Brene Brown and Oprah Winfrey
Photo: Joe Pugliese
A professor of social work, Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW, studied vulnerability for more than a decade—which led to a witty, soul-baring TED Talk (viewed by more than eight million people) and a best-selling book. Now this brainy, sassy Texan talks to Oprah about shame, courage, faith, her unlikely Internet stardom, and why daring to "show up and be seen" is the key to everything we want in life.
When I first meet Brené Brown at Harpo Studios, where she's come to tape an episode of "Super Soul Sunday," I feel as if I'm reuniting with a long-lost friend. I'm tempted to say, "Girl, what took you so long?" Brené is a research professor at the University of Houston who spends her days poring over data. But when you read her books, it's obvious she's interested in helping people live their best lives.

Since Brené can back up everything she says with research, I believe her when she writes that vulnerability—which she defines as being brave enough to "show up and let ourselves be seen"—is the catalyst for human connection. In 2010 Brené allowed herself to be vulnerable when she gave a talk at TEDx in Houston, an offshoot of the famous TED conference (it stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design). In the talk, she revealed that the more she studied vulnerability, the more she realized she wasn't practicing it. In other words, as an academic ruled by certainty, she just wasn't living and loving with her full heart. This disconnect led to what she now calls a spiritual awakening. In addition to her popular talk (which went viral, becoming one of the most-watched ever), she's written a best-seller, Daring Greatly, about her journey, and how we can all make our lives more meaningful through vulnerability.

Reading the book, I kept thinking, "This is everything I know to be true." In person, Brené and I turn out to be just as in sync, discussing everything from gratitude and worthiness to Spanx rolls and Southern-isms (when a Texan and a Mississippian get together, the "y'alls" and "fixin' to's" really fly). Brené is so hilarious and real that after our aha-a-minute conversation, I know this for sure: I hope to see a lot more of her—both in person and in these pages—in the future.

Next: Read Oprah's full interview with Brené Brown
Oprah: I can't tell you how long people have been saying to me, "You should interview Dr. Brené Brown." I was like, "Who is Dr. Brené Brown?" Then I saw you on the Internet, then somebody gave me your books—that's the way the universe works with me. Finally I said, "Okay, I hear you." And now you're here!

Brené: I'm here!

Oprah: And it feels like we're kindred spirits. I'm so excited about Daring Greatly. It came out of your TED Talk, right?

Brené: Yes, and a dozen years of vulnerability research. The title itself refers to a very personal moment in my life.

Oprah: And it's a Theodore Roosevelt quote.

Brené: Yes. What happened is that I had done the talk, and all of a sudden I was everywhere. I was on; I was doing an NPR interview. And my therapist told me, "Don't read the comments on the Internet." My husband told me, "Don't read the comments." But I read the comments.

Oprah: Oh, no. I've read comments before. It can be devastating.

Brené: People were saying things like "Less research, more Botox" and "Maybe you'll be 'worthy' in 20 pounds." And they all were anonymous, which is such—well, crapola! I'm not going to cuss, but it's chicken. So one day I sent my husband, Steve, to work, I sent my kids to school, and I sat on the couch in my pajamas and watched ten hours of Downton Abbey. I ate some peanut butter. I was like, This is not worth it, man. I'm not doing this anymore. I didn't want to go back to my world, where all that hurt was. So instead I started googling to find out what was happening in the United States during the Downton Abbey period. That's when I found the Theodore Roosevelt quote. He said, "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] if he fails, at least fails while Daring Greatly." In that moment, my life changed. You know when you hear something and you're just ready?

Oprah: Yes.

Brené: Three things happened. First, I thought, "This is who I want to be. I want to be courageous."

Oprah: You want to be the man in the arena.

Brené: Yes. And I also realized, "Oh my gosh—this describes everything I've ever learned about vulnerability." It's not about winning or losing. It's about showing up and being seen. And the third thing, which was really helpful, is that from that second forward I made a commitment that if you are not in the arena getting your butt kicked on occasion, I'm not interested in your feedback. Period.

