Précis of Daring Greatly
by Brené Brown
Precis by Pete Laburn
Every now and again a book comes along that completely cuts through conventional thinking and is so compelling because it is so right. Daring Greatly is one such book. Brene Brown shot to prominence through her TED talk in June 2010 entitled ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ – which has since had 2,5 million UTube hits, which suggests it has been viewed by >10m people conservatively. It has made a huge impact – as has her follow up TED talk in March 2012 entitled ‘Listening to Shame’. Daring Greatly, written in 2012 gives a fuller story. This précis just gives a brief taste of a wonderful book – I recommend you get the book, it is one that you can refer to often and is so full of wisdom.
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The phrase Daring Greatly comes from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech “Citizenship in a Republic.” The speech, sometimes referred to as “The Man in the Arena,” was delivered at the Sorbonne in Paris, France in 1910. Within the speech there is this one particular passage for which the speech famous:
“…it is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly….”
Brené Brown is a social researcher, who has spent more than a decade studying vulnerability and shame. She has been specifically interested in studying people who are most resilient to shame, who believe in their worthiness and are able to live wholeheartedly. Wholehearted living is about fully engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion and connection to wake up in the morning and think: ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It is going to bed at night thinking, ‘yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.’
The importance of vulnerability
Wholehearted people understand that love and belonging are irreducible needs of human beings and that we are hardwired to connect with others. Connections are why we are here. It’s what gives
purpose and meaning to our lives, and without it, there is suffering. Wholehearted men and women try to live their lives with courage compassion and connection. And more importantly, they understand that vulnerability is a catalyst for courage, compassion and connection. In fact, the willingness to be vulnerable is the single clearest value shared by all of the men and women who live wholeheartedly, and they attribute everything in their lives to the ability to be vulnerable. Vulnerability is actually at the core, the heart, the centre, of meaningful human experiences. Brené defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.
Many of use do not realise the importance and value of vulnerability as a key to our happiness because we believe many of the myths about vulnerability. Myths such as:
Vulnerability is weakness – This is a wide spread belief and a very dangerous one as it causes us to spend our lives pushing away and protecting ourselves from feeling vulnerable. However, vulnerability is actually the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness, and to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to our living. This is because vulnerability is the cradle of the emotions and experiences that we crave, such as love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy and creativity.
Although we often feel that being vulnerable is being week, this is not how we view vulnerability in other people. When we see others being vulnerable, open and honest we see them as being courageous. It seems that we want others to be vulnerable but not to feel vulnerable ourselves.
The problem of Scarcity and its antidote
Our society suffers from the problem of scarcity or ‘never enough.’ The problem of scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyperaware of lack. We spend inordinate amounts of time calculating how much we have, want and don’t have, and how much everyone else has, needs and wants. We are often comparing our lives, marriages, families and communities to the unattainable media-driven visions of perfection, or we hold up our reality against our own fictional account of how great someone else has it. We feel that we are never good enough, never perfect enough, never thin enough, never powerful enough, never successful enough, never smart enough, never certain enough, never safe enough and never extraordinary enough.
The scarcity problem keeps us hiding away, feeling inadequate and unworthy and not good enough for anything. It hinders us from being vulnerable and truly engaging in relationships. The greatest casualties of our scarcity culture is our willingness to own our vulnerabilities and our ability to engage with the world from a place of worthiness.
To grow a relationship or raise a family or create an organisational culture in a way that is fundamentally opposite to the cultural norms driven by scarcity – it takes awareness, commitment and work every single day. The larger culture is always applying pressure, and unless we’re willing to push back and fight for what we believe in, the default will be scarcity. We dare greatly every time we make choices that challenge the social climate of scarcity.
What we need to realise is that the counterapproach to living in scarcity is not abundance. The opposite of ‘never enough’ is a realisation that you are enough. Wholeheartedness is therefore about vulnerability, and worthiness, the ability to face uncertainty, exposure and emotional risk, knowing that you are enough.
The damaging power of shame
Shame is one of the most corrosive forces in our lives. We all experience it, but don’t like to talk about it. It is the secret killer of innovation and creativity. When we want to be vulnerable, share openly and persevere, shame keeps us small, resentful and afraid. Shame has this power over us because we do not realise our intrinsic worth as individuals, and that we are enough just as we are. Instead we attach our worth onto our work, our relationships and our perceptions of what others think of us. As a result, we can never live freely to be who we are, share our creative ideas and express ourselves openly with one another for fear of the responses of others. We hand over our self-worth to what people think and we are slaves of shame and its control over our lives from then on.
