Brene Brown studies human connec­tion — our ability to empathize, belong, love. In a poignant, funny talk at TEDx­Houston, she shares a deep insight from her research, one that sent her on a personal quest to know herself as well as to under­stand humanity.

So, I’ll start with this: a couple years ago, an event planner called me because I was going to do a speaking event. And she called, and she said, “I’m really strug­gling with how to write about you on the little flier.” And I thought, “Well, what’s the struggle?” And she said, “Well, I saw you speak, and I’m going to call you a researcher, I think, but I’m afraid if I call you a researcher no one will come, because they’ll think you’re boring and irrel­e­vant.” (Laughter) Okay. And she said, “But the thing I liked about your talk is you’re a story­teller. So I think what I’ll do is just call you a story­teller.” And of course the acad­emic, inse­cure part of me was like, “You’re going to call me a what?” And she said, “I’m going to call you a story­teller.” And I was like, “Why not magic pixie?” (Laughter) I was like, “Let me think about this for a second.” I tried to call deep on my courage. And I thought, I am a story­teller. I’m a qual­i­ta­tive researcher. I collect stories; that’s what I do. And maybe stories are just data with a soul. And maybe I’m just a story­teller. And so I said, “You know what? Why don’t you just say I’m a researcher-story­teller.” And she went, “Haha. There’s no such thing.” (Laughter) So I’m a researcher-story­teller, and I’m going to talk to you today — we’re talking about expanding percep­tion — and so I want to talk to you and tell some stories about a piece of my research that funda­men­tally expanded my percep­tion and really actu­ally changed the way that I live and love and work and parent.

And this is where my story starts. When I was a young researcher, doctoral student, my first year I had a research professor who said to us, “Here’s the thing, if you cannot measure it, it does not exist.” And I thought he was just sweet-talking me. I was like, “Really?” and he was like, “Absolutely.” And so you have to under­stand that I have a bachelor’s in social work, a master’s in social work, and I was getting my Ph.D. in social work, so my entire acad­emic career was surrounded by people who kind of believed the life’s messy, love it. And I’m more of the, life’s messy, clean it up, orga­nize it and put it into a bento box. (Laughter) And so to think that I had found my way, to found a career that takes me — really, one of the big sayings in social work is lean into the discom­fort of the work. And I’m like, knock discom­fort upside the head and move it over and get all A’s. That was my mantra. So I was very excited about this. And so I thought, you know what, this is the career for me, because I am inter­ested in some messy topics. But I want to be able to make them not messy. I want to under­stand them. I want to hack into these things I know are impor­tant and lay the code out for everyone to see.

So where I started was with connec­tion. Because, by the time you’re a social worker for 10 years, what you realize is that connec­tion is why we’re here. It’s what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. This is what it’s all about. It doesn’t matter whether you talk to people who work in social justice and mental health and abuse and neglect, what we know is that connec­tion, the ability to feel connected, is — neuro­bi­o­log­i­cally that’s how we’re wired — it’s why we’re here. So I thought, you know what, I’m going to start with connec­tion. Well you know that situ­a­tion where you get an eval­u­a­tion from your boss, and she tells you 37 things you do really awesome, and one thing — an oppor­tu­nity for growth? (Laughter) And all you can think about is that oppor­tu­nity for growth, right. Well appar­ently this is the way my work went as well, because, when you ask people about love, they tell you about heart­break. When you ask people about belonging, they’ll tell you their most excru­ci­ating expe­ri­ences of being excluded. And when you ask people about connec­tion, the stories they told me were about discon­nec­tion.

So very quickly — really about six weeks into this research — I ran into this unnamed thing that absolutely unrav­eled connec­tion in a way that I didn’t under­stand or had never seen. And so I pulled back out of the research and thought, I need to figure out what this is. And it turned out to be shame. And shame is really easily under­stood as the fear of discon­nec­tion. Is there some­thing about me that, if other people know it or see it, that I won’t be worthy of connec­tion. The things I can tell you about it: it’s universal; we all have it. The only people who don’t expe­ri­ence shame have no capacity for human empathy or connec­tion. No one wants to talk about it, and the less you talk about it the more you have it. What under­pinned this shame, this “I’m not good enough,” — which we all know that feeling: “I’m not blank enough. I’m not thin enough, rich enough, beau­tiful enough, smart enough, promoted enough.” The thing that under­pinned this was excru­ci­ating vulner­a­bility, this idea of, in order for connec­tion to happen, we have to allow ourselves to be seen, really seen.

And you know how I feel about vulner­a­bility. I hate vulner­a­bility. And so I thought, this is my chance to beat it back with my measuring stick. I’m going in, I’m going to figure this stuff out, I’m going to spend a year, I’m going to totally decon­struct shame, I’m going to under­stand how vulner­a­bility works, and I’m going to outsmart it. So I was ready, and I was really excited. As you know, it’s not going to turn out well. (Laughter) You know this. So I could tell you a lot about shame, but I’d have to borrow everyone else’s time. But here’s what I can tell you that it boils down to — and this may be one of the most impor­tant things that I’ve ever learned in the decade of doing this research. My one year turned into six years, thou­sands of stories, hundreds of long inter­views, focus groups. At one point people were sending me journal pages and sending me their stories — thou­sands of pieces of data in six years. And I kind of got a handle on it.

