Sharing Thoughts from “The Gifts of Imperfection” by Brené Brown

Brené Brown has an impressive and incredibly important body of work. Her research into understanding shame, belonging, boundaries, and more are vital in the pursuit of wholeness. In this post and the next I write about what I learned from reading her book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are.

With this book, Brené walks through the 10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living. For her, wholehearted living is the goal. She defines it saying:

“Wholehearted Living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the Courage, Compassion, and Connection to wake up in the morning and think, no matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.”

Wholehearted living shifts paradigms from scarcity to sufficiency, from fitting in to belonging, from numbing to feeling; all changes at the core of the work required for wellbeing. And Brené helps us see the shift by walking us through her guideposts for wholehearted living. You can take the Wholehearted Assessment here to get a baseline of how wholehearted your life is based on Brené’s research. The following discussion covers the first five guideposts of wholehearted living and what they taught me. And I hope this introduces you to Brené’s world in a way the beckons you to learn more.

Guidepost #1 Cultivating Authenticity and Letting Go of What People Think

Brené says authenticity is about making the choice to be real – it is not a quality that we either have or we don’t have. Authenticity is a practice, and just like any other practice, it is a skill we can learn and nourish. Brené says choosing authenticity means:

  • Cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable.
  • Exercising the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle.
  • Nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we believe we are enough. (50)

It is fitting that the first trail marker for wholehearted living has to do with authenticity. Being real and honest and true is a prerequisite for beautiful, honest, and true lives. We all have deep and rich inner lives. Your inner life is the only life that you have direct access to. In other words, you are the only person who can experience your depth fully. The work for cultivating our authenticity begins with honestly witnessing ourselves and building the awareness to see the choices we have. We have the choice to show up in our lives as our real selves. The question is, do we value our authenticity enough to make the hard choice? Showing up as our real selves is challenging work, especially when our safety has been entangled with what other people think of us.

Cultivating authenticity is about connecting with your spirit. It is about becoming yourself, and belonging to yourself. It is about learning to live from a place of internal validation and love, and letting that assurance ripple out. For me practicing authenticity looks like slowing down and taking the time to understand who I really am, what I really want, and prioritizing the truth of my identity and needs in the choices I make. I believe this attention is the heart of self-care and a spiritual practice.

Living authentically, aka living as our real selves, is a prerequisite for true belonging. You have to bring the real you to the table in order to feel like you belong. Brené talks about how fitting in is changing yourself to match a group, while belonging is being embraced for who you are. In my life, I have found that choosing which parts of myself I allow to be seen in certain contexts protects my ego, creating a sense of safety, but leaves my heart and spirit feeling unworthy and invisible. The fear of “being too much” has driven me to tone it down and filter. More and more I am learning to choose to free my whole presence, to show up as my whole and real self, even when it is scary and vulnerable. I am learning to build a more real and true sense of belonging and safety, and that has revolved around being true to myself as my first priority.

“Caution: if you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.” (53)

Guidepost #2 Cultivating Self-Compassion and Letting Go of Perfectionism

Brené makes an important distinction: perfectionism is not self-improvement. Perfectionism and self-improvement are often equated with each other. We live in a world that values high achievers sacrificing themselves to reach a goal. Perfectionism is applauded as hard work and diligence, when in reality, perfectionism is about hustling for your worth. Brené says, “Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance.” (56). In my life, this looked like deriving my worth from my grades, from my status on varsity sports teams, and my goal to be valedictorian. My self-worth was (and still is sometimes) derived solely from external validation – I believed I wasn’t worthwhile unless I was the highest achiever with a list I could point to to prove my worth. The list involved getting a full ride scholarship, lettering in every sport, and never getting in trouble. In order to feel worthy, I lived a life of restless striving. Nothing I did was ever enough. I had to keep straining to feel safe and valued. When the scholarship didn’t happen, when valedictorian didn’t happen, I had a choice to make: did this mean I was worthless or did it mean I had to make a new way of being worthy? I chose to dismantle the perfectionism and the hustle.

Perfectionism comes from the fear of not being enough. Healthy self-improvement comes from a place of worthiness. Understanding the difference here requires looking at how we talk to ourselves. Dismantling the belief that I had to prove myself to receive love required that I look inward. I learned that internal validation, the validation of my own feelings, was directly connected with self-compassion. In order to derive my value from within, I had to be gentler with myself. For the longest time I chafed against ideas of self-love and care; I resisted the conflation with selfishness and entitlement.

What I am coming to learn is that self-love isn’t about laziness or allowance. It isn’t true that you have to love yourself before anyone can love you. What is true is that loving yourself is about taking beautiful care of yourself – it is about understanding your body, mind, and spirit and choosing the truth and beauty you find there. It is true that when you cultivate this deep sense of internal worth and love, you open up realms of possibility for how others can love you. Self-compassion is about creating space for gentle care, for mistakes and learning and growing. I have learned that being in the hustle and restless striving creates a false narrative, one that says you have to sacrifice your wellbeing to succeed. In reality, you need self-compassion and care to succeed in any wholehearted and vital way.

Brené cites the work of Dr. Kristin Neff on self-compassion. If you are looking for a tool to help you understand self compassion, Dr. Neff has created an assessment to test how self compassionate you are.  You can find it here.

