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Belonging. Human connection. Vulnerability. Failure. Perseverance. On this episode, Brené Brown discusses the highs and lows of her creative journey—and the essential elements of a life lived bravely.

Design Matters From the Archive: Brené Brown

Design Matters From the Archive: Brené Brown

AUTHOR / RESEARCHER / STORYTELLER

2021

Brené Brown / Braving the Wilderness / The Gifts of Imperfection / belonging / trauma / grounded theory / vulnerability / perseverance / failure / courage

Transcript


Debbie Millman:

Vulnerability, shame, failure. These aren’t the things we like to think about in ourselves. But for Brené Brown, they are the focus of her attention. As a research professor and business leader, she has studied how being vulnerable can make us more courageous and empathetic. More true to our humanity. In her new book, Braving the Wilderness, Brené Brown calls on us to move closer to each other because people are hard to hate close up. To speak truth to bullshit, but be civil. To hold hands with strangers. And she’s here today to talk about her brand new book, her career, and the TED talk that changed her life. Brené Brown, welcome to Design Matters.


Brené Brown:

I'm excited to be here. I listen to you all the time so it’s really fun to be across from you doing this.


Debbie Millman:

Oh, ditto


Brené Brown:

Yeah. Ditto, yes.


Debbie Millman:

Brené, is it true that when the movie Grease first came out all those decades ago, you saw it 25 times?


Brené Brown:

I was trying to remember exactly, so I went with the most conservative number that we could come up with, but yes.


Debbie Millman:

Really?


Brené Brown:

Oh, yes. I used all of the money I’d saved up, all my Christmas birthday card money. I saw it at least 25 times.


Debbie Millman:

Was it because of Olivia Newton John, John Travolta? What was the allure? Was it the two of them together?


Brené Brown:

I don’t even think it was that part. It was the singing and the dancing and “this is gonna be high school, and I can’t wait.”


Debbie Millman:

Ah. Olivia Newton John was my first crush. I went and saw her when she was still a country music singer back in the ’70s.


Brené Brown:

’70s, late ’70s, yeah.


Debbie Millman:

So I totally get it.


Brené Brown:

I think it was that, and I started smoking.


Debbie Millman:

Yes, I actually read that you wanted to be Olivia Newton John with a cigarette and a catsuit winning over John Travolta.


Brené Brown:

Yeah, I just thought … until I watched it maybe 10 years ago with my daughter who’s now 18, so maybe she was probably 10 or 11 when we watched it, so maybe it was eight years ago, seven years ago. I was like, “This is completely inappropriate. We have to shut this thing off.”


Debbie Millman:

Cover your eyes.


Brené Brown:

’Cause the moral of the story is, “Don't be the good girl. Get the catsuit, buy a pack of Marlboros.”


Debbie Millman:

Stockard Channing ruled in that movie.


Brené Brown:

Oh, yeah. And so I loved it and I aspired.


Debbie Millman:

I wish my listeners could see your face right now. Your eyes are sparkling.


Debbie Millman:

Now, you were born Cassandra Brené Brown in San Antonio, Texas. But you moved to New Orleans, LA, when you were very young. And you’ve described your mom who you were named for as outspoken and tenacious. In what way?


Brené Brown:

So yeah, my mom and I are both Cassandras, and she goes by her middle name and I go by Brené. We moved to, and this is recent history, which we’re not that old, but when I started kindergarten in New Orleans, it was 1969, the first year of mandatory integration. I think the laws had come down maybe a decade before, but they just weren’t acting on them. So this is when the judiciary said, “You will integrate your schools.” And my mom was very outspoken around racial issues. So she wrote an open letter to The Times-Picayune against what we would call racial profiling today. She was just very outspoken in a time when people were not. Especially white women.


Debbie Millman:

And she was also rather crafty. I understand she made you, herself, and your Barbie, matching yellow plaid dresses.


Brené Brown:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

Please tell me you still have them.


Brené Brown:

I don’t have the dresses, but I have the pictures. I have us boarding a train and she’s holding my hand and I’m holding my Barbie, and all of our dresses match. Yeah. So I just thought of her ever as my mom, my crafty mom, but I knew when other adults got around her, they could look at her like she was a shit-starter.


Debbie Millman:

So she really had it all going on—crafty, smart, vivacious. So you take after your mom, I see.


Brené Brown:

I do a little bit, luckily.


Debbie Millman:

Now from what I understand, when you were little there was a time when you wanted to be a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.


Brené Brown:

Oh my God. Where’d you get your research? That’s terrible. It’s true, but it’s terrible.


Debbie Millman:

Well, it’s true. It was followed by a short period of time when you dreamed of driving an 18-wheeler.


Brené Brown:

Yeah, because we had a CB, and once we were proficient enough on the language we were allowed to talk on the CB during family trips. So I would say we’d go back and forth from San Antonio to Houston all the time. And so I’d say, if we were going to San Antonio, “Breaker one nine for I10 Eastbounder, how’s everything looking over your shoulder?” ’Cause we’d be looking for police, and so they would say, “Everything’s clean, you got a smoky at mile marker 29.” So as long as I could understand and be fluent, I was allowed to use it. So I was like, “I think I’ll just do something where I can just talk on this for a living.”


Debbie Millman:

I would give just about anything right now to be able to talk on a CB radio with you. Now the last thing I want to ask you about in terms of what you were aspiring to be when you were a child was, that when you were in middle school, inspired by the television show “Loveboat,” you wanted to be a cruise director, like Julie. You’re staring at me with hatred.


Brené Brown:

I did. So we’ve got Dallas Cowboys cheerleader, truck driver or cruise director. Yeah. Look, what we see matters. So we hear all these debates about inclusivity on television and seeing people in jobs. That shit matters. What I saw were Dallas Cowboy cheerleaders, ’cause we watched football all the time. And there were no female … there’s no … Captain Stubing was not a woman on the “Loveboat.” It was just the cruise director telling people where the parties were or whatever. And so that’s what I saw and so that’s what I wanted to do.


Debbie Millman:

Until you discovered Eleanor Roosevelt.


Brené Brown:

Oh, man.


Debbie Millman:

And she changed your life.


Brené Brown:

That changed everything, yeah.


Debbie Millman:

What happened? How did that happen?


Brené Brown:

I just remember that my parents were hosting a bridge party. So all four of us, the kids, were upstairs. And there was a PBS special on. And we were never allowed to watch television. We could watch television … we could watch two shows a week. And—


Debbie Millman:

What did you watch? Besides “Loveboat.”


Brené Brown:

Well, “Loveboat” was later, but when we were young, “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.”


Debbie Millman:

Yes, me too.


Brené Brown:

Yeah. And Disney.


Debbie Millman:

Marlon Perkins, right?


Brené Brown:

Yes. Yes. Yes. And Disney. So there was a PBS special on on Eleanor Roosevelt, and it was all no rules that night because of the bridge party downstairs, so I watched it. And I was like, “She’s a complete badass. And I can’t believe she put up with all that crap she put up with. And why wasn’t she president?” And I think she was pissed off that she wasn’t president, and I even like her more now. So that kind of shifted everything. Then I became much more aware.


Debbie Millman:

You left New Orleans for Houston, Texas, when you were in the fourth grade, and then you left Houston for Washington, DC, when you were in the sixth grade. In eighth grade you moved back to Houston. That must have been really hard for you.


Brené Brown:

It was terrible. I was always the new girl, and I never … it was terrible, yeah. I think that’s why writing a book on belonging seemed so natural to me, because I think I could mark the times … mark the calendar of my life by not belonging. And so, yeah, it was really hard. Just think about those … now as a parent I think about moving fourth grade, sixth grade and eighth grade. And the hardest thing about the Houston move is we moved back to Houston and I went back into the same school I was in in sixth grade, but I’d been gone for two years.


Debbie Millman:

Right, and everybody's friendships had developed and—


Brené Brown:

Oh, yeah. My friend group had nothing to do with me. And I had been living in Washington, DC, so I was a little bit more ahead in terms of how I dressed, and I go to bed and I’d put like a hundred little braids in my hair, and wake up and wear it really big and curly. And people were like, “Where is she from?”


Debbie Millman:

After the final move back to Houston, your parents’ marriage began to seriously disintegrate, as well. And it was also at this time, at the very end of eighth grade, after eight years of ballet, you tried out to be a cheerleader on the drill team.


Brené Brown:

On the drill team, yes, yes.


Debbie Millman:

It’s a slightly different type of—


Brené Brown:

Yes. It’s the Bear Cadets. I just want you to picture white leather cowboy boots, a blue short little satin skirt with white fringe, a white cowboy hat, and then everyone had a short wig that had flipped out Doris Day hair in their natural hair color. And then you had to wear a standard-issue Cherries in the Snow Revlon lipstick.


Debbie Millman:

So in your amazing new book, Braving the Wilderness, you wrote that to this day, you’re not sure that you ever wanted anything in your life more than you wanted a place on the drill team. And being on this team was about belonging personified. Can you share with our listeners what happened in that experience? Without giving too much away, ’cause it’s such a great story. It’s such an amazing story.


Brené Brown:

No, I think we had just moved back, and we moved back two days before tryouts or something. We were right as tryouts were starting at the end of eighth grade. ’Cause I think I moved back with four weeks of eighth grade left, which was just—


Debbie Millman:

Oh my gosh.


Brené Brown:

… like the rules of when not to move.


Debbie Millman:

By Brené Brown.


Brené Brown:

Yeah, now really, are you there, God? It’s me Brené, do not move. So I said, “OK, well I’ll try out.” And when I had seen them … they came in the first day of tryouts, the whole team, and did a routine for us. And I was like, “It’s like Grease. This is Grease. This is Grease. This is the ticket to Grease.” And so, I just thought … and you know my parents were strung out. Things were so hard. My dad worked for Shell and they’d been moving us around a lot. It was hard, and I was the oldest of four and things were just getting more and more tense at home. More fighting. And you know back then, you didn’t talk about … I didn’t know anyone whose parents were divorced. All I knew is that my grandmother was divorced (my mom’s mom). And she was also an alcoholic, and my favorite person in the world. I named my daughter after her. She was amazing. But growing up, she was an alcoholic, she was divorced, and no one could come to my mother’s house because my mom had a divorced mom.


Debbie Millman:

Wow.


