Why Vulnerability is Your Superpower

Dr. Michael Gervais speaks with author and researcher Dr. Brené Brown about the relationship between vulnerability and courage, and what it takes to show up even when you can't control the outcome.

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Dr. Michael Gervais has a podcast series called Finding Mastery built around a central goal: unpacking and decoding how the greatest performers in the world use their minds to create amazing journeys while they pursue the boundaries of human potential.

He recently sat down with Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston where she holds the Huffington Foundation – Brené Brown Endowed Chair at The Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy and is the author of five #1 New York Times bestsellers: The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, Braving the Wilderness and her latest book Dare to Lead, which is the culmination of a seven-year study on courage and leadership

Michael Gervais: Brené, how are you?

Brené Brown: I’m doing great. I’m excited to be with you.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, this is fun. I’ve been wanting to have this conversation with you for a long time, so I’m super psyched as well.

Brené Brown: Me too. I’ve seen you a couple of places when we were both kind of traveling and we meet up and I’m like, “We need to have a conversation, it would be really interesting.”

Michael Gervais: Yeah, for sure. Okay, so first of all, as we get going, congratulations on your body work. It’s significant, you’ve made a dent in human wellness and that is no easy task, so congratulations.

Brené Brown: Thank you, I love it so much. I’m for sure have learned way more from people than I’ll be able to teach, so I’m grateful for that.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, when you say that I feel that tremendously and also, I don’t know if I’m as free as you are because you feel grateful. I feel almost burdened and I don’t know if you feel that or that’s unique to me, but I can’t quite figure out how to get everything out that I’ve come to understand or that I wrestle with that I think I’m on to something. I don’t have the mechanism to get it out and you have gratitude for all that you’ve learned, which I certainly do as well, but do you ever have that other side, where you feel burdened?

Brené Brown: Oh, hell yes, oh my God.

Michael Gervais: All right, so I’m not alone.

Brené Brown: No.

Michael Gervais: Oh my God, okay. What is that like for you?

Brené Brown: Awful sometimes, especially because I look at my work from like a perspective of being a steward of people’s stories and struggles and what they’ve shared with me and what is the best way to take those and make sense of them and get them out to the world in order to be true and loyal to the people, who shared their hard stuff with me. I put myself under massive and massive amounts of pressure. It does feel really hard sometimes. I remember like maybe, I don’t know three or four months ago, I was walking with my husband. We were kind of walking through our neighborhood one evening and I was right on the edge of burnout. I’m like, “I wish I could just like God or someone would say, ‘Okay, I think this is enough now,’ or ‘You can just rest.’” He’s like, “That’s not good Brené, like I don’t think you need …” He’s like, “You’re getting everything.” I’m like, “I’ve learned so much from people and people who have done such brave things, sharing things with me and I just feel like am I good enough Stewart of it?” He’s like, “Yeah, because like what’s the option? The alternative is that you work 20 hours a day, seven days a week, 20 years in a row and just collapse.” He’s like, “That’s not stewardship either.”

Brené Brown: Then, I realized like in addition to sharing what I’ve learned from people, may be the best, the holiest form of stewardship is actually practicing what I’m learning from people, which is rest, play, reset, recover and not just talking about it, but doing it. It was funny I was in Las Vegas, giving a talk and I was talking to another speaker, who kind of works in my area, your area, kind of leadership, performance. He’s like, “So how often are you on the road?” I said, “Oh, I think like maybe 25-30 events a year max.” He goes, “Man, I’m on the road 300 days a year.” I was like, “How do you walk the talk, like if you’re only home 65 days a year, I would feel like, first of all, I’d lose my mind because I’m an introvert and a homebody, but secondly I don’t think I would be practicing what I’m learning if I do that.” Yeah, the long answer is I sometimes do you feel like am I doing enough? I feel that pressure.

Michael Gervais: Okay, so you shared a story with your husband. You started this off with your husband and you have a long relationship with your husband, is that right?

