Author Bren� Brown discusses embracing our ordinariness

Jan 11, 2011, 00:08 by By Martha Rosenberg
Online Journal Contributing Writer

As the media dish up perfect people whose appearance, happiness and talent we can never expect to match, it is easy to sink into shame, self-contempt and maladaptive coping like food, alcohol and drug dependence. Especially during the holidays!

But Bren� Brown, Ph.D., LMSW, author and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, says it is precisely our imperfections and feelings of inadequacy that allow us to connect to others and ourselves. By embracing our �ordinariness� says Dr. Brown and having the courage to reveal our vulnerabilities to those who are trustworthy, we can embark on a more deeply gratifying way of life which she calls Wholeheartedness.

Rosenberg: In your latest book, you discuss the debilitating effect of shame and feeling not good enough on a person�s spirit, growth and ability to connect to others. What role does grandiosity play in that shame, if any?

Brown: I hesitate to use a pathologizing label but underneath the so-called narcissistic personality is definitely shame and the paralyzing fear of being ordinary. Often it�s hard for people to believe that someone in their life who is critical and rejecting of them is really suffering from their own shame. Both shame and grandiosity come from the same feeling that �If I�m not above the rest, I�m not enough.�

Rosenberg: You write that the Leonard Cohen song Anthem -- �There�s a crack in everything. That�s how the light gets in� -- serves as a reminder to not control everything and try to make everything perfect.

Brown: Yes, not spackle the cracks is how I put it.

Rosenberg: You also discuss spackling the cracks with regard to perfectionism.

Brown: Many people think of perfectionism as striving to be your best but it is not about self-improvement; it�s about earning approval and acceptance. Being addicted to perfectionism is actually a process addiction no different from being addicted to food, or gossip or debt. Sometimes these are called counterfeit comforts.

Rosenberg: In 12-step fellowships like Alcoholics Anonymous, part of addiction recovery is sharing our vulnerability and secrets.

Brown: Our secrets definitely keep us addicted which is probably why there are online sites where people can divest themselves of their secrets, anonymously. But, because shame happens between people, there is no substitute for telling on ourselves, so to speak, to someone else and making ourselves vulnerable. Vulnerability is the birthplace of connection and the path to the feeling of worthiness. If it doesn�t feel vulnerable, the sharing is probably not constructive.

Rosenberg: Yet you write that not all friends are appropriate for this type of sharing. Examples you give in the book are a friend who gives sympathy but not empathy, a friend who minimizes the emotional import of what is shared because she views you as a pillar of worthiness and a friend who is so uncomfortable with vulnerability, she actually scolds you for letting something shameful happen.

Brown: We need to share with those who have earned the right to hear it and people who are invested in the friendship. Social media has given us this idea that we should all have a posse of friends when in reality if we have one or two really good friends, we are lucky. Sharing and hearing intimate stories is also not most peoples� �default setting� since we tend to self-protect from hurtful things. If someone drops a shame bomb on me, I am likely to give a non-compassionate response if my own resources feel scarce.

Rosenberg: That brings us to the concept of scarcity which you explore in depth in The Gifts of Imperfection.

Brown: These are anxious and fearful times and everywhere we hear the lexicon of scarcity. We are not rich, thin or beautiful enough; we are not safe, perfect or powerful enough and ordinary lives are completely dismissed. But success and high achievement will not gratify us when our self-worth is tied to the mindset of scarcity. We think the opposite of scarcity is abundance -- more time, more money -- when really the opposite of scarcity is �enough.� Just enough.

Rosenberg: What will your next book cover?

Brown: There are two areas I am researching. Imperfect parenting and re-humanizing the workplace. For the second book, I am working with CEOs to explore ways that innovation and creativity can be cultivated in job settings by allowing vulnerability to supplant fear, shame and scarcity.

The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You�re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are
Softcover, 160 pp.
Author: Bren� Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W.
Publisher: Hazelden
Published Year: 2010
List Price: $14.95

Bren� Brown, Ph.D., is a member of the research faculty at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She is also the author of �I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn�t): Telling the Truth about Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power.�

Martha Rosenberg is a Chicago columnist/cartoonist who writes about public health. She may be reached at