5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways from Brené Brown’s THE GIFTS OF IMPERFECTION
Many writers struggle with shame and the fear of not being enough. Our fear of letting our true selves be seen and known often leads to bad writing or procrastination. In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown invites everyone, including all of us writers, to join a “wholehearted revolution” and “take to the streets with our messy, imperfect, wild, stretch-marked, wonderful, heartbreaking, grace-filled, and joyful lives.” She asserts that we can choose to live and love with our whole hearts in defiance of fear, self-doubt, and unrealistic expectations.
She encourages us to own our stories instead of spend our lives running from them.
Even though many of us want to live (and write) wholeheartedly, we don’t know how to get there. The Gifts of Imperfection can help us identify the barriers holding us back and empower us to choose vulnerability despite fear.
According to Brown, wholehearted living looks like:
Cultivating the gifts of imperfection (courage, compassion and connection)
Learning to recognize shame and developing shame resilience
Letting go of who we think we are supposed to be and embracing who we are
Letting go of perfectionism and cultivating self-compassion
Letting go of numbing and cultivating a resilient spirit.
Letting go of scarcity and cultivating gratitude and joy
Letting go of the need for certainty and cultivating intuition
Letting go of comparison and cultivating creativity
Letting go of productivity as self-worth and cultivating play and rest
Letting go of anxiety and cultivating calm and stillness
Letting go of self-doubt and cultivating meaningful work
Letting go of being cool and cultivating laughter, song, and dance
As usual, I’m summarizing this book in a Q&A format. I’ve turned each of the twelve principles above into a question about wholeheartedness. You can jump to the questions that intrigue you the most or read the whole thing. Whatever floats your boat.
1. What are some ways that we can cultivate courage, compassion, and connection in order to live wholeheartedly?
Cultivate courage by:
Speaking honestly and openly about who you are, what you’re feeling, and your experiences (good and bad)
Risking being vulnerable and disappointed. Playing down the exciting stuff doesn’t take the pain away when it doesn’t happen. It does, however, minimize the joy when it does happen.
Sharing your stories of imperfection and vulnerability with others with a “we’re all in the same boat” mentality.
Believing in your worthiness
Letting go of what other people think and not trading in your authenticity for approval to win people over
Asking for what you need
Cultivate compassion by:
Setting boundaries, holding people accountable, and saying no; if we don’t, we’ll feel used and mistreated. This is why we sometimes attack who they are, which is far more hurtful than addressing a behavior or a choice. The key is to separate people from their behaviors--to address what they’re doing, not who they are.
Honoring your struggle by sharing it with someone who has earned the right to hear it, someone who is deeply rooted, able to bend, and embraces you for your strengths and struggles; it’s about connecting with the right person at the right time about the right issue.
Not allowing your self-protection tactics to overtake you like blaming others, turning to judgment, or immediately going into fix-it mode.
Seeing compassionate moments as a relationship between equals, not the “healer” and the “wounded.”
Knowing your own darkness and being present with the darkness of others.
Recognizing our shared humanity.
Cultivate connection by:
Choosing people that help you feel seen, heard, and valued.
Choosing relationships that provide sustenance and strength for both people.
Receiving and giving with an open heart without any judgment attached.
Sharing stories and feeling the pain of others.
Loving yourself more and, therefore, loving others more; learning how to trust yourself, to treat yourself with respect, and to be kind and affectionate towards yourself. Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.
Seeing love as an action rather than a feeling and practicing it every day.
Believing that you are worthy of love and belonging. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. The absence of love and belonging will always lead to suffering.
Letting go of the need to fit in. Fitting in is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be to be accepted. Belonging on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are, but requires us to be who we are.
Allowing your most vulnerable, imperfect, and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known.
Responding to other authentic selves with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.
Acknowledging and healing any damage caused by shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection.
Feeling like a part of something larger.
2. You mentioned that shame is a barrier to wholehearted living. How can we recognize shame in ourselves, and how can we overcome the barrier of shame?
We are struggling like never before because we don’t talk about the things that get in the way of doing what we know is best. We don’t talk about what keeps us eating until we’re sick, busy beyond human scale, desperate to numb and take the edge off, and full of so much anxiety and self-doubt that we can’t act on what we know is best for us. We don’t talk about the hustle for worthiness that’s become such a part of our lives that we don’t even realize that we’re dancing.
Shame is the swampland of the soul. We all have it. We’re all afraid to talk about it. The less we talk about it, the more control it has over our lives. Instead of avoiding or dwelling in the swamp, we need to learn how to wade through it.
Shame looks like:
Feeling small, flawed, and never good enough.
An intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.
The fear that people won’t like us if they know the truth about who we are, where we come from, what we believe, how much we’re struggling, or how wonderful we are when soaring (sometimes it’s just as hard to own our strengths as our struggles).
The fear of disappointing people.
Feeling disconnected and desperate for worthiness
Secrecy, silence, and judgment.
“I am bad” instead of “I did something bad.”
Destructive and harmful behaviors like violence, aggression, depression, addiction, eating disorders, cruelty, and bullying.
Shame resilience is the ability to recognize shame, to move through it constructively while maintaining worthiness and authenticity, and to ultimately develop more courage, compassion, and connection as a result of our experience. We’re all capable of developing shame resilience.
Shame resilience looks like:
Understanding shame and recognizing what messages and expectations trigger shame.
Practicing critical awareness by reality-checking the messages and expectations that tell us that being imperfect means being inadequate.
Reaching out and sharing your stories with people you trust. You don’t need love, belonging, and story-catching from everyone in your life, but you need it from at least one person.
Using the word shame, talking about how you’re feeling, and asking for what you need.
Responding to shame in a way that doesn’t exacerbate it but protects you from it; avoiding reactions like withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, keeping secrets, seeking to appease and please, or trying to gain power over others by being aggressive or by using shame to fight shame.
3. How can we let go of what other people think and practice authenticity instead?
Authenticity is not something we have or don’t have. It is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are. It is being authentic in a culture that wants you to fit in and people-please. Margaret Young said, “You must first be who you really are, then do what you really need to do, in order to have what you want.” When we can let go of what other people think and own our story, we gain access to our worthiness--the feeling that we are enough just as we are and that we are worthy of love and belonging.
Practicing 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 that we are enough.
Choosing being real over being liked.
Staying vulnerable while telling our story. When we don’t care at all what people think and we’re immune to hurt, we’re also ineffective at connecting. Courage is telling our story, not being immune to criticism.
Not getting small so other people are comfortable and not throwing up your armor as a way to protect yourself.
Being authentic triggers our fears of relationship struggles and eventual isolation. When we choose to be true to ourselves, the people around us will struggle to make sense of how and why we are changing. Some will find inspiration in our new commitment; others may perceive that we’re changing too much--maybe even abandoning them or holding up an uncomfortable mirror. Some people will feel threatened and they will go after what hurts the most--our appearance, our lovability, and even our parenting.
There’s risk involved in putting your true self out in the world, but there’s even more risk in hiding yourself and your gifts from the world. Our unexpressed ideas, opinions, and contributions don’t just go away. They are likely to fester and eat away at our worthiness. Sacrificing who we are for the sake of what other people think just isn’t worth it. There can be authenticity growing pains for the people around us, but in the end, being true to ourselves is the best gift we can give the people we love. E.E. cummings wrote, “To be nobody-but-yourself in a world which is doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody but yourself--means to fight the hardest battle which any human being can fight--and never stop fighting.”
4. How can we let go of perfectionism and cultivate self-compassion instead?
Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. It is the self-destructive belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain or blame, judgment, and shame. Because of the fear of failing, making mistakes, or disappointing others, perfectionists avoid putting anything out in the world that could be imperfect; their self-worth is on the line.
Perfectionism is not self-improvement. Whereas healthy striving is self focused (How can I improve?), perfectionism is other-focused (What will they think?). Perfectionism is about trying to earn approval and acceptance: “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.” Perfectionism is addictive and often leads to self-blame. When we invariably do experience shame, judgement, and blame, we often believe it’s because we weren’t perfect enough. Perfectionism never happens in a vacuum. It touches everything around us.
To overcome perfectionism, we need to cultivate self-compassion. Cultivating self-compassion means:
Being warm and understanding toward ourselves when we suffer, fail, or feel inadequate, rather than ignoring our pain or flagellating ourselves with self-criticism.
Seeing our experiences as something we all go through.
Taking a balanced approach to negative emotions without suppressing or exaggerating emotions.
Speaking about your imperfections in a tender and honest way, without shame and fear.
Being slow to judge yourself and others with a “we’re all doing the best we can” mentality.
5. How can we let go of numbing and cultivate a resilient spirit instead?
Those struggling with worthiness tend to struggle with the need to numb and take the edge off of feelings that cause vulnerability, discomfort, or pain. Most of us engage in numbing behaviors. We can numb with lots of things: alcohol, drugs, food, sex, relationships, money, work, caretaking, gambling, staying busy, affairs, chaos, shopping, planning, perfectionism, constant change, and the Internet. When we numb the painful emotions, we also numb the positive ones. When we numb the dark, we numb the light.
