The Call to Courage — Surprising Takeaways from a Conversation with Brené Brown
Brené Brown is a research professor at The University of Houston studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy.
Her Netflix special, the Call to Courage, is now streaming in 190 countries and 29 languages. You should watch it.
It’s a 1-hour-and-16-minute wellness session that helps you come to terms with who you are, how you show up, how to forgive yourself and your partner, and so much more.
I watched it once you guys, just once, and got this much out of it the first time. I had to pause 21 times to quote it, to stare at the wall or my husband while digesting, to study it, and at one point, to cry.
Brown uses a lot of swimming references which makes sense because she’s a swimmer, but it’s also appropriate because her words and delivery take your breath away. There were a couple of times that I felt like I was drowning. It was so intense, and I identified so closely with what she was saying, that I held my breath and momentarily lost myself, until I had to come up for air.
By the way, Brown doesn’t know this was a conversation. Her words are in quotes. Also, it’s not Game of Thrones. That’s the other show everyone is talking about.
On playing big…
“For me, the fear of shame, the fear of criticism, was so great in my life, up until that point, just paralyzing, that I engineered smallness in my life.”
“I did not take chances. I did not put myself out there. I mean I just didn’t.”
“It wasn’t worth it to me to step into my power and play big because I didn’t know if I could literally physically stand the criticism.”
Let’s dive right in, shall we? (Also a swimming reference). You know that to live a big life you must risk being seen, but it’s not that easy when you’re female, is it? Because we are already being seen, sometimes discussed, ogled, or worse, and the last thing we want to do is be more visible.
I don’t know about you, but I have felt this dichotomy my entire life, wanting to be seen for my intelligence, abilities, talent, and heart, and trying to be invisible because my boobs weren’t big enough, my waist not small enough, my smile too big, my energy too sensual. I wanted to be smaller for my safety, for my privacy, so I could decide who to let in. But it’s a man’s world, isn’t it? So the risk isn’t just about claiming our power and having the courage to fail publicly, it’s opening ourselves up to all the ways society diminishes, judges, marginalizes, threatens, and hurts us.
They go hand in hand, being seen and being touched. Not always, but sometimes. So it’s not always chickening out, sometimes it’s self-preservation. The consequences are the same though — missing out on owning our power and playing big. Ouch.
On her God moment…
Brown tells the story of her TED Talk going viral, how exposed she felt, how her worst fears were essentially coming true, so many haters were piling on, then she discovered this quote and had her God moment.
On getting her/your/my/our asses kicked…
“I’m going to live in the arena. I’m going to be brave with my life. I’m going to show up. I’m going to take chances, and if you’re brave with your life, if you choose to live in the arena, you’re going to get your ass kicked. You’re going to fall, you’re going to fail, you’re going to know heartbreak. Today, I choose courage over comfort.”
“If you are not in the arena getting your ass kicked too, I am not interested in, or open to, your feedback about my work. You can’t take criticism and feedback from people who aren’t being brave with their lives. It will crush you.”
On revealing your imperfection and vulnerability…
“Ask for feedback from people who love you, not despite your imperfection and vulnerability, because of your imperfection and vulnerability.”
So many women don’t tell their husbands the truth. Their husbands don’t know them. They don’t know their thoughts on motherhood or marriage, their fears, ambitions, or desires; they certainly don’t know their imperfection or vulnerability.
I’m not in their marriages, and it’s not my place to say how to show up in your marriage, but I can tell, letting my guard down, showing up wholly, even with the worst, most awful, sad, angry, damaged, hopeless, awful, (did I say awful?) versions of myself time and time again has given me the chance to find out that my husband loves me even in those moments, because of my imperfection and vulnerability, not despite it. And that is a revelation.
I don’t understand it, even as I know I do it for him too, but I do celebrate it. To be loved like that is beyond empowering, it’s enlightening. It’s a gift that inspires us to play big.
On the value of vulnerability…
“You can’t have love, belonging, and joy without being seen, without vulnerability.”
We have been lucky. Cancer early in our marriage made all the difference. Our prognosis made for hard choices, followed by hard decisions. During it, we could embrace vulnerability or not survive it. And by it, I mean, cancer, our marriage, or both. We had to show up for each other when we were so far out of our depth it would have been comical had it not been so heartbreaking. It changed everything. I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, and yet, see my previous paragraph (To be loved like that…).
That kind of love is more real, more tangible, more gripping than anything I’ve known. It’s fierce really, our commitment to life, to each other. It’s almost like the emotions you feel toward a child; love and responsibility wrapped up in each other.
“Vulnerability is not about winning or losing. It’s having the courage to show up even when you can’t control the outcome.”
It’s that. Cancer taught us we have so little control, and in the absence of a guaranteed outcome, we focused on what we did have, precious time. Precious, unpromised, uncontrollable time. God I wish someone would have explained it like that from the get-go. This definition takes vulnerability from weakness, an emotion to overcome, to utility, a tool necessary for evolution, a rallying cry to be all in on life. I’m all in.
