Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, self-published her first book in 2004, opening herself up to the very emotion she was writing about: shame. Her second book, The Gifts of Imperfection, became a New York Times best-seller, as did her third, Daring Greatly, which argues that vulnerability is the key to a wholehearted life. Her TED talk on the subject has been viewed more than 20 million times. If Brown’s advice has resulted in some epic successes and spectacular failures, her new book, Rising Strong, offers a remedy for the latter, teaching readers how to get back on their feet post-face-plant.
Francesca Mari: I’ve heard academics say that writing a popular book for a general audience is sometimes frowned upon. Have you experienced that? Do some academic colleagues scorn the fact that you’re a good storyteller?
Brené Brown: In Rising Strong I wrote about how one of my colleagues liked my first book on shame and said he wanted to teach it. But when he found out it was self-published, he said he would never allow a vanity book on his syllabus. The rest of that story, which I didn’t include in Rising Strong, is that when the book got picked up by Penguin, and I was offered an advance, he found out, and in front of all my faculty colleagues, he was like, “Oh my god, that’s really cool, you’re like an indie person like [Robert Rodriguez, director of] El Mariachi.”
FM: What did he mean?
BB: He’s like, “You know how those guys made that movie on their credit card, like, you’re part of that indie movement and that’s really cool.” But it was only cool because there was a modicum of success, you know? Vulnerability is really drilled out of you in the academy, and to be accessible can be a shame trigger, and to be successful outside of the ivory tower can also be a shame trigger. So you have to really, I guess, know yourself and know what you want to do. But at the University of Houston, I have to say that everyone’s been really supportive.
FM: One of the things I wondered when I was reading your book is if your writing about vulnerability could be framed another way. Could you frame vulnerability as risk-taking?
BB: I think that risk-taking is a part of vulnerability. The definition I use of vulnerability is “risk, uncertainty, and emotional exposure.” That combination is what captures it. It’s putting yourself out there and opening yourself up for hurt or disappointment or heartbreak.
FM: How does ambition fit into that?
BB: There’s nothing more vulnerable than wanting to achieve something and letting people know how much you care about it. In this culture today, what you hear most often is “I don’t really give a shit, whatever. If it works, it works. Who cares?” People armor up against failure, like it’s going to hurt less. But when I see my daughter trying out for a sports team at school, she’ll be like, “Oh my god, I really want this so bad,” and she’ll tell us and her friends how much she wants it. And I’ll tell her, “You’ve already been brave. There will be nothing that you do that’s braver than wanting something and letting people know that it matters to you.” That’s brave. And that’s vulnerable.
FM: A director friend of mine studied with a professor at the American Film Institute who said that the emotion audiences most readily empathize with is shame, and that if you want your audience to connect with a character in the first ten minutes, the best way to do that is to humiliate him. Sadness and tears, on the other hand, alienate audiences if they surface too early on. Why is that?
BB: Yeah, I think that’s true for an interesting reason: shame is incredibly contagious. It’s like yawning. When we see it in someone else, we feel it.
FM: Why is that?
BB: Shame is not a prefrontal affect or emotion. The prefrontal cortex is where we organize and rationalize and do all those things that are kind of the executive functioning. The limbic system is that really primitive, wired for survival, fight-flight part of our brain. Unfortunately, when the limbic system is activated, the prefrontal cortex goes off-line, which is why we do really stupid shit when we’re afraid. When we go into shame, we’re hijacked by that limbic system. Let’s say that you were sitting in your office and you can’t see down the hall, right? But you can see me standing in the hall, and I look down the hall and I scream bloody murder in fear. Chances are you’re going to scream bloody murder in fear too, right? Even though there’s no stimulus there. Because watching me has put you into the limbic system.
FM: Oh, wow.
BB: And so shame is a very limbic emotion. Because shame ultimately is the belief that we’re not worthy of love and connection. And belonging. And so as human beings who are wired for love and connection and belonging, when that’s threatened, it’s a threat to our survival. And so, if you’re in a theater watching a play, and someone goes into shame, it’s very likely that you in the audience will cover your mouth with your hand, you’ll look down, you’ll get flushed, your chest will get hot, your heartbeat might increase, because it’s that limbic kind of emotion, what in my field we call the master emotion.
FM: Phew! When I heard that director’s comment, I was horrified! The way I interpreted it was so dark and ungenerous. I thought human audiences just weren’t willing to empathize with sadness but that they were willing to empathize with shame. And I thought maybe that had something to do with schadenfreude, like people are only open to empathy as long as they can feel better than the object of their empathy.
BB: Yeah, no, the slippery thing there is when you say their “willingness.” I don’t think willingness plays a role in some of these really powerful affects. When you see sadness in someone, profound sadness, I think that unless you’ve really done some pretty powerful self-work, the first response to someone’s grief is going to be self-protection.
FM: Got it.
BB: Happiness is probably going to be shared. Joy could be also; joy is probably the most vulnerable emotion we feel. Joy can be terrifying for people because we’re afraid it’s going to go away. People’s ability to feel joy is completely correlated with their willingness to be vulnerable. So I don’t think that people are willing and excited to feel someone’s shame. It’s involuntary. It’s the way we’re wired. That’s why when I’m training mental health professionals, I advise them: look, just because you have these degrees in social work or counseling or psychiatry or whatever doesn’t mean that when someone’s in the room with you and shares something shaming, you won’t go into your own shame shit storm. Because it’s that contagious.
FM: Oh, wow.