Shame is the fear of disconnection. Because we are psychologically, emotionally, cognitively and spiritually hardwired for connection, love and belonging, shame is the fear that something we have done, or failed to do, makes us unworthy of connection. Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.
Sometimes, as we live courageously and dare greatly, we will face failures, mistakes and criticism. If we want to be able to move through these disappointments, we can’t equate defeat with being unworthy and not enough. If we do, we will never show up and try again. Shame waits for us after a defeat to tell us that we are not good enough and that we shouldn’t risk again. However, if we are resilient to shame, we will be able to say, ‘yes, defeat hurts and I am disappointed in the outcomes, but success, recognition and approval are not the values that drive me. My value is courage and I am ready to dare greatly again.’
During her research Brené identified 12 main shame categories that most people struggle with. These are the areas where most of us feel the greatest amount of societal pressure to perform and the greatest shame if we do not reach perfection.
- Appearance and body image
- Money and work
- Surviving trauma
- Being stereotyped or labelled
- Mental and physical health
Brené also found that men and women experience shame differently. For women, of the 12 shame categories above, appearance and body image, as well as the role as mothers and wives bring about the most shame. In this day and age we still feel the most shame about not being thin, young and beautiful enough. A close second is motherhood. Women are constantly asked why they are not married, and if they are married, why they haven’t had children. If you have children, you are told
you either have too many or too few, too close or too far apart. If you work you are not a good mother, but if you don’t work you are a bad example. Women feel they are expected to be perfect, and need to make it look easy in the process. The expectation is to be natural beauties, natural mothers, natural leaders and naturally good parents in naturally fabulous families. When this is not their reality, women experience shame that they cannot live up to what they think they should be.
Men on the other hand experience shame when they fail. Failure at work, failure in a marriage, failure in bed, failure with money, failure with their children – shame = failure to men. Men live under the pressure of one unrelenting message: Whatever you do, do not be perceived as weak. Men need to pretend that they are powerful and in control. Even when women tell them they want them to be more open and emotional, what women really want is for their man to be successful and strong. From a young age men soon realise that they are not allowed to be afraid, not allowed to show fear, and not allowed to feel vulnerable. As a result, when men do feel vulnerable, they either get angry or completely turn off. This results in a lonely disconnected existence.
If we ever want to embrace vulnerability, we need to gather our defenses and build up shame resilience. We can’t let ourselves be seen if we are terrified of what people might think. Often times, if we are not good at vulnerability – we are very good at shame. If we ever want to be fully engaged and connected in our lives, we need to be vulnerable. But in order to be vulnerable, we need to develop resilience to feeling shame.
Men and women who are able to deal with shame effectively in their lives, and not allow it to define who they are, exhibit what Brené refers to as shame resilience. Men and women with high levels of shame resilience have four things in common – these are what Brené calls the elements of shame resilience. Shame resilience is the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going in to it. Below are the 4 main steps of shame resilience that lead past shame to healing:
- Recognising shame and understanding its triggers – People with shame resilience are able to recognise when they are in the grips of shame, and to figure out what messages and expectations triggered it this feeling.
- Practicing critical awareness – Once shame resilient people have identified the messages and
expectations driving their shame, they analyse these messages and expectations to see if they are realistic, attainable and what they want to be. If these message are not aligned with their values and/or are unattainable and unrealistic – they will let them go.
- Reaching out – Shame resilient individuals then share their stories of the experience of shame with others and experience empathy. Shame may make us feel like hiding but the way to fight shame is to share the experience with someone who loves you.
- Speaking shame – Shame resilient individuals know how to talk about how they feel and to ask for help when they are feeling shame.
These steps may seem simplistic, but the key to shame resilience is cognition and thinking. When shame descends we usually do not think it through, we just act out of our fight or flight reflex. But if we are able to stop, think and trust the process, we can move past the shame to empathy and protect our connection with others.
