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About the Author
Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston where she holds the Huffington
Foundation—Brené Brown Endowed Chair at The Graduate College of Social Work.
She has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy and is the author of four #1 New
York Times bestsellers: The Gifts of Imperfection, Daring Greatly, Rising Strong, and Braving the Wilderness. Her
newest book is titled Dare to Lead: Brave Work. Tough Conversations. Whole Hearts.
Brené’s TED talk—The Power of Vulnerability—is one of the top five most viewed TED talks in the world with over 35
Brené lives in Houston, Texas with her husband, Steve, and their children, Ellen and Charlie.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Once you see a pattern, you can’t un-see it. Trust me, I’ve tried. But when the same truth keeps repeating itself, it’s
hard to pretend that it’s just a coincidence. For example, no matter how hard I try to convince myself that I can
function on six hours of sleep, anything less than eight hours leaves me impatient, anxious, and foraging for
carbohydrates. It’s a pattern.I also have a terrible procrastination pattern: I always put off writing by reorganizing
my entire house and spending way too much time and money buying office supplies and organizing systems. Every single
One reason it’s impossible to un-see trends is that our minds are engineered to seek out patterns and to assign meaning
to them. Humans are a meaning-making species. And, for better or worse, my mind is actually fine-tuned to do this. I
spent years training for it, and now it’s how I make my living.
As a researcher, I observe human behavior so I can identify and name the subtle connections, relationships, and patterns
that help us make meaning of our thoughts, behaviors, and feelings. I love what I do. Pattern hunting is wonderful work
and, in fact, throughout my career, my attempts at un-seeing were strictly reserved for my personal life and those
humbling vulnerabilities that I loved to deny. That all changed in November 2006, when the research that fills these
pages smacked me upside the head. For the first time in my career, I was desperate to un-see my own research.
Up until that point, I had dedicated my career to studying difficult emotions like shame, fear, and vulnerability. I had
written academic pieces on shame, developed a shame-resilience curriculum for mental health and addictions
professionals, and written a book about shame resilience called I Thought It Was Just Me.
In the process of collecting thousands of stories from diverse men and women who lived all over the country--ranging in
age from eighteen to eighty-seven--I saw new patterns that I wanted to know more about. Yes, we all struggle with shame
and the fear of not being enough. And, yes, many of us are afraid to let our true selves be seen and known. But in this
huge mound of data there was also story after story of men and women who were living these amazing and inspiring lives.
I heard stories about the power of embracing imperfection and vulnerability. I learned about the inextricable connection
between joy and gratitude, and how things that I take for granted, like rest and play, are as vital to our health as
nutrition and exercise. These research participants trusted themselves, and they talked about authenticity and love and
belonging in a way that was completely new to me.
I wanted to look at these stories as a whole, so I grabbed a file and a Sharpie and wrote the first word that came to my
mind on the tab: Wholehearted. I wasn’t sure what it meant yet, but I knew that these stories were about people living
and loving with their whole hearts. I had a lot of questions about Wholeheartedness. What did these folks value? How did
they create all of this resilience in their lives? What were their main concerns and how did they resolve or address
them? Can anyone create a Wholehearted life? What does it take to cultivate what we need? What gets in the way?
As I started analyzing the stories and looking for re-occurring themes, I realized that the patterns generally fell into
one of two columns; for simplicity sake, I first labeled these Do and Don’t. The Do column was brimming with words like
worthiness, rest, play, trust, faith, intuition, hope, authenticity, love, belonging, joy, gratitude, and creativity.
The Don’t column was dripping with words like perfection, numbing, certainty, exhaustion, self-sufficiency, being cool,
fitting in, judgment, and scarcity.
I gasped the first time I stepped back from the poster paper and took it all in. It was the worst kind of sticker shock.
I remember mumbling, “No. No. No. How can this be?”
Even though I wrote the lists, I was shocked to read them. When I code data, I go into deep researcher mode. My only
focus is on accurately capturing what I heard in the stories. I don’t think about how I would say something, only how
the research participants said it. I don’t think about what an experience would mean to me, only what it meant to the
person who told me about it.
I sat in the red chair at my breakfast room table and stared at these two lists for a very long time. My eyes wandered
up and down and across. I remember at one point I was actually sitting there with tears in my eyes and with my hand
across my mouth, like someone had just delivered bad news.
And, in fact, it was bad news. I thought I’d find that Wholehearted people were just like me and doing all of the same
things I was doing: working hard, following the rules, doing it until I got it right, always trying to know myself
better, raising my kids exactly by the books...After studying tough topics like shame for a decade, I truly believed
that I deserved confirmation that I was “living right.” But here’s the tough lesson that I learned that day (and every
How much we know and understand ourselves is critically important, but there is something that is even more essential to
living a Wholehearted life: loving ourselves.
Knowledge is important, but only if we’re being kind and gentle with ourselves as we work to discover who we are.