I kind of under­stood, this is what shame is, this is how it works. I wrote a book, I published a theory, but some­thing was not okay — and what it was is that, if I roughly took the people I inter­viewed and divided them into people who really have a sense of worthi­ness — that’s what this comes down to, a sense of worthi­ness — they have a strong sense of love and belonging — and folks who struggle for it, and folks who are always wondering if their good enough. There was only one vari­able that sepa­rated the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging and the people who really struggle for it. And that was, the people who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they’re worthy of love and belonging. That’s it. They believe they’re worthy. And to me, the hard part of the one thing that keeps us out of connec­tion is our fear that we’re not worthy of connec­tion, was some­thing that, person­ally and profes­sion­ally, I felt like I needed to under­stand better. So what I did is I took all of the inter­views where I saw worthi­ness, where I saw people living that way, and just looked at those.

What do these people have in common? I have a slight office supply addic­tion, but that’s another talk. So I had a manila folder, and I had a Sharpie, and I was like, what am I going to call this research? And the first words that came to my mind were whole-hearted. These are whole-hearted people, living from this deep sense of worthi­ness. So I wrote at the top of the manila folder, and I started looking at the data. In fact, I did it first in a four-day very inten­sive data analysis, where I went back, pulled these inter­views, pulled the stories, pulled the inci­dents. What’s the theme? What’s the pattern? My husband left town with the kids because I always go into this Jackson Pollock crazy thing, where I’m just like writing and in my researcher mode. And so here’s what I found. What they had in common was a sense of courage. And I want to sepa­rate courage and bravery for you for a minute. Courage, the orig­inal defi­n­i­tion of courage when it first came into the English language — it’s from the Latin word cor, meaning heart — and the orig­inal defi­n­i­tion was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. And so these folks had, very simply, the courage to be imper­fect. They had the compas­sion to be kind to them­selves first and then to others, because, as it turns out, we can’t prac­tice compas­sion with other people if we can’t treat ourselves kindly. And the last was they had connec­tion, and — this was the hard part — as a result of authen­ticity, they were willing to let go of who they thought they should be in order to be who they were, which you have to absolutely do that for connec­tion.

The other thing that they had in common was this. They fully embraced vulner­a­bility. They believed that what made them vulner­able made them beau­tiful. They didn’t talk about vulner­a­bility being comfort­able, nor did they talk about it being excru­ci­ating — as I had heard it earlier in the shame inter­viewing. They just talked about it being neces­sary. They talked about the will­ing­ness to say “I love you” first, the will­ing­ness to do some­thing where there are no guar­an­tees, the will­ing­ness to breathe through waiting for the doctor to call after your mammo­gram. They’re willing to invest in a rela­tion­ship that may or may not work out. They thought this was funda­mental.

I person­ally thought it was betrayal. I could not believe I had pledged alle­giance to research — the defi­n­i­tion of research is to control and predict, to study phenomena, for the explicit reason to control and predict. And now my mission to control and predict had turned up the answer that the way to live is with vulner­a­bility and to stop control­ling and predicting. This led to a little break­down — (Laughter) — which actu­ally looked more like this. (Laughter) And it did. I called it a break­down, my ther­a­pist calls it a spir­i­tual awak­ening. A spir­i­tual awak­ening sounds better than break­down, but I assure you it was a break­down. And I had to put my data away and go find a ther­a­pist. Let me tell you some­thing: you know who you are when you call your friends and say, “I think I need to see some­body. Do you have any recom­men­da­tions?” Because about five of my friends were like, “Wooo. I wouldn’t want to be your ther­a­pist.” (Laughter) I was like, “What does that mean?” And they’re like, “I’m just saying, you know. Don’t bring your measuring stick.” I was like, “Okay.”

So I found a ther­a­pist. My first meeting with her, Diana — I brought in my list of the way the whole-hearted live, and I sat down. And she said, “How are you?” And I said, “I’m great. I’m okay.” She said, “What’s going on?” And this is a ther­a­pist who sees ther­a­pists, because we have to go to those, because their B.S. meters are good. (Laughter) And so I said, “Here’s the thing, I’m strug­gling.” And she said, “What’s the struggle?” And I said, “Well, I have a vulner­a­bility issue. And I know that vulner­a­bility is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthi­ness, but it appears that it’s also the birth­place of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love. And I think I have a problem, and I need some help.” And I said, “But here’s the thing, no family stuff, no child­hood shit.” (Laughter) “I just need some strate­gies.” (Laughter) (Applause) Thank you. So she goes like this. (Laughter) And then I said, “It’s bad, right?” And she said, “It’s neither good, nor bad.” (Laughter) “It just is what it is.” And I said, “Oh my God, this is going to suck.”