Brené Brown:

So all I knew is that that divorce thing is really bad. And so here my parents feel on the cusp of disaster. But here are the Bear Cadets, and they’re so bright and shiny and just … these high kicks, you’re like, “What is happening? This is great.” So I go to tryouts and we get the routine. And it was funny, ’cause when I was writing the book, I was like, “What is the name of that song we tried out to?” And so I went to iTunes to try to find it. And I was going through all these different songs, and I hit it and it did the preview and I just burst into tears. I was like, “Oh my God. That’s the song.”


Debbie Millman:

And you still know the routine, don’t you?


Brené Brown:

Oh, I still know the routine. Yeah, I could probably do half of it right now. And it was not a hard routine; again, I had been in ballet for eight years, so it was not a big deal. There was a rigorous, terrible weigh-in. And so I remember during the whole thing, everyone was starving themselves to death. No one was eating. Everyone was working out in those plastic sweatpants and sweat-tops. And so then tryout day came, and I got to the gym to try out and I looked around. I was getting out of the car by myself and all the other girls had spent the night together the night before. They were running in holding hands and giggling and laughing. And I got out of the car by myself and I realized very quickly within seconds, all of these girls were just, full makeup, huge hair—gold and blue were our colors—bows, gold and blue silver outfits. And I had on a black leotard, gray sweatshirt, sweatpant-material shorts that were rolled on my leotard and just dancing shoes.


Debbie Millman:

Jennifer Beals in Flashdance.


Brené Brown:

Flashdance. Yes.


Debbie Millman:

That’s what you looked like.


Brené Brown:

That's what I looked like, ’cause it was like a dance thing. So I just remember being traumatized by the weigh-in, ’cause I made the weigh-in by six pounds. Because you don’t eat for that week. And there were girls screaming and running into the dressing room with their hands over their faces ’cause they didn’t make it. I did the routine; it was easy, it was great, I could kick higher than anyone in my group. It was fine. And then you went home. And you had to wait for three of four hours until they posted the number. You wore a little number on your thing. So I get back to the high school and there’s just a poster board.


Debbie Millman:

And your parents drove you back.


Brené Brown:

My parents drove me back, because we were going straight to San Antonio to visit my grandma, and I remember walking up to the poster board. I was number 62, and I remember looking. And they’re in numerical order. I’m like, “58, 59, 64, 67.” And I was like, “No, no. 58, 59, 64, 67.” I was like, “How is this happening?” And I remember this girl named Chris, who was the shiniest of all girls in eighth grade, running up, looking at her number, clearly seeing it, screaming, and her dad jumping out of his car and running and grabbing her and twirling around. They were twirling around. And I was like, “Oh my God. This is not happening.” So I get back in the car and I was crying. And my parents did not say a word.


Debbie Millman:

I know. I know. I couldn’t breathe when I was reading this. They didn’t say anything.


Brené Brown:

They didn’t say anything. They just got really quiet and looked down, and I think it was … so this is the hard thing about parenting. The story I made up at the time is my dad was the captain of the football team, and my mom was the head of her drill team. And I think they were ashamed of me and for me. They did not know what to say. My parents had no idea what to say in that moment. And so we just drove. And Ashley and Barrett and Jason, while little—if I was 12, Jason was 8, and the girls were 4—they knew it was hard, but no one said a word for three hours to San Antonio. And for me, it was a defining moment, ’cause it was the moment I no longer belonged in my family. I did not belong with these people anymore. My brother was cool, my sisters were even cool in fifth grade. And I was like, “Oh my God.” And it’s funny because when I talked to my parents about it today, they just said, “We didn’t know what to do.” They couldn’t be vulnerable growing up to survive. They came from very hard backgrounds. And so their story was not Grease at all. Their story was the opposite of Grease. But back then you just make up these stories. That’s the thing about parenting.


Debbie Millman:

Nobody's life is Grease.


Brené Brown:

No one’s life is Grease. And I always tell parents, “You cannot control for the stories your kids will make up. The only thing you can do is provide a culture where they can go to you and say, “The story I’m making up right now is this. Are you ashamed of me or for me?” Or, “Everyone’s cool here but me.” And so it really defined me. It was the last thing I ever tried out for in my life. And so what I did is, fitting in is imperative in high school, so I took to Miller Light and smoking weed.


Debbie Millman:

Right. So you became Stockard Channing.


Brené Brown:

Yeah. I found another crew that did not dance on the drill team. And it was not great. It was really hard. And it continued really through my early twenties.


Debbie Millman:

Well, you go on to write after sharing this story with the readers how not belonging in our families is one of the most dangerous hurts. And it has the power to break our heart, our spirit and our sense of self-worth. And that day, all three broke for you. And I was astounded when I read the ways in which people, family, respond to this type of profound hurt. You talk about how there were really only three ways we respond to this type of pain: living in constant pain, denying pain, or finding the courage to own the way we move forward. Can you talk a little bit about those three ways of trying to deal with pain at that point?


Brené Brown:

Yeah. I think when people experience pain like that—and it’s really interesting ’cause I thought, this is a book that takes on the political culture right now, today. This is a book that takes on everything from white supremacy, and Black Lives Matter, why am I starting with a story about the drill team and not belonging? Aren’t there bigger, bigger issues to take on? There are absolutely bigger issues to take on, but there is no bigger issue I think than feeling … for those of us who feel like they don’t belong in their families.


Debbie Millman:

Or don’t belong on the planet.