Oprah: Whoa.

Brené: Anonymous comments? You're not in the arena, man. If you can't say it to me in person in front of my kids, don't say it. And if you can say it to me in person, duck.

Oprah: Duck! I love that. So after your TED Talk, a friend joked that you were the "worst vulnerability role model ever." Can you explain why?

Brené: Well, when I got home that day, I had the worst vulnerability hangover. I was like, "I just admitted to being crazy in front of 500 people"—I didn't even know they were videotaping it—"and to having a therapist!" That's dangerous territory for an academic. We're not supposed to break down.

Oprah: Because it's all about the research and the numbers.

Brené: Right.

Next: The power of vulnerability
Oprah: But in the book you said—and I love this—that "vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center, of meaningful human experiences." Let's talk about that.

Brené: Vulnerability is when my husband and I are on the verge of a fight and I say, "Let's stop, because I'm making up this story about what's happening right now, and it's that you don't think I look cute or you're disappointed in me," and he's like, "What are you talking about?" And I say, "I love you, and I'm in fear right now."

Oprah: Whoa.

Brené: As opposed to what I would normally do, which—well, anger and blame are my go-to places.

Oprah: So vulnerability opens the door to greater intimacy?

Brené: I think it's the only door.

Oprah: You also write that "if we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path." Can you explain?

Brené: People always say to me, "I want to go into the arena, but I'm scared. Can I take a little armor with me?" But one thing I have found in my life is that the only thing you need when you go in is clarity of values and faith. As in, "This is the article I wrote. And if you think I need to lose weight or that I suck, that's okay. I'm standing on my faith and my values. You cannot knock me over."

Oprah: You've talked about the original meaning of courage. Can you share that?

Brené: Yes, it's from the Latin word cor, meaning "heart," and so the original definition was to share all of yourself, share your whole story, with your whole heart. An act of courage was an act of storytelling, which I think is true. You know, I watch Super Soul Sunday, and I love when you talk about the ego. I call my ego my hustler.

Oprah: That's a good term for it.

Brené: My ego says to me, "You have no inherent worth. You've got to hustle for it, baby. How fast you gonna run? How high you gonna jump? How many likes do you have on Facebook?"

Oprah: We live in a culture that measures us by how many likes we have on Facebook.

Brené: It's a scarcity culture. We're never thin enough, rich enough, safe enough. And you know—and I want to get your thoughts on this, because you've looked in people's faces for so many years—I started my research six months before 9/11. And I would say that the past 12 years have been marked by a deep fear in our culture. It's like a collective post-traumatic response.

Oprah: Oh my God, I just had a big aha moment.

Brené: Tell me.

Oprah: We've shifted away from being on high alert all the time—always afraid of whether it's the orange or the yellow threat level—to internalizing that fear. And it shows up in the bickering, the snarkiness. That's what I heard you saying.

Brené: That's it. [Oprah high-fives Brené.] I got the high five! [Laughs.] I do think there's a thin film of terror wrapped around us. And if it's not I'm not safe enough, I'm not secure enough, it's I'm not liked enough.

Oprah: I don't have enough. I am not enough.

Brené: Right. At bottom, I am not enough.

Oprah: Whoa, that's big. Somebody ring some bells!

Next: Why we need to be open to failure
Brene Brown
Photo: Joe Pugliese
Brené: So what's the number one casualty of a scarcity culture? Vulnerability. We shut down because we're scared. And the thing is, vulnerability is not about fear or grief or disappointment. It's the birthplace of everything we're hungry for—joy, faith, love, spirituality....

Oprah: Creativity.

Brené: Yes. There is no innovation and creativity without failure. Period.

Oprah: You've got to be open enough to risk failure.

Brené: The only people who innovate are the people standing in the arena getting their butts kicked on occasion.

Oprah: You write about how the scarcity culture has also affected religion. How it's gone from something we use to empower ourselves to "You're wrong and I'm right."

