Brené Brown, a social worker who studies human connection, set a one-year goal to outsmart vulnerability. For 365 days, she would deconstruct shame and learn to fight back against the feelings that make people feel painfully exposed. Her year of research eventually turned into six, but even with a theory of how it all works, she still wondered: What separates people who have a strong sense of belonging from those who don’t?
Related: The Business of Self-Esteem
In this TEDx Talk, Brown shares what she discovered and how a shift in thinking could help people feel like they belong.
Connection is what gives life meaning, Brown says. It’s ultimately what life is all about—but when she asked her research subjects about love, belonging and feeling connected, the answers she got in return were stories of heartbreak, exclusion and disconnection. Brown realized that if she divided her interview subjects into those who felt like they belonged and those who felt excluded, only one characteristic made the difference.
“The people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they"re worthy of love and belonging,” Brown says. “That"s it. They believe they"re worthy.”
There were two things the “connected individuals” had in common: a sense of courage and a wholehearted acceptance of being vulnerable. The courage to be flawed allowed them to think kindly about themselves and others—and the authenticity they gained helped them accept who they were instead of who they thought they should become.
“They didn"t talk about vulnerability being comfortable, nor did they really talk about it being excruciating—as I had heard it earlier in the shame interviewing,” Brown says. “They just talked about it being necessary. They talked about the willingness to say, ‘I love you’ first… the willingness to do something where there are no guarantees… They thought this was fundamental.”
Brown says instead of confronting this feeling, a lot of people chose to numb their vulnerability.
“And I think there"s evidence—and it"s not the only reason this evidence exists, but I think it"s a huge cause,” she says. We are the most in-debt… obese… addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. The problem is—and I learned this from the research—that you cannot selectively numb emotion. You can"t say, here"s the bad stuff. Here"s vulnerability, here"s grief, here"s shame, here"s fear, here"s disappointment. I don"t want to feel these.”
Instead, Brown says people should let themselves truly be seen by others. Rather than questioning what will happen if vulnerability takes over, be grateful to feel so alive—and imperfect.
“Because when we work from a place that says, ‘I"m enough’… then we stop screaming and start listening, we"re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we"re kinder and gentler to ourselves,” she says.