To know if you are numbing with a certain behavior, ask yourself:
Does my behavior get in the way of my authenticity?
Does it stop me from being emotionally honest, setting boundaries, and feeling like I’m enough?
Does it keep me from staying out of judgment and from feeling connected?
Am I using the behavior to hide or escape from the reality of my life?
To let go of numbing tendencies, we need to cultivate resilience. Resilience is the ability to overcome adversity, bounce back from hardship, and cope with stress and trauma in a way that allows you to move forward in your life.
Believe they have the power to effect change which leads to resourcefulness and problem-solving.
Are more likely to seek help.
Believe that they can do something to manage their feelings and to cope.
Are connected with others, such as family or friends.
Are spiritual; they recognize and celebrate that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion.
Cultivate hope by setting realistic goals, persevere to achieve those goals while staying adaptive and flexible, tolerate disappointment, and believe in themselves. They avoid a sense of entitlement (believing they deserve something just because they want it).
Practice critical awareness.
Try to feel the difficult feelings.
Are not immune to numbing but stay mindful about their numbing behaviors.
6. How can we let go of scarcity and cultivate gratitude and joy instead?
Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already feeling inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. We’re afraid to lose what we love the most, and we hate that there are no guarantees. We think not being grateful and not feeling joy will make it hurt less. What begins as a simple expression of the hurried life, or even the challenged life, grows into the great justification for an unfulfilled life:
“I’m not going to allow myself to feel this joy because I know it won’t last.”
“Acknowledging how grateful I am is an invitation for disaster.”
“I’d rather not be joyful than have to wait for the other shoe to drop.”
We’re starving from a lack of gratitude. If we’re not practicing gratitude and allowing ourselves to know joy, we are missing out on the two things that will actually sustain us during the inevitable hard times. Joy is as thorny and sharp as any of the dark emotions. To love someone fiercely, to believe in something with your whole heart, to celebrate a fleeting moment in time, to fully engage in a life that doesn’t come with guarantees--these are risks that involve vulnerability and often pain. Whereas happiness is a human emotion tied to circumstances, joy is a spiritual way of engaging with the world that’s connected to practicing gratitude.
To cultivate gratitude and joy, we need to:
Actively practice gratitude; consider gratitude journals, daily gratitude meditations or prayers, gratitude art, or saying each day “I am grateful for…”
Believe in human interconnectedness and a power greater than us.
Recognize and lean into the discomfort of vulnerability.
Accept that neither joy nor happiness is constant.
Create and recognize the experiences that make us joyful. Be grateful for the small moments of joy.
Acknowledge our fear, then transform it into gratitude. Dare to let ourselves enjoy the light instead of being so afraid of the dark that we don’t let the light in.
7. How can we let go of the need for certainty and cultivate intuition instead?
What silences our intuitive voice is our need for certainty. Rather than respecting a strong internal instinct, we become fearful and look for assurances from other. When we start polling people, it’s often because we don’t trust our own knowing.
Intuition is our ability to hold space for uncertainty and our willingness to trust the many ways we’ve develop knowledge and insight, including instinct, experience, faith, and reason. Intuition is not independent of any reasoning process. It is a rapid-fire, unconscious associating process that leads to a “gut” feeling on what we’ve observed.
We need both faith and reason to make meaning in an uncertain world. Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty. Faith is essential when we decide to live and love with our whole hearts in a world where most of us want assurances before we risk being vulnerable and getting hurt. To say, “I’m going to engage wholeheartedly in my life” requires believing without seeing. The serenity prayer cultivates intuition: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
8. How can we let go of comparison and cultivate creativity instead?
It’s difficult to make time for the important things such as creativity, gratitude, joy, and authenticity when we’re spending enormous amounts of energy conforming and competing. Creativity sometimes gives way to that stifling combination of fitting in and being better than, also known as competition.
There’s no such thing as creative people and non-creative people. There are only people who use their creativity and people who don’t. Creativity is the expression of our originality. What we bring to the world is completely original and cannot be compared. Writer William Plomer described creativity as “the power to connect the seemingly unconnected.” Unused creativity doesn’t just disappear. It lives within us until it’s expressed, neglected to death, or suffocated by resentment and fear. If we want to make meaning, we need to make art. As long as we’re creating, we’re cultivating meaning. The only unique contribution that we will ever make in this world will be born of our creativity.
9. How can we let go of productivity as self-worth and cultivate play and rest instead?
We have to become intentional about cultivating sleep and play, and about letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth. By merely letting go of the list of things we want to accomplish and acquire, we would be actually living our dream right now.
