A Review of ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ by Brene Brown


Brene Brown – The Power of Vulnerability – 2013

Happy Friday? Sad Friday? Fearful Friday? Blame Friday? Creative Friday? Loving Friday? Hateful Friday? Empathic Friday? Vulnerable Friday? Me Too Friday?

Friday represents the end of the working week for many people, and often there’s a lift in the mood as we think ‘yay – here comes the weekend’ or similar. And just as often, Friday, or any other day in the week for that matter, represents all kinds of other challenges and questions too, questions to which we often don’t have answers for. Today’s post is much more about questions and much less about answers.

I wasn’t in the room for this latest RSA talk – but the live stream worked just fine and so I got to listen to one of my favourite speakers update us on her thinking and research into vulnerability. Here’s some of what I heard.


Brene Brown (BB from now on) started by asking us to ask ourselves two questions:

1               What should I be afraid of today?

2               Who is to blame?

Or put another way, what should scare me and whose fault is it? BB suggests these are dangerous questions that we often centre our lives around – and they come from a culture of not enough, of scarcity. When you open a newspaper – typically the news will say, ‘here is why you should be afraid and here’s whose fault it is’. These questions often become the focus of conversation at work, ‘Who hasn’t worked in an office where this is asked?’ No one’s hand goes up.

At the heart of this problem is that we believe there’s never enough. Never perfect enough, never relevant enough, never good enough, never loved enough, never extraordinary enough. An ordinary life has become synonymous with meaningless.

Armour Up

BB then asks, ‘So how do we deal with this? We respond by putting on armour – we go out and kick some ass and stay safe, not showing our true selves.’ She suggests we get lost in perfectionism, intellectualising. For example, BB’s TEDx talk – The Power of Vulnerability, was going to be called something like, ‘Variables Mitigating Self Actualising…’ blah blah, blah, she lost me before the end of the previous, awfully dull, intellectualised title, which I thought was a great way to make the point. We armour up to protect ourselves from being hurt.

And the worst news from BB’s research – our capacity for wholeheartedness can never be greater than our willingness to be broken hearted.

Crushing Creativity

Vulnerability is the path to love, to belonging, to innovation, trust and creativity. 85% of interviewees for BB’s research (13,000 people interviewed in total) can recall a time in school that was so shaming it forever changed how they thought of themselves as learners – 50% of those recollections related to art and creativity.

Empathy is the Casualty

Empathy is greatest casualty of vulnerability. BB asked the audience, ‘When you share vulnerability and the other person gets it, how do you feel?’ People replied with words like ‘Awesome’ ‘Reassured’. Opposite feelings surfaced when the other person doesn’t get it, and that drives scarcity.

Empathy fuels connection sympathy drives disconnection

What is empathy? Empathy – is perspective, is staying out of judgment, is recognising emotion in others and communicating that, feeling with people.


A lack of empathy drives blame.

Blame – Brene drops a cup on a tile floor, smashes into a million pieces and sends coffee everywhere. She immediately thinks, ‘Damn you Steve!’ Steve is Brene’s husband and last night, he got home late, which in turn made me oversleep, late, rushed, dropped the cup.

Blame gives us a semblance of control, but blame is simply discharging discomfort and pain (anger), and has an inverse relationship with accountability.

Blame = we don’t listen because prepping our blame story.

Back to Empathy

Empathy is being present with someone. Rarely does an empathic response begin with the words ‘at least’ – that’s just silver lining it.

I had a miscarriage. At least you can get pregnant.
My marriage is falling apart. At least you have a marriage

You don’t have to have the answer, very often something like ‘I don’t even know what to say right now except that I’m so glad you told me’, is just what we need to hear.

We worry about saying the right thing and being helpful – sometimes a hand on a hand is just what you need…followed by two simple powerful words. Me too.

BB sits down to enthusiastic applause.


These last few lines are snippets of the Q&A that followed. I’m a fan of RSA talks, but I think they could be improved by encouraging the Chair to get the conversation going between audience and speaker more quickly. Too often – the Chair goes on a bit and the audience stuff gets compressed in the end. So – this next bit is very sketchy, sorry but I was losing concentration and I can’t really recall what the questions were that drove these comments – blush – but I felt they were worth including.

Shame – perceived as weakness.

Shame and guilt are different things. Shame – I am bad. Guilt – I did something bad.

Social media is like fire, use it to warm yourself when freezing, use it to burn down the barn. Live tweeting your bikini wax is not vulnerability. Social media is great for communicating. Connection happens between people in person, don’t mistake communication for connection.

I ask for what I need. This feels inherently vulnerable, and do it.

I really enjoyed listening to Brene Brown speak. Not only is her subject one that fascinates me, but she is funny, she engaged the audience really well, and shared lots of new stuff too, resisting the temptation to replay earlier success. I’ve not tried to draw any conclusions from what I heard – I just wanted to play it back so you can enjoy investing a bit of time thinking about vulnerability. If you are interested – you can see the unedited video (just over 1 hour in total) of the talk here.

photo credit 

Author: Doug Shaw

Artist and Consultant. Embracing uncertainty, sketching myself into existence. Helping people do things differently, through an artistic lens.

7 thoughts on “A Review of ‘The Power of Vulnerability’ by Brene Brown”

  1. Awesome post Doug. Having just read some megalomaniac rubbish about us needing to develop (or worse, select for) ‘mental toughness’ in the workplace, this restores my hope and faith in human nature! Let’s all have the strength to be a little vulnerable 🙂

    1. How lovely to hear from you Alison, there is great strength in vulnerability.

      This stuff is strewn with paradox and I think that is partly why I’m so drawn to it. When we think of doing something that makes us feel vulnerable, we typically associate that with weakness, and when we see someone sharing their vulnerability, we usually associate that with courage. When it comes to vulnerability and how we roll with it, we’re often our own worst enemy.

      Cheers – Doug

  2. Thanks Doug, some powerful messages here, love the Empathy points in particular – clear distinction between empathy and sympathy in relation to vulnerability. I love her style AND content, will find an hour later to watch the video. Thanks for summarising and sharing …

  3. There was a recent article in the Guardian by someone who had done a ‘news’ detox, and as a fellow addict I was interested. He said:

    a. the news is sensationalised and focuses on people, not ideas or events, and also on nearness. So a bridge collapses – we have the story of the pregnant woman killed. If it is in the US we have 5 days of the story. If it is in Pakistan we don’t even get the story. So what point does the news serve? It encourages our worst emotions and hooks us on adrenaline.

    b. It is only ever an emerging story – we don’t have any sense of coherence until quite some time has passed. Then it is history.

    c. It isn’t really just news. It has a framework and often that framework is laden with blame (I get to the relevance to BB at last!) and it encourages us to blame. It deliberately makes us fired up and angry (especially if you read the Daily Mail).

    He has stopped watching/listening and reading the news. He is going to catch up once a year when the story has run its course. And only the big stories will survive.

  4. Hi Doug, I recently watched this Ted Talk at a conference and it had me in floods as it really made sense and as you rightly say Brene Brown is very funny and actually really easy to relate to as she allows us to see her own vulnerability. It actually followed an intense session around storytelling where we were all encouraged to tell our own stories….the combination of the two sessions broke down all barriers that might have otherwise existed in the group. Amazing stuff so thanks for sharing and reminding me about it! Dawn

    1. Thanks Dawn, I can imagine how the two things you described go together to make a very powerful combo. Appreciate you taking the time to pop by.

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