Brené Brown:

Or don’t belong on the planet. Because then, it’s hard for us to be a part of the resistance. It’s hard for us to speak up ’cause we don’t know, and we lose ourselves in the movements we become a part of. And so, for me what I’ve observed in the data are that the reaction to pain is, one, I pretend like it doesn’t happen until it absolutely cripples you. Pain is not going to be ignored. And in the very end it will take you down physically. The body keeps score and it will always win. The second piece is people who take that pain, and this is what we see today in the world, people who take the pain, the early pain, and they inflict it on others. They take their own pain and their own hurt … because it’s easier to cause pain than it is to acknowledge and feel your way through it. And then the last one is people who acknowledge pain, work their way through, and who in response to doing that have a very keen eye for seeing pain in the world and other people. And I think that was my choice.


Brené Brown:

And I think the little miracle for me is that my parents grew with me. My parents will read every book and say, “God, we didn’t know. And what do you think about this?” And now I watch them with my kids and they’re like, “You know, Ellen, I don’t think you should pull that in on yourself. Don’t carry that load. This is not about your worth.” I'm like, “Oh my God.” Which is great, but I’m like, “Where am I?” But I think those are the only three options. Inflict it on others, pretend like it’s not happening until it takes you down, or own the story and walk through it.


Debbie Millman:

In many ways I feel that Braving the Wilderness is a bit of a culmination of your previous four books. And as I was re-reading quite a lot of your books before today’s interview, one of the books that I was really struck by in how much of that book became a sort of primer for this book was I Thought It Was Me But It Wasn’t. And I was struck when I read about your description of Harvard trained psychiatrist Dr. Shelley Uram and her work on remembering the wound, versus becoming the wound. And you wrote how most of the time, when we recall a memory, we are conscious that we are in the present recalling something from the past. However, when we experience something in the present that triggers an old trauma memory, we re-experience the sense of the original trauma. So rather than remembering the wound, we become the wound. And this makes sense when we think of how often we return to a place of smallness and helplessness, when we feel shame. How do you get over those initial life-defining wounds? How do you get to a place of feeling like you don’t belong in your family and then to a place where you’re willing to look at why, and then feel that you do belong at some point to the world?


Brené Brown:

I think the key is owning the story. I think as long as you deny the story, the story owns you. The story's not going anywhere. So your choices are to pretend like it’s not happening, or to own the story and walk into it. And when you talk about becoming the wound—like, when I look at Charlottesville, and I look at those guys with torches, I see people living a wound and thereby inflicting pain on other people. And so, I think you either own the story and you heal from that story, or you become dangerous to other people.


Debbie Millman:

It seems to be, from my perspective, so obvious that anybody who has to exert their power over someone else doesn’t feel powerful enough.


Brené Brown:

Man, you just hit on one of the biggest controversies, I think, in my field. I’m a social worker, and I mean a social worker social worker, like Bachelor’s, Master’s and Ph.D. in social work. That’s what I did. And I started very early in domestic violence and sexual assault, and there was a lot of controversy around when you’re dealing with perpetrators of domestic violence—is that an action of power and control? And what I found in my work is that is a response to powerlessness, not power. People who feel a sense of power don’t respond like that. But there’s no greater and more profound danger in the human experience than powerlessness.


Debbie Millman:

Why is that?


Brené Brown:

Because how do you respond when you feel powerless? We’re desperate. Martin Luther King defined power as the ability to affect change. When you’re sitting there in Harvey and you’re watching water go lap into your neighbor’s houses, coming up your stairs, it is a sense of powerlessness. It is a sense of helplessness, of you wanna come out of your skin. And so powerlessness is incredibly dangerous. Now are those people in Charlottesville really … are the white supremacists really powerless? They’re a member of a majority culture. They’re men. I don’t know this for sure, so I'll just say hypothetically I’d make out they’re mostly straight, and Judeo-Christian. So what their narrative of powerlessness is, I don’t know. But that’s when people become dangerous. That’s when people are really dangerous. And I think what we’re seeing right now in the culture, not just from this administration, but around the world, is power over is absolutely making a last stand. Power over is absolutely saying this is the way the world has been since the beginning of time. We are not going to go to a model of shared power. We are defending the paradigm of power over at all costs.


Debbie Millman:

What made you decide to write a book like this?


Brené Brown:

I think belonging obviously for obvious reasons is something that’s always been very important to me. I thought I covered it in The Gifts of Imperfection. I didn’t know I’d come back and revisit it. But I was going through my own metamorphosis around belonging. I was trying to finally understand what it meant to carry belonging in my heart and not to negotiate it externally with other people. It wasn’t their shot to call whether I belonged or not, it was my shot to call. And so I thought, “Let me look back into it.” And I was in it for five minutes before I realized, “Shit, you can’t write about connection and belonging without talking about the real political world today.” And so it was not my intention to wade into politics and what’s happening, but you have to follow the data when you’re a scientist and that's where it went.


Debbie Millman:

You call yourself a grounded theory researcher, which you’ve described as developing theory from people’s lived experiences. So it doesn’t feel like a big stretch to actually be looking at the way in which people are living their experiences now.


Brené Brown:

No, it’s interesting … just a quick story, I think you’ll love this. Grounded theory was developed by Glaser & Strauss in the ’50s and they needed to find a methodology to talk to children who were dying about the fact that they were dying. But they couldn’t ask them what they thought because back then there was a pact made between physicians, nurses, parents and clergy to not let children who are dying know that they were dying.