Brené Brown: Yeah, 30 years.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, congratulations there too. Okay, I think that my wife is at ground zero for every insight I’ve had. Yes, people have shared and I’ve been in extraordinary places, but it feels like my most important sounding-board is my wife. That doesn’t get celebrated enough and I’m wondering if it sounds like you maybe have a similar mechanism that you talk through quite a bit with your husband. Is that the case or am I making too much of the first story that you shared?

Brené Brown: I think when the planets are aligned and we’re doing the work we should be doing, Steve and I are each other’s best partners, best sounding-board, best counselors, best confidants. I think that’s where the magic is. Does it happen all the time? No. He’s a pediatrician and he’s got a big career and a really committed practice. He does private practice, but he also works with undocumented kids and a school-based clinic. When we’re working the work and doing what we’re supposed to be doing, we are each other’s best sounding board.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, what does your work look like?

When we’re not doing our work and we’re letting other people set our agenda and our priorities… [it] can create a lot of distance between people.

Brené Brown: Well, when I say when Steve and I are doing our work, meaning we’re prioritizing the right things that we’re shutting out the noise and getting down to what’s really essential and important to us, when we’re investing in our relationship. When we’re doing those things, we’re showing up with each other. I mean really it’s about making time for each other and prioritizing each other, then we become each other’s greatest confidants, greatest counsellors, greatest sounding boards. When we get sucked into the noise and bullshit and lose control over, we hand over our agendas and our lives to other people and other things in order to, I don’t know why we do it, but it’s a pattern I think for all of us, I think it’s because things are bright and shiny and we want to try them or we feel obligated or we feel sense of duty or we don’t want to piss people off. When we’re not doing our work and we’re letting other people set our agenda and our priorities, two big careers, two kids can create a lot of distance between people.

Brené Brown: I think when I talk about our work, I talk about the work of showing up with each other and investing in our relationship because if it’s not working, nothing else is working.

Michael Gervais: Do you have any practices that help you with that? I’ll share one of mine, it’s like when I come in after whatever day, long day, short day, doesn’t matter. Most of my days are really freaking intense, but when I come home, I take a moment. I put the cell phone down and that’s like a big trigger. I take just a moment to walk into my sanctuary and it’s just like standing in front of the door or in my cars I’m pulling in the garage, whatever and I just take a moment, a beat to remind myself that, “Okay, I’m heading into my sanctuary.” That’s a nice little piece of work for me. When I’m off that and I’m-

Brené Brown: Awesome.

Michael Gervais: … yeah, like do you have any little triggers or practices that are part of that work of creating time and having priorities be aligned?

Brené Brown: When we first got married, I don’t remember who told me this, but someone said, “Hey, you know marriage is 50/50.” I was like, “Yeah.” They’re like, “That’s total bullshit.” I was like, “What?” They said, “The only ones that last are the ones where when you have 20, your partner can come up with 80 and when your partner has 10, you can come up with 90.” I was like, “Wow that’s really interesting.” We started doing this thing, where we would check in with each other and we’ll say like, “Look …” Steve might say, “Look, I’m a max 25.” I’m like, “I got you, I got 75 in me, let’s do it.” On some days and this has been the most profound helpful thing, I’ll come home or he’ll come home and we’ll see each other and I’ll say, “You know what, I got 20.” He’ll say, “You know what, I got 20,” which is super great because then we’ll say-

Michael Gervais: Yeah that’s good.

