Joy as vulnerability by Brené Brown

For over 10 years US professor and researcher Brené Brown (1965-) has studied the concept of vulnerability. Her book Daring greatly (2015) sums up the numerous interviews and research she has done on the subject of vulnerability. She defines vulnerability as the core of all emotions:

“Vulnerability isn’t good or bad: It’s not what we call a dark emotion, nor is it always a light, positive experience. Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very thing that gives purpose and meaning to living.” – Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

In 2010, in a TED talk entitled the power of vulnerability, Brené Brown explains that vulnerability is in essence the courage to be imperfect:

“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.” – Brené Brown

Although she thought it would be obvious that vulnerability is to be find in the moment of pain and shame, Brené Brown was surprised to discover that joy would – for most of her interviewees – constitute the most intense vulnerable moments in their lives:

“When I started asking participants about the experiences that left them feeling the most vulnerable, I didn’t expect joy to be one of the answers. I expected fear and shame, but not the joyful moments of their lives. I was shocked to hear people say they were at their most vulnerable when:
  • Standing over my children while they’re sleeping
  • Acknowledging how much I love my husband/wife
  • Knowing how good I’ve got it
  • Loving my job
  • Spending time with my parents
  • Watching my parents with my children
  • Thinking about my relationship with my boyfriend
  • Getting engaged
  • Going into remission
  • Having a baby
  • Getting promoted
  • Being happy
  • Falling in love” – Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

This is what Brené Brown calls foreboding joy. “We wake up in the morning and think, Work is going well. Everyone in the family is healthy. No major crises are happening. The house is still standing. I’m working out and feeling good. Oh, shit. This is bad. This is really bad. Disaster must be lurking right around the corner.”  She explains how joy can suddenly leave us feeling unprepared:

“Scarcity and fear drive foreboding joy. We’re afraid that the feeling of joy won’t last, or that we won’t be enough, or that the transition to disappointment (or whatever is in store for us next) will be too difficult. We’ve learned that giving in to joy is, at best, setting ourselves up for disappointment and, at worst, inviting disaster. And we struggle with the worthiness issue. Do we deserve our joy, given our inadequacies and imperfections? What about the starving children and the war-ravaged world? Who are we to be joyful?” – Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

Recognizing that intense joy can leave us feeling as unarmed as our worst moments of pain and shame, she gives us some tips for facing the emotional contradictions and let us fully enjoy our moments of happiness: this is the practice of gratitude.

“If the opposite of scarcity is enough, then practicing gratitude is how we acknowledge that’s there enough and that we’re enough. I use the word practicing because the research participants spoke of tangible gratitude practices, more than merely having an attitude of gratitude or feeling grateful.” – Brené Brown, Daring Greatly

From the people she interviewed for over 10 years, Brené Brown concludes three concrete lessons for practicing gratitude and not just feeling grateful:

1. Joy comes to us in moments – ordinary moments. We risk missing out on joy when we get too busy chasing down the extraordinary. Scarcity culture may keep us afraid of living small, ordinary lives, but when you talk to people who have survived great losses, it is clear that joy is not a constant. Without exception, all the participants who spoke to me about their losses, and what they missed the most, spoke about ordinary moments. “If I could come downstairs and see my husband sitting at the table and cursing at the newspaper…” “If I could hear my son giggling in the backyard…” “My mom sent me the craziest texts – she never knew how to work her phone. I’d give anything to get one of those texts right now”. – Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
The second lesson for practicing gratitude:
2. Be grateful for what you have. When I asked people who had survived tragedy how we can cultivate and show more compassion for people who are suffering, the answer was always the same: Don’t shrink away from joy of your child because I’ve lost mine. Don’t take what you have for granted – celebrate it. Don’t apologize for what you have. Be grateful for it and share you gratitude with others. Are your parents healthy? Be thrilled. Let them know how much they mean to you. When you honor what you have, you’re honoring what I’ve lost.” – Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
And last but not least the third practice for gratitude as Brené Brown teaches us:
3. Don’t squander joy. We can’t prepare for tragedy and loss. When we turn every opportunity to feel joy into a test drive for despair, we actually diminish our resilience. Yes, softening into joy is uncomfortable. Yes, it’s scary. Yes, it’s vulnerable. But every time we allow ourselves to lean into joy and give in to those moments, we build resilience and we cultivate hope. The joy becomes part of who we are, and when bad things happen – and they do happen – we are stronger.” – Brené Brown, Daring Greatly
Let’s finish with some words of the French semiologist Roland Barthes (1915-1980). In his famous book A lover’s discourse fragments, he explains in his chapter Agony that more than joy or the fear derived from it, the fear of the breakdown is the fear of a breakdown that has already been experienced. The fear in consequence belongs to the past and is not to be lived again. Roland Barthes quotes the British pyschanalyst D.W. Winnicott (1896-1971):
“There are moments, according to my experience, when a patient needs to be told that the breakdown, a fear of which destroys his or her life, has already been.
Books mentioned in this article: