The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown Summary


The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown

My Thoughts

This book was recommended by a good friend and it’s my first time reading a book by Brené Brown. The book is a recording of a series of live sessions by the author.

The main purpose is showing how we can fully live our lives and be wholehearted in everything we do. The sessions are fantastic and this is one of the best books I’ve read this year. I encourage you to read it for yourself and strive to live wholehearted every day.

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My Favorite Quotes

  • Nobody reaches out to you for compassion and empathy so that you can teach them how to behave better.
  • Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage.
  • To be the parents, partners, people, and professionals we want to be, we have to open up all those places we’ve shut down.
  • What is more dangerous than staying on the outside of our lives, looking in, and wondering what it would be like if we showed up?
  • The one difference that joyful people have is that they actively practice gratitude.
  • Wholeheartedness is hard, but not fully living our lives is much harder and much more dangerous.

Table of Contents

Session 1: Why We Struggle

Culture and Scarcity

  • What is the culture that defines our experience today?
  • We live in a culture of deep scarcity.
  • Defined as: never enough.
  • Never good enough, rich enough, powerful enough, safe enough, relevant enough, etc.

The Question of Whole-Heartedness

  • Love and belonging are irreducible needs of men, women, and children.
  • In the absence of love and belonging there is always suffering.
  • We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.
  • There are no examples of love that do not include trust, respect, kindness, and affection.
  • Love is a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them.
  • We can only love others as much as we love ourselves.
  • Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these inquiries if they are acknowledged, healed, and rare.


  • Belonging is the innate human desire to be apart of something larger than us. Because this yearning is so primal we often try to acquire it by fitting in and seeking approval.
  • Approval is a hollow substitute for belonging, and often a barrier to it.
  • True belonging only happens when we present our authentic imperfect selves to the world.
  • Our sense of belonging can never be greater than our level of self-acceptance.
  • Authenticity mantra: don’t shrink, don’t puff up, just stand your sacred ground.
  • Vulnerability mantra: show up and let yourself be seen.
  • Having a deep sense of being lovable is the one variable that separates people who have a sense of belonging and people who struggle for it.
  • Men and women who have a deep sense of love and belonging believe they are worthy of love and belonging.
  • Wholehearted people embrace vulnerability.
  • Vulnerability is the center of difficult emotions, but it is also the birthplace of every positive emotion that we need in our lives.
  • Accountability is three things: authenticity, actions, and amends.

Session 2: Shame Triggers

Shame Gremlins and the Hustle for Worthiness

  • The only people who don’t experience shame are psychopaths.
  • Nobody wants to talk about shame, but the less you talk about it the more you have it.
  • To really understand shame, we have to understand the difference between shame, guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment.
  • Shame = I am bad. Guilt = I did something bad.
  • Shame is a focus on self; guilt is a focus on behavior.
  • Shame and guilt are hugely different.
  • Shame does not move behavior forward, it is not a catalyst for meaningful, lasting change. Guilt is.
  • Humiliation is separated from shame by the variable of “deserving” it.
  • Humiliation is what you feel when you don’t believe you deserve the treatment, shame is because you believe you deserve it.
  • Embarrassment is the least harmful of the four self-conscious affects.
  • Embarrassment is fleeting, often funny, and you’re usually sure you’re not the only one that has done something similar.

Options for Dealing with Shame

  • Walk into the stories of your life and own them.
    (This is the correct response)
  • Stand outside of your stories and hustle for your worthiness.
  • Our worthiness lives inside our story. We try to orphan our stories that don’t fit, but that gives shame an extraordinary power.
  • Worthiness has no prerequisites.
  • Being “lazy” is a huge shame trigger for a lot of people.

Shame Resilience and Empathy

  • Empathy is the antidote to shame.
  • Men and women with high levels of shame resilience share these four traits.
  • One: they know what shame is and they know what triggered it. They know when they are in it, and why they are in it.
  • Two: they reality check and practice self-awareness around the expectations and messages that send shame.
  • Three: reaching out and telling their story.
  • Four: they speak shame. They use the word shame.
  • Shame is the threat of feeling unlovable.