Brené Brown: … “Okay, we’ve got a big ass gaping 60%.” Whenever we have the gap, we always say, “Okay.” We are extra kind, extra patient and watch what we say to each other if there’s a gap, like we just name that thing like because when I travel for work, I can travel a lot, especially if I’m on a book tour or some kind of intense demanding junket. I’ll come home and I’ll have 10 man, I will really, especially as an introvert, I’ll come home and if I have to do media, oh my God, terrible. I used to make up this story that he would be staying at the back door and open up and say, “Hey baby, I got 90, it’s okay,” but he opens the back door and he’s like, “Dude, it’s a good thing you’re home because I got 10, kids are making me crazy, I’ve got to make brownies for this tomorrow, I’ve got three patients I got to go see, I’m on call in the hospital.” I’m like, “No, no, I’m the tired one.” He’s like, “Tired? You’ve been in hotels. I’ve been here with sick kids.” Then, we just start going, I just opened the door, I’ll be like, “10.” He’s like, “10.” 

Michael Gervais: That’s really good, yeah. There’s a Zen principle around carrying water. I don’t know if you’ve ever heard it and it’s about relationships and partnerships. As the parable goes is that each person is carrying two buckets of water. At any given point in time, one of the two people can put a bucket down, but the other person has to pick it up and carry three buckets. One person could put both buckets down and that’s okay as long as the other person’s willing for an extended period of time to carry four buckets. Now, okay, so it’s the same principle that you just shared.

Brené Brown: Yeah.

Michael Gervais: There’s a Zen parable around carrying water for each other. That being said and it creates a nice little image right, now what you’ve done and I think you’ve done really well is you make it super applied, like coming home and saying, you create the framework, like the 100% effort thing or the 100% resources and then, making it practical about, “I’m at 10, you’re at 90, perfect.” Your work really has had this an accelerated I think whirlwind for people to become attracted to because you’re speaking truth about principles. Then, you created very applied strategies for people to practice. One of those strategies early in your most recent book is, that’s really good and put the people on it that like matter most to you. I think is that the exercise?

Brené Brown: Yeah, it’s your square squad. In a world full of kind of criticism and cynicism and fear mongering, you have to let in some feedback about what you’re doing because feedback is a really important part of mastery. There are a million cheap seats, where people are just hurling hurtful things and they’re not brave people. They’re people who they for somehow think their vocation is just tearing down people, who are trying to be brave and try new things. What I tell people is get a one inch by one inch piece of paper and write down the names of people whose opinions of you matter. You shouldn’t need more than a 1 inch by 1 inch piece of paper. It’s five, three, two, six maybe people. I think the hard thing is that people believe that being defined by what other people think and this whole new kind of, “I don’t give a shit what anyone thinks,” people think that those are polar opposites.

Brené Brown: When in truth, they’re the exact same thing, like caring what everyone thinks and not carrying what anyone thinks are both super problematic. I mean when you care about what everyone thinks, you lose the willingness to be vulnerable and to put yourself out there. When you stop caring about what anyone thinks at all, you lose your capacity for connection because we’re hardwired neurobiologically to care about what people think. Our job becomes to get specific on whose opinions matter and find the people who love you, not despite your vulnerability, not despite your imperfection, but because of it.

Brené Brown: Find the people who will say, “You know what, you’re right, the way you showed up and that meeting sucked, it was inappropriate, out of your integrity, you got to clean it up and I’ll be here supporting you while you do that and I’ll be supporting you again when you’re brave again, but right now …” Not yes people, but real people whose opinions of you matter and carry it with you, so when you’re trying to hack into the back end of Amazon to see who left a shitty comment about your book, you think to yourself, “You know what, you’re not on my list, think what you want, I’ve got my list of people whose opinions matter.”

Michael Gervais: In sport, for mental skills, I talk about front loading, so get the work in ahead of time, so you can go play and get free in environments of consequence or stress or whatever. That framework that you have is really a front-loading concept, where you’re saying, “Okay, let’s make sure that we’re clear on who matters, so that I have-

Brené Brown: Totally.

Michael Gervais: … right feedback loops and I can bounce things off the right people.” That’s a beautiful practice. It’s eloquent and applied. You’ve got both of those pieces I think in your strategies. Then,  just see what you think about it.

Brené Brown: Totally.

Michael Gervais: Okay, so you’ve heard of FOMO, fear of missing out.

Brené Brown: Yeah.

Michael Gervais: You heard of YOLO.

Brené Brown: Totally.

Michael Gervais: You only live once.

Brené Brown: Oh yeah.

Michael Gervais: I want to introduce one and I’m wondering, I’d like to hear what you think about it, so FOPO.

Brené Brown: Shoot.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, FOPO, fear of people’s opinion.

Brené Brown: Oh yeah.

We play it safe and we play it small, because we’re afraid of what will happen on the other side of the critique, of the exposure that happens when people have the opportunity to say thumbs up or thumbs down.

Michael Gervais: I think it’s one of the greatest cripplers of potential. We play it safe and we play it small because we’re afraid of what will happen on the other side of the critique, of the exposure that happens when people have the opportunity to say thumbs up or thumbs down. I’m wondering what you think about FOPO.

Brené Brown: Oh, I think it’s real. I think it’s alive. I think it’s super scary right now because a lot of my work is, the epigraph for my work I think for the last probably five years has been the Theodore Roosevelt quote, “It’s not the critic who counts.”

Michael Gervais: The man in the arena, yes, so good, isn’t it, yeah. It’s so good.

Brené Brown: Yeah that was so good. It’s like it’s not the critic who counts, it’s not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles or where the doer of deeds could have done it better. The credit belongs to the person who’s actually in the arena, whose face is marred with dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly, who comes up short again and again and again and who in the end, while he may know the triumph of high achievement, at least when he fails, he does so do in greatly. FOPO to me is exactly about the cheap seat feedback, like there are so many people in the world today that will never step foot in the arena. They will never ever show up and be seen and heard because they can’t control the outcome, yet they are so free with their opinion around other people’s real arena moments, people really stepping in and stepping up. I think we have to get to this place, where that FOPO that you’re talking about, we have to see that for what it is and it’s a life changer. I have interviewed people in their 70s and 80s that have such profound regret and sorrow and grief about the things they didn’t try, the chances they didn’t take that not saying, “I love you first,” because they had so much fear of what other people would think.

Brené Brown: I think it’s actually lethal. I think FOPO leads to addiction, depression, lethargy, hopelessness. It’s terrible. It’s a pandemic.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, I’m with you right there and especially with social media as an accelerant, it’s like the gasoline, the jet fuel on that flame that is I think it burned so many of us. As you read Teddy Roosevelt’s, Theodore Roosevelt’s, President Roosevelt’s insight, I don’t know if you’ve had the chance to read his full 1902  Paris, you probably have, but-

Brené Brown: I have.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, talk about incredible writing, like oh my God.

Brené Brown: Yeah poetic.

Michael Gervais: Like where have we lost the ability to actually articulate insights in such a poetic way? Now, I don’t know if he wrote it, presidents didn’t have help there, but my goodness that is … The insights that you have, again Brené, this is where I love your work is that you take an insight, then you make it super applied. That’s what I really appreciate about your work as you say, “Okay, listen, so there’s the insight, man in the arena is the one that counts basically, not the critic.” Here’s the applied part, I’m not going to listen to people that aren’t in the arena. If you’re going to take shots and you’re in the arena, okay I might add you to a square, maybe, maybe if this-

Brené Brown: Totally.

Michael Gervais: … is a good rumble, then I might add you to my square. If you’re not in the arena, listen I got no time for the noise.

Brené Brown: I just can’t. When I came across that quote during a really hard time in my life, the three things that became really clear is one, I’m going to live in the arena, I’m going to choose to be brave and 400,000 pieces of data that we’ve collected so far, what I can tell you is I’ve never met a single person, who’s been brave with his or her life, who has not had their ass kicked.

Michael Gervais: Yes.

