Although often perceived in a negative light, vulnerability (emotional vulnerability, that is) is actually a necessary and important state of being for achieving human connection. Brené Brown, a qualitative researcher and self-proclaimed storyteller, has spent the last twenty years of her life studying topics such as shame, empathy, and vulnerability, in an attempt to learn about the “anatomy of connection.” In her renowned Ted Talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” Brown shares a deep insight on research that has led her to believe that vulnerability is the key to the sole meaning and purpose in our lives: human connection.
Whole-Heartedness . . . Excrutiating Vulnerability?
In an attempt to understand human connection, Brown conducted various years of research and patient interviews. To finalize her research, Brown divided her subjects into two categories: what she describes as whole-hearted people and those who struggled with feeling worthy or good enough. Finally, Brown singled out the one variable that separated the whole-hearted from those who never felt worthy enough: excruciating vulnerability. With excruciating vulnerability, a term coined by Brown, individuals allow themselves to really be seen. In other words, whole-hearted people, those who have a strong sense of love and belonging, truly feel worthy of love and belonging and are able to be authentic and fully embrace vulnerability. Those that belong in the whole-hearted category truly believe that what makes them vulnerable makes them beautiful.Instead of referring to vulnerability as people often do— something uncomfortable and excruciating, whole-hearted individuals take pride in being vulnerable and are willing to invest in relationships without knowing whether they will receive anything in return. Most importantly, the whole-hearted refer to vulnerability as a necessity. They believe that although being vulnerable may not always guarantee a positive outcome, it is necessary and fundamental for human connection.
After thorough research of the whole-hearted, Brown went back and explored the “shameful”— those who struggled with feeling worthy, to gain a better understanding of why so many individuals, herself included, panic at the thought of being vulnerable. What she learned is that humans have a tendency to numb vulnerability. This stems from the negative connotation that often comes with the idea of vulnerability. Because individuals cannot selectively numb negative emotions such as anger and sadness, we often numb emotion as a whole. In other words, we numb anger and sadness along with joy, gratitude, and happiness. However, what we often overlook is the fact that we live in a vulnerable world. As a result, Brown concludes that numbing vulnerability makes humans miserable. She believes that there is value in accepting that everyone is flawed and imperfect, but are without a doubt worthy of love and belonging. Brown closes her talk by suggesting that we “let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen” (Brené Brown January 2011).
Through her research, Brené Brown aims to replace negative connotations that that the term “vulnerable” carries such as weakness, fear, or helplessness, with the idea that being vulnerable leads to closeness and intimacy in relationships. In this way, she urges people to work towards living like the whole-hearted by allowing themselves to show their true selves as a way of connecting with everyone around them.
Brown, Brené (2019). Research. Brené Brown website.
TED. (January 2011). Brené Brown: The Power of Vulnerability. Houston: YouTube video of Ted Talk.