Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She studies vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. Below is the full transcript of Dr. Brown’s TEDx Talk titled ‘The Price of Invulnerability’ at TEDxKC conference.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: The price of invulnerability by Brené Brown at TEDxKC
So, I’m going to start by walking you into a scene in a movie and then I want you all to tell me what happens next.
Christmas Eve. Beautiful night. Light snowfall. Young family of four in the car, on the way to grandma’s house for dinner. They’re listening to the radio station, the one that starts playing the Christmas music like right at Halloween. “Jingle Bells” comes on. The kids in the back seat go crazy. Everyone breaks into song. The camera pans in on the faces of the kids, the mom, dad…
What happens next? Car crash. 60% of people say “car crash”. Sixty percent. Another 10% to 15% have equally fatalistic answers, but more creative. I have: “The camera cuts to the oncologist, who is looking at the bad news that he’s going to share the day after Christmas.” I have: “They get to grandmother’s house, everyone is dead, a serial killer is on the loose.” And I had one dude who worked in a shark attack. I did.
What’s interesting to me about this and I — it’s an indictment, a little bit, of the media, which I wouldn’t so much care about, except that I’m a vulnerability researcher, and I’ve spent the last 10 years studying vulnerability, and I cannot tell you how many hundreds and hundreds of stories that I’ve collected from people who, that is their response, not just to media, but in their real lives. How many parents I’ve interviewed who will say: “…and I’m looking at my children, and they’re sleeping, and I’m on this — just right at the verge of bliss, and I picture something horrible happening.” Do you know this? Yes.
I get the promotion, and I get to fly up to headquarters, you know, to find out about my new job. And what’s going to happen? Plane crashes. The fatalistic response is not universal. We’re not all like that. But it is a symptom of an issue that is both universal and, I believe, profoundly dangerous. And that is: We are losing our tolerance for vulnerability.
And in our culture, we — what do we think is synonymous with vulnerability? Weakness. You are an excellent audience. It’s almost as if I trained you. It’s perfect. Weakness. And I am going to talk about how that’s not the case, tonight.
Vulnerability is absolutely at the core of fear, and anxiety, and shame, and very difficult emotions that we all experience. But vulnerability is also the birthplace of joy, of love, of belonging, of creativity, of faith. And so it becomes very problematic when, as a culture, we lose our capacity to be vulnerable.
So, this kind of fatalistic car crash is a symptom. I refer to it as “foreboding joy”. One of the symptoms that we’re losing our capacity for vulnerability is that joy actually becomes foreboding. Something good happens, or we’re looking at someone we love, or we’re thinking about something we care about, and then we become compelled to beat vulnerability to the punch.
Other symptoms: Disappointment as a lifestyle. It is much easier to live disappointed than it is to feel disappointment. And so, this is the person in the afterschool movie that’s: “I don’t want to play your stupid game because it’s dumb and boring and because really maybe nobody will ask me.” We sidestep getting excited about something, because we’re not sure it’s actually going to happen.
Low-grade disconnection is another symptom of vulnerability avoidance. We go through the motions. It’s like low-grade fever: It may not kill us, but it keeps us pretty miserable.
Perfection is one of the — I call it “the 200-pound shield“: “How could anything go wrong if my life looks like an ad?”
“I am going to perform, and please, and make sure everything’s perfect.”
And perfectionism has nothing to do with striving for excellence and healthy — it’s nothing to do with healthy striving. People who I interview who are absolutely accomplished, and people who strive for excellence are the biggest negotiators and compromisers that I’ve ever interviewed. Perfection is a tool to protect ourselves.
Extremism. There is a very simple equation: Faith minus vulnerability equals extremism. Faith is the vulnerability that flows between the shores of certainty. Faith without vulnerability — spirituality is inherently vulnerable. It is believing in things we don’t understand or really can’t see.
And last, I believe the most universal way that we are dealing with an intolerance for vulnerability in our culture, is that we numb. And I’ll talk about this in a minute.
Let’s go to a bigger question, and that is: What is driving this intolerance for vulnerability in us? And I believe the answer is scarcity. We live in a culture that tells us that there is never enough. That we are not enough, that we are not good enough, that we are not safe enough, that we can never be certain enough, that we are not perfect enough and maybe the one that we really don’t talk about, that I think is perhaps the most dangerous, is that we are not extraordinary enough.
In this world, somehow, an ordinary life has become synonymous with a meaningless life. And so often we are missing what is truly important because we’re on the quest for what is extraordinary. Not understanding that in our ordinary lives, in the ordinary moments of our lives, is really where we can find the most joy.
One of the things that happens, I think, in our culture of scarcity is that we are constantly collecting images and messages and experiences — I think it’s unconscious — I really don’t think that we’re aware of how many messages and images of scarcity that we collect every day. I want to tell a story about something that happened about 6 months ago, that I think really illustrates this.
So, I have to catch a flight to go do a talk somewhere, and my daughter — I have a 5 year-old and an 11 year-old — my daughter’s really struggling with a school project, I am definitely in the scarcity mode: “I shouldn’t be going, I’m not a good enough mom, I need to…this is… I can’t balance all of this.” I have to go to my bank, which is inside of a grocery store, which — I don’t know if that happens here, but in Texas, all the banks have moved inside the grocery stores –
So, I walk up to the grocery store’s sliding glass — the sliding glass doors, and there’s a big Code Adam sticker, which, if you don’t know what that is, it’s an incredibly important program, but it’s a program that says: “This store and its employees are trained that when a child has gone missing or nabbed, everything in the store shuts down.” So I look at that and I think: “Oh God. OK, just stay focused, Brené. No one’s going to nab your kids while you’re away.”
I go and get my money, I get back in the car, I get on the freeway toward the airport, and I pass the AMBER Alert. “Keep driving, Brené, keep driving.”