Brené Brown: Yeah, like sign to be brave, you’re going to fall. It’s the physics of courage, like you put yourself out there, you’re going down. To me, it’s like my mantra every day, where you have your sanctuary moment. When I wake up every morning, the two things I do before my foot hit the floor is I say out loud, “Courage over comfort,” like I’m going to try to choose what’s brave over what’s comfortable today and then, I say, “I’m just grateful for another day to try it.” The first thing I learned is like if you’re brave, you’re going down and it’s really funny because I do a lot of leadership work and people will say … The only people who don’t say this honestly are … I do a lot of work with the military, even special forces, they don’t push against this and athletes don’t push against this, but in corporate and civic organizations, I’ll talk about this quote. They’ll say, “You know what, I want to be brave, I’m willing to risk falling.” I said, “Man, you’re not hearing me. I’m not saying that if you’re brave you’re going to risk falling.” I’m saying, “If you’re brave enough, often enough, you’re going to get your ass kicked.”

Brené Brown: To go to your front loading paradigm, one of the things that emerge from this research that we just did on courage building is that men and women, who are taught how to get back up after a fall are braver because they believe in their ability to get back up when it happens. It’s like for some weird reason, we don’t front load balance, like we try to teach people how to get back up when they’re facedown, covered in sweat and blood and dust in that arena floor and that is a terrible time to teach people how to get back up. Their perspective is wonky, they can’t hear you. They feel beat up. When we onboard people in our organization, it’s like, “We’re super glad you’re here, here’s your ID, here’s how the insurance works and here’s what failure is going to feel like and here’s what we’re going to expect you to do when it happens and we will expect you to fail because we will expect you to be trying new things.” You got our front load rising.

Michael Gervais: Yeah and what happens I think what I’ve learned is I’m nodding my head that doing exactly what you’re saying, especially the comparison between special ops and athletics, elite athletics for sure and the difference between corporate worlds. In the corporate world, there’s a great phrase that emerged about 12 years ago, fail fast, fail forward, fail often, but it’s complete bullshit. It’s not real because you know what if you fail and you fail fast and you fail … We say that, they say that but at the point of failure, there’s a noose around your neck that you didn’t realize prior to the failure.

Michael Gervais: As soon as you see one person that’s failed and then, everyone else realizes that, “Oh my God, they had a noose around their neck, whoa, they’re out of here, look at that, like they’re not included in the meetings anymore,” that it sends a ripple effect of what’s real. The language and I think you’ll appreciate this from like your understanding of addiction and codependency is that when language and actions don’t match, there’s something crazy taking place. That’s what we find in corporate cultures is that the language doesn’t match the action and it’s not that they don’t want the … Most of the people I’ve worked with that are Fortune 50, like real game shifters in corporate worlds is that they want the best, they really do, but there’s some sort of disconnect between the body of the organization being able to be as nimble as some of the leadership would hope.

Michael Gervais: I don’t want to be Pollyannaish because there are tyrants in the world, but anyways I know you had some thoughts there.

Brené Brown: No, I mean I’m just shaking my head crazy, yes. I think everything you said is exactly true. It’s what I witnessed all the time. I do think, actually, this is my personal belief, probably based on my own faith, but I do believe in the inherent good of people. I do think they want the best. I do believe that people by and large are doing the very best they can with the tools they have at the time. I think we can all get better and grow, but I try to work from an assumption of generosity toward people. I do think there are some tyrants and scary despots, but I think what gives everyone the capacity for tyranny is fear. I think what you’re saying about the fail-fast movement is just kind of heartbreakingly true. I think in Rising Strong, I said, what did I call it, oh gold plating grit. They’re just putting a gold plate on this idea that gritty failure is okay, but there are very few companies that say, “You know what, this was …” I’ve been in a few, so I have a lot of hope, but “This was a failure, this is not working, what are the key learnings, how do we embed what we’ve learned and how do we move forward?” There are a handful of companies that do that. I think with machine learning and AI, those will be the folks still standing in the next 10 years.

