• June 2014

The Gifts of Imperfection

When it comes to figuring out what to do in Act 2, here’s a tip-off to a great source of inspiration: Brené Brown, PhD, who has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame.

“People may call what happens at midlife ‘a crisis,’ but it’s not,” she explains in her book, The Gifts of Imperfection. “It’s an unraveling—a time when you feel a desperate pull to live the life you want to live, not the one you’re ‘supposed’ to live.”

“The unraveling,” continues the leading expert on shame, authenticity, and belonging, “is a time when you are challenged by the universe to let go of who you think you are supposed to be, and embrace who you are.”

Brown acknowledges that there are other unraveling journeys in our lives, as well.

These include marriage, divorce, becoming a parent, recovery, moving, an empty nest, retiring, experiencing loss or trauma, and working in a soul-sucking job.

Brown admits she has been in the thick of the unraveling herself. It happened, in fact, as she began writing “The Gifts of Imperfection.”

“In the process of collecting thousands of stories from diverse men and women who lived all over the country—ranging in age from 18 to 87—I saw new patterns I wanted to know more about … I heard stories about the power of embracing imperfection and vulnerability, about the inextricable connection between joy and gratitude, and how things that I take for granted, like rest and play, are as vital to our health as nutrition and exercise.”

She wanted to look as a whole, so she grabbed a file and a Sharpie and wrote the first word that came to her mind on the tab: Wholehearted.

Then, as she started analyzing the stories and looking for recurring themes, she realized the patterns fell into two columns: Do and Don’t.

Do: worthiness, rest, play, trust, faith, intuition, hope, authenticity, love, belonging, joy, gratitude, and creativity.

Don’t: perfection, numbing, certainty, exhaustion, self-sufficiency, being cool, fitting in, judgment, and scarcity.

When she sat back to look at the lists, she gasped.

“I sat in the red chair at my breakfast room table and stared for a long time,” she recalls. “At one point, I was sitting there with tears in my eyes and my hand across my mouth, like someone had just delivered bad news. In fact, it was bad news. … I finally stood up, grabbed my marker off the table, drew a line under the ‘Don’t’ list, and wrote the word me under the line,” she recalls. “I folded my arms tightly across my chest, sunk down deep into my chair, and thought: This is just great. I’m living straight down the shit list.”

For the next year, Brown says she worked with a therapist named Diana. Brown refers to it in her blog, “the 2007 Breakdown / Spiritual Awakening.” She adds, “I’m starting to question if you can have one without the other.”

In 2010, she published “The Gifts of Imperfection.”

In it, Brown shares 10 guideposts that she calls “the power of Wholehearted living,” which is a way of engaging with the world from a place of worthiness.

Brown explains: “Each day we face a barrage of images and messages from society and the media telling us who, what, and how we should be. We are led to believe that if we could only look perfect and lead perfect lives, we’d no longer feel inadequate.”

She knows from experience that most of us perform, please, and perfect, all the while thinking:

  • What if I can’t keep all of these balls in the air?
  • Why isn’t everyone else working harder and living up to my expectations?
  • What will people think if I fail or give up? When can I stop proving myself?

And in the book, she helps readers explore how we can cultivate 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.”
  • And to go to bed at night thinking, “Yes, I am sometimes afraid, but I am also brave. And, yes, I am imperfect and vulnerable, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am worthy of love and belonging.”

Brown concludes: “I now see that cultivating a Wholehearted life is not like trying to reach a destination. It’s like walking toward a star in the sky. We never really arrive, but we certainly know that we’re heading in the right direction. I now see how gifts like courage, compassion, and connection only work when they are exercised. Every day.”

Here’s a taste of the 10 Guideposts:

Guidepost 1Cultivating Authenticity: Letting go of what people think.

Guidepost 2Cultivating Self-Compassion: Letting go of perfectionism.

Guidepost 3Cultivating a Resilient Spirit: Letting go of numbing and powerlessness.

Guidepost 4Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: Letting go of scarcity and fear of the dark.

Guidepost 5Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith: Letting go of the need for certainty.

Guidepost 6Cultivating Creativity: Letting go of compassion.

Guidepost 7Cultivating Play and Rest: Letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth.

Guidepost 8Cultivating Calm and Stillness: Letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle.

Guidepost 9Cultivating Meaningful Work: Letting go of self-doubt and “supposed to.”

Guidepost 10Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance: Letting go of being cool and “always in control.”


About Brené Brown, PhD

Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame.

Brown is a nationally renowned speaker and has won numerous teaching awards, including the College’s Outstanding Faculty Award. Her groundbreaking work has been featured on PBS, NPR, CNN, “The Katie Show,” and Oprah Winfrey’s “Super Soul Sunday.”

Her 2010 TEDx Houston talk on the power of vulnerability is one of the most watched talks on TED.com, with more than 12 million views. She gave the closing talk, “Listening to Shame,” at the 2012 TED Conference in Long Beach.

Brown is the author of the #1 New York Times best-seller, “Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead” (2012). She is also the author of the New York Times best-seller, “The Gifts of Imperfection (2010), and I Thought It Was Just Me” (2007).

Brown is also the founder and chief learning and research officer of The Daring Way—a training and certification program for helping professionals who want to facilitate her work on vulnerability, courage, shame, and worthiness.

She lives in Houston with her husband, Steve, and their two children.