BB: Yeah, you have to really know yourself. If we have a partner say, “You know, I did this really stupid thing at work, and I got caught, and I got in trouble,” it’s hard if you’re the partner hearing that to not go, “Well, what the f— were you thinking? Jesus!” Because you’re now overidentifying with it. Or if your kid says, “I did something at school, and I got really ashamed because the teacher said this,” it’s hard not to respond, “Well, never let that happen again!” As opposed to coming back with the real antidote for shame, which is empathy, which is saying, “God, that’s really hard. And I get it because I’ve been there, you’re not alone, me too, I get that.”
FM: I know you work with a lot of veterans. What’s that like?
BB: You’ve got these men and women who are serving in the military in situations where vulnerability equals death. And then they come home, and all of a sudden, vulnerability, this thing that they had been trained to shut down, is the birthplace of love, trust, intimacy, joy, and creativity. And now they have to figure out how to reopen all of these doors that they’ve not just shut but, you know, sealed shut. Which is why we see more active service people dying of suicide than in battle.
FM: Do you think that veterans are more receptive to you because of your Texas roots?
BB: Probably. I come from a family where, literally, the motto was “lock and load.” And where there was no vulnerability, there was no emotional conversation, there was no curiosity about emotion. You just did it and got ’er done. So I think one of the reasons my work resonates a lot with people in the military is that I don’t come out saying, “Vulnerability is great and we should all do it and I love it.” I come from this place of “Look, this sucks and it’s hard and it kicks my ass on a regular basis, but I know it can change our lives and I know it can change the way we live, the way we parent, the way we love each other, and the way we lead organizations. If we really want to be brave, we have to show up and be seen.”
FM: One of the things I love in the book was how you talked about the shame associated with having a Texas identity, and how in ninth grade you wanted to be just like the Diane Keaton character in Annie Hall. And I was wondering, how did that character get on your radar?
BB: I’m sure I saw Annie Hall. And I had this book called Birds of Paradise, which was about New York fashion models and Studio 54. I thought, “I was born in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
FM: How long did reckoning with those identity issues take?
BB: I still have to reckon with it. I’m a complex person. I’m a fifth-generation Texan, I grew up in a hunting family, I love shooting skeet with my dad; I still love those kinds of things, but I also believe in reasonable gun control. I’m a Christian, I go to church every Sunday, and I’m a passionate supporter of gay marriage. So I have to completely rumble with my identity all the time. Because sometimes Texas precedes you.
FM: Has anyone shamed you for being from Texas?
BB: One time someone asked my daughter if she liked being in school and she said, “Yes, ma’am”—both my kids say “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am” to other people—my husband and I still say “yes ma’am” and “no ma’am” to people. And that person turned to me and said something like, “I thought you were a more loving, connected parent.” I said I am, but being loving and connected has nothing to do with good manners. Every now and then I’ll post a picture of barbecue from the Salt Lick or something, and people will be like, “That’s not very wholehearted of you.”
FM: Because you’re eating meat?
BB: Yeah. People are complex. We just file and stereotype quickly as a way to keep ourselves safe and to give ourselves a sense of control. A stereotype is nothing more than a shitty first draft. That’s what a stereotype is, just a story we have that we’ve been handed down that we make up about someone based on bad data. If a bear ran into your house, you wouldn’t say, “Hey, excuse me, bear, are you a vegan bear?” You would just run, right? Because you would just think, “Bear. Danger.”
FM: You write a lot about the importance of feeling genuine and integrated—about the importance of accepting and sharing your failures. How can one be integrated on social media? Should people post more about their foibles on Facebook?!
BB: That’s a great question. I believe that we share stories with people who earn the right to hear them. I think you have to be clear about why you’re using social media. If your goal is to show a photoshopped, edited, perfect version of yourself, then that’s okay, but be clear about that. If what you’re trying to do is build authentic connections, (a) social media is not the place to do it, and (b) you’re going to have to be more real. I don’t think that I would ever be one to evangelize more vulnerability online. My litmus test for social media is if you know me really well—and I’m an introvert so that’s a very small group of people—or if you meet me in person at a book event, or if you follow me online, all three of those people would describe me the same.
FM: You said getting back up can take twenty minutes or twenty years. If it takes twenty years to get back up, is daring really worth it and why?
BB: I’m going to give you the worst answer ever. Yes, it’s worth it, because what’s the alternative?
FM: What about being content and safe for twenty years?
BB: I don’t think there’s anything that would cause more pain and writhing than getting to the end of your life and having to ask yourself, “What if I’d shown up? What if I would’ve stood back up? What if I would’ve said yes? What if I would’ve said ‘I love you’?”
FM: Do you have an in-box folder filled with accounts from people who have taken your advice and have gone ahead and—
BB: Oh, yeah. The majority of them will say, “I dared greatly”—which was the title of my last book—“and I got my ass kicked. I hated you for about a week. But I’m so glad I did it.” There’s a line in my last book: “There’s no greater threat to the cynics and critics and fearmongers than a person who’s willing to fall because they’ve learned how to get back up.” When you’re willing to fall, and you’re willing to risk something because it’s worth doing, and you’re able to get back up, you’re dangerous. A really great kind of dangerous. The kind of dangerous we need.
FM: It’s funny, I was telling a friend that I was reading your book, and he was like, “Brené Brown, did she do that ‘most-viewed TED talk’?” And I said, “Yeah,” and he was like, “God, when I was breaking up with somebody, they told me that I had to read her book.” So it has entered the vernacular.
BB: [Laughs.] Oh, man, that’s great. Someone telling her boyfriend when they break up, “It’s over, and you need to watch Brené Brown’s TED talk because you suck at vulnerability!” I’ve got a friend who’s on Match.com, and she’s like, “I just tell [prospective dates], ‘Watch the TED talk and let me know if you get it. If you don’t get it, you don’t need to respond back.’ ” Isn’t that the worst? [Laughs.] If you only knew how bad I was at vulnerability, you would be laughing with me.