The reward is wholeheartedness.

“Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, ‘No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.’ It’s going to bed at night thinking, ‘Yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.’” —Brené Brown, Ph.D., author of “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead” (Avery, 2012)

When most of us hear “risk and reward,” we tend to think in terms of immediate cause and effect: taking a chance, putting yourself out there and gaining something in return. Most of us don’t necessarily consider the vulnerability involved in taking said risk or the greater rewards of living more openly vulnerable in general. That being said, most of us don’t love being vulnerable to begin with, and some of us are willing to avoid it at all cost.

To risk is to be vulnerable, to be vulnerable has its risks—but what do we risk when we run away from vulnerability?

Rewarding connections are put on hold

“Yes, feeling vulnerable is at the core of difficult emotions like fear, grief and disappointment, but it’s also the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, empathy, innovation and creativity. When we shut ourselves off from vulnerability, we distance ourselves from the experiences that bring purpose and meaning to our lives,” Brown explains.

Research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, Brown has spent the past 13 years studying vulnerability, courage, shame and worthiness, and she has written extensively on the subject, including three No.1 “New York Times” best-sellers: “Daring Greatly,” “The Gifts of Imperfection” and her latest “Rising Strong.” Her groundbreaking work has been featured on CNN, PBS, NPR and Oprah Winfrey’s “SuperSoul Sunday,” to name a few, and her 2010 TEDx Houston talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” is one of the top 10 most viewed TED talks in the world (a must watch if you haven’t already).

Needless to say, she is the expert on all things vulnerability related and is also the first to admit she hated feeling vulnerable, with a passion. So much so that she spent the majority of her life attempting to avoid vulnerability by wrangling more and more control over life’s inherently uncertain experiences. It wasn’t until Brown’s initial research on human connection led her to the issue of shame that she started taking a look at vulnerability and what it means to be vulnerable in our lives.

Shame is at the heart of our sense of risk

She defines vulnerability as uncertainty, risk and emotional exposure—showing up and being seen. Showing up and allowing ourselves to be authentically seen by others leads to more authentic connections. However, the large majority of us hold ourselves back from meaningful connections for fear that if we do show up as who we truly are, then we will be rejected. That if people really knew the real us, then we wouldn’t be worthy of belonging, aka shame. Brown defines shame “as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” She discovered fairly early on in her original research that shame was the linchpin that undermined human connections.

So what’s all this shame really about? The good old “I’m not enough” syndrome. “I’m not good enough, skinny enough, smart enough, stylish enough, praised enough, rich enough … I’m not (fill in the blank) enough.” And believe it or not, we all experience feelings of “I’m not good enough”; we all experience shame. The only folks who don’t are those who lack empathy and the capacity for human connection along the lines of being sociopathic.

Ironically, the way to overcome feelings of shame and “not good enough” is to show up anyway—to risk being vulnerable. When you shy away from the discomfort of vulnerability, you’re only reinforcing the inner dialogue that says you’re not enough. Show up, be seen, do whatever it is anyway, and you begin to realize that you do belong, that you are enough and that the little voice in your head that says otherwise is utterly untrue. Plus, you become a little bit braver every time you do!

Through her qualitative research, hundreds of interviews, thousands of stories and numerous focus groups, Brown was able to define two groups of people: those who have a strong sense of worthiness, love and belonging and those who don’t, who struggle for it and continually question whether they are good enough. The dividing factor is that the first group believes they are worthy of love and belonging. They believe they are worthy. Period.

Whole-hearted belief defines self-worth

Brown points out that these people, living from a place of deep-seated worthiness, are the ones living wholehearted lives. “These folks had, very simply, the courage to be imperfect,” she explains. “They had the compassion to be kind to themselves first and then to others, because at it turns out, we can’t practice compassion for others 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.”

They also fully embraced vulnerability as fundamental to the fullness of human experience and were willing to take more risks because of it. They were willing to try something new with no guarantee it would work out, they were willing to say “I love you” first, they were willing to say no when they needed to, they were willing to be creative, they were willing to start their own business, and so forth and so on.

The second group, those struggling and hustling for their sense of worthiness, love and belonging, tend to emotionally “armor up” as a way of avoiding the unsettling feeling of being vulnerable. While the particulars vary from person to person, Brown gives us the three main ways in which people armor up: striving for perfection, numbing out or disrupting joyful moments by reminding yourself all the ways that it could go wrong. Any of those sound familiar?

The problem is that if we numb the emotions that we don’t like, such as fear and pain, we also numb ourselves from positive emotions like gratitude and joy. You can’t selectively numb yourself. Being perfect doesn’t work because inevitably you can’t be perfect 100 percent of the time, setting yourself up for failure and reinforcing feelings of not being enough. Even more so, perfectionism is correlated with anxiety, depression and addiction. Trying to beat vulnerability to the punch by imagining the worst-case scenario never allows you to be fully present or truly enjoy important moments and experiences.

“Wholeheartedness. There are many tenets of wholeheartedness, but at its very core are vulnerability and worthiness, facing uncertainty, exposure and emotional risks, and knowing that I am enough,” Brown explains.

A vulnerability practice

Ready to start practicing vulnerability?

  • The No. 1 myth about vulnerability is that it is weak. Start by recognizing that facing vulnerability takes enormous courage.
  • Take baby steps. If you’re new to being vulnerable, start with small acts of vulnerability before building up to the ones that scare you the most.
  • As best you can, and you’ll get better with practice, try not to constantly worry about what other folks think about you.
  • Abandon perfection. The sooner you give up this impossible ideal for yourself, the sooner you start living a more wholehearted life.

Brené Brown’s 10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living:

1. Cultivate Authenticity: Let go of what people think about you.

2. Cultivate Self-Compassion: Let go of perfectionism.

3. Cultivate a Resilient Spirit: Let go of numbing and powerlessness.

4. Cultivate Gratitude and Joy: Let go of scarcity.

5. Cultivate Intuition and Trusting Faith: Let go of the need for certainty.

6. Cultivate Creativity: Let go of comparison.

7. Cultivate Play and Rest: Let go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth.

8. Cultivate Calm and Stillness: Let go of anxiety as a lifestyle.

9. Cultivate Meaningful Work: Let go of self-doubt and “supposed to.”

10. Cultivate Laughter, Song and Dance: Let go of being cool and “always in control.”

Photo credit: Jürgen Fälchle AdobeStock