Debbie Millman:

Why?


Brené Brown:

They thought they couldn’t handle it. They thought they couldn’t handle their prognosis. And so these researchers were stuck. And they thought we want to study dying in children, but we can’t ask them what it means to die, so we’re just gonna come up with a methodology that is rigorous based on people’s lived experiences but we’re not going to ask them anything but, “Tell me what’s going on in your life.” And if what we wanna study is not a priority for them, then we won’t take it on because that’s … this is people's lived experiences. So they would sit down with children and say, “Tell me about your tummy, why you’re in the hospital.” And one after one, the kids said, “I’m dying, but it must be really terrible. No one will talk to me about it.” And so grounded theory evolved as this methodology for studying hard topics where researchers don’t … if I sit down with you and said, “Tell me how you negotiate belonging with people who you disagree with politically,” there’s so much loaded in that question, that what I’m getting back is very prescribed. So I just say, “Tell me about your family and your friends after the election.” And then we build it from there and then we test it quantitatively.


Debbie Millman:

You’ve stated that grounded theory is really controversial in a lot of academic arenas. Why is that?


Brené Brown:

The methodology is not controversial, the methodology is just super rigorous and very difficult. In fact, most of the time we try to tell people, “You don’t want to do it for dissertation because it’s long and hard.” We don’t use any technology, so we code all data by hand. So I have 200,000 pieces of data we’ve collected over 17 years. What’s controversial are the findings because we are not proving the dead white guy theories out there. We’re really asking people what it means in their lives. And so the theories that come up are hard because it calls into question traditional research.


Debbie Millman:

You mentioned Barney Glaser, one of the founders of grounded theory. He calls it the drugless trip. And it said that you have to have a real comfort with uncertainty and vulnerability to do this kind of research. And you define vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure.


Brené Brown:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

And when you began studying vulnerability, your own conflict with it became apparent, and you recognized you were, in your own words, judgmental, perfectionistic, all work and not only no play and no rest, but a kind of disregard for play and rest and the people who thought it was important. Was this attempt to understand yourself what caused the spiritual awakening/breakdown you referred to in your first TED talk in 2010?


Brené Brown:

No, I think what happened early on is, I was trying to figure out the anatomy of connection: What do men and women who are connected share in common? And I remember, it was a very Jackson Pollock moment because Steve took the kids to San Antonio for the weekend and I had 50 big poster-sized post-it notes all over my house, and I was coding this data. And I was going through and I end up with a list—kind of the whole-hearted men and women do this, and they don’t do this. They do this, but they try to avoid this. And then I looked at the don’t … like the shit list, and that described me to a T. Like, try to be cool, try to be perfect, try to derive your status from how exhausted you are, how hard you work. All these things just described me. And so I thought, “Oh my God.”


Debbie Millman:

I think they describe everybody I know.


Brené Brown:

Yeah. I’m on the wrong end of the research stick, people.


Debbie Millman:

And it was at that moment then you decided to seek help for yourself and figure it all out. [crosstalk] your therapist? So why do we do that? Why do we use these outside badges, this social cachet to buoy ourselves up in the eyes of others, or in doing what we think buoys ourselves up?


Brené Brown:

Yeah. It’s a culture status thing. Exhaustion is a status symbol. I think ’cause we just desperately want to be seen. We desperately want to belong. We want to believe we’re lovable. In the absence of connection, there’s always suffering, so we want to feel connected.


Debbie Millman:

You said that we’re living in a scarcity culture and that many of us feel that we’ll never be thin enough or rich enough or safe enough, or maybe exhausted enough or successful enough. And the number one casualty of a scarcity culture is vulnerability. Why is the opposite of all of these things, this social cachet, this external meaning, this external validation, the opposite of vulnerability?


Brené Brown:

Because vulnerability at its heart is the willingness to show up and really be seen. No armor. To really be seen, when you can’t control the outcome. And so every one of those things on the shit list, the judgment, the perfectionism, the work, that’s trying to control perception.


Debbie Millman:

Instagram.


Brené Brown:

Yeah. Instagram is trying to control how we’re perceived, where vulnerability is “this is who I am.”


Debbie Millman:

And just an OK-ness with that.


Brené Brown:

Yeah. Always willing to get better and change, but this is the flaws, this is me.


Debbie Millman:

I for many, many decades really tried to hide, not only how much shame I felt for about living, but my failures, my rejections—as if somehow if I revealed that, that it would mark me. It would damage me. I would become Hester Prynne and never be loved again. But I think it ultimately came from not ever feeling loved to begin with.


Brené Brown:

And what is so powerful is the one thing we all have in common is the fear that you just named. It is the paradox of vulnerability, that when I meet you, the very first thing I look for in you is vulnerability, and the very last thing I want to show you is my vulnerability. So I’m desperately seeking yours, while hiding mine.


Debbie Millman:

What are we so afraid of people seeing?


Brené Brown:

Unlovability.


Debbie Millman:

It’s rare to meet someone that you can see immediately as someone who’s had good parenting. Beause ultimately I think good parenting is what makes you feel lovable in the world. It has very little to do with anything else, at least from my perspective.