Three Responses to Shame

  • Move away: we silence ourselves and keep secrets.
  • Move towards: we people-please.
  • Move against: we use shame to fight shame.
  • Shame resilience is about moving through shame with authenticity and coming out the other end.

Session 3: Empathy and Vulnerability

Shame only needs three things to grow exponentially.

  1. Secrecy
  2. Silence
  3. Judgment
  • Empathy creates a hostile environment for shame.
  • Shame cannot grow and thrive in an environment of empathy.
  • The expectations and messages that fuel shame are organized by gender. 
  • The primary drivers of shame for women are: appearance and body image
  • Drivers of shame for men: do not be perceived as weak.
  • When we share our story, we need to choose people who have earned the right to hear our story.

Four Qualities of Empathy (as studied by Theresa Wiseman)

  1. See the world as other people see it. Perspective taking.
  2. Be non-judgmental. Empathy only happens if we stay out of judgment.
  3. Recognizing someone else’s emotions and understanding their feelings.
  4. Communicate your understanding of the person’s feelings.

How and why we judge.

  • We always judge in areas where we are vulnerable to shame.
  • We always pick people who are doing worse than we are doing.
  • The areas where you are the most judgmental are where you are the most vulnerable to shame.
  • The two most important words we can hear when we are struggling are “Me too!”
  • Compassion is knowing our darkness well enough that we can sit in the dark with others. It is never a relationship between the wounded and the healed, it is a relationship between equals.
  • Nobody reaches out to you for compassion and empathy so that you can teach them how to behave better. They reach out to us because they believe in our capacity to know our darkness well enough to sit in the darkness with them.

Empathy vs Sympathy

  • Empathy is the antidote to shame.
  • Sympathy is the shame multiplier.
  • Empathy says “Me too.”
  • Sympathy says “You poor thing, I feel sorry for you!”
  • Empathy is feeling with, and sympathy is feeling for.

Myths About Vulnerability

  • Myth One: Vulnerability is weakness. 
  • Myth Two: I don’t do vulnerability.
  • The biggest myth is that vulnerability is weakness.
  • Vulnerability is not a character defect.
  • Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage.
  • To be vulnerable and let ourselves be seen is incredibly difficult.
  • If vulnerability is defined as uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. That means you do vulnerability every day.
  • If you love someone, you have no control over whether that person loves you back or is safe. Loving someone is a huge act of vulnerability.
  • During middle school, most of us shut off parts of ourselves that make us vulnerable because it hurts too much.
  • Around middle age, we realize that to be the parents, partners, people, and professionals we want to be, we have to open up all those places we’ve shut down. Otherwise, we will never have access to all the things we want and deserve.
  • Myth Three: We can go it alone.
  • An adult can love another adult, not despite their vulnerabilities, but because of them.
  • Myth Four: we can cultivate trust before we try to be vulnerable.


  • Two forms of betrayal that are devastating to us:
  • One: when we are vulnerable with someone and they use that vulnerability against us. For example, if we love someone wholeheartedly and they betray us.
  • Two: disengagement. This is harder to pin down and recognize. It is when people stop being vulnerable and fully engaged with each other. Opens the door for gaslighting. Disengagement is a way we protect ourselves from vulnerability.
  • Risk and exposure feel dangerous.
  • What is more dangerous than staying on the outside of our lives, looking in, and wondering what it would be like if we showed up? If we really risked and did some of the things we wanted to do.

Session 4: The Vulnerability Armory

The big three pieces of vulnerability armor that we all wear.