“Knowledge is important but only if we are being kind and gently with ourselves as we work to discover who we are.” xi

Guidepost #3 Cultivating a Resilient Spirit and Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness

Resilience is the ability to overcome adversity, or bounce back after hardship. What Brené learned in her research is that every story about resilience is a story about spirit. She learned that the people living wholehearted lives talked about trying to feel the feelings, leaning into hard emotions and discomfort, and staying mindful of numbing behaviors. She learned that we cannot selectively numb emotions, when we anesthetize the unpleasant sensations, we also deaden the pleasant ones. In my life, it has been incredibly helpful to understand my emotions as messengers. When I am able to realize that I am in emotion, I can ask: what are you trying to tell me about this situation? Engaging with our feelings as teachers is a different paradigm than understanding our emotions as deceptive and something to be controlled. Your emotions are indicators of your perception, you can allow them without reacting to them. Just like how your body communicates temperature or touch to you, your emotions reveal your social climate. When we numb our emotions, we numb the spiritual landscape around us, we numb the environment of connection. I have learned, again and again, the way is through. Feel all the feelings, let them show you.

Part of having a resilient spirit, of living with mettle, is being able to notice where we have turned off parts of ourselves and our perceptions. Letting go of numbing and powerlessness is realizing where you have gone to sleep instead of awakened, and knowing that you have the space to make a different choice moving forward. Believing we have agency and a say in our lives is so important; it is this belief that is at the core of being able to make the life you want. Stepping into our power means being capable of aligning our lives with our values. It means inviting more vitality and presence in. Letting go of powerlessness means believing in your ability to change. For me, stepping into my power has looked like small daily commitments to new habits. It has looked like questioning the negative self-talk in my head, of verbally correcting myself when I slip into old thought patterns. It is asking my emotions (and depression) what they are trying to show me.

“We need to believe that we can effect change if we want to live and love with our whole hearts.” (67)

Guidepost #4 Cultivating Gratitude and Joy and Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark

Gratitude and joy are practices. Gratitude is a way of being, more than the acknowledgement or thankfulness. Brené says that gratitude without practice is like faith without works, it is not alive. Gratitude is animated when exercised, be it gratitude journals, saying grace, or counting your blessings. Similarly, joy is also a way of engaging with the world. Brené says joy is a step beyond happiness. She writes that the Greek word for joy is “chairo,” and is described as “the culmination of being,” and the “good mood of the soul,” (80). She understands happiness as tied to circumstance, whereas joyfulness is tied to spirit and gratitude. In my life, practicing gratitude is connected to experiencing awe and wonder. I feel grateful in the presence of the world, and I practice gratitude every time I look at the mountains outside my window with wonder. Joy in my life is connected to what Sue Monk Kidd calls “going delighting,” taking time with the express intent to feel delight. Joy is a way of being in my life that involves consciously relaxing my shoulders and approaching activates with lightness in my heart. Joy in my life is more about rejoicing than about happiness, experiential and spiritual more than pleasure or luck.

Part of cultivating joy and gratitude in Brené’s framework is letting go of scarcity and fear of the dark. Scarcity is the belief in not enough, the idea that there is not enough time, money, support, love, etc. Living in scarcity is living from a place of fear. It is born of unmet needs and the fear of that insufficiency perpetuating. Scarcity is a mindset, and letting go of scarcity means choosing a mindset of sufficiency. Sufficiency is not an amount, it is an experience of enoughness. Lynne Twist talks about this, as well as Simon Sinek with his concept of an infinite mindset. Choosing to see yourself and the world with a belief that there is enough of everything helps to shift us out of fear and into gratitude and joy. In my life, letting go of scarcity and embracing sufficiency revolves around reminding myself that there is enough time, and that there is enough opportunity and support. And, that I am enough.

“Once we let go of scarcity, we discover the surprising truth of sufficiency.” Lynne Twist

Guidepost #5 Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith and Letting Go of the Need for Certainty

Intuition is a word that has been easy to write off as “out there” and irrational, as something separate from reason. What Brené is able to show is that intuition isn’t mutually exclusive from logic, rather intuition is a way of knowing that holds space for instincts and reason. Cultivating intuition is about trusting ourselves and our knowing. It is about recognizing how our need for certainty actually limits what we know and the bigger beautiful things that we are able to imagine and invite. Certainty gets in the way of intuition. Nurturing intuition is about making space for uncertainty – not uncertainty defined as unreliable, but uncertainty as spiritually charged, bigger than ourselves, possibility. When we can hold space for uncertainty, we cultivate grace for serendipity. By trusting our intuition, we are also trusting ourselves. Trusting ourselves is at the core of building a meaningful, wholehearted life.

In my life, cultivating my intuition looks like building trust with myself. I am learning to recognize when I am speaking to myself with shame, when I am contorting myself to fit in, and when I am not listening to what I know. I work part time as a nanny, and by watching those children I am gaining a wider understanding of the body’s wisdom – the body is incredibly good at telling us what it needs, especially before we condition it to numbing and bad habits. I am learning to have faith again in my body and what it needs, because deep down my body knows exactly what it needs and it is my job to take care of it. I am letting go of certainty whenever I remind myself of serendipity and synchronicity, whenever I let myself sink into the knowing that the world is greater and more complex than I can ever comprehend and will be able to make greater and more complex things than whatever I would make on my own.

“Intuition is not a single way of knowing – it’s our ability to hold space for uncertainty and our willingness to trust the many ways we’ve developed knowledge and insights, including instinct, experience, faith, and reason.” (89)

Closing Thoughts

Reading this book brought the space and vocabulary to dig deeper into my ways of being in the world. Authenticity, resilience, joy, and compassion have been values of mine for a long time. This book grounded these values in new ways and has made a template for wholehearted living. Soren Kierkegaard says, “The secret of live is that everyone must sew it for themselves,” and what I love about Brené’s work is the sewing circle she makes; it is your job to weave your life, but you don’t have to do it alone. The Gifts of Imperfection is a phenomenal field guide to help you navigate what matters.

Part Two covers the gifts I received from Guideposts 5 through 10 and a discussion of how Brené rethinks the concept of dig deep.