(Laughter)

And it did, and it didn’t. And it took about a year. And you know how there are people that, when they realize that vulner­a­bility and tender­ness are impor­tant, that they surrender and walk into it. A: that’s not me, and B: I don’t even hang out with people like that. (Laughter) For me, it was a year­long street fight. It was a slugfest. Vulner­a­bility pushed, I pushed back. I lost the fight, but prob­ably won my life back.

And so then I went back into the research and spent the next couple of years really trying to under­stand what they, the whole-hearted, what choices they were making, and what are we doing with vulner­a­bility. Why do we struggle with it so much? Am I alone in strug­gling with vulner­a­bility? No. So this is what I learned. We numb vulner­a­bility — when we’re waiting for the call. It was funny, I sent some­thing out on Twitter and on Face­book that says, “How would you define vulner­a­bility? What makes you feel vulner­able?” And within an hour and a half, I had a 150 responses. Because I wanted to know what’s out there. Having to ask my husband for help, because I’m sick, and we’re newly married; initi­ating sex with my husband; initi­ating sex with my wife; being turned down; asking someone out; waiting for the doctor to call back; getting laid-off; laying-off people — this is the world we live in. We live in a vulner­able world. And one of the ways we deal with it is we numb vulner­a­bility.

And I think there’s evidence — and it’s not the only reason this evidence exists, but I think it’s a huge cause — we are the most in-debt, obese, addicted and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history. The problem is — and I learned this from the research — that you cannot selec­tively numb emotion. You can’t say, here’s the bad stuff. Here’s vulner­a­bility, here’s grief, here’s shame, here’s fear, here’s disap­point­ment, I don’t want to feel these. I’m going to have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. (Laughter) I don’t want to feel these. And I know that’s knowing laughter. I hack into your lives for a living. God. (Laughter) You can’t numb those hard feel­ings without numbing the affects, our emotions. You cannot selec­tively numb. So when we numb those, we numb joy, we numb grat­i­tude, we numb happi­ness. And then we are miser­able, and we are looking for purpose and meaning, and then we feel vulner­able, so then we have a couple of beers and a banana nut muffin. And it becomes this dangerous cycle.

One of the things that I think we need to think about is why and how we numb. And it doesn’t just have to be addic­tion. The other thing we do is we make every­thing that’s uncer­tain certain. Reli­gion has gone from a belief in faith and mystery to certainty. I’m right, you’re wrong. Shut up. That’s it. Just certain. The more afraid we are, the more vulner­able we are, the more afraid we are. This is what poli­tics looks like today. There’s no discourse anymore. There’s no conver­sa­tion. There’s just blame. You know how blame is described in the research? A way to discharge pain and discom­fort. We perfect. If there’s anyone who wants their life to look like this it would be me, but it doesn’t work. Because what we do is we take fat from our butts and put it in our cheeks. (Laughter) Which just, I hope in a hundred years, people will look back and go, “Wow.”

(Laughter)

And we perfect, most danger­ously, our chil­dren. Let me tell you what we think about chil­dren. They’re hard­wired for struggle when they get here. And when you hold those perfect little babies in your hand, our job is not so say, “Look at her, she’s perfect. My job is just to keep her perfect — make sure she makes the tennis team by fifth grade and Yale by seventh grade.” That’s not our job. Our job is to look and say, “You know what? You’re imper­fect, and you’re wired for struggle, but you are worthy of love and belonging.” That’s our job. Show me a gener­a­tion of kids raised like that, and we’ll end the prob­lems I think that we see today. We pretend that what we do doesn’t have an effect on people. We do that in our personal lives. We do that corpo­rate — whether it’s a bailout, an oil spill, a recall — we pretend like what we’re doing doesn’t have a huge impact on other people. I would say to compa­nies, this is not our first rodeo people. We just need you to be authentic and real and say, “We’re sorry. We’ll fix it.”

But there’s another way, and I leave you with this. This is what I have found: to let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulner­ably seen; to love with our whole hearts, even though there’s no guar­antee — and that’s really hard, and I can tell you as a parent, that’s excru­ci­at­ingly diffi­cult — to prac­tice grat­i­tude and joy in those moments of terror, when we’re wondering, “Can I love you this much? Can I believe in this this passion­ately? Can I be this fierce about this?” just to be able to stop and, instead of cata­stro­phizing what might happen, to say, “I’m just so grateful, because to feel this vulner­able means I’m alive.” And the last, which I think is prob­ably the most impor­tant, is to believe that we’re enough. Because when we work from a place I believe that says, “I’m enough,” then we stop screaming and start listening, we’re kinder and gentler to the people around us, and we’re kinder and gentler to ourselves.

That’s all I have. Thank you.

(Applause)