From vulnerability to authenticity through wholehearted living

I’ve run into a person who has changed my outlook on life, but I’ve never met her personally. Her book has deeply influenced how I view life.

Brené Brown is a psychologist/researcher who wrote the book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Hazelden: 2010) and also has an sprawling website and her blog Ordinary Courage. She first came to my attention when I saw her TEDxHouston talk, which was recently picked by Huffington Post as one of the top 18 TED videos of 2011:

Her 20 minute talk hit some deep personal scars and led me to her site and then the book. While reading the book, I was undergoing all the problems with my peripheral neuropathy, and there was an amazing interplay between my myofascial release therapy and the central concepts of Brown’s book. On the masseuse’s table, I had to strip down to my boxers and bare myself to the therapist, communicate my pain and numbness, convey how one type of stroke was making me feel, and trust that he would be able address some of the constrictions of my tissues. I had to expose my physical vulnerability to be able to start healing.

Shame and numbness


On another level, I discovered from my reading of Brown’s book that I felt deep currents of shame and, indeed, shame may actually have been one of the strongest motivating forces in my life. Shame is a “fear of disconnection” that people might find out what I am really like. Shame is such a blunt instrument that I couldn’t use it all the time, but once it’s out, it’s hard to lock it away. One way of dealing with this sense of shame is to block it out by numbing it. Brown says you cannot numb just one emotion (in my case, shame), you end up blocking the whole emotional spectrum.

Although doctors might argue otherwise, my numbness was both emotional and physical, and the deaths of my parents and the disruption that those events brought to my life this year had worsened my peripheral neuropathy to the point that it was threatening my well-being. I was grasping so hard to to my personal facade that I was choking off parts of my body and soul. Taking pain medication was just another way of blocking out parts of my body, when I needed to get back in touch with them.

Brown’s book, which has the subtitle of “Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are,” does a great job of breaking down her approach to dealing with life and accepting the vulnerability of being imperfect, and then lays out 10 guideposts that can help anyone follow her map.

Brown has a manifesto that I keep posted near my desk and stashed in my shoulder bag, and it’s available as a colorful postcard. I am going to cite it in full because it conveys her message better than I can:

Authenticity is a daily practice.

Choosing authenticity means cultivating the courage to be emotionally honest, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable; exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle and connected to each other through a loving and resilient human spirit; nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we let go of what we are supposed to be and embrace who we are.

Authenticity demands wholehearted living and loving — even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the job is so intense that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel it.

Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searchng struggles is how we invite grace, joy and gratitude into our lives.