Play is as essential to our health and functioning as rest. Play shapes our brain, helps us foster empathy, helps us navigate complex social groups, and is at the core of creativity and innovation. Play helps us deal with difficulties, provides a sense of expansiveness, promotes mastery of our craft, and is an essential part of the creative process. True play that comes from our own inner needs and desires is the only path to finding lasting joy and satisfaction in our work. Play means doing something because it’s fun and we want to.
To cultivate play, schedule downtime for yourself and your family. Create an “ingredients for joy and meaning” list in which you specify the conditions that create joy.
10. How can we let go of anxiety and cultivate calm and stillness instead?
We respond to anxiety by overfunctioning or underfunctioning. Overfunctioners tend to move quickly to advise, rescue, take over, micromanage, and get in other people’s business rather than look inward. Underfunctioners tend to get less competent under stress, invite others to take over, and often become the focus of family gossip, worry, or concern. Instead of reacting, we need to commit to a way of living where anxiety is a reality but not a lifestyle. We need more time to do less and be less. We need to cultivate calm and stillness in our lives.
Calm is creating perspective and mindfulness while managing emotional reactivity. It means bringing perspective to complicated situations and feeling your feelings without reacting to heightened emotions like fear and anger. It looks like being slow to respond and quick to think. Stillness is not about focusing on nothingness; it’s about creating a clearing. It’s opening up an emotionally clutter-free space and allowing ourselves to feel and think and dream and question. If we stop long enough to create a quiet emotional clearing, the truth of our lives will invariable catch up with us.
To cultivate calm and stillness, identify the emotions that are the most likely to spark your reactivity and then practice non-reactive responses. Breathing is the best place to start along with meditation, prayer, quiet reflection, alone time, and walking.
11. How can we let go of self-doubt and cultivate meaningful work instead?
Self-doubt undermines the process of finding our gifts and sharing them with the world. We all have gifts and talents. Squandering our gifts brings distress to our lives. We pay for it with our emotional and physical well-being. We feel disconnected and weighed down by feelings of emptiness, frustration, resentment, shame disappointment, fear, and even grief.
Using our gifts and talents to create meaningful work takes a tremendous amount of commitment, and it may not pay the bills. We may struggle to define who we are and what we do in an honest way. Yet when we cultivate those gifts and share them with the world, we create a sense of meaning and purpose in our lives. Sharing our gifts and talents is the most powerful source of connection with God.
Overcoming self-doubt is all about believing we’re enough and letting go of what the world says we’re supposed to be and supposed to call ourselves. Howard Thurman said, “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” To overcome self-doubt, we have to start owning its messages. Write them down and say, “I see that I’m afraid of this, but I’m going to do it anyway.” You can also write down your criteria for “meaningful” work. Make a list of the work that inspires you.
12. How can we let go of being cool and cultivate laughter, song, and dance instead?
We hustle for our worthiness by slipping on the emotional and behavioral straitjacket of cool and posturing as the tragically hip and the terminally “better than.” We want to be able to control what other people think about us so that we can feel good enough. We may feel afraid to try new things for fear of being perceived as goofy and awkward. When we value being cool and in control over granting ourselves the freedom to unleash the passionate, goofy, heartfelt, and soulful expressions of who we are, we betray ourselves. When we consistently betray ourselves, we can expect to do the same to the people we love. We need to make sure to hold space for laughter, music, and dancing in our lives. There’s a song, a dance, and a path to laughter for every human emotion.
A good belly laugh, singing at the top of your lungs, and dancing like no one is looking are unquestionably good for the soul. They are exercises in vulnerability. Laughter is a spiritual form of communing; without words we can say to one another, “I’m with you. I get it.” Songs have the ability to move us emotionally. Music reaches out and offers us connection--something we really can’t live without. Dancing is in our DNA. So create an “Authentic Me’ playlist. Dare to be goofy. Dance every day for five minutes.
My 5 FREE THE WRITER takeaways are:
Cultivate courage, compassion, and connection by sharing your story with the world.
We all experience shame, and we can all overcome shame by becoming aware of our triggers and asking for help when we need it.
We can let go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are. There’s risk involved in putting your true self out in the world, but there’s even more risk in hiding yourself and your gifts from the world.
We cannot avoid uncomfortable feelings like anxiety, vulnerability, or shame by hiding our talent; instead we can learn to talk about our imperfections with compassion.
We can learn to bounce back from rejection and criticism by setting realistic goals and being aware of our personal numbing habits.
How did Brené Brown inspire you today? Feel free to share in the comments below. Remember that you have something unique to contribute through your creativity, and don’t forget to give yourself some compassion today.
Free the writer!