Brené: Yes, it's one of the big shields we use—it's armor. My way's gotta be the right way, because I'm banking on it being right because I'm scared to death. But faith minus vulnerability and mystery is extremism.

Oprah: Oh my gosh. Please say that again.

Brené: Faith minus vulnerability and mystery equals extremism. If you've got all the answers, then don't call what you do faith.

Oprah: That is so good. But let's talk for a moment about how fear is expressed, because I don't think everyone understands that anxiety is fear, jealousy is fear, greed is fear—they're all elements of a fear-based culture.

Brené: Yeah. Addiction is fear. Eating, drinking, drugs.

Oprah: Right. They're ways we numb ourselves, because we feel powerless. That's what food is for me.

Brené: Me, too. Food is my numb-er. And for those of us who do it chronically and compulsively, it's an addiction.

Oprah: You write that wholehearted people "cultivate a resilient spirit" by letting go of numbing and powerlessness. This is one of your ten guideposts for wholehearted living. I love this list.

Brené: You know, these ten guideposts that emerged from my research are what led to my breakdown.

Oprah: Because you yourself followed, what, two out of the ten?

Brené: Yes. And even at two, I was probably cheating. So I had to put my data away. I couldn't write the book until I'd been in therapy for a year and a half. I went to my therapist with an Excel spreadsheet and said, "Here are things I need more of. Go."

Oprah: You told her that you didn't want to talk about all that mother stuff, or your childhood....

Brené: No. I wanted strategies, bullet points. I wanted her to fix me fast. You know, one of the things that had come out of the data was that perfectionism, which I struggle with, is not about striving for excellence. It's a way of thinking and feeling that says, "If I look perfect, do it perfect, I can avoid or minimize shame and judgment."

Oprah: Perfectionists are ultimately afraid that the world is gonna see them for who they really are and they won't measure up.

Brené: There's no question. God, it's so slippery. I'm like a recovering perfectionist. For me it's one day at a time.

Oprah: How does it show up in your life?

Brené: In my work. Or if we've missed church for a couple of Sundays, you'd better believe my kids are going in starched outfits that next Sunday.

Next: Why Oprah believes she and Brené are "soul mates"
Oprah: Yep. So back to your guideposts for living a wholehearted life. "Cultivating gratitude and joy" is my favorite. This is why you and I are soul mates. Because you understand that gratitude and joy are the way home.

Brené: You know, I made a commitment to never talk about joy for the rest of my career without talking about gratitude. Because in 12 years of research, I have never interviewed a single person with the capacity to really experience joy who does not also actively practice gratitude.

Oprah: I know that is true. I've done no research, except with my audience for 25 years....

Brené: Oh, except for that! But do you know what's tricky? As someone who studies shame and scarcity and fear, if you ask me what's the most terrifying emotion we feel as humans, I would say joy.

Oprah: Why?

Brené: When I'm giving a talk, I often say, "Raise your hand if you've ever stood over your child while he or she is sleeping and thought, 'I love you like I didn't know was possible', and in that split second, you pictured something horrific happening." How many of us have thought, "Work's going well. Good relationship with my partner. Holy crap, something bad's going to happen."

Oprah: Right.

Brené: So what is that? It's when we lose our tolerance for vulnerability. It's when joy becomes foreboding. We think, "I'm not gonna soften into this moment because I'm scared it's going to be taken away." Yesterday I was on the plane getting ready to come here, and we got halfway down the runway and had to turn back. I called Steve and said, "Let me tell you something. I know, because I'm fixin' to meet Oprah, that I'm gonna die."

Oprah: [Laughs.]

Brené: And Steve's like, "Foreboding joy!"

Oprah: Foreboding joy.

Brené: A man once told me, "My whole life, I never got too excited about anything. That way if things didn't work out, I wasn't devastated, and if they did, it was a pleasant surprise." And when this man was in his 60s, his wife of 40 years was killed in a car accident. He told me, "The second I realized she was gone, I knew I should have leaned harder into those moments of joy. Because not doing so did not protect me from what I feel now." It's like we're trying to dress-rehearse tragedy so we can beat vulnerability to the punch.

