Texas professor Brene Brown has spent more than a decade researching vulnerability, shame, courage, and worthiness. While most people spend their lives doing whatever they can to protect themselves from vulnerability and hide from feelings of shame, Brown’s book Daring Greatly posits that a well-lived life requires embracing these feelings, using them to foster connection and greater meaning.

The book grew out of a TED talk titled, The Power of Vulnerability, which has since become one of the organization’s top five most popular talks. Daring Greatly is now a bestseller, and a wonderful read or a great gift for a chronic pain patient!

What is vulnerability?

Vulnerability involves exposing your feelings, navigating uncertainty, and taking emotional risks. Telling someone you love them, asking for help, even offering help—these situations involve vulnerability because they come with a risk of rejection.

Many people have been conditioned to view vulnerability as a weakness. After all, when we open our hearts, we risk humiliation. Exposing our true selves says that we’re not perfect, that we have feelings, and sometimes those feelings get hurt. We also risk rejection and failure by trying new things, experimenting with new hobbies, or even taking on professional opportunities that lie outside our comfort zone.

Essentially, all the really cool stuff in life requires some sort of vulnerability. In Daring Greatly, Brown writes:

“Experiencing vulnerability isn’t a choice—the only choice we have is how we’re going to respond when we are confronted with uncertainty, risk, and emotional disclosure.”

Brown gives tools for managing that vulnerability, and developing the trust that dovetails with it. Trust is an important foundation for vulnerability, she says, especially when it comes to deepening relationships.

Later sections explore vulnerability as it exists in the workplace and with parenting. Even if you don’t work in an office or have children at home, the chapters offer useful information for everyone. For instance, Brown discusses perfectionism at length, and how the desire to be perfect is really just an impossible armor we don to protect ourselves against rejection.

Shame and the fear of not belonging create an opportunity for connection through vulnerability

Underneath the vulnerability discussion, is something much deeper, and much less frequently talked about. Shame. Brown opens her book with a lengthy discussion about shame, which is the universal fear people have of not belonging, of disconnection. In her TED talk, she says:

“When you ask people about love, they tell you about heartbreak. When you ask people about belonging, they’ll tell you their most excruciating experiences of being excluded. And when you ask people about connection, the stories they told me were about disconnection.”

Shame compounds itself. People fear not belonging, and this fear makes them not want to talk about it, which worsens the fear of not belonging. Underneath this shame is the idea that as humans, we’re not good enough. That we need to do special things to be loveable, or those things that we do or the people we are somehow fall short.

To counteract this feeling of shame, people must feel connected. And to feel connected, people must embrace vulnerability, Brown says.

Daring Greatly includes many of Brown’s personal anecdotes and those uncovered during her decades of shame and vulnerability research. Brown discusses how prevalent shame is, and how to nurture trust and navigate vulnerability to create stronger connections and a more meaningful life.

The discussion is important because although all people have feelings of shame, not everybody is consumed by it. There’s just one variable that differentiates people who feel like they belong from those who don’t, Brown says: The belief that they’re worthy of love and belonging.

How does vulnerability affect pain patients?

Although Daring Greatly does not explicitly talk about how to live well with a chronic condition, it does talk about how to work with shame and vulnerability to have deeper, more satisfying relationships.

When it comes to having a chronic condition, people often have feelings of shame and isolation. They may close themselves off to being vulnerable because of all the times they’ve tried to ask for help or explain how they feel only to be rejected or shot down.

And if there’s one thing that’s important for people with chronic conditions to know, it’s that having an ongoing health condition does not make you less worthy. When bad things in life happen, it’s easy to wonder if this is a punishment for being a bad person, or feel like it’s necessary to keep your head up all the time because otherwise, you’ll be rejected.

By embracing vulnerability, patients with chronic pain can learn to manage fear and foster better connections

By reading Daring Greatly, you will hopefully take away the understanding that although not everyone understands what it’s like to live with a chronic condition, most people do live with the nagging idea that they are not worthy of connection. It will also give you tools to gradually enter into supportive relationships that allow you to express how you’re feeling in a very real way.

If you struggle with knowing how much to tell people about your condition and in what circumstances, Daring Greatly is a good read. Brown spends time talking about how to cultivate that trust.

Embracing vulnerability isn’t about opening up your heart and allowing the world to enter at will. It’s about selectively cultivating deeper connections that feed you as you’re forging your way in the world. She writes:

“I carry a small sheet of paper in my wallet that has written on it the names of people whose opinions of me matter. To be on that list, you have to love me for my strengths and struggles. You have to know that I’m trying to be wholehearted, but I still cuss too much, flip people off under the steering wheel, and have both Lawrence Welk and Metallica on my iPod.”

The opinions of other people? They don’t matter, she says.

Have you read Daring Greatly? What role does vulnerability play in your life?

Image by Walter Lim via Flickr

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