Brené Brown:

No, I think it is key, and I think the mistake that we make is, I would say with very few exceptions, 99.9% of the parents who raised all of us were doing the very best they could, and probably 10 orders of magnitude better than what their parents did. But the belief that we have to change is that because someone didn’t or couldn’t love me, that makes me unlovable. That’s the big mythology. And regardless of someone’s ability or willingness to love you, whether it’s a partner, a parent, it has really no bearing on your lovability whatsoever. And to take that onto our load, that’s what changes the trajectory of people’s lives.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. And if somebody does love you, there’s this crazy paradox of “why do they love me?” And they need to keep proving that they love me.


Brené Brown:

Or, they love me so they must not be so great. It’s like that Groucho Marx thing—I don't want to belong to a club that would let me in.


Debbie Millman:

Right. Right.


Brené Brown:

Steve was the first person I felt like who really saw me, really saw me. And he caught the tail-end of self-destructive, wild Brené. But he saw me, and he came from really similar hard parenting, kind of a lot of divorces. And we were the first people we talked to about those things. But he really saw me, and I remember six months after we got married, I was in the therapist’s office and I was like, “This is not going to work at all. He’s just bugging the shit out of me, and I don’t think I can stay married to him at all.” And she … we had several sessions, and she’s like, “I think you're right about Steve.” I’m like, “Yes, I knew it.” She goes, “He likes you so much more than you like you.” I was like, “I’m sorry?” She’s like, “Yeah, he just likes you so much more than you like you. It must be a lot of conflict.” I was like, “Fuck you, you’re fired.”


Debbie Millman:

Yeah, I underlined that in the book. It’s a wonderful story.


Brené Brown:

Yeah. I was like, “You're fired.” I got there eventually.


Debbie Millman:

A Maya Angelou quote figures prominently in the narrative of Braving the Wilderness. And it comes from an interview she did with Bill Moyers. And I was wondering if you could read it today for us on the show?


Brené Brown:

Yeah. Yes. So she says, “You are only free when you realize you belong no place, you belong every place, no place at all. The price is high, the reward is great.”


Debbie Millman:

Now this is a line that actually really bugged you for a long time. And I know you spoke to Steve about it at length. This thing was like a craw in your side.


Brené Brown:

It was totally stuck in my craw. I was like, “What does that mean, you’re only free when you belong nowhere and everywhere? I’m calling bullshit on that. That cannot be true.” As someone who craved belonging, I’m like, “There’s no freedom in not belonging. That’s been a straightjacket, not freedom, for me.” So there was this moment where I was sitting with Steve, just a couple of years ago, and I was going through a big stack of speaking requests, and one of them said, “Please come speak at our church, we really love you, there’ll be 3,000 people in the audience. It’ll be amazing. We know you’re folksy and down home. The only thing we ask is that you not cuss. It’ll offend the faithful.” And I was like … I won't even say what I said to that, but that would actually offend possibly the faithful. But I was like, “What? I'm the faithful.”


Brené Brown:

And then in the same stack, like two requests deeper in the stack, it said, “Fortune 100 company,” because I do like 90% of my work around leadership and culture development and people don’t know that, but that’s where I spend most of my time. And they’re like, “Super excited to have you come in and talk to the leadership team about your work. We saw you speak at this retreat, we love what you were saying about vulnerability, and innovation, and art, and creativity. It’s super important for our business right now. You did mention that your two values that lead you are faith and courage and we’re wondering if you could omit the faith part and just talk about the courage part because in the corporate setting, we don’t talk about faith.” And I was like, “No.”


Brené Brown:

And I look at Steve, and I’m like, “Here I am 49 at the time, I still belong nowhere. I’m not the church speaker, completely not the church speaker. I’m not the leadership speaker because I talk about feelings and faith and things that are important to us. I don’t belong anywhere.” And he’s like, "Yeah Brené, everywhere you speak you’re like the top-rated speaker. You belong anywhere that you go as long as you’re yourself.” I'm like, “Maybe, I guess I belong everywhere, I belong ... I belong everywhere, I belong nowhere. Holy shit, the Maya Angelou quote.” I was like, “Oh my God.” So I grabbed my laptop. I searched it, I read it to him and he’s like, “Yeah, that makes sense to me. I mean it wouldn’t make sense, but I think that’s true of you.” Then I googled the interview with Bill Moyers because I’d never seen the whole thing, just that clip.


Brené Brown:

And so the next question he asks after she says this is, “So really, you don’t belong anywhere?” And she pauses for a second and she says, “No. Actually, I belong to Maya, and I like Maya very much.” And I was like, “Oh my God. I want to belong to Brené.” And so I went back in my study and said, “I’m gonna look into this for a minute.” And he’s like, “Should I order dinner?” And I’m, “No, no. I’ll make dinner. You start and I’ll … no, you make dinner.” He’s like, “I’m gonna order dinner because the last time you said this it took two years, so I’m gonna go ahead and order dinner.” And so that’s when I started the research on belonging.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah. I love that. And she says, “I like Maya very much. I like the humor and courage very much. And when I find myself acting in a way that isn’t, that doesn’t please me, then I have to deal with that.” I love that. I love that.


Brené Brown:

She’s so wise.


Debbie Millman:

The experience of leaning into the quote motivated you to start this body of research that allowed you to start developing this book and the theory of true belonging. And I was going to ask if you could share that with us as well, Brené. So the theory of true belonging.