Wholeheartedness is as much about embracing our tenderness and vulnerability as it is about developing knowledge and
And perhaps the most painful lesson of that day hit me so hard that it took my breath away: It was clear from the data
that we cannot give our children what we don’t have. Where we are on our journey of living and loving with our whole
hearts is a much stronger indicator of parenting success than anything we can learn from how-to books.
This journey is equal parts heart work and head work, and as I sat there on that dreary November day, it was clear to me
that I was lacking in my own heart work.
I finally stood up, grabbed my marker off the table, drew a line under the Don’t list, and then wrote the word me under
the line. My struggles seemed to be perfectly characterized by the sum total of the list. I folded my arms tightly
across my chest, sunk deep down into my chair, and thought, This is just great. I’m living straight down the shit list.
I walked around the house for about twenty minutes trying to un-see and undo everything that had just unfolded, but I
couldn’t make the words go away. I couldn’t go back, so I did the next best thing: I folded all of the poster sheets
into neat squares and tucked them into a Rubbermaid tub that fit nicely under my bed, next to my Christmas wrap. I
wouldn’t open that tub again until March of 2008.
Next, I got myself a really good therapist and began a year of serious soul work that would forever change my life.
Diana, my therapist, and I still laugh about my first visit. Diana, who is a therapist to many therapists, started with
the requisite, “So what’s going on?” I pulled out the Do list and matter-of-factly said, “I need more of the things on
this list. Some specific tips and tools would be helpful. Nothing deep. No childhood crap or anything.”
It was a long year. I lovingly refer to it on my blog as the 2007 [Breakdown] Spiritual Awakening. It felt like a
textbook breakdown to me, but Diana called it a spiritual awakening. I think we were both right. In fact, I’m starting
to question if you can have one without the other. Of course, it’s not a coincidence that this unraveling happened in
November 2006. The stars were perfectly aligned for a breakdown: I was raw from being newly sugar and flour free, I was
days away from my birthday (always a contemplative time for me), I was burned out from work, and I was right on the cusp
of my midlife unraveling.
People may call what happens at midlife “a crisis,” but it’s not. It’s an unraveling--a time when you feel a desperate
pull to live the life you want to live, not the one you’re “supposed” to live. The unraveling is a time when you are
challenged by the universe to let go of who you think you are supposed to be and to embrace who you are.
Midlife is certainly one of the great unraveling journeys, but there are others that happen to us over the course of our
* becoming a parent
* an empty nest
* experiencing loss or trauma
* working in a soul-sucking job
The universe is not short on wake-up calls. We’re just quick to hit the snooze button.
As it turned out, the work I had to do was messy and deep. I slogged through it until one day, exhausted and with mud
still wet and dripping off of my traveling shoes, I realized, “Oh, my God. I feel different. I feel joyful and real. I’m
still afraid, but I also feel really brave. Something has changed--I can feel it in my bones.”
I was healthier, more joyful, and more grateful than I had ever felt. I felt calmer and grounded, and significantly less
anxious. I had rekindled my creative life, reconnected with my family and friends in a new way, and most important, felt
truly comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life.
I learned how to worry more about how I felt and less about “what people might think.” I was setting new boundaries and
began to let go of my need to please, perform, and perfect. I started saying no rather than sure (and being resentful
and pissed off later). I began to say “Oh, hell yes!” rather than “Sounds fun, but I have lots of work to do” or “I’ll
do that when I’m _________ (thinner, less busy, better prepared).”
As I worked through my own Wholehearted journey with Diana, I read close to forty books, including every spiritual
awakening memoir I could get my hands on. They were incredibly helpful guides, but I still craved a guidebook that could
offer inspiration, resources, and basically serve as a soul traveler’s companion of sorts.
One day, as I stared at the tall pile of books precariously stacked on my nightstand, it hit me! I want to tell this
story in a memoir. I’ll tell the story of how a cynical, smart-ass academic became every bit of the stereotype that she
spent her entire adult life ridiculing. I’ll fess up about how I became the middle-aged, recovering, health-conscious,
creative, touchy-feely spirituality-seeker who spends days contemplating things like grace, love, gratitude, creativity,
authenticity, and is happier than I imagined possible. I’ll call it Wholehearted.
I also remember thinking, Before I write the memoir, I need to use this research to write a guidebook on Wholehearted
living! By mid-2008, I had filled three huge tubs with notebooks, journals, and mounds of data. I had also done
countless hours of new research. I had everything I needed, including a passionate desire to write the book that you’re
holding in your hands.
On that fateful November day when the list appeared and I sunk into the realization that I wasn’t living and loving with
my whole heart, I wasn’t totally convinced. Seeing the list wasn’t enough to fully believe in it. I had to dig very deep
and make the conscious choice to believe...to believe in myself and the possibility of living a different life. A lot of
questioning, countless tears, and a huge collection of joyful moments later, believing has helped me see.