Oprah: Yes. Yes.

Brené: Here's what I've learned from the joyful people I've interviewed. They have those moments, too—when they look at their children and shudder. But instead of dress-rehearsing tragedy, they practice gratitude. So yesterday I sat on that plane for 20 minutes and thought, I'm grateful. I think I was BS-ing a little. But gratitude is a practice.

Oprah: Absolutely.

Brené: One of the things that happens in a scarcity culture is that we're all so busy chasing the extraordinary that we forget to stop and be grateful for the ordinary.

Next: How shame damages your life
Oprah: In Daring Greatly, you write about another component of our scarcity culture: shame. You've studied it a lot.

Brené: Yes. We all have it. It's our most human, primitive emotion.

Oprah: How do you define it?

Brené: The intensely painful feeling that we are unworthy of love and belonging.

Oprah: And does it occur after a particular incident? Or over many life experiences?

Brené: Both. Sometimes specific memories bring up shame. But there are also very insidious, quiet messages that we just marinate in over a lifetime.

Oprah: But the thing about painful memories—take abuse, for example—is that they're not about the acts themselves. It's keeping them secret that damages your life.

Brené: That's so true. There are researchers who have studied traumatic events such as sexual abuse and found the shame that follows them to be more detrimental to physical health and emotional well-being. Shame is lethal. And we are swimming in it.

Oprah: Do most of us even recognize it, though?

Brené: When I say I study shame, people say either "I don't know what you're talking about" or "I know exactly what you're talking about, and I'm not talking about that." But the less you talk about it, the more you've got it. Shame needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. So if something shaming happens to me and I call you and say, "Oh, Oprah, you're not gonna believe what happened," and you express empathy—shame can't survive that. It depends on my belief that I'm alone.

Oprah: But in your previous book, The Gifts of Imperfection, you wrote, "If we share our shame story with the wrong person, they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm."

Brené: Oh, yeah.

Oprah: You say that we need friends who will respond with empathy, not sympathy. "If you want to see a shame cyclone turn deadly, throw one of these at it: 'Oh, you poor thing.' Or the incredibly passive-aggressive, Southern version of sympathy: 'Bless your heart.'"

Brené: That just gives me the shivers!

Oprah: So what are we looking for when we open ourselves up?

Brené: Well, I'm looking for the person who loves me not despite my vulnerability and imperfections but because of them. I'm looking for the folks who are going to wade through the deep with me. You need only one person in your life who, when you call and say, "I just told a bald-faced lie and I'm in a shame-storm of epic proportions," will say, "All right, let's do this thing. I'm with you. I've been there, too. Let's talk it through."

Oprah: And if you have two or three—

Brené: You've won the lottery. But you know what we do, myself included? We steamroll over those people to get the attention of people who will never show up for us like that.

Oprah: Wow. So here's a question: If you don't even know you're carrying shame, how do you unpack it?

Brené: Well, I think one of the biggest things is to get clear on the difference between shame and guilt. It's the difference between "I am bad" and "I did something bad." Let me give you an example. I drink too much on a Thursday night and I'm so hungover on Friday that I miss a meeting. With shame, my self-talk is "God, I'm an idiot. I'm such a loser." With guilt, it's "That was a really stupid thing to do. I wasn't thinking." We measure shame and guilt based on how people talk to themselves. So, this is gonna freak you out—

Oprah: Okay.

Brené: —but shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, eating disorders, bullying...whereas guilt is inversely correlated with those things. People who are able to change the self-talk have better outcomes.

Oprah: So how do we do that? How do we change the self-talk?

Brené: The first thing I try to do, which is so hard, is to talk to myself like I would talk to Ellen or Charlie, my kids.

Oprah: Mmm-hmm.

