Lessons on Vulnerability from Brené Brown

Who is Brené Brown?

You’ve probably heard of Brené Brown. The research professor, who has a PHD in Social Work, is best known for her work on vulnerability and shame, her TEDx talks and best-selling books. She’s lauded in the self-help world, but is so much more than just a self-help guru. Her work is based on decades of qualitative research and data and really resonates with many people who are trying to juggle successful careers with raising families. I have learned many valuable lessons on leadership, balance and relationships from her words of wisdom – and I’d like to use this blog to share them with you. 

Lessons on Vulnerability

‘Vulnerability is life’s great dare. It’s like asking, “Are you all in?”

What is vulnerability?

In a nutshell – vulnerability is anything where you feel emotionally exposed, or face uncertainty or risk. Some of Brown’s examples of vulnerability are falling in love – with no guarantee that you will be loved back; saying no to someone; being accountable, standing up for yourself, dating after a divorce, exercising in public, raising a family… There are so many scenarios where we feel vulnerable and unsure. 

Why is understanding vulnerability important?

Brown’s advice is particularly relevant for women working in corporate law. In a career environment where vulnerability is often seen as a weakness, where there might be a fear of being judged, overlooked or exploited – female lawyers often have to put on a front – an emotionless, tough exterior that belies the real person beneath. Is this healthy – or even productive?

– Parenting:
As a parent you might feel that you have to be seen to be coping perfectly, doing it all, keeping on top of everything. If you don’t allow yourself to admit when times are tough, or refuse to ask for or accept help, it’s because of the fear of being vulnerable – the fear that people might find you out or know that you’re struggling. This can lead to stress, overwhelm and burnout.

Mental Health.
How often do you suffer in silence when struggling mentally? It’s our fear of vulnerability, of seeming to be weak –  that stigmatises mental health issues and causes us to bottle up negative emotions and suffer the adverse effects.

In her book on the subject, “Daring Greatly’, Brown explores the root causes of this vulnerability, explains why we try so hard to protect ourselves from it, and encourages us to embrace our frailties and use them for our benefit.

Key Takeaways:

1.   Vulnerability is not weakness or an inherently negative (or positive trait.) Vulnerability is neutral. It’s exposure. It’s having the courage to show up and reveal your authentic self to the world, to be seen. You may associate feeling vulnerable with feeling uncomfortable or scared – but reflect on the times when you have felt like this and still taken action. How did it feel afterwards? 

2.   Protecting ourselves from vulnerability is counterproductive.
If you constantly view vulnerability as a weakness, you will protect yourself against it even if this is ultimately detrimental. You might avoid going for that promotion in case you expose yourself to failure. And sure – you may well have avoided the discomfort and shame of potential failure, but you will also have avoided the potential of joy and success, or the constructive, learning experience of getting feedback. You might protect yourself  from hurt by avoiding dating – but you will also be denying yourself the potential of a loving and fulfilling relationship, or some lighthearted fun. Perhaps you find that you spend a lot of time pleasing other people, pretending that you’re something you’re not, or performing in a certain way. This may make you feel ‘accepted’ – but is it authentic? Are you really living the life that your inner self finds satisfying?

3.   You can learn to embrace vulnerability by building resilience against shame.
Most people’s vulnerabilities come from a feeling of shame. If you feel you are worthless or inadequate, you can’t be open and reveal your true self to others and that holds you back from properly experiencing life. You might use avoidance, hiding, people pleasing or numbing tactics to get rid of this feeling. Brown believes you should take ownership of your shame instead of avoiding it. Confront it head on. Think about it – reflect on where it stems from. Practice self-compassion and connect with others who might feel the same as you. Practise resilience so that you can then embrace your vulnerability to live your ‘real’ life. 

4.   To be vulnerable is what it means to be human.
If you deny or hide your vulnerability you are shortchanging yourself and sending others the wrong message. ‘Daring Greatly’ is about accepting and understanding human frailty, your own vulnerability and showing up. Be brave, acknowledge your insecurities, don’t hide from them. Be prepared to fail or be criticised – just make sure you fully engage with life.

When might these lessons apply to you?

  • every time you submit a piece of work you’ve poured your heart, soul into, or spent time on
  • every time you speak up and say something when you’re not sure how it will be received
  • every time you apply for a promotion or another job and face the possibility of rejection
  • every time you risk failure in order to become good at something
  • every time you ask for help, when there’s a risk of incurring a debt from the person you ask
  • telling the truth, when avoiding it would be so much easier
  • stepping up to do a talk or presentation. As Brown puts it “Vulnerability is like being naked onstage and hoping for applause rather than laughter. “

What Brené Brown’s lessons can teach you.

Being a corporate lawyer whilst raising a family is stressful – full of situations like this where you might feel vulnerable. But recognising and accepting these vulnerabilities is key for getting the most out of your life and work.

  • If you’re always protecting yourself, defending against vulnerability, avoiding the risk of failure, then you’re never really ‘all in’ or committed, and if you’re never fully committed you’ll never realise the full extent of what you could achieve. There’ll always be a lingering ‘what if’.
  • It stops you from building meaningful connections and strong relationships – both in your career and personal life. It acts as a barrier to intimacy.
  • It stops you experiencing what it means to be human – the depth and range of emotions and experiences this brings and which enriches our lives: difficulty, discomfort, failure, risk, disappointment – these are all necessary experiences which give meaning to the times and experiences when things go well: when we achieve a goal or result, connect with someone, build lasting friendships or relationships, or surpass our own expectations.

In these scary and uncertain times of the COVID-19 crisis, we’ve all been doing a bit of self-reflection and thinking about our lives and the meaning of who we are and what we do. If this contemplation has got you wanting more from life, or wanting a different kind of life, then think about these lessons on vulnerability. Show up, be seen, be vulnerable – for this is surely what it really means to live. 

Tune into this week’s podcast to hear more about what I have learned from Brené Brown, or email me caroline@babyproofyourlife.com for information about my Having it all coaching programme.