The 4 steps of shame resilience enable men and women to find an option that allows them to stay engaged and find the emotional courage they need to respond to the shame they feel in a way that aligns with their values. Men and women with shame resilience are aware of the social pressures and shame catagories that affect them. They keep these in mind so that when shame starts creeping up on them they can reality check these feelings – thus practicing the second element of shame resilience – critical awareness. Basically, they can consciously choose not to play along with shame.
Another important aspect of shame resilience is the importance of self-love. We need to realise that we can only love others as much as we love ourselves. We often find it easier to accept the quirks and eccentricities of others but are intolerant of what we perceive as our deep flaws. However, if we learn to love and accept ourselves, we will immeasurably deepen our relationships with the people we love. And it will give us the courage to show up and be vulnerable in new ways.
If we are going to find our way out of shame and back to connection, vulnerability is the path and courage is the light. To set down the lists of what we are supposed to be is brave. To love ourselves and support each other in the process of becoming real is the greatest single act of daring greatly.
The Vulnerability Armory
Throughout our lives we learn how to protect ourselves from vulnerability – from being hurt, diminished and disappointed. We put on armor and use our thoughts, emotions and behaviours as weapons. Now as adults we need to realise that in order to live with courage, purpose and connection, and to be the person we long to be, we must take off the armor and put down the weapons, show up and let ourselves be seen.
The only way to take off our armor and put down our weapons is to believe that we are enough. With the sense of enough comes an embrace of worthiness, boundaries and engagement. Below is a list of some of the most frequently used armour we use to protect ourselves, as well as proven methods on how to remove them from our lives:
- Foreboding joy
Forboding joy is a method we use to minimise vulnerability by not letting ourselves fully experience joy – for fear of it being stolen from us. This method could include anything from rehearsing tragedy to living in perpetual disappointment. People who use this type of armor would rather live mildly disappointed than feel joy and then be disappointed when it ends. They feel more vulnerable dipping in and out of disappointment and so just set up camp there. They sacrifice joy in order to suffer less pain when bad times come. We don’t want to be blindsided by hurt. We don’t want to be caught off-guard and so we literally practice being devastated or never move from self-elected disappointment.
The antidote for foreboding job is to practice gratitude. If the opposite of scarcity is enough, then practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that there is enough and that we are enough. Joy comes to us in ordinary moments. We risk missing out on this joy when we are too busy chasing down the extraordinary. Being grateful for what you have, and for the small pleasures you enjoy, will help you push back the problem of our scarcity culture. We cannot prepare for
tragedy and loss. We need to just take all the opportunities we have to celebrate our joys, which will strengthen us for when the bad times come.
Perfectionism is another weapon that we use to protect ourselves from being vulnerable. In order to see the danger of this piece of armour, we first need to realise that perfectionism is not the same as striving for excellence or healthy achievement or growth, it is rather a defensive weapon that we use to protect ourselves. It’s the belief that if we do things perfectly and look perfect, we can minimise or avoid the pain of blame, judgment and shame. Perfectionism is not about self-improvement but about trying to earn approval. Most perfectionists grew up being praised for achievement and have now adopted the belief system that they are what they accomplish. Perfectionism cannot protect you from shame, as it actually is a form of shame. It is self-destructive and addictive.
The antidote for perfectionism involves learning to appreciate the beauty of your cracks. In order to be free from perfectionism, we need to make the long journey from ‘what will people think’ to ‘I am enough.’ This journey begins with shame resilience, self-compassion and owning your story – we have to be able to give ourselves a break and appreciate the beauty of our cracks and imperfections.
One of the most universal numbing strategies we use to avoid being vulnerable is keeping ourselves crazy-busy. We are a culture of people who have bought into the idea that if we stay busy enough, the truth of our lives won’t catch up with us. The reality is that being crazy busy is just keeping us numb to the pain and true joy in our lives. Another well-used numbing strategy is addiction. We may not all do it compulsively or chronically, but we use alcohol and over the counter medication to numb our feelings and ‘take the edge off’ of our pain and vulnerability.
The antidote for numbing involves three things:
Learning how to feel your feelings. Instead of trying to escape them or numb then, wholehearted individuals learn how to truly experience the high’s and lows of life to the fullest.
Setting boundaries – so that we are not crazy busy. Learning to say no to certain unimportant things will help us to focus on what is important. This will decrease anxiety levels, decreasing the need to numb our feelings.
