Courage And Vulnerability

Brené Brown, Ph.D., 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. After many years of research she thinks that vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage. 

Brown says (4.7) that Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change. She distinguishes between shame and guilt. Shame is a focus on self and guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad”. Guilt is “I did something bad”. If you do something bad to somebody and then say “I’m sorry I made a mistake” you are saying “I made a mistake”. If you are feeling shame you are essentially saying “I’m sorry – I am a mistake”. Brown says that shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders. More importantly, guilt is inversely correlated with those things. 

Brown refers to a quote from Theodore Roosevelt that is often referred to as the “man in the arena” quote. I’ve included the full quote here because it is very important:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood, who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; because there is not effort without error and shortcomings; but who does actually strive to do the deed; who knows the great enthusiasm, the great devotion, who spends himself in a worthy cause, who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement and who at the worst, if he fails, at least he fails while daring greatly. So that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

This may seem very obvious to some of you but for many others this is a critical concept that you need to grasp. There is a big difference between players and spectators. There’s also a big difference between players and people that are on the periphery of the players (like advisors, commentators, reporters, etc.). We should all be players in at least one arena. We all have different strengths and weaknesses and therefore we can all be players in the arena where our natural talent is a perfect match with our passion. After identifying the game that fits this criteria we need to find the courage to become a player in that game and not just a spectator or advisor, commentator all reporter.  

Brown says that we it is likely that we all feel shame the same way. We think that people that do not feel shame are people that lack the capacity for empathy. She says that for women shame is to “do it all, do it perfectly and never let them see you sweat”. Shame for women is an unattainable expectation of who and what we are supposed to be and it’s a straitjacket. For men shame is always showing emotional control. Brown says that it is always the player in the arena that may succeed or may fail but, either way, is doing it with dignity. She says that it is tempting to sit back and say “I will step into the arena when I’m bulletproof perfect”. However, even if you did become bulletproof then step into the arena she says, that’s not what we want to see. We want to be there with you and across from you when you dare greatly.

If you want to live an MPI life it may mean that you want to “go big” or, at the very least, do something that involves stepping out of your comfort zone. At some point in time you will feel vulnerable and you will need courage.

The reason the words courage and vulnerability have been combined is because it’s impossible to have one without the other. Vulnerability is not weakness – it’s courage. It’s the decision to have the courage to expose yourself to uncertainty and be ready for the challenge of dealing with the result. 

When a football player (in rugby, American football, Australian football) is in a situation where they are waiting to catch a ball while knowing that one or more other players are running right at them and knowing that they will definitely collide with them, this player is showing enormous courage because he is making himself vulnerable to significant physical injury. The courage to be vulnerable and risk so much is the specific act that earns this player the most respect from the other players and the fans. Although some fans and commentators will talk about the big hit that was made by the other player t we all know that crashing into somebody that is totally defenseless requires absolutely zero courage while, on the other hand, waiting for the ball in a defenseless position knowing that you’re going to get hit requires enormous courage. 

When Rosa Parks refused to get off the bus she made a decision in that instant to make herself incredibly vulnerable. The man that stood in front of the Chinese tanks on the day after the Tiananmen Square massacre decided to make himself so vulnerable that he was prepared to die for what he believed in. Do you doubt his commitment in any way? Are you this committed to your goal? 

Take the opportunity, for a moment, to put yourself in the shoes of the man standing in front of those tanks and consider what he is fighting for and what it means to him. Put yourself in the shoes of Rosa Parks in that moment on the bus and consider what was going through her mind. Think about how meaningful the goal is to them in their minds. Think about how good it must feel to know that you are putting 100% of your existence into a goal that means that much to you and has consequences for the lives of millions of other people. These are average people that had the courage to do extraordinary things.

Next article in this series: “The Growth Mindset”

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