I’ve spent the past few weeks telling everyone I know to read this book, so I thought I would put together some sort of official book review. Although I mention the books I’ve read or recommend in my monthly “What I’m Into” post, this is the first book review I’ve ever done on the blog. I think this book is powerful and I hope if you haven’t read it yet, that you will soon.
Brené Brown is a skilled researcher with a Master’s and PhD in social work. She has dedicated the last decade of her professional life to studying shame and vulnerability. Her two TED talks on these topics have been viewed by over This book is the perfect mixture of hard data and personal stories and her message is one that I believe every human being can relate to. This book does not apply to people of one particular religion, race, family demographic, or socioeconomic status. It is a book for everyone.
The title of the book comes from this powerful quote from Theodore Roosevelt,
“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 shortcoming; 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, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”
Brown began her research by studying human connection, but very quickly discovered that there was something that kept coming up when she interviewed people about connection. She would ask for stories of connection, and inevitably, people would share the opposite – what disconnection felt like. She noticed a common element among the stories of disconnection and that element was shame, which she defines simply as the fear of disconnection. “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”
Brown differentiates between shame and guilt in one of the simplest and yet profound ways I’ve ever encountered:
Guilt = I did something bad.
Shame = I am bad.
She explains how this sense of shame stems from the feeling that “I’m not enough.” Not pretty enough, thin enough, smart enough, rich enough, successful enough, funny enough, etc.
Brown states that shame blocks our ability to make meaningful connections with others, and the only way for connection to happen is through vulnerability – allowing ourselves to be truly seen.
Vulnerability has such a negative connotation for many people. In our culture, we often equate vulnerability with weakness. Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure” and argues that vulnerability is a risk, but it is not a weakness. “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”
Unlike how many of us think of vulnerability, Brown reassures us that vulnerability does not mean “letting it all hang out,” but is instead about “sharing our feelings and experiences with people who have earned a right to hear them.”
Brown goes on to identify the “vulnerability-shields’ people put up to protect themselves from being real with others (perfectionism, forboding joy, and numbing being the major ones) and to give the “daring greatly” alternatives to these behaviors (embracing the beauty of our cracks, practicing gratitude, and finding true comfort).
Through the book Brown explains how developing shame-resilience and practicing vulnerability has the power to radically transform our relationships and our lives. She gives practical examples of what this could look like in a business or work environment, in the other leadership roles we fill, and in parenting. Although I’m not a parent yet myself, I found the section on parenting particularly interesting and inspiring. This section was full of good, practical examples of how we can break the cycle of shame in our homes and teach shame-resilience for the things that happen outside of our homes. We can cultivate empathy, self-compassion, and a profound sense of belonging in our children by first cultivating these things in ourselves. Brown explains that being vulnerable is one of the most powerful ways we can parent children, “…the question isn’t so much, ‘Are you parenting the right way?’ as it is ‘Are you the adult that you want your child to grow up to be?’”
In her previous book, The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown explored the concept of “Wholeheartedness” which she defines as living with a sense of worthiness – of love and belonging. She interviewed hundreds of people and studied what separated those with a sense of worthiness from those who struggled for it. She talks about this research in one of her TED talks. Brown says that the difference between these two groups of people was only one variable. “And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy.”
“And so these folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect…The other thing that they had in common was this: They fully embraced vulnerability. They believed that what made them vulnerable made them beautiful… They talked about the willingness to say, “I love you” first, the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees, the willingness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammogram. They’re willing to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out. They thought this was fundamental.”
I think Christians (in the Reformed tradition especially) have some push-back against the idea of our own worthiness. We balk at expressing what we perceive to be an overly high opinion of ourselves. What about being hopeless sinners in need of Christ’s grace? I would argue that Christ’s grace is exactly why we need to see ourselves as worthy. That we are worthy because of the work of Christ. Maybe failing to see our worthiness is really a failure to understand and accept the work that Christ has done for us. Maybe combatting shame and embracing vulnerability are essential to how we live the gospel.
This book is making me consider the kind of person I want to be. It has challenged and encouraged me to identify places of shame in my life and to combat them. Embracing our imperfections and our messiness is something I had already been thinking about and writing about a lot over the past year, and this book has confirmed for me that this is crucial to living an abundant life and to becoming the people we want to be.
If you don’t feel like you have time to read the book, or just want to hear more before you do, here are Brené Brown’s two TED talks. They are well-worth the 18 minutes of your time.