Learning how to lean into the discomfort of hard emotions. Instead of avoiding difficult emotions, we need to learn how to lean into them and to own our pain and reach out to others when we are hurt. This is how we develop a connected life.
Another way that we protect ourselves from vulnerability, shame, feeling lost and without purpose is by disengaging with aspects of our life. We also disengage when we feel like the people leading us are not living up to their end of the social contract. The problem is that we can’t give others what we do not have. Who we are matters immeasurably more than what we know or who we want to be. When there is a gap between what we actually do, think and feel and our aspirational values (what we want to do, think and feel) – we create a value gap or a disengagement divide. This is where we lose our employees, clients, students and children to disengagement. When our actual values are routinely in conflict with the expectations we set in our family or organisational culture, disengagement is inevitable. If we want to re-connect and reengage, we need to practice the values that we are holding as important. This does not mean that we have to be perfect all of the time. We just need to be engaged and committed to aligning our values with our actions so that what we say is important is what we do in reality.
Building shame resilient organisations
Shame can be exceptionally damaging in work environments where people need to use their creativity to perform and deliver. Shame in the workplace can prevent individuals from introducing a new idea for fear of being ridiculed, laughed at or belittled. Fear of failure will prevent them from trying new things. If shame is rampant in an organisation then disengagement is not far away.
The way to prevent this is for leaders to lead the way in being vulnerable and in building shame resilient organisations. There are 4 main strategies that need to be adopted in order to build shame-resilient organisations:
- Support leaders who are willing to dare greatly and facilitate honest conversations about shame and cultivate shame-resilient cultures.
- Facilitate a conscientious effort to see where shame might be functioning in the organisation and how it might be creeping into the way we engage with our co-workers and students.
- Help people know what to expect, what are common struggles, how have other people dealt with them, and what have individual experiences been?
- Training all employees on the differences between shame and guilt and teaching them how to give and receive feedback in a way that fosters growth and engagement.
A ‘daring greatly’ organisational culture is one of honest, constructive and engaged feedback. If an organisation makes the creation of a feedback culture a priority and a practice, rather than just an aspirational value, it can happen.
Being vulnerable in our parenting
Closer to home, in our parenting, most of us would love a parenting handbook that answers all of our questions, comes with guarantees, and minimises our vulnerability. The uncertainty of parenting can bring up feelings in us that range from frustration to terror. However, there is an important and difficult truth that parents need to remember as they find themselves wading through uncertainty and self-doubt about their parenting: Who you are and how you engage with the world are much stronger predictions of how your children will turn out than any parenting strategy. This is because our stories of worthiness and being enough begin in our first families. What we learn about ourselves and how we learn to engage with the world as children sets a course that either will require us to spend a significant part of our life fighting to reclaim our self-worth or will give us hope, courage and resilience for our journey. When it comes to our sense of love, belonging and worthiness, we are most radically shaped by our families of origin – what we hear, what we are told and more importantly, how we observe our parents engaging with the world.
In order to teach our children to dare greatly in a never enough culture, the question isn’t ‘are you parenting the right way?’ but ‘are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?’ Even through the vulnerability of parenting is terrifying at times, we cannot afford to arm ourselves against it or push it away, because it is our richest, most fertile ground for teaching and cultivating connection, meaning and love. Vulnerability lies at the centre of the family story – it defines our moments of greatest joy, fear, sorrow, shame, disappointment, love, belonging, gratitude, creativity and everyday wonder.
In other words, if we want our children to love and accept who they are, our job is to love and accept who we are. We cannot use fear, shame, blame and judgement in our own lives if we want to raise courageous children. Compassion and connection – the very things that give purpose and meaning to our lives can only be learned if they are experienced. And our families are our first opportunities to experience these things.
Daring greatly is not about winning or losing. It’s about courage. In a world where scarcity and shame dominate and feeling afraid has become second nature, vulnerability is subversive. Putting yourself out there means that there is a far greater risk of getting hurt. Having said that, there is nothing more uncomfortable, dangerous and hurtful then believing that you are standing on the outside of your life, looking in and wondering what it would be like if you had the courage to show up and let yourself be seen. Mr Roosevelt was right when he said that there is no effort without error and shortcoming, and no triumph without vulnerability.