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.”
About 2 miles past the AMBER Alert there’s a sign that tells me that 39 people have been killed on that specific stretch of highway. And please wear my seat belt.
Then I get to the airport, and of course, I’m in line to security getting naked, and I hear: “The threat code has been moved to orange.” And then I go through this thing that I’m like: “Oh my God! Holy crap! Is that a movement? Is it always orange?” I was like, I’m going to start writing on my hand with a Sharpie: “It’s always orange. Ok. Orange is not — it hasn’t gone bad.” I’m like: “What is it?” OK, so I’m like, “Orange. OK, it’s orange. I think it was orange yesterday. Maybe something’s happened and I was busy reading the AMBER Alert, then trying to find the license plate…”
So I get to my gate and I sit down and they’re like: “Do not leave unattended baggage…,” and I look down, and there’s a bag. And I’m like: “Oh my God! Wait — it’s a diaper bag.” And I know that mother is ten feet away, chasing her kid, and I’m like, “But I saw this on Law and Order.” And I’m going to board that plane and then the next thing you’re going to hear is: “Ching-ching!” That Law and Order “ching”: Ding-duum! And then we’re going to blow up.
So I get on the plane, and I’m really getting ready to start — I’m in kind of what you would call, I would say, an anxiety attack. So I’m having an anxiety attack, and the guy — I’m flying in business class, the guy comes in, he’s sitting next to me, he turned out to be a supply chain manager consultant — and so he looks over, and he’s like: “You OK?” I’m like, “I’m good, yeah. What’s up?”
And my phone rings and my son’s face pops up. Well, he’s 5, so that means his school is calling. “Hello?”
“Charlie’s got a fever. Can you come get him?”
Mmm hmm. So I text my husband, I take care of it, and the guy next to me says: “Really, are you OK?” By this time, the cabin doors are closed. And I say: “You know what, I’m good, but I’m having that thing where I can’t decide whether my gut is really saying get off the flight, something’s going to happen or I’m just freaking out, and I’m trying to figure out how to do something crazy enough to get off the flight, but to not end up on the ‘No Fly’ list.” And so, this – Yeah, I am super blast to fly with.
So then he said: “Let me get you a drink.”
I said, “You know, I don’t drink.”
And he goes: “Xanax?”
And I was like, “No, I don’t do Xanax either.” …which is a shame. But, I don’t.
But then what I realize is, it really makes me think about my work. Because we numb vulnerability. Now had he said: “Chips and queso?” That would have been a completely different issue.
Evidence of the numbing: We are the most addicted; we are the most medicated; obese, and in-debt adult cohort in human history. We’re numbing. And this doesn’t even include busyness. I didn’t even put the “busy” slide up. You know, when they start having “busy” recovery meetings, you know, “busy” 12-step meetings, they’ll have to rent out football stadiums. Because we just stay so busy that the truth of our lives can’t catch up. That’s the plan.
And so, what are the consequences of numbing vulnerability? What are the consequences of trying to beat vulnerability to the punch? Here is the consequence to numbing that I’ve learned. As a vulnerability researcher I spent the first 6 years of my research studying shame, empathy, and courage; and the last 4 years studying joy, authenticity, love, and belonging. And one of the things that I learned that was very startling for me personally and everyone I’ve ever met, is that you cannot selectively numb emotion. When we numb the dark emotion, when we numb vulnerability and fear, and the shame of not being good enough, we by default numb joy. We cannot selectively just numb the dark emotions. We have interesting research around this.
We have research that shows us, in addiction studies, that an intensely positive experience is as likely to trigger relapse as an intensely negative experience. Let me tell you: if vulnerability is a sharp edge, there may be nothing sharper than joy. To let yourself soften into loving someone, into caring about something passionately — that’s vulnerable.
So the question becomes: How do we embrace vulnerability? And here’s what I learned from the research. We practice gratitude. We stop and be thankful for what we have. I’ve interviewed a lot of people who have been through many horrific things, from genocide to trauma, and when you ask them what they need, they will tell you: “I don’t need your pity, I don’t need your sympathy. When you look at your children, I need to know you’re grateful. I need to know that you know what you have.”
So to practice gratitude, to honor what’s ordinary about our lives, because that is what’s truly extraordinary. We can compete with the images from the media, from the news, from the scary shows on TV, with our own images of gratitude about what’s ordinary in our lives: The people we love; our kids; our family; play; our community; and nature. These are things that happen every single day that we’re so busy being afraid we’re missing these. So that’s, I think, the biggest thing, is to be grateful for what we have, to honor what’s ordinary.
And last, I just want to say that — and I’m a parent and I’m a vulnerable person, too, but I really believe we want more guarantees; we want to believe we’re not going to get hurt and bad things are not going to happen and they are. But there is a guarantee that no one talks about that, and that is: if we don’t allow ourselves to experience joy and love we will definitely miss out on filling our reservoir with what we need when those hard things happen.
And so, I’ll end on the note that I’m grateful for your time tonight, and I’m grateful to be here, and I hope this is something that we can do together, because I believe in vulnerability we’ll find what really gives purpose and meaning to our lives.