Brené Brown:

True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require that you change who you are, it requires that you be who you are.


Debbie Millman:

Stunning.


Brené Brown:

Thank you.


Debbie Millman:

I think I need to have that tattooed on my heart. Why are so many people so afraid of being alone, Brené?


Brené Brown:

I think people are afraid to be alone because they don’t belong to themselves. And so one of the things that was so crazy to me about this research and these findings was that true belonging is not just about being a part of something, but also having the courage to stand alone when you’re called to stand alone. When the joke’s not funny, when you don’t believe in something, when you have a different opinion. When you’re at family dinner and people are saying things that you actually find hurtful. When you’re called to stand alone and you can’t, then true belonging is very elusive. So your level of belonging will never exceed the level of courage you have to stand alone. And that was a new thing for me. And so I think I’m at a place in my life right now where I’m not afraid to be alone, because I so fully belong to me now.


Brené Brown:

I call what we’re in right now a spiritual crisis of disconnection. And people get nervous about spiritual practice and spiritual crisis because they’re like, “Oh, not religion. Isn’t that why we’re in this mess to begin with?” And this has nothing to do with religion or dogma. When I say spiritual, I mean spirituality. I define spirituality as the belief that we’re inextricably connected to each other by something bigger than us. Some people call that bigger thing God. Some people call it fishing. Some people call it art. But spirituality is no more, no less than the belief that we’re connected to each other in a way that’s unbreakable. You cannot break the connection between human beings, but you can forget it. And we have forgotten that inextricable connection between human beings. And so when I am alone, and standing up for something that I believe in, I know you can’t do anything to permanently break the connection between me and everyone else in the world, but I know I’m called to courage to stand alone. I think people who forget that we’re inextricably connected actually feel completely … not just alone, but lonely, and I think that’s the difference.


Debbie Millman:

How do you hold onto your vision of what is right and just and noble in the face of other people’s rejection or discontent with whatever it is you stand for?


Brené Brown:

This is why I call it the wilderness. Every poet, artist, musician, theologian has used the metaphor of the wilderness to describe that kind of solitude, that journey of “it’s just me and I don’t know what to expect, I don’t know what's coming next.”


Debbie Millman:

That inner belief.


Brené Brown:

That inner belief, and so I think when you’re called to the wilderness, it’s very hard to walk in and stand alone, but you have to hold onto the belief that even though you feel like you’re the only one, a lot of us live out there. And the thing about going out into the wilderness and standing alone and taking a stand is, I think those experiences mark your heart. And I think to me it’s the mark of the wild heart. I do find sacred being a part of something, but never at the cost of betraying myself.


Debbie Millman:

Your TED talk catapulted you to fame. But you’d already been speaking and publishing quite a bit before that. And your first book, the book that I referenced earlier, I Thought It Was Just Me But It Isn’t: Making the Journey From “What Will People Think?” to I am Enough, had been published in 2007. But you self-published it first as Women and Shame back in 2004 and have written about how you could wallpaper a building with your many rejection letters from publishers. And I’m not sure that everybody really knows that about you. You even borrowed money from your parents and sold copies of the book out of your trunk.


Brené Brown:

I did.


Debbie Millman:

What gave you that sense … I mean, you were deep in the wilderness at that point.


Brené Brown:

Oh, my God, I was. Because no one was talking about shame. And people were like, “Yeah, a book on shame. No thanks. Sexy as it sounds, we’re not interested.” Man, one publisher said, “We’re interested. We’ll buy it. We’ll need to change the title to Women's Most Embarrassing Moments.”


Debbie Millman:

Oh, no, no.


Brené Brown:

No.


Debbie Millman:

So what gave you the power to persevere? What kept you sure that you were on the right course?


Brené Brown:

I knew. I felt other-worldly about it. There’s a lot tears, and a lot of frustration, a lot of crying, a lot of rejection. And then Penguin, I sold enough books out of my trunk that it got Penguin’s attention. Then Penguin bought it.


Debbie Millman:

And then they changed the name.


Brené Brown:

And they changed the name from Women and Shame to I Thought It Was Just Me, which is great because that’s the one thing that people say when they read the book, like, “Oh, I thought it was just me.” And I had experienced so much shame, especially at the hands of my academic colleagues, for self-publishing, that when Penguin bought it I was like, “I will absolutely sever myself from the vulgar commerce of book sales. I will not do any kind of promoting of this book. I will sit back and wait for it to hit the charts and do everything.” It failed. So I Thought It Was Just Me came out. Two months later they called me and said, “How many copies do want to get?” I said, “Oh, I'll take 10 for my mom and her friends.” And they’re like, “No, we have thousands. You are being remaindered, pulped. Like, it’s over. Like, it’s done. Like, you failed.”


Debbie Millman:

What did you do?


Brené Brown:

Oh, I lost my shit at first. And then I was like … I have a very high tolerance for risk and failure as long as I can learn something. So I was like, “What is the learning here? What is the learning here?” And I think the learning for me was, “If you’re not gonna get excited and put value on your work, don’t expect anyone else to get excited or put value on your work. If you’re gonna sit back and wait for people to knock on the door and say, ‘Talk to me about your work,’ don’t do it.” So that was the hard lesson for me. So I got a chance to redo it with a paperback. And the other thing about I Thought It Was Just Me is, it’s a lot of people’s favorite book, because … but it’s very … it’s all women, and it’s thick on shame. It’s a book just about shame.


