Brene Brown studies human relationships – our ability to feel empathy, a sense of belonging, of love. In a moving and funny presentation given to TED / Houston, she shares with us her profound reflection from her research, which led her on a personal quest for knowledge of herself and of humanity. A conference to discover.
So, I’ll start with this: Two years ago, the organizer of an event phoned me because I had to give a lecture. She called me and said, “I really have trouble figuring out how to describe you on our little flyer. And I said to myself, “Well, where is the problem? And she said to me, “Well, I’ve already seen you speak, and I’m going to appoint you as a researcher, I believe, but I’m afraid if I appoint you as a researcher, no one will come, because everyone will think that you are boring and off topic. (Laughs) Ok. And she said, “But what I liked about your conference is that you’re a storyteller. So I think what I’m going to do is just say you’re a storyteller. And of course, my academic side, which is insecure, said: “You will say what am I ?! And she said, “I will say that you are a storyteller. And me: “And why not Fairy Carabosse? (Laughs) I did: ‘Let me think for a second. I tried to gather all my courage. And I thought, I’m a storyteller. I am a researcher in the human sciences. I collect stories; that’s what I do. And maybe the stories are nothing but scientific data with a soul. And maybe I’m nothing but a storyteller. So I said, “You know what? Why not just say that I am a storyteller? And she said, “Ha ha. It does not exist. (Laughter) So, I’m a storyteller, and I’m going to talk to you today – we’re talking about broadening our conceptions – so I want to talk to you and tell you some stories about some of my research that has fundamentally broadened my perception and actually, concretely, changed my way of living, loving, working, and raising my children.
And that’s where my story begins. When I was a young researcher, a doctoral student, during my first year I had a research director who told us: “Here is the topo: what we can not measure does not exist. And I thought he was trying to wind me up. And I did: “Really? And he: “Absolutely. You need to know that I have a social assistance license, a social assistance master’s degree, and that I was preparing a social assistance thesis, so I had spent my entire academic career surrounded by people who believed in somehow that life is disorder, and that one must love it so. Whereas me it would be rather: the life is the disorder, it is necessary to clean it, to organize it, and to put it well in small boxes. (Laughter) So when I think I’ve found my way, that I’ve started my career on a path that brings me – really, in welfare, it says a lot that you have to plunge into discomfort work. And I am rather: evacuate the discomfort once and for all, clear it and get only 20 out of 20. It was my motto. That’s why I was very excited about this idea. And I said to myself, you know what, it’s the career you need, because I’m interested in complicated subjects, but I want to be able to make them less complicated. I want to understand them. I want to infiltrate these questions, which I know are important, and decode them for everyone.
So I started with human relations. Because, when you have worked in the social for 10 years, you realize that human relationships are the reason for our presence on earth. This is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Everything revolves around that. It does not matter if you talk to people who work in the social justice sector, or mental health, or abuse, or parental neglect, they will all tell you that relationships, the ability to enter in relation, it is – neurobiologically, we are conceived in this way – it is the reason for our presence on earth. So I thought: I’ll start with human relations. You know this situation where you have an evaluation interview with your boss, and she talks about 37 things you do incredibly well, and then one thing – “An opportunity to improve yourself. (Laughs) And all you remember is this “opportunity to improve yourself,” right? Well, at first glance, this is also the direction my work took, because when I asked people about love, they told me about grief. When I asked people about their sense of belonging, they told me about their most excruciating experiences when they were excluded. And when I asked people about human relations, the stories they told me were about isolation.
So very quickly – in fact after only six weeks of research – I stumbled on this nameless thing that totally destroyed relationships in a way that I did not understand, and that I had never seen. So I took a step back on my research and I told myself, I must understand what it is. And I discovered that it was shame. We can really understand shame easily if we consider it as the fear of isolation. Is there anything at home that would make others know or see that I would not deserve to be in touch with them? There is one thing I can tell you: it’s universal; we all have that. The only people who do not feel shame are those who are incapable of empathy or human relationships. Nobody wants to talk about it, and the less we talk about it, the more we feel it. What is at the base of this shame, this “I’m not good enough”, – which is a feeling we all know: “I’m not neutral enough. I’m not thin enough, not rich enough, not pretty enough, not smart enough, not recognized enough in my work. What is at the base of all this is an atrocious vulnerability, the idea that, in order to be able to relate to others, we must be as we are, truly as we are.
