What’s the big deal about vulnerability?

Brené BrownI am inspired by this revealing, open-hearted TED talk by Brené Brown, a social work researcher at the University of Houston.  She has spent the last ten years studying courage, authenticity, vulnerability, and shame. Here are the questions she is trying to answer through her research:

“How do we learn to embrace our vulnerabilities and imperfections so that we can engage in our lives from a place of authenticity and worthiness?

How do we cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection that we need to recognize that we are enough – that we are worthy of love, belonging, and joy?”

These questions have struck a chord within me. I am at a point in my life where I am doing some serious thinking about what I am meant to do during this lifetime. Call it a mid-life crisis or what-have-you, but this is all good stuff and I want to talk about a few things that have propelled me on this exploration.

Brené’s talk really hit the nail on the head in so many ways.  In a nutshell, she says the main barrier to living a truly authentic life is shame. Shame of not being good enough, pretty enough, smart enough– the list is endless. But when you douse shame with empathy, it goes away pretty quickly. And with empathy comes that thing that is essential to relationships: connection. Feeling connected at one’s job, with friends, with family. If we feel any kind of shame or sense of unworthiness, we feel vulnerable and then we tend to shut down and not show our true, authentic self to people and in so doing, prevent the connection we all want. And this can prevent us from stepping out and claiming what we desire so much.

During her talk, Brené made a full disclosure: as a researcher, she said was the last person on earth who would make herself look or seem vulnerable and here she was, studying that very topic. She realized that in order to really understand vulnerability, she had to be vulnerable herself. So she took herself to a therapist! And yeah, she exposed her extreme vulnerability by telling 500 TED attendees that she had a “breakdown”– which in her second talk in 2012 she called a “spiritual awakening”! (And since her first talk went “viral”, it apparently reached MILLIONS of people!)

Exploring Vulnerability: Case Study A

I’m taking a six-week meditation class series through the Seattle Insight Meditation organization. It’s the second time I have taken it- I originally took it two years ago. I went back with a friend because the timing was just perfect- I was needing clarity in my own life and wanted to re-energize my practice, plus my friend was open to a new experience and appreciated the company.

The leader of this class, Rodney Smith, excels at presenting meditation as a practical tool for acquiring mindfulness, the ability to stay attuned to the present moment. His dharma talks (insightful lectures on a Buddhism topic), are unbelievably simple and resonate deeply with me. The paradox for me, however, is that no matter how obvious the benefits of meditation are, it is extremely difficult to incorporate these practical teachings into every day life.

While the talks are of the Buddhist nature, they are not religious or preachy at all, and I am someone who shies away from any kind of religious dogma and instead am more drawn to spiritual discourse. They are just simple messages about how we can deal with our own suffering and pain and why it is necessary to become mindful of the present moment.

The whole purpose of meditation, really, is to be present in the moment and not to dwell on the past or the future— just to be in the here and the now. How hard can that be?


The mind is a very busy organ. It is constantly thinking about the next thing we need to do or something we didn’t do earlier. Plus, it makes up all kinds of stories which are distracting. A story about what you had for breakfast that morning, or a conversation you will soon have with your boss, etc. Meditation encourages you to accept your thoughts as they come along, observe them, and allow them to pass through. Remember, too much analysis leads to paralysis!  It’s virtually impossible to prevent thoughts from happening.

Where am I going with this?

Well, meditation has the potential to bring up insights about life and some of it may not be pleasant. It’s easy for people to avoid doing it, because it can be painful and has the potential of exposing a sense of vulnerability. It is hard to just sit there and be with whatever you are feeling, especially if it involves any kind of pain or suffering. Why would anyone want open themselves up to being vulnerable?

There is no simple answer to this, but I think Brené Brown would say this: Because when you get down to the true, authentic feelings behind the shame/pain you feel, you will find it liberating and motivating for you to have the courage to innovate, create, and change. (See her 2012 TED talk about this) And Rodney would say that embracing the causes of our suffering will make their hold over us less powerful. And as I go forward in my practice, I find I am letting go of all that is not true and embracing my own reality in a positive way.

Exploring Vulnerability: Case Study B

I belong to a Jewish coop and the other day some families had a gathering to learn about an upcoming Jewish holiday called Purim.  During this holiday, there is usually a big celebration with people dressing up in costume, acting silly, and the story of Purim is acted out.  The story in a nutshell: The Persian king King Achashverosh’s wife Esther, who is Jewish, tells him that his “trusted” advisor, Haman, is plotting to kill all the Jews, simply because Mordecai, a wise Jew and coincidentally, Esther’s uncle, has refused to bow down to him. The king dispatches Haman and the Jews are saved and there is much celebrating.

My Jewish coop is really cool because we discuss the themes behind the holiday, to see how we can apply them to our own lives. So Rabbi Rachel read a book called “The Purim Superhero“, which is about a boy named Nate who really wanted to dress as an alien for the Purim party, even though everyone else in his class was transforming into superheroes.

He is faced with a dilemma: he wants to fit in and yet he wants to be true to himself (as an aside, his nuclear family is composed of his two dads and his sister, but that doesn’t play a role in his wanting to fit in). This book was a wonderful illustration that because of our vulnerability, we often wear masks, to hide who we really want to be, much like Esther and Haman, for example, who hid their true identities (Jewish and evil, respectively).

Seeing Brené’s talk was great timing as I was also experiencing the Purim tradition and starting to incorporate dharma teachings into my meditation practice.

Great quotes from Brené Brown’s talk:

“When we numb [hard feelings], we numb joy, we numb gratitude, we numb happiness.”

“Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.”

“Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. ”

Note: Brené Brown is coming to Seattle on April 24 to discuss her new book, “Daring Greatly”. You will see me there!

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1 Response to What’s the big deal about vulnerability?

  1. Karen Story says:

    Nice to see you on the “blog waves” again, Elizabeth! This ties in perfectly with the great book I just read, “Bluebird: Women and the New Psychology of Happiness,” by Ariel Gore. Some of the takeways:
    “We all know that there’s no such thing as “happily ever after,” but how many of us still live with our hearts set on that fantasy?”
    “The women who report being the happiest are the women who have the self esteem, the basic resources, and the courage to question – and often reject – the scripts for female happiness they had been handed.”
    “We are worthy simply by virtue of our existence.”
    “When we begin to honor our desires on a basic level, we signal [to] our deeper dreams that we’re ready for their expression.”

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