On practicing gratitude to lean into joy…
“In the midst of great things, we literally dress rehearse tragedy. Instead, use that sensation as a reminder to be grateful. Practicing gratitude lets us lean into joy.”
Brown offers the best example possible for parents. You know how you see your newborn or infant sleeping and are so overwhelmed by the depth of your feelings that you automatically check to see if they’re breathing? To confirm they are still alive? And then you feel fear in proportion to that love, you’re so scared that something awful will happen, that you’ll lose them? You can talk yourself down, but you have the lingering yuckies, a case of the heebie-jeebies every time you think about it?
Use gratitude to shift that energy, every time it comes up, as it inevitably will, as long as you are a parent. Gratitude works wonders.
On ordinary and extraordinary…
“When you are grateful for what you have, you can understand and appreciate the magnitude of what others don’t have…When we lose something, the simple ordinary moments are what we miss the most…Don’t be so busy chasing extraordinary that you miss ordinary…Taking a moment to commit to how we feel in ordinary moments can be very powerful.”
“Just choose joy, frivolous and fun, no ROI, no payoff, no upside, just ordinary joy.”
This quote is paraphrased because it punched me in the gut, and I couldn’t accurately type as I reeled. This was a drowning moment. Sometimes I can’t even take in how stunning and extraordinary my children are, because it doesn’t feel fair. I don’t feel worthy. Talk about engineering smallness. If I can’t honor the magnitude of what my children mean to me, of their magnificence, how will they feel about their life? How am I holding them back? How am I diminishing our relationship?
On remembering the value of play…
“Play = time spent without purpose.”
Moms get it done. They hold it down. They plan the future and take care of the present; they remember dates and document details. They give, nurture, and facilitate life. And some moms (me) are so busy doing all the work that they forget how to play. Dads are fun. Siblings are playmates. Neighbors wander over to play in the backyard. Me? I multitask by taking the kids to the park for a playdate, and walking the dog while we are there; dancing with the kids in the living room so they can expend energy before bed, and to get in the extra calorie burn; measuring ingredients to teach them math, and so I can prepare dinner and keep them occupied.
I so very rarely spend time without purpose, that I can’t remember the last time I spent time without purpose. I pride myself on my intentionality, but I think I’m missing out. I don’t play anymore. I laugh, I feel joy, I tease, I flirt, I compete, I am happy, but I don’t play. Nothing like admitting that right now. I’m on a roll though, right? Putting it all out there, sharing my thoughts.
On exposure and boundaries…
“Vulnerability isn’t measured by the amount of disclosure…Boundaries.”
Social media, take note. And yet, we still have to put ourselves out there, risk being seen, make a judgment call about the amount of disclosure, and right or wrong, take the consequences. Here’s why:
On privilege, perfectionism, and comfort…
“To not have the conversation because of discomfort is the definition of privilege…Your comfort is not at the center. That’s not how this works…The people who are being persecuted are not responsible for building the table where the conversation will take place.”
“When we build cultures where perfectionism is rewarded, difficult productive conversations are not possible…Bring your whole self and your whole heart to work.”
Holy shit. That’s what it’s about, isn’t it? Facing your fears, examining your ugly stuff, so you can do better, be better, show up better. But why? So you can lead a big life. Even if I’m not talented enough, smart enough, special enough, or deserving enough? Even if. Will it be worth it? Maybe. Maybe not.
“Vulnerability = uncertainty, risk, emotional exposure. There’s no courage without vulnerability.”
Uncertainty. Risk. Emotional exposure. There is no courage without vulnerability. Damn. Let’s all breathe that in. And exhale.
“We are in the middle of really important movements right now, movements I hope will change lives. These are movements that matter and have the potential to change things.”
That’s why I do it, talk and write about hard stuff, mothering stuff, parenting stuff, gender balance, women’s issues, family issues, to be a part of the solution. Just because I’m passionate doesn’t mean I want to go public, but courage is calling.
“Winning is not always coming in first.”
Sometimes winning is telling your story. It’s writing, and then pushing the publish button.
On telling your story…
“Slowly stack vulnerability and trust, layers of vulnerability and trust. Your story is a privilege to hear. Share it with those who’ve earned it.”
Have you earned it? Have I earned the privilege of hearing yours?
On accountability and regret…
“It is so much easier to cause pain than feel pain. Stop working your shit out on other people. Don’t offload your hard stuff on other people.”
“Here’s the thing. I’m not gonna bullshit you. Vulnerability is hard, and it’s scary, and it feels dangerous, but it’s not as hard, scary, or dangerous as getting to the end of our lives and having to ask ourselves what if I would have shown up, what if I would have said I love you?”
I must go for it. I’m being called to more, to play big, to risk being seen.
“Show up, be seen, answer the call to courage, cause you’re worth it. You’re worth it.”
I’m worth it.
You are too.