Debbie Millman:

Well, you featured four women in that book and I did read the book thinking, “Oh my God. I thought it was just me.” But I have actually been saying that through all your books. I almost feel like you write the books for a specific point in my life that I am approaching or in the middle of.


Brené Brown:

Good.


Debbie Millman:

And then they’re sort of guide books to get out of whatever it is in my way. You said that courage is more important to you as a value than succeeding.


Brené Brown:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

Was this when you cultivated it, coming out of that whole …


Brené Brown:

Yes.


Debbie Millman:

Yeah?


Brené Brown:

Yes. That and after the success of Daring Greatly or maybe the success of Gifts of Imperfection; I can’t remember which book. I think there was some pressure to just do a formulaic book. Just keep doing whatever you’re doing. And I thought, “I’d rather have a book …” Well, this is the learning for I Thought It Was Just Me. If I fail wholeheartedly, I can live with that. If I fail and I’ve been half-ass or half-hearted in my effort, that I cannot live with.


Debbie Millman:

I had a student a couple of years ago, we were talking about the kind of life we want to have. And one of the classes that I teach is called “How to Get a Job When You Graduate.” “Differentiate or Die: How to Get a Job When You Graduate.” And so it’s not only about getting a job, but getting a job that really means something to you. What do you feel like you deserve? What do you feel like you’re worthy of? And I actually feel like I’ve shown your 2010 TED talk so often. I show it in every class that I teach that I can actually do it if you wanted me to, but I won’t, at least not now. But one of the things that I ask the students is, “What are you afraid of? What is keeping you from trying this, or doing this?” And one of my students said something that I’ve never forgotten. He said, “I’m afraid if I do this and I fail, I will die of a broken heart.” And I at that point try and bring Dan Gilbert and Synthesizing Happiness in, but essentially saying, “What would you rather die of, regret at not trying it?”


Brené Brown:

Yeah. That's much crueler.


Debbie Millman:

Any advice for young people that are at the beginning of their adult lives, and thinking about what they can do with their lives that can allow them to feel that courage?


Brené Brown:

Plan on heartbreak. Just plan on heartbreak. The only people who don’t have heartbreak in their careers are people who have no love or passion for their career. But heartbreak is, while miserable while you’re in it, a small price to pay—heartbreak and criticism—small prices to pay for doing work that you’re profoundly in love with. I find the work of people whose hearts are stretch-marked and scarred to be far more profound than clean, shiny new hearts.


Debbie Millman:

Well, I think having experience with heartbreak also allows you to understand humanity that you couldn’t possibly if you didn’t experience it.


Brené Brown:

It does. And know going in—


Debbie Millman:

That’s whole-hearted, right.


Brené Brown:

That’s whole-hearted. Know going in. And that’s daring greatly. The only guarantee if you live a brave life is you’re gonna get your ass handed to you, and just know that is part of the process. Grieve, have a hard time. Yet, I think that’s what you have to do.


Debbie Millman:

One of the most significant themes of Braving the Wilderness was the notion of trusting oneself and others. And I love the quote you included from Charles Feltman, who describes trust as, “Choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions, and distrust as deciding that what is important to me is not safe with this person.” And it blew my mind. It really blew my mind. Because I think that’s the world we’re living in right now.


Brené Brown:

Yeah.


Debbie Millman:

This sense of distrust. So my last question to you today is this. And I think it’s kind of a big one. How can we learn to be more trustful in our relationships, and in our communities, and in our countries, and in our world? How can we do that?


Brené Brown:

I think it starts with self-trust. Trust is a big hard word. And when our trustworthiness is called into question we usually go very limbic. We hear the Peanuts mom like, “Wah wah wah.” We don’t hear people talking. So what we did is, we went into the research and said, “When we talk about trust, what are we really talking about?” And we found the seven elements that you’re referring to. We used the acronym of BRAVING: boundaries, reliability, accountability, vault, which is confidentiality, integrity, non-judgment and generosity. I think we build trust by having honest conversations about what trust is. To sit down with our families and say … people want to pull in information, integrate it, and then slowly ooze it out with people, I think. Just sit down and say, “Look, I’ve read a book and in this book it said the definition of trust is sharing something vulnerable with you, and feeling safe about sharing it. And you all are the people I love the most, but I don’t feel like I can trust you with my opinions because they’re different than yours. Can we talk about this? I don’t know what to do, but if this is the definition of trust, it’s really important that you and I have this. And I don’t feel like we do right now.” And so just having the hard conversations. That’s how I think this starts.


Debbie Millman:

Brené Brown, thank you so much for being on the show today. Thank you for writing these remarkable books that help to change our lives, our culture, our world. It is so important, now more than ever, and Braving the Wilderness is a remarkable, remarkable accomplishment in helping us do that.


Brené Brown:

Thank you so much.


Debbie Millman:

To find out more about Brené Brown and read an excerpt from Braving the Wilderness, go to brenebrown.com. This is the 13th year I’ve been doing Design Matters and I’d like to thank you for listening. And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both. I’m Debbie Millman, and I look forward to talking with you again soon.

And remember, we can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both.  — Debbie Millman