As told to Leigh Newman
Can we increase our ability to love and to be loved? Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, author of "The Gifts of Imperfection" and professor at the University of Houston, has spent the last 12 years looking into questions like this one, scientifically researching the scope of human emotion, from shame to what she calls in her celebrated TEDx talk wholeheartedness. Here, she talks with Oprah.com about what this last idea means—and how it can change your life if you take some practical, down-to-earth steps to cultivate it.
Of all the thousands of people I've interviewed and studied over the years -- looking for patterns in the data -- only about 15 to 20 percent were folks living with their whole hearts, folks who were really all in when it came to their relationships. So I decided I wanted to find out why. What quality did these people have that made them so capable of both receiving and giving love?
When I examined my research, I discovered that these were people who deeply believed that they were worthy of love and belonging. These folks believed this regardless of the circumstances, unlike the majority of us who think: "Okay, I'm worthy of love and belonging a little bit, but I'll be superworthy if I get promoted. Or I'll be superworthy if I lose 20 pounds." These folks believed that they were loveable and that they had a place in the world, and those beliefs translated into specific choices they made every day. They were aware. They recognized shame, and they knew how to deal with it. They recognized vulnerability, and they were willing to feel it -- rather than ignore or numb it.
What I wondered was, How do the rest of us cultivate these same qualities? It's not like we can just decide to be vulnerable or say, "Hey, I'm worthy," after which -- poof -- this instantly comes true. But there are practical changes you can make in your life which encourage these beliefs. Here are five basic everyday actions that can help you develop a deeper, more loving sense of wholeheartedness, both for others and for yourself.
Letting Go of Exhaustion
Everybody in the world says that you need to work less in order to live a fuller, more connected life. But so few of us address what prevents us from doing it. The reasons are simple: (1) exhaustion is a status symbol in our culture, and (2) self-worth has become net worth. We live doing so much and with so little time that anything unrelated to the to-do list -- taking a nap, say, or reading a novel -- actually creates stress.
Wholehearted people, on the other hand, know when to stop and rest. Personally, I had to learn this. I'm still learning this. I screw it up every now and then, but five years ago I made some huge changes in my personal and private life. I went from full time to part time at the university, and my husband, who is a pediatrician, cut his hours to four days a week. As it stands now, we never get less than eight hours of sleep.
What did this require? A constellation of choices. For example, one of the things I have to do to cultivate more rest is to say no. Last year, I turned down 85 percent of the invitations I got to speak. Because I have a commitment to be at the family table four nights a week.
To say no, we have to understand why we're saying yes. One of the reasons is scarcity. I, like many of us, was so afraid that maybe all these opportunities would just go away, that maybe next year people wouldn't ask for me to come speak, and maybe my work wouldn't get the attention it needed, and that if I didn't have my work, who would I be? So I thought I had to say yes, yes, yes. The only reason I can now say no is because I work on my shame "gremlins." Gremlins are the tricksters who whisper all of those terrible things in our ears that keep us afraid and small. When the gremlins say "you better say yes, or they won't like you" or "they'll think you're lazy," I whisper back: "Not this time. I get to say no. I get to love myself, stay home and drive soccer carpool."
Painting a Gourd
All of us were made to make things. During my studies, I found out a surprising piece of data: There is no such thing as a creative or noncreative person. Every single human being is creative. Every research participant could recall a time in his or her life when creativity brought him or her great joy. It was usually childhood, and the creative expressions ranged from coloring or finger-painting to dancing, singing or building. What was most fascinating was that the participants never talked about learning how to be creative -- they just were.
As adults, what keeps us from being creative -- from painting, cooking, scrapbooking, doodling, knitting, rebuilding an engine or writing -- is what I call the comparison gremlin (a close cousin of the shame gremlin). People say, "I'm not good enough," or "Why am I the only one with dangling modifiers?" or "I'm not a real sculptor... I'm a total poser." In other words, we shame ourselves into stopping. While we may have all started creative, between ages 8 and 14, at least 60 percent of the participants remember learning that they were not creative. They began to compare their creations, they started getting graded for their art, and many heard from a teacher or a parent that "art wasn't their thing." So we don't have to teach people to find joy in creating; we have to make sure not to teach them that there's only one acceptable way to be creative.
I had to push myself to rediscover my own artistic side. Unused creativity is not benign. It clumps inside us, turning into judgment, grief, anger and shame. Before I turned my life around, I used to dismiss people who spent time creating. When a friend would invite me to go to an art class or something, I'd respond: "How cute. You go do your A-R-T; I'm busy with a real J-O-B." Now I realize that was my fear and my own frustrated need to create.
To kick things off, I went to a gourd-painting class with my mom and my then-9-year-old daughter, Ellen. It was one of the best days of my life. I'm not kidding. I still paint, and now I'm having a serious love affair with photography. But start with something easy. Why not start with a gourd? Put a silly face on it. Make it smile.