Michael Gervais: Those leaders do need to demonstrate. This is now back to your practice or your insights, they do need to demonstrate in ways their own vulnerability, so that people can say-

Brené Brown: Totally.

Michael Gervais: … “Oh, okay, so actually you’re walking the walk, talking to talk that you make mistakes too, oh okay, all right.” Then that means, so what you’re really talking about is mistakes are okay, but there’s a certain type of mistake. Making a mistake and learning from the mistake that process is important, so innovative mistakes are important, but the same mistakes are not. You can’t keep making the same mistake.

Brené Brown: No.

Michael Gervais: You can’t figure it out here if you’re going to keep making the same freaking mistake. Either you don’t have the capacity or the willingness to look within to get the insight. Both of those don’t work.

Where there is no vulnerability, where there is no ownership, that’s where they keep making the same mistake, because no one’s willing to dig in and talk about it, shine some light on it, pull it apart and figure out what’s going on.

Brené Brown: Here’s the irony, in companies where there is no vulnerability, where there is no ownership that’s where they keep making the same mistake because no one’s willing to dig in and talk about it, shine some light on it, pull it apart and figure out what’s going on. It’s funny because I used to spend a lot of time, coming off the research I just came off, for Dare to Lead, seven years, studying kind of really top performing leaders across every, from athletes to Fortune 10 CEOs, civic leaders, just across the board, asking one question, “Given the complexity that we’re living in right now and what the future looks like, what’s the one thing that you’re going to be looking for in leaders, like who’s going to be still standing as a leader in the next five years?” It was the first time I’ve ever done research, where the answer saturated across every single participant. Without question, people didn’t even hesitate. They just said, “Courage, we need braver leaders, we need more courageous cultures.”

Brené Brown: We set about to figure out what is courage, what does it look like and what are the skills and behaviors behind it, not this gauzy, kind of aspirational be brave thing, but what is the real learning? What we found is that there are four skill sets of courage, rumbling with vulnerability, living into your values, braving trust and learning to rise, learning how to get back up after failure. I used to spend so much time, trying to convince people that vulnerability is an essential part to courage, until I was at Fort Bragg one day and I was working with some Special Forces troops. I asked this question, I said, “The definition of vulnerability is uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure. That’s what it means to be vulnerable. Can anyone here give me a single example of courage from your life or that you’ve witnessed in someone else, one example of courage that did not require uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure?”

Michael Gervais: Not a chance.

Brené Brown: Not a chance.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, not a chance.

Brené Brown: Yeah, until one guy stood up and said, “Mam, there is no courage without vulnerability.” This whole skill set of rumbling with vulnerability ended up being half the book because it’s not about disclosure, it’s not about over sharing. It’s about not tapping out when things get hard and uncomfortable and awkward.

Michael Gervais: That is the razor’s edge for me. That’s it. That moment and I think when you just said it, now this is your life’s work, I bet you could feel it. You know exactly what that-

Brené Brown: Yes, totally.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, okay, me too. There’s an animation that happens that for me is the razor’s edge. What are you going to do is the challenge I have to the alpha of alphas in the performing and thinking world, what are you going to do on the razor’s edge because they’ve already organized their life to run to the razor’s edge. There’s no hacks, there’s no seven steps, there’s no secrets, there’s no tips, there’s no tricks. They fundamentally organize their life to run to the razor’s edge because they know in those moments that’s where they reveal the good stuff. Do I have the capabilities to adjust the pivot to flex, to bend, to be strong, to stay in it. There’s a phrasing that musicians use and dancers use that I love, my wife is a dancer and like when you’re your fitting in the music and so, it fits. That to me is like what I think, so people talk about being present, yes okay, but it’s not like your mind is either in the past, the present. It’s like do you fit and in the moment with the expansiveness of it. It’s this mind-boggling Zen riddle to fit in the expansive moment, but that’s what it’s about. There’s a razor’s edge to it and you can you can get cut by it. You can leave because you don’t want to get cut or you can stay in and see if you can dance on the razor’s edge. That experience requires incredible conviction, but it also requires a decision.