  1. Foreboding Joy
  2. Perfectionism
  3. Numbing

The Armor of Foreboding Joy

  • “Foreboding” is a strong feeling or notion that something unpleasant or dangerous is going to happen.
  • When we lose our tolerance for vulnerability, joy becomes foreboding.
  • Joy is probably the most vulnerable feeling or emotion that we experience.
  • We are afraid to lean fully into joy because we are waiting for the other shoe to drop. Meaning we are expecting something bad to happen when we have joy.
  • The author has never, in 12 years, interviewed a single person who describes themselves as joyful that did not actively practice gratitude.
  • The one difference that joyful people have is that they actively practice gratitude.
  • You must practice gratitude, it must be something tangible that you see and do. It could be a gratitude journal or a practice of saying something you are thankful for before dinner every night.
  • Three things the author learned from people that have survived significant trauma (lost children, major disaster, etc).
  • One: missing ordinary moments such as hearing kids fighting in the backyard.
  • Two: they love seeing others be grateful for what they have. It helps them.
  • Three: don’t squander joy.
  • A lot of people don’t get excited about anything. They live their lives thinking “It’s easier to live disappointed than to feel disappointed.” So they are never really quite “all-in.”
  • People hold back and try not to get too excited about anything.
  • The mentality becomes “It is easier to be perpetually disappointed than to risk excitement and feel disappointment.

The Armor of Perfectionism

  • Where there is perfectionism there is always shame.
  • Perfectionism is not healthy striving.
  • Perfectionism is not “let me be my best self, let me strive to be my best.”
  • Perfectionism is a thought process that says “If I look perfect,  live perfect, work perfect, and do it all perfectly, I can avoid or minimize shame, blame, judgment, and criticism.”
  • We think perfectionism is a 20-ton shield. We carry it around hoping it will protect us, but all it does is stop us from being seen.
  • Perfectionism is a process addiction.
  • When we eventually feel shame, blame, judgment, and criticism. Instead of rejecting perfectionism, our response is to try to be more perfect.
  • “I wasn’t perfect enough, so let me be more perfect next time.”
  • Perfectionism is dangerous because of the amount of time and energy we waste perfecting.
  • Across the board, all transformative leaders tell the author “Perfectionism is my greatest enemy.”
  • Being perfect gets in the way of being a transformative leader.
  • Transformative leaders don’t sit on emails for 3 hours until they are perfect.
  • Perfectionism is all about external validation.
  • Healthy striving is about the internal drive.
  • To give up who we really are, in an effort to be perfect so we are never judged, is a terrible waste of time and energy.
  • Perfectionism gets in the way of our gifts.

The Armor of Numbing

  • Numbing as a shield.
  • If you are not fully engaged in your life because you are on Facebook for 6 hours a day, that is problematic.
  • There is a line between numbing and comfort.
  • When we are numbing we are not fully present.

Smaller Pieces of Vulnerability Armor that We Wear

  • Victim or Viking: Viewing the world through the lens of “Victim or Viking.”
  • Serpentine: using tons of energy and time to get around the important things we need to do instead of running right into them.
  • Floodlighting: oversharing or being too vulnerable.
  • Smash and Grab: smash you with hard information and grab any attention I can from you.
  • Sympathy Seeking
  • Cruelty Cynicism Criticism and Cool: being mean-spirited. You are either making the world a better place or a worse place. When you see a mom with her kid screaming in the store, are you judging them or empathizing with them?

Victim or Viking Mentality

  • Believing there are only two roles, you are either a victim or a Viking. Life is kill or be killed.
  • It is one of the most dangerous ways to live.
  • This can be healthy for soldiers because the goal is survival and they truly live in situations of victim or viking.
  • Most of us what something beyond survival.
  • Love, joy, belonging, and the things that give purpose to our lives cannot happen when the world is seen through this lens.

Session 5: Ten Guideposts for Wholehearted Living: Guideposts 1-6

Ten Guideposts for Wholehearted Living

  1. Cultivating Authenticity and Letting Go of What People Think
  2. Cultivating Self-Compassion and Letting Go of Perfectionism
  3. Cultivating Your Resilient Spirit, Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness
  4. Cultivating Gratitude and Joy, Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark
  5. Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith, Letting Go of the Need for Certainty
  6. Cultivating Creativity and Letting Go of Comparison
  7. Cultivating Play and Rest, Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-Worth
  8. Cultivating Calm and Stillness and Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle
  9. Cultivating Meaningful Work, Letting Go of Self-Doubt and Supposed-To
  10. Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance. And Letting Go of Cool and Always in Control

