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Karen Bouris

Brené Brown: How Vulnerability Holds the Key to Emotional Intimacy

And shame sabotages our desire for closeness.

She may not be a household name just yet, but when you refer to “the woman who talks about vulnerability,” the seven million viewers of her TEDTalks videos know you mean Brené Brown. A research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, Brown has been studying shame, fear, and vulnerability for 12 years. She has presented her findings in three books, on national television, and in lectures across the country. A mix of no-nonsense Texan and best-friend warmth, Brown shines a light into the inner chambers of our hearts—and illuminates a reason to hope. She discusses her new book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead , with S&H’s Karen Bouris.

S&H: In your new book Daring Greatly , you introduce the idea of a shame-based emotion that seems unique to our contemporary society. One aspect you name is the “fear of being ordinary.”

Brené Brown: The overwhelming message in our culture today is that an ordinary life is a meaningless life unless you are grabbing a lot of attention and you have lots of Twitter followers and Facebook fans who know everything you know. I use the shame-based fear of being ordinary as my definition for narcissism. I definitely see it in younger generations, where people fear they are not big enough. No matter how happy and fulfilling their small, quiet life is, they feel it must not mean very much, because it’s not the way people are measuring success. Which is just terrifying.

So there’s excess, but at the same time, you talk about a culture of scarcity. Can you explain what you mean by that?

The root of the scarcity issue is fear. The questions we are living by—what are we supposed to fear, and who is to blame?—are exhausting for us spiritually, emotionally. Fear consumes an enormous amount of energy in our lives, and to me that’s probably the greatest casualty of the scarcity culture. We are spending so much time and energy being afraid that we are not fully walking into our power and our gifts.
During your 12 years of research, you found people who do feel adequate; you coined the term “wholehearted” for this feeling, a feeling of being enough. How did they arrive at that emotional place?

There are two things they shared in common. The first is a sense of worthiness—they engage in the world, with the world, from a place of worthiness. Second, they make choices every day in their life, choices that almost feel subversive in our culture. They are mindful about things like rest and play. They cultivate creativity, they practice self-compassion. They have an understanding of the importance of vulnerability and the perception of vulnerability as courage. They show up in their lives in a very open way that I think scares most of us.

Why should we foster vulnerability in our relationships?

When I asked people “What is vulnerability?” a large percentage of them used the example of “initiating sex with my wife” or “initiating sex with my husband.” Yet there can be no intimacy—emotional intimacy, spiritual intimacy, physical intimacy—without vulnerability. One of the reasons there is such an intimacy deficit today is because we don’t know how to be vulnerable. It’s about being honest with how we feel, about our fears, about what we need, and, asking for what we need. Vulnerability is a glue that holds intimate relationships together.

How does vulnerability relate to our capacity for joy?

As someone who spent more than a decade studying fear, vulnerability, and shame, I never thought in a million years that I would say that joy is probably the most difficult emotion to feel. It’s hard to feel joy because we are so keenly aware that it’s fleeting. When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, we lose the courage to be joyful. Joy is a daring emotion! We are going to let ourselves stop in a moment that won’t last forever, that can be taken away. We feel almost that “you are a schmuck if you let yourself feel too deeply because the bad stuff is going to happen.”

Is that because we feel undeserving of joy?

I think what drives it, even more than feeling undeserving, is “if I let myself feel this joy, pain will be all that much harder. If I let myself just really sink into the joy of my child,