Brené Brown: It’s really about choice, isn’t it?

Michael Gervais: Yeah, you got to make the decision that this is how I’m going to … You can’t make the decision if you don’t know that it’s valuable because when pain is bigger than purpose, we give into pain. Our DNA is designed for it.

Brené Brown: Yeah, you’re fighting against history there.

Michael Gervais: Yeah, so how do you help? Okay, so let’s do a gender thing here is that and correct me if I’m wrong because maybe I’m working from an old framework, but we played in different sandboxes. Even if we played in the same sandboxes, I’m talking about just men and women here, boys and girls that we were treated differently in the same sandbox. If you as a young child, were going to grab the toys and organize a game, you’re pushy. If I was going to do it, I was a leader. Like we were rewarded for-

Brené Brown: True.

Michael Gervais: … different things. I didn’t learn emotion as a child. I didn’t understand it as a young adult and I’ve had to figure out as a man how to feel deeply. It wasn’t really until age 30 that it started to crack open just a little bit for me. This is the field I’m in. I’m studying it. I’m feeling it. I’m trying. I’m doing the internal work. You can’t graduate my Ph.D. program without doing, I think it was 55 hours of internal work.

Brené Brown: Awesome.

Michael Gervais: Yeah and so like there’s a disadvantage is what I’m saying, like a radical disadvantage. I’m not sure that when you speak about courage and vulnerability that men say, “Yeah, I’m going to be vulnerable now.”

Brené Brown: You know what they usually say because I mean I work with tons of men, they usually say, “Yes, yes,” but I can’t do that. You know why because if you think about traditional … You think about the role shame plays in being vulnerable and you think about very traditional masculine norms and feminine norms. Masculine norms are about emotional stoicism, primacy of work, emotional control. For men, for masculine norms, the big shame trigger is do not be perceived as weak. That whole thing of not being perceived as weak really gets in the way of being vulnerable. For women because when I was trying to organize, assign roles and do everything and I was called bossy or pushy for women, those norms are be perfect, do it all right, take care of everyone else, but never show like you’re exerting effort, like always just be perfect and easy. For us, being vulnerable is the shame trigger around that is I’m not perfect.

Brené Brown: Many women are like, “I can’t be vulnerable because it shows imperfection.” Men are like, “I can’t be vulnerable because it shows weakness.” Everyone in their guts, I mean … In my books and I think even the TED Talk has been translated into 40 something languages, this is the most universal across culture, across country thing. In our hearts, what we know is I just want to be seen and loved and valued. Unless I’m my true self, unless I am vulnerable, which the easiest way to think about vulnerability is the willingness to show up and be seen when you can’t control the outcome.

 The easiest way to think about vulnerability is the willingness to show up and be seen when you can’t control the outcome.

Michael Gervais: This is why it’s so easy for athletics really because to move into expressing potential or the higher levels of performance is that the outcome is never controlled. It is always the byproduct of being in it as long as you possibly can. Even in elite sport, we see people check out as soon as the score seems like it’s too big, the deficit is too big or sometimes people do check out pregame when they know that they’re going against an all-pro and they defer or bow and as opposed to showing up and being in in the mud, being in the thick of it. Like it still does happen. I’m not saying that group has it all figured out, but those that excel and can play the long game, they have that ability to dance right on that razor’s edge and vulnerability, help me if I’m off on this, it doesn’t mean weakness. Vulnerability means the openness or willingness to stay in it longer than you did before.

Brené Brown: Yeah, totally, it’s awful that it’s one of the most I think dangerous myths in the world that vulnerability is weakness because there’s just no evidence of that. You cannot get to courage without walking right through vulnerability.

