In less than a month, Brene Brown’s books have changed how I view myself, how I handle mistakes, and how I communicate. Far from being your average how-to manuals, they’re research-based and story-filled guides to a whole new way to think. If you’ve ever struggled with shame, imperfection, and/or relationships, Brown’s New York’s bestsellers will change your life.
The Gifts of Imperfection is a guide to a wholehearted life. The first five chapters provide the research and philosophy behind the book, while the remaining ten chapters provide ten guideposts to the wholehearted life. What’s a wholehearted life? It’s about being real in the very truest sense, the way that the Velveteen Rabbit was. It’s about putting oneself out there, being vulnerable and honest, while also finding belonging and love.
According to Brown, being wholehearted is a process or a journey that will take our entire life. There are obstacles we’ll face, and we’ll need to regularly dig deep in ourselves to overcome them, but there are also tools we can use. One obstacle is shame. Everyone faces it, but few want to admit it. In fact, Brown once attended a conference where she was told beforehand not to talk about shame but to focus on the positive. Yet Brown believes that unless we talk about shame, and about the other obstacles that we encounter to wholehearted living, we’ll never move forward. One of the tools is love. Achieving love isn’t about fitting in, which is being who we think everyone wants us to be. Instead love comes when we find people with whom we belong or who accept us just as we are. This is how we become truly real.
Brown provides ten guidelines to the wholehearted life. I won’t cover them all, but instead will just share a few highlights. One guidepost is authenticity. This involves letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we really are. It’s not giving into the belief that we’ll never be smart enough, thin enough, rich enough, but instead allowing ourselves to be imperfect. Another guidepost is compassion, to which the key is letting go of perfectionism. The latter is not about striving to be your best or about self-improvement. Instead perfection rises from feeling shame about oneself and, as such, it’s self-destructive. Incidentally, shame and guilt are not the same. The first means feeling one is bad; the second means feeling something you did was bad. The difference is important. A third guidepost is creativity. This involves letting go of comparison. The latter is a thief of happiness, because it leaves us feeling that we must be like everyone else just better. We all have our own gifts, but we often choose not to use them, thinking that we don’t measure up to others. To find meaning in our lives, we need to use our unique gifts…. As you can see, all of these guideposts interconnect. They’re all about learning about to being okay with who we truly are, which is flawed but special individuals.
Daring Greatly is a second guide to the wholehearted life. In the preface, Brown quotes from Theodore Roosevelt’s speech called Citizenship in the Republic, where he contends that it’s not the critic who counts but the man who is in the arena. Brown goes on to point out that being perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience. For that reason, contrary to popular thought, vulnerability is not weakness and uncertainly is not an optional risk.
Brown believes that we must let our true selves be seen. In her introduction, she summarizes how she tried the “good girl, perfect-perform-please, clove-smoking poet, angry activist, corporate climber, and out of control party girl” routines. None of them worked, because every was built on the premise of keeping everyone at a safe distance and always have an exit strategy. Instead Brown advocates learning to handle mistakes, become shame resilient, and show up.
Brown next dedicates five lengthy chapters to the concept of daring greatly. If you’ve read any of her other books, some of the material will be familiar, but there’s also plenty of new information to ponder. For example, while revisiting the concept of vulnerability, Brown contends that vulnerability is neither good or bad. To feel is to be vulnerable. She then explores how we embrace vulnerability. For one thing, it’s not about sharing everything of our lives with others. Instead it’s about allowing ourselves to ask for help and to give help to those whom we’ve learned to trust. For another thing, it’s not about numbing ourselves to the bad. This is impossible to do. When we shut out the dark, we also shut out the light. While revisiting shame, Brown argues that unless we accept that we all have shame and that we all struggle, we will believe there’s something wrong with us and act on those beliefs. The consequences of believing we are bad are numerous such as we stop being willing to try new things or we always find ourselves being defensive over our actions. Finally, as she revisits the concept of joy, she notes that joy is probably the most difficult emotion to accept, because it comes and goes, and so we’re always waiting for the other shoe to drop. The problem is this won’t stop the bad things from happening in our lives but it will stop us from enjoying life. The solution is to dare greatly.
Rising Strong is a third guide to the wholehearted life. It’s also the book where Brown most discusses her theory that we’re wired to tell stories to make sense of our lives. The first five chapters lay the foundation for her call for ones to rise strong and to rumble, while the last five give examples of rumbles.
Early on, Brown shares a personal story about a day at a lake with her husband, where the two almost ended up in a fight. She felt he wasn’t giving her enough attention and began to tell stories to herself of all the reasons why he no longer loved her. Then she caught herself and instead engaged in an honest conversation about how they were both feeling that day at the lake. Using this story, she next shares an interview of hers with Pixar, where she asked about their successful storytelling technique. It’s one that breaks a script into three parts, with Act 1 being the call to an adventure and Act 3 being the hero’s successful rise to the challenge. In the middle is Act 3, where the hero finds out how bad things will get. The middle is also the part of a situation that most of us want to skip. Still using her lake story, Brown now turns to Joseph Campbell’s writing about all of us being on a hero’s journey. Brown contends that we either walk into a story by attempting to deal with our emotions in the middle act or we live outside a story by “hustling” for our worthiness. Brown calls for us to get honest about what we’re really feeling and why, which in turn will help us to rise from hurt and to live a more authentic life.
Rising Strong contains the most real-life examples of whole-hearted people than any of her other books. Some stories are about others. For example, there’s one of a business leader who made a bad decision. He had to decide whether to ignore, deflect, or accept the blame. In a moment of “rising strong,” he choose to apologize for his mistake. He also made suggestions of how the company could survive the mess he had created. Other stories are drawn from Brown’s personal background. For example, she told of allowing others to dictate to her the emphasis of her first book and how to garner sales. In not being true to her own principles, she allowed the book to become a flop. That wasn’t a mistake she made again. A lot of Brown’s stories emphasize accepting the emotions we feel, figuring out how to most kindly act in negative situations, but also holding ourselves and others accountable for actions.
I still have one more book by Brown to read. It’s called I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t). That summarizes how I feel about all of her books. I thought it was just me who struggled with shame, imperfection, and/or relationships. But it isn’t. Even better is the fact that her books offer also guidelines to overcome all of these obstacles. Finally, Brown Brown’s books appeal to me because they’re solidly founded on research, while also being quick reads due to how many anecdotes she shares. Brown’s books were informative and pleasurable to read!