Insights On Vulnerability, Empathy, and Shame, From #1 Bestselling Author Brené Brown


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(Breather) Brené Brown has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy and is the author of five #1 New York Times bestsellers: The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, Braving the Wilderness, and her latest book, Dare to Lead, which is the culmination of a seven-year study on courage and leadership.

Brené’s TED talk ― The Power of Vulnerability ― is one of the top five most viewed TED talks in the world with over 35 million views. Today, I’ll be sharing the most eye-opening revelations and life-altering lessons I’ve gained from Brené’s fascinating research and work.


Developing empathy requires that you look into someone’s eyes and reflect their story back to them. But, “empathy is not the default human response.” Brené points out how hard it can be to “understand and accept other people, particularly when they behave disgracefully. You still have to work hard to tell them, ‘I get it.’

No one reaches out to you so that they can be taught how to behave better! They reach out because they believe in your capacity to know your darkness well enough so that you can sit in their darkness with them ― to have empathy for them.”

Unfortunately, we have a tendency to flip on the lights. We say, “Don’t worry, it’s not a big deal. Everyone makes mistakes.” However, this is not empathetic. Neither is lecturing them about how lame they are (a good reminder for parents out there). Brené stresses that, we cannot feel empathy for others beyond the love and compassion we have for ourselves.”

Everyone runs into a moment (or two or three or fifty) of having screwed up something in their lives. And when this happens to someone you know and they come to you, Brené advises that, instead of reacting to the situation from a judgemental perspective or making light of it, the most helpful, effective, and empathetic response you can give them is to say, “You can do this. You can take this on.” Brené says you can “climb into the hole with them” but you also need to be sure that you don’t get trapped in that hole with them - you need to be able to get out. Of course you’re going to want to give your love, energy, kindness, and support, but you don’t want to get dragged down by other people’s issues. This is because doing so signifies that you are over-identifying, codependent, etc.

Look at it this way: Sympathy is, “I feel bad for you,” not, “I feel with you.”


What even is vulnerability? It is:

  • Asking for help, saying, ‘I don’t know”
  • Facing up to difficult situations and decisions
  • Getting promoted and feeling like you’re not sure you’re up for it
  • Getting fired
  • Initiating sex with your partner
  • It is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure
  • It is loving someone and knowing that you cannot control if they love you back

Vulnerability is actually our most accurate measure of courage. It is not weakness ― that is the biggest myth. Brené says: “In the face of contention, don’t shrink, don’t puff up ― just stand your sacred ground: whole-hearted and empathetic. This is the goal for evolving to your highest self.”

Brené then references studies of whole-hearted people, and highlights how they cultivate rest and play. She shares that these whole-hearted people actually “piddle around and waste time a lot.” And around 1/4 of whole-hearted, empathetic people are raised that way with optimal parenting. For the rest, empathy and whole-heartedness is a skill to cultivate.

But, modern, messed up cultural dynamics have led us to regard exhaustion as a status symbol, and productivity as a measurement of self-worth (think of triathlete culture, workaholics that we all know or are personally, harried supermoms trying to do everything they can for everyone, helicopter parenting, etc.). Brené’s insights prompt you to rethink the ideas we all have and reprioritize being whole-hearted and taking care of yourself.

Another important part of vulnerability is accountability. Brené frames accountability as authenticity, action, and amends.” A good example is saying, and acknowledging, ‘This is what I did, this is how I’m going to fix it.’


Brené reveals that we always judge in the areas where we ourselves are most vulnerable to shame. Further, we always pick people who are doing worse than we are doing, because we are seeking validation, through the idea that, Well, at least I’m better than this person I am judging.

The reason why shame feels bad is because it’s about your character. No wonder shame is strongly correlated with depression and addiction! Contrastingly, guilt can actually be productive and adaptive, because it’s rooted in your behavior. “The shame triggers are your prerequisites for worthiness,” Brené reveals, and these are usually handed down from our upbringing. As my show covering Dr. Bruce Lipton’s book, The Biology of Belief, explains, most of us are still carting around emotional baggage from early childhood programming and this has a serious effect on our bodies, precisely because of how strongly and directly our thoughts affect our cellular function.

Brené says that shame “has one purpose only: to discharge pain. It serves no other use.”

Here are some highlights from Brené’s Netflix special, Call to Courage:

  • Vulnerability is not a sign of weakness.

Despite what some may think, Brené says, “Vulnerability is our most accurate way to measure courage, and we literally do that as researchers.”

Vulnerability actually allows them to assess fearlessness: “We can measure how brave you are by how vulnerable you’re willing to be.”

  • There are numerous benefits that come with opening up.

Brené says vulnerability is the “birthplace” of things like love and joy. Pointing out the risks that come with love, Brené asked her audience: “Are you 100% sure that person will always love you back, will never leave, will never get sick? How many of you have every buried someone you love? How many of you have lost someone you love?

To love is to be vulnerable, to give someone your heart and say, ‘I know this could hurt so bad, but I'm willing to do it; I’m willing to be vulnerable and love you.’ When we lose our capacity for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding. It becomes scary to let ourselves feel it.”

  • Being vulnerable has advantages even at work.

Brené’s advice to a company with a huge creativity and innovation problem guessed it: vulnerability.

“No vulnerability, no creativity. No tolerance for failure, no innovation. It is that simple,” she said, adding: “if you're not willing to fail, you can’t innovate. If you’re not willing to build a vulnerable culture, you can’t create.”

  • Vulnerability is inescapable.

Here’s the thing: even if you think you are avoiding being vulnerable, you are still, in fact experiencing the emotion. Brené says: “You do vulnerability knowingly, or vulnerability does you.”

Highlighting the importance of openness, she said: “It is so much easier to cause pain than feel pain, and people are taking their pain and they’re working it out on other people. And when you don’t acknowledge your vulnerability, you work your shit out on other people. Stop working your shit out on other people!”

  • The choice to embrace exposure is easier in the end.

“Vulnerability is hard, and it’s scary, and it feels dangerous, but it’s not as hard, scary or dangerous as getting to the end of our lives and having to ask ourselves, ‘What if I would’ve shown up?’ ‘What if I would’ve said, I love you?’ Show up, be seen, answer the call to courage...‘cause you’re worth it. You’re worth being brave.”


To develop empathy, you must look into the other person's eyes and reflect their story back to them. [05:29]

We cannot feel empathy for others beyond the love and compassion that we have for ourselves. [07:20]

Vulnerability is not a weakness. It is being powerful. [08:24]

Accountability is authenticity, action, and amends. [10:42]

Shame is destructive because it’s about your character. [10:55]

We can measure how brave you are by how vulnerable you’re willing to be. [12:26]

There are many benefits to opening up. [13:23]

Being vulnerable at work has advantages. [14:17]

Vulnerability is inescapable. [15:00]

Show up. Be seen. Answer the call to courage because you’re worth it. [15:40]


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