“The Gifts of Imperfection” & A Letter to Brené Brown

I just wrote the following letter to Brené Brown (technically just a message through the form on her website). She’s a shame and vulnerability researcher who became famous when her TED talk on vulnerability went viral a few years ago.

Dear Dr. Brené Brown,

I watched your famous TEDx talk a few years ago and just finished reading your book, “The Gifts of Imperfection.” First of all, thank you for your excellent research and thoughts on vulnerability. There is no work that is more important in this world, and you’re clearly doing a good job of it. After reading your book, I have some suggestions for what you could explore that I think would help round out your thoughts on vulnerability.

I don’t know if you’re familiar with the framework of nonviolent communication, as laid out by Marshall Rosenberg, and I know you wrote the book a while ago, but I got the impression that you were not particularly familiar with it as of the writing of this book. I think it is right up your alley, and it’s thoroughly and clearly explained in Rosenberg’s book, “Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life.” This is a form of communication based on empathy, and “vulnerability” is a word Rosenberg uses a few times in this book. It’s also extremely practical, involving four simple steps: observation separate from judgment, expression of related feelings, expression of needs/desires causing these feelings, and concrete request to help us satisfy our needs/desires.

I figure you weren’t very familiar with NVC as of the writing of your book because it fits so much with what you’re talking about that you’d probably have mentioned it if you were. And also because of the way you talk about feelings and needs, good and bad. For example, it seems to me that you are suggesting that guilt is a helpful form of motivation. According to the framework of NVC, it isn’t good or bad, but it’s the kind of feeling/thinking that leads to violence and blocks empathy. Sure, it might lead us to act productively at times, but simultaneously leave us feeling hurt. Rosenberg lists guilt and shame in the same category of problematic forms of motivation. I would agree with him, although that’s not to say I’m disinterested in your research on the differences between guilt and shame. I think the world would benefit from far more exploration of these feelings.

Also, I see your book as dividing people up into the categories of those are living Wholeheartedly and those who aren’t… at least based on what I recall without going back through the book. That’s an interesting way of doing research. It’s not bad, but I see a limitation. I think that’s how you ended up coming up with that difference between shame and guilt. The limitation I see is that it sounds like some people are just living *well* all-around while others aren’t. In reality, everyone uses harmful forms of communication at times, whether with themselves or with others. I think guilt and shame are feelings based on harmful forms of communication (this sentence edited after sending). And maybe those who are living relatively contentedly are more likely to experience guilt than shame. However, maybe this is a sign that guilt is less harmful/debilitating and not that guilt is representative of Wholehearted living.

Maybe this is not actually contradictory to what you’re saying in your book, but I don’t recall that you acknowledged any problem with guilt as motivation. That’s why I was under that impression.

Okay, I said more than I was planning to about all of that. The second thing I wanted to bring up was the topic of sex. I recently facilitated a workshop at the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit on the importance of talking about sex. It was discussion-based. Attendees were mostly professional sex educators. A couple things people said they were taking away from the workshop: “Vulnerability” and “I’m not alone.” The one who brought up vulnerability mentioned your TED talk immediately after that word.

The only time I recall sex coming up in your book was when you said (amusingly) not to Google “Adult play.” While I think that’s totally up to you whether you want to explore that topic, especially in public, this is a topic of great interest to me. I think in our culture we are SO afraid to talk about sex, especially on a personal level. And I think that’s a huge problem and very related to the topic of vulnerability. So I’m just throwing it out there as a suggestion for something to think about. If you’re interested, I have written a couple pieces related to vulnerability and talking about sex that I could share.

That’s it! I hope this doesn’t come across as a bunch of negative criticism. I think your research and perspective are really important, and I quoted you at least a dozen times on Twitter while reading your book. I particularly loved the parts about creativity and dance.

I would be very curious to hear how you interact with the idea of NVC in particular. Whether I hear from you personally or not, I’ll be looking out for you to see how your ideas evolve.

Thank you.

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