And you know what I think about vulnerability. I hate vulnerability. So I thought, this is the opportunity I was waiting for her to retreat with my rule. I’m going to immerse myself in it, I’m going to unravel this whole story, I’m going to spend a year there, I’m going to completely shake the shame, I’m going to understand how vulnerability works, and I’m going to be the strongest. So I was ready, and I was really excited. As you can imagine, it did not go well. (Laughs) You can imagine. So, I could tell you a lot about shame, but I would have to take the time of all the others. But that’s what I can tell you, what it boils down to – and it may be the most important thing I’ve ever learned in ten years on this research. My year has turned into six years, thousands of stories, hundreds of long interviews, focus groups. At one point, people would send me newspaper pages, send me stories – thousands of pieces of information in six years. And I started to understand.
I started to understand: that’s what shame is, that’s how it works. I wrote a book, I published a theory, but something was wrong – and what it was, if I took the people I interviewed, and divide them roughly into two categories: those who really believed in their own worth – that’s what it boils down to, believing in their own worth – they have a strong sense of love and belonging – and those who have trouble with that, those who ask themselves all the time if they are good enough. There was only one variable that differentiated those who have a strong sense of love and belonging from those who really struggle with it. And it was that those with a strong sense of love and belonging think they deserve love and belonging. That’s all. They think they deserve it. And for me the thing that deprives us of human relationships is our fear of not deserving these relationships, it was something that, personally and professionally, I felt I needed to better understand . So what I did was I took all the interviews in which I could see people who thought they deserved, who lived that way, and I just looked at them carefully.
What do all these people have in common? I’m a little addicted to office supplies, but that’s another story. I had a cardboard folder, and I had a marker, and I did, how would I call that search? And the first words that came to my mind were “without reservation”. They are unqualified people who live with this deep sense of value. So I put it on the cover of the shirt, and started looking at the data. In fact, I started doing this for four days with an extremely intensive data analysis, where I went back, I came out of those interviews, came out of the stories, came out of the incidents. What is the theme? What is the reason? My husband left the city with the kids because I come back every time in this delirium to the Jackson Pollock, where I’m just writing, and where I’m in research mode. And here is what I found. What they had in common was a sense of courage. Here I want to take a minute to explain the distinction between courage and bravery. The courage, the original definition of courage, when this word appeared in the English language – it comes from the Latin “cor”, which means “heart” – and its original definition was: to tell who we are with all our heart. Thus, these people had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect. They had the compassion to be kind, first with themselves, then with others, because, as it seems, we can not be compassionate to others if we are incapable of being kind to ourselves. And finally, they were in relationship with others, and – that was the hard core – because of their authenticity, they were willing to give up the idea they had of what they should have been, to be who they were, which is an absolute imperative to enter into relationships with others.
The other thing they had in common was this. They completely embraced vulnerability. They thought that what made them vulnerable made them equally beautiful. They did not pretend that the vulnerability was comfortable, or that it was awful – as I had heard before in the shame talks. They just said it was necessary. They spoke of the desire to say “I love you” first, the will to do something when there is no guarantee of success, the will not to hold your breath while waiting for the doctor’s call after a mammogram. They were willing to invest in a relationship that might work, or not. They thought it was essential.
For my part, I felt it as a betrayal. I could not believe that I had sworn allegiance to research – the very principle of research is to control and predict, to study a phenomenon for the explicit purpose of controlling and predicting it. And there, my mission to control and foresee resulted in the result that the best way to live is to accept its vulnerability, and to stop controlling and predicting. It led me to a small depression – (laughs) – that actually looked like that. (Laughs) Really! I called it a depression, my psychotherapist calls it a spiritual awakening. A spiritual awakening sounds better than a depression, but I assure you it was a depression. And I had to put away my data and look for a psychotherapist. Let me tell you something: you really find out who you are when you call your friends and say, “I think I need to see a shrink. You would have someone to recommend me? Because about five of my friends did: “Wow. I would not like to be your psychotherapist. (Laughs) And me: “How so? And they: “Me what I say, you know. Do not bring your rule. And me: “Ok …”
So I found a psychotherapist. My first date with her, Diana – I brought my list of how “unreserved” live, and I sat down. And she said to me, “How are you? And I said, “I’m in great shape. Things are going well. She said, “What’s going on? She was a psychotherapist who consulted psychotherapists herself; we should go to this kind of psychotherapist, because their bullshit detector is very developed. (Laughs) So I said, “Here I have a problem. And she said, “What’s the problem? And I said, “Well, I have a vulnerability problem. And I know that vulnerability is at the heart of shame and fear and our problem of self-esteem, but it seems that it is also the source of joy, creativity, sense of belonging, love. And I think I have a problem, and I need help. And I said, “But there you are, no family stories, no bullshit about childhood. (Laughs) “I only need a strategy. (Laughter) (Applause) Thank you. So she did like that. (Laughs) And I said, “That’s bad, is not it? And she said, “It’s neither bad nor good. (Laughs) That’s just what it is. And I thought, “Oh my God, we’re going to be pissed off. “
And that was the case, and at the same time no. And it took me almost a year. You know how some people, when they realize that vulnerability and tenderness are important, let go and get on with it. First, it’s not my style, and secondly, I do not even go to such people. (Laughs) For me, it’s been a year-long struggle. It was a killing. The vulnerability gained ground, I regained it again. I lost the battle, but I probably got my life back.