Michael Gervais: But you will be hurt.

Brené Brown: Oh for sure.

Michael Gervais: In love relationships, you’ll be hurt and also in our form in context, you’ll feel hurt. Okay, so let’s thin slice it there. Let’s take it out of performing worlds and into living rooms or I don’t know, people are trying to … I don’t know, like wherever vulnerability happens in relationships, early in relationships, you have choices, do I say it or do I not say it? If you say it, the true stuff that you don’t really want to say that you don’t say very often that’s difficult to say, it can come back around later. How do you help people become skilled at when and how to be vulnerable because there is I think you coined the phrase, radical vulnerability and like yes-

Brené Brown: I did not coin that phrase, so yeah.

Michael Gervais: Who did that? Who coined that?

Brené Brown: I don’t know, but I don’t know that I believe in it either. What I would say to people is you share with people who’ve earned the right to hear your story. You share with people with whom you have a relationship that can bear the weight of the story. You don’t use vulnerability and sharing as a litmus test to see how strong something is because that’s dishonest in a big way. When we asked people to give us examples of vulnerability, when I think I was writing Daring Greatly, it’s everything you’re saying. People said, “Vulnerability is the first date after my divorce, it’s trying to get pregnant after my second miscarriage, it’s saying I love you first, it’s sitting with my wife who has stage IV breast cancer and talking about plans for my toddler.”

Michael Gervais: It’s not smiling when I’m experiencing sadness or uncomfortableness.

Brené Brown: No, I mean there’s nothing braver than showing up like that. There’s nothing braver.

Michael Gervais: Okay, now, you said you share vulnerability. You said people have to earn the right for it. That’s cool. What does that mean?

Brené Brown: Well because people always ask me, “What comes first, vulnerability or trust?” I have to trust somebody in order to be vulnerable with them, but I can’t build trust with someone unless I’m somewhat vulnerable. I think the best way to think about it is vulnerability and trust are a slow stacking of we meet, I’m myself, I may share a little bit. I see if we build trust around that. I mean it’s a slow stacking. I don’t think vulnerability is, “Hey, nice to meet you, here’s the darkest thing that’s ever happened to me and I’m going to see if you stick around after hearing that,” because a good boundaried healthy person will be like, “Hell, no, I just met you, this felt really inappropriate, I’m out.” We don’t use vulnerability to test people. Vulnerability is about showing up and being authentic, just being ourselves and we trust people with information that’s important to us over time as we build trust. I don’t think you can uncouple trust and vulnerability. I think they grow together. I think they can also die together. I mean there’s nothing worse than sharing something vulnerable with someone and then, they have them use it against you.

Michael Gervais: What if there’s like a family dynamic and one party doesn’t want to be vulnerable? They’ve just basically have said, “I don’t feel safe, I just don’t feel safe to because of critique, snide remarks, some sort of criticism, like I don’t feel like I want to put myself in that situation.” What would you recommend in family dynamics when-

Brené Brown: Yeah, so if you were saying that to me, if I said, “Michael, I don’t understand why you just don’t open up about this more. I know what happened at your job,” or whatever has been really hard. You say, “I don’t feel comfortable sharing it with you, I don’t trust you enough to share it with you or I don’t.” Then, I think I would come back and say, “Our relationship is really important to me and I want to be a safe space for you to talk about these things with and I want to be able to talk about them with you. Can you tell me what behaviors specifically that I’m doing or how I’m showing up that I could work on because I’m willing to work on it and build that trust if you’re willing to work on it with me.”

Michael Gervais: There you go.

Listen to the full podcast to hear Michael and Brené discuss:

  • How to practice what you’ve learned.
  • How to maintain strong relationships while leading a busy life.
  • Why it’s important to take feedback from people you care about.
  • The four types of courage: vulnerability, living into our values, braving trust and learning to rise.

This podcast originally appeared on Finding Mastery

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