3 lessons on how to use vulnerability in your career from Brené Brown

Through years of research on the psychology of shame, social scientist Dr. Brené Brown has found that the key to success in any area of your life — from finding love to leading a team — is to find the “courage to be imperfect” and get vulnerable. Her message has resonated. Brown’s TEDx talk on “The Power of Vulnerability” has reached millions of people and has led to multiple book deals on how we can become whole-hearted humans who are strong enough  “to invest in a relationship that may or may not work out.”

On Sunday, Oprah Winfrey released her talk with Brown about her research with long-married couples and Fortune 500 CEOs that led to “Rising Strong: How the Ability to Reset Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead.” Here are tips Brown shared on how we can use acts of vulnerability to transcend failure:

1) Acknowledge the feeling of discomfort  

Too many of us build up narratives about our career journeys that skip over the bumps. I lost a job and then I got a new one, and I’m not going to acknowledge the feelings of helplessness and loss in between those points. We’re much better at inflicting pain than feeling and acknowledging it, Brown said. Transcending failure starts with learning to become curious about our feelings in a culture where many of us grow up in households where feelings go unaddressed.

Acknowledging uncomfortable feelings means looking into what are the actions that “emotionally hook” us and why are these feelings upsetting us, Brown said.

We can avoid these feelings, but we can’t run from them. “Bodies keep score and they always win,” Brown said, talking about how feelings that are pushed away will bubble up in our bodies’ physical reactions. We can lose sleep and build resentment and anxiety over feelings we repress.

2) Reckon with the feeling and test its assumptions

When you are going through hardship at work, your mind is going to build a story of that hardship to make sense of the situation. You have to make sure it’s a true story, Brown warns, or else you will be working off of a dangerously toxic narrative.

“When we are in a fall, we are neurologically hardwired to make sense of that fall and make sense of our hurt as fast as we can,” Brown said. “If we can come up with a story that makes sense of it, our brain chemically rewards us for that.”

Brown gives the hypothetical example of what would happen if Winfrey sighed condescendingly after their live interview ended. Brown’s snapping judgment would say, ‘I knew she never liked me,’ and if this feeling was left unexplored, the next interaction between Winfrey and Brown would suffer. Usually, these limiting narratives that we all feel boil down to “I’m not enough,” Brown said. My co-worker is out to get me. I didn’t deserve that job. My boss betrayed me.

If you don’t acknowledge the pain and grief of these scenarios, you are likely to offload that pain onto others as any employee working with mercurial co-workers knows. To counter that, Brown says that we have to think critically about what we know for sure and what are we making up. What more do I need to learn and understand about this situation, the other people in this situation, and myself?

Testing these assumptions means recognizing your hurt, in other words, and talking to co-workers about how you’re feeling, and asking them to explain their actions.

3) Make leaning into discomfort a practice 

Once we learn to acknowledge these feelings of discomfort, we become leaders of our own lives, people who are willing to take responsibility for our emotions and our regrets, instead of feeling like we have no control over how we react. Brown said that every transformational leader she talked with for her book was comfortable with uncomfortable conversations and decisions that could offend, anger, and disappoint other people.

“He or she who is willing to be the most uncomfortable can rise strong,” Brown said.