vulnerability also dulls our experiences of love, joy, belonging, creativity, and empathy. We can’t just selectively numb emotion. Numb the dark and you numb the light.”  Brene’ is reminding me of the distinction Stephen C. Hayes, PhD, makes between the “pain of presence” and “pain of absence.” In trying to avoid painful thoughts, feelings, body sensations, and behaviors, we also and necessarily absent ourselves from living the life we would like to be living.

Brene’s antidote? Aligning life with one’s values and setting boundaries. Brene’ writes, “As I asked (research participants) more pointed questions about the choices and behaviors (they) made to reduce anxiety, they explained that reducing anxiety meant paying attention to how much they could do and how much was too much, and learning how to say, ‘Enough.’ They got very clear on what was important to them and when they could let something go….When asked about the process of setting boundaries and limits to lower the anxiety in their lives, (this group) didn’t hesitate to connect worthiness with boundaries. We have to believe we are enough in order to say, ‘Enough!” Again, Brene’ is reminding me of a definition by addiction specialist Patrick Carnes, PhD, about boundaries. “A boundary – is a relationship with yourself!”

So there you have it. My 2016 summer vacation by the ocean – with my wife, and my son – and, Brene’ Brown. 

Bill Bray, Colorado Springs, CO

One Comment

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