And so I went back to my research and spent the next two years trying to really understand what they, the unreserved ones, were doing as a choice, and what we, ourselves, are doing about vulnerability. Why is this such a problem? Am I the only one for whom this is a problem? No. Here is what I learned. We anesthetize vulnerability – when we wait for the phone call. It’s funny, I sent something on Twitter and Facebook that asked, “How would you define the vulnerability? What makes you vulnerable? And in an hour and a half, I had 150 answers. Because I wanted to know what is behind all that. Having to ask my husband for help, because I’m sick, and we just got married; take the sexual initiative with my husband; take the initiative with my wife; to be rejected; invite someone to go out; wait for the doctor to call back; to be fired; to turn people – this is the world we live in. We live in a vulnerable world. And one of the ways we are dealing with this problem is to anesthetize the vulnerability.
And I think there’s evidence of that – it’s not the only reason, but I think it’s a big one – we’re the most indebted, obese, addicted to drugs and drugs, all adult assemblies in the history of the United States. The problem – and that’s what I learned from my research – is that you can not anesthetize your emotions selectively. We can not say: “There, that’s what’s bad. Here is the vulnerability, here is the sorrow, here is the shame, here is the fear, here is the disappointment, I do not want to feel these emotions. I’m going to have some beer and a banana muffin. (Laughs) I do not want to feel those emotions. And I know that is a laugh. I make a living by infiltrating yours. Lord. (Laughter) You can not numb those painful feelings without anesthetizing your emotions and feelings at the same time. You can not anesthetize selectively. So when we anesthetized them, we also anesthetized the joy, we anesthetized the gratitude, we anesthetized the happiness. And we find ourselves unhappy, and we seek purpose and meaning in our lives, and we feel vulnerable, so we take a few beers and a banana muffin. And it becomes a vicious circle.
One of the things I think we should think about is the why and how of this anesthesia. It can not be just addiction. The other thing we do is to make sure everything is uncertain. Religion has gone from belief in faith and mysteries to certainty. I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up. Period. For sure. The more scared we are, the more vulnerable we are, and the more scared we are. That’s what politics looks like today. There is no more speech now. There is no debate. There is only the search for a culprit to blame. Do you know how I describe this in my research? One way to get rid of pain and discomfort. We perfect everything. If there is someone who would like his life to be perfect, it’s me, but it does not work. Because what we do is take the fat from our rear and put it in our cheeks. (Laughs) Which, I hope, in a hundred years, will make people who will study us say, “Wow …”
And the most dangerous thing is that we are perfecting our children. Let me explain how we think of our children. They are designed from the start to have problems. And when you hold these little perfect beings in your hands, your duty is not to say, “Look at him, he’s perfect. My job is to keep him perfect – make sure he joins the tennis team in CM2, and Yale University before the 5th. That’s not it, our duty. Our duty is to look at him, and say, “You know what? You are not perfect, and you are designed to have problems, but you deserve to receive love and be with us. That’s our duty. Give me a generation of kids raised like that, and we’ll fix the problems we have today, I think. We like to believe that our actions do not affect others. We do this in our personal lives. We do this in companies – whether it’s a bailout, an oil spill, a convocation – we behave as if our actions do not have a huge impact on others. I want to say to companies: “We are not born of the last rain, guys. We only need you to be genuine and true, and you tell us: ‘We are sorry. We’ll fix that. ‘ “
But there is another way, and I will finish on that. Here is what I discovered: it is to accept to show oneself, to show oneself really, to be vulnerable; to love with all our heart, even if there is no certainty – and that’s really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, it’s excruciatingly difficult – to practice at the Gratitude and joy in these moments of terror, where we ask ourselves: “Am I able to love you so much? Am I able to believe in this with such passion? Am I able to be so fervent? Just be able to stop and, instead of imagining the catastrophes that may happen, say, “I’m just grateful, because feeling so vulnerable means that I’m alive. And finally, what I think is most important is to believe that we are good as we are. Because I think that when we listen to the little voice that says to us: “I’m good as I am”, then we stop screaming, and we start to listen, we become kinder and sweeter with our surroundings, and we are more kind and sweet with ourselves.