Brené: I say, "You've made a mistake. You're human. We're gonna get through this." And then—and this is the harder thing—you've got to reach out and tell the story. You've got to speak your shame.

Oprah: Yes.

Next: What it means to dare greatly
Brené: So to get back to the notion of Daring Greatly—you've got your hand on the door and you're gonna go into the arena. You're going to ask for a raise. It's the gremlins of shame that play in your head and say, "You can't go in there. You're not smart enough. You're the only one without an MBA."

Oprah: Which ultimately goes back to a sense of unworthiness.

Brené: That's it. And let me tell you one thing I learned in my research that I am just so clear on—that I believe in my bones: Love and belonging are the irreducible needs of men, women, and children. In the absence of these, there will always be suffering.

Oprah: And that is why we suffer. When people say, "Why does God allow bad things to happen?" I always say, "You know, God is available to us. He's here all the time, waiting on you." People don't suffer because of God. People suffer because of people. Because we don't allow the spirit to flow through us.

Brené: Preach!

Oprah: Is that not—hello—is that not the truth?

Brené: That is true.

Oprah: You have such a beautiful definition of connection. I actually put it on my iPad, in the place where I keep quotes. "Connection is the energy that is created between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment." That made me weep.

Brené: And I think shame unravels connection.

Oprah: Yes. Of course it does. Because it makes us think we're the only one who has ever felt this.

Brené: People say to me, "Why do you think so many people have watched your TED Talk?" I think it's because I give them language to describe experiences we've all had.

Oprah: Yes. You give us language to understand more deeply what we already knew.

Brené: That's my goal now. To give you language and let you know you're not alone.

Oprah: You are an aha-verifier! [Laughs.] You affirm things and I go, Oh, yeah. Because I could have written this book, but I didn't have the words for it.

Brené: I'm gonna get a sweatshirt: "Aha-Verifier."

Oprah: You know, one of the things I found most moving in Daring Greatly was your "Wholehearted Parenting Manifesto." It's so great to be able to use all this information for yourself, but how wonderful it is to also be able to raise your kids this way. Can you read part of it for us?

Brené: I don't know if I can do it without crying, because I'm away from my kids. [Takes a deep breath.] "Above all else, I want you to know that you are loved and lovable. You will learn this from my words and actions.... You will learn that you are worthy of love, belonging, and joy every time you see me practice self-compassion and embrace my own imperfections."

Oprah: Yes. Yes.

Brené: "...We will laugh and sing and dance and create. We will always have permission to be ourselves with each other. No matter what, you will always belong here. As you begin your Wholehearted journey, the greatest gift that I can give to you is to live and love with my whole heart and to dare greatly."

Oprah: I wish for every parent in the world to put that on their fridge. I just wish everybody could live by those words.

Brené: Me, too.

Oprah: That's how you change the world. It's been an honor to share this space with you, Dr. Brené Brown.

Next: Read an excerpt from Daring Greatly

An Open Book

In Daring Greatly, Brown explains the difference between vulnerability and oversharing.

Vulnerability is based on mutuality and requires boundaries and trust. It's not oversharing, it's not purging, it's not indiscriminate disclosure, and it's not celebrity-style social media information dumps. Vulnerability is about sharing our feelings and our experiences with people who have earned the right to hear them. Being vulnerable and open is mutual and an integral part of the trust-building process.

We can't always have guarantees in place before we risk sharing; however, we don't bare our souls the first time we meet someone. We don't lead with "Hi, my name is Brené, and here's my darkest struggle." That's not vulnerability. That may be desperation or woundedness or even attention-seeking, but it's not vulnerability. Why? Because sharing appropriately, with boundaries, means sharing with people with whom we've developed relationships that can bear the weight of our story. The result of this mutually respectful vulnerability is increased connection, trust, and engagement.

Vulnerability without boundaries leads to disconnection, distrust, and disengagement. In fact...boundaryless disclosure is one way we protect ourselves from real vulnerability.

From Daring Greatly by Brené Brown (Gotham, September 2012).

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