Guidepost 1: Cultivating Authenticity and Letting Go of What People Think

  • In order to cultivate authenticity, we have to let go of what people think.
  • Authenticity is a choice. People who want to be authentic practice authenticity every day.
  • Brené Brown’s definition of authenticity: “Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we are supposed to be, and embracing who we actually are. Choosing authenticity means cultivating the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries, and to allow ourselves to be vulnerable; expressing the compassion that comes from knowing that we are all made of strength and struggle; and nurturing the connection and sense of belonging that can only happen when we believe that we are enough. Authenticity demands Wholehearted living and loving—even when it’s hard, even when we’re wrestling with the shame and fear of not being good enough, and especially when the joy is so intense that we’re afraid to let ourselves feel it. Mindfully practicing authenticity during our most soul-searching struggles is how we invite grace, joy, and gratitude into our lives.”
  • The goal is authenticity, not fitting in.
  • When you practice authenticity, you will frustrate a lot of people. (by telling them no, setting boundaries, etc)
  • Mantra for setting boundaries: “Chose discomfort over resentment.”
  • Say this three times when someone asks for your help. Use this to help you say no.
  • Authenticity is about boundaries and saying no. Conversely, it is about saying yes when we really want to do something and the shame gremlin tells us we’re not good enough.
  • We chose the 90 seconds of comfort and say yes to something, then live in resentment for doing it. Instead, we should choose discomfort and say no.

Guidepost 2: Cultivating Self-Compassion and Letting Go of Perfectionism

  • The only way we can let go of our vulnerability shield is by practicing self-compassion.
  • Three components to self-compassion according to Kristin Neff.
    • One: self-kindness
    • Two: common humanity
    • Three: mindfulness
  • “Instead of mercilessly judging and criticizing yourself for various inadequacies or shortcomings, self-compassion means you are kind and understanding when confronted with personal failings – after all, who ever said you were supposed to be perfect?” Read more about self-compassion from Kristin Neff in this article.
  • If you have shame about something, it is probably universal. We think we are alone when we are very much not alone. This is part of understanding common humanity.
  • How can you enjoy the peach if you can’t enjoy a bite of the peach?
  • Mindfulness is allowing ourselves to deeply feel what we’re feeling but not to over-identify with it.

Guidepost 3: Cultivating Your Resilient Spirit, Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness

  • Parents (and adults) have a great opportunity to embrace and leverage our hard-wiring (our natural gifts, instincts, and talents).
  • Resilient people understand who they are and they don’t try to be other people. They don’t try to be another way.
  • Incongruent living is unsustainable.
  • A lot of the numbing we do is to replenish ourselves because we are not living congruently with who we are.
  • Brené Brown’s definition of spirituality: “Spirituality is a deeply held belief that we are inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than us, and that our connection to that power and to one another is grounded in love and compassion. Practicing spirituality brings a sense of perspective, meaning, and purpose to our lives.”
  • Spirituality gives us a sense of purpose and perspective.

Guidepost 4: Cultivating Gratitude and Joy, Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark

  • Gratitude is a daily practice, not “an attitude of gratitude.” For example, you can have an “attitude of Yoga” by wearing the clothes, owning the gear, etc. But if you don’t practice Yoga every day, it’s useless.
  • See the notes about the armor of Foreboding Joy from session 4 for more on this guidepost.

Guidepost 5: Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith, Letting Go of the Need for Certainty

  • Brené Brown’s definition of intuition: “Intuition is not a single way of knowing. It is our ability to hold space for uncertainty and our willingness to trust the many ways we’ve developed knowledge and insight. Including instinct, experience, faith, and reason.”
  • Intuition relies deeply on experience.
  • You may be in trouble when you start polling people about what you should do, instead of trusting your intuition. Yes, seek advice from wise counsel, but don’t overdo it with getting so much advice that it drowns out your intuition.
  • Two big red flags around dismissing intuition.
    • One: polling for advice
    • Two: bull in a china shop (“screw it, I’ll do it!”)
  • One way we get back to intuition and faith is by letting go of the need for certainty.
  • Certainty is not real. Our ability to sit and not know is a superpower.
  • When you are on the right path, the universe will conspire to help you. This is a quote from The Alchemist.
  • If you are willing to be uncertain and hold that space, good things will come of that.
  • Brené Brown’s definition of faith: “Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.”
  • Faith and reason are not natural opponents. Our need for certainty has pitted faith and reason against each other.
  • Most people would rather be miserable and certain than wholehearted and uncertain.
  • Wholehearted men and women have found a way to hold space for uncertainty.