None of us get calmer by telling ourselves to calm down. We get it by understanding what calm is: being able to see clearly because we are not overreacting to a situation. We're listening and understanding. We are letting ourselves feel the vulnerability of the moment (the call from the doctor, the meeting with the angry boss) and then managing that feeling.
Calm participants in my studies all have a few things in common. They breathe when they're feeling vulnerable. They ask questions before they weigh in, including the three most important questions -- ones that changed my own life. The first is, Do I have enough information to freak out? (Ninety percent of the time, the answer is no.) The second is, Where did you hear the upsetting news? (Down the hall? From a trusted source?) The third is, If I do have enough reliable information to freak out, and if I do that, will it be helpful?
When my daughter, Ellen, comes home and says, "Oh my God, Mom, the school moved my locker, and now I can't reach it!" I stop. I remember what I used to say: "Oh that's it! I'm furious! I'm going off to school tomorrow, and you're going to get your locker back!" Now I say, "Tell me more about it." And 15 minutes later, I find out that the guy she likes has a locker down at the other end of the hall; what she really wants is to have a locker nearer to him.
This is real change. Four or five years ago, I was the least calm person you have ever met. And when people describe me today -- people like my co-workers, friends and family—they say, "You're the calmest person I know." Well, it's because I practice it, the same way you practice the violin. We become what we do.
One of the things I noticed in my research was that wholehearted people tended to fool around a lot. This was how I described their behavior, "fooling around," because I didn't know what this behavior was. It was such a foreign concept to me that I couldn't even name it correctly until I happened to be sitting in the backyard watching my kids jump on the trampoline. All of a sudden, I went: "Holy crap. Those grown-ups in my studies are playing! They are piddling and playing! They are total slackers!"
Then I found some research by Dr. Stuart Brown. He said that play is something you did "that caused you to lose track of time." Which I called work. He called play "time spent without purpose." Which I called an anxiety attack.
Clearly, I had a problem. So I sat down and made a list of nonwork-related things that I love to do where I lost track of time, I lost my sense of self-consciousness, I didn't want them to end, and they didn't serve any purpose except that I enjoyed them. Then I had my husband do the same thing. Then we did it with our two kids, and I made a Venn diagram to understand the data (sorry, I'm a researcher).
Our family-play Venn diagram showed us what kind of play we share in common, and we realized there were only three kinds that we all enjoyed. Because sitting on the floor playing Candy Land? I'm not losing track of time. I've been on the floor for 30 minutes; I could shoot myself. But swimming? Hiking? Going to the movies? All of us enjoy that.
So now, we totally build our family vacations around being outside. Because it's play for all of us. It's battery-charging for all of us. But that doesn't just happen. We draw diagrams. We plan. And then... we goof off.
Doing the Scarecrow
What keeps most of us from dancing -- at any age -- is usually the desire to be cool, and being cool, even for grown-ups, is a refusal to be vulnerable. Cool starts early. Some of the latest research shows that rather than being an adolescent issue, our kindergartners and first graders are starting to feel anxiety over being cool and belonging. Imagine being 5 years old and deciding that it's not so good to let others see how we feel.
When it comes to dancing, we're afraid that we're bad dancers or that others will laugh at us, so we don't do it enough. About eight years ago, my daughter and I were at Nordstrom. She was in fourth grade, and there were these beautiful, put-together mothers in the shoe department with us. I was in my Jabba the Hutt sweatsuit; I looked horrible. And I was doing the whole shame routine... down to telling myself: "Argh. You're a disaster. You don't belong in this nice store with these fancy, put-together people."
The kids' department started playing a song. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw some movement. Then I saw three of the beautiful, put-together mothers and two of the daughters look past me, gasping. When I looked over, it was Ellen. Everyone was looking at Ellen. She had put her shoes down, and she was full-on doing the robot to the music -- popping and locking. Without a care in the world. And you could tell these daughters were getting ready to laugh, and the moms were like, "Oh my God, girls, shield your eyes."
At that moment, I had a choice. Previously, shame would have taken over, and I would have looked at Ellen and just said: "Pull yourself together, Ellen. Come on. Jesus. Stop being so... weird." But I just heard this voice, the voice from my research and the voice from what I was trying to change in my own life, and that voice said: "Don't betray her. Be on her side. Be on her side." So I looked over and said, "Awesome robot." And she said, "Hey, Mom. Show me the scarecrow again."
The scarecrow is when you swing your hands like they're not connected to your elbows. I did not want to do the scarecrow in Nordstrom. Inside me there is a seventh grader with sweaty palms who doesn't have anywhere to sit in the cafeteria. But I did it. My daughter and I danced. Maybe I was faking it at little, but actions are far more important than anything we tell children. We have to show them love and self-worth, just as we have to show ourselves love and self-worth. We can't just overlay these ideas on our lives. We have to change the way we live -- and, fortunately, there isn't just one way to do it.