Guidepost 6: Cultivating Creativity and Letting Go of Comparison

  • The vulnerability shield that keeps us from being creative is comparison.
  • Unused creativity is not benign, it turns into rage, grief, shame, and judgment.
  • Around 4-5th grade, we see a tremendous drop in creativity from children. This is because of comparison, shame, or a traumatic event.
  • To share your work with other people is incredibly vulnerable.
  • Creativity is a deeply important part of the human spirit.

Session 6: Ten Guideposts for Wholehearted Living: Guideposts 7-10

Guidepost 7: Cultivating Play and Rest, Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol, and Productivity as Self-Worth

  • The opposite of play is not work, the opposite of play is depression.
  • Properties of Play by Stuart Brown
  • Time spent without purpose.
  • Something that you don’t want to end.
  • We lose track of time during play.
  • You lose the sense of self-consciousness during play.
  • What do you love to do so much that you lose track of time when you’re doing it?
  • You can create family and marriage Venn diagrams for play and see what overlaps that everyone in your family considers play.
  • In the animal world, contest is always a part of play, but not competition.
  • The CDC defines sleep debt as more than two consecutive nights with less than 7 hours of sleep.
  • Many people have laziness as a major shame gremlin

Guidepost 8: Cultivating Calm and Stillness and Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle

  • Calm is a superpower.
  • Many wholehearted men and women recognize numbing as a problem. They fix the desire to numb by reducing anxiety which reduces the need to numb.
  • Anxiety is not a function of individuals, it is a function of groups.
  • Anxiety is the most contagious affect we experience.
  • Most people respond to anxiety in one of two ways.
  • One: overfunctioning.
  • Two: under-functioning.
  • Overfunctioners become controlling and micro-managers in anxious systems.
  • People that under-function become less competent in anxious systems. They hide and shrink back.
  • Be aware of how you handle stress and anxiety, either by over-functioning or under-functioning.
  • Our behaviors in anxiety are patterned ways of managing behavior that we learn growing up.
  • If you are a leader, you should know exactly how you function in anxiety.
  • When you’re in anxiety, you don’t see what you’re doing. You need a trusted person to tell you when you’re functioning with anxiety. Give someone permission to tell you.
  • Letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle is first and foremost about understanding who you are in anxiety.
  • Step 1: Understand who we are.
  • Step 2: Cultivate calm and stillness.
  • Calm people share things in common. They share actionable strategies.
  • Calm is a practice.
  • Calm people breathe.
  • Calm people are comfortable in silence.
  • Calm people always come back to anxiety-provoking information with questions.
  • Calm people ask themselves “Do I have enough data to freak out?”
  • Follow-up question “Will freaking out be helpful?”
  • Calm is a process of breathing, silence, and asking questions.
  • Brené Brown’s definition of calm: “Creating perspective and mindfulness, while managing emotional reactivity.”

Guidepost 9: Cultivating Meaningful Work, Letting Go of Self-Doubt and Supposed-To

  • Men and women who are wholehearted do work that they care about, they feel a sense of purpose and passion around their work.
  • That does not necessarily mean that they feel deep meaning and purpose in their day-to-day job. They do other things that provide deep meaning and purpose such as volunteering or a side-career.
  • There are only a small number of people that are able to feed their souls and their families from their work.
  • Many people have found a way to do something they love that is driven by purpose and meaning in addition to their careers. For some people that means play.

Guidepost 10: Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance. And Letting Go of Cool and Always in Control

  • What is the gremlin we have to let go of in order to fully embrace laughter, song, and dance?
  • Looking foolish, being judged, insecurity, etc.
  • Being “cool” is an emotional straight-jacket.
  • Being cool prevents emotional growth and movement.
  • Cool is dangerous.
  • People of all ages think being cool is important.
  • One of the most dangerous things we hand down to our kids is an emphasis on being cool and that it’s really important what other people think of you and that you fit in.
  • Wholeheartedness is hard, but not fully living our lives is much harder and much more dangerous.

Related Book Summaries

Hope you enjoyed this and got value from my notes.
Here is a list of my book summaries.

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