At a recent talk at TEDxHouston, Brené Brown, author of The Gifts of Imperfection, described herself as a researcher storyteller. This couldn’t be more accurate. It’s this mix of science and story that make The Gifts of Imperfection an interesting, inspiring, and insightful read — and one that begs to be retold.
Brown is a leading expert in shame and authenticity. Her research is the basis for this book. After collecting and analyzing thousands of stories from men and women ages 18 to 87, Brown started seeing surprising patterns.
The ingredients she had thought contributed to a happy, fulfilling life didn’t seem to be the right ones after all. Participants who were living “amazing and inspiring lives” reported embracing imperfection and vulnerability and being grateful and authentic. As Brown writes, they talked about these things “in a way that was completely new to me.”
These participants were living life and loving with their whole hearts.
What Brown found in these stories started to change her own perspective on life and how she was living it. She even experienced a breakdown—her therapist called it a spiritual awakening—which she talks candidly about in the book. She recounts her own journey toward authenticity and accepting imperfection, complete with embarrassing and eye-opening experiences.
So what is wholehearted living?
Brown defines it like this:
“Wholehearted living is about engaging in our lives from a place of worthiness. It means cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough. It’s going to bed at night thinking, Yes I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid but that doesn’t change the truth that I am worthy of love and belonging.”
The book begins with three chapters that focus on the tools we need for a wholehearted journey — courage, compassion and connection — and the barriers that get in the way of wholehearted living. While they may sound like lofty concepts, Brown writes, being mindful of these tools and barriers is a daily practice.
The bulk of the book focuses on 10 guideposts that help you cultivate a wholehearted life. The guideposts are: authenticity; self-compassion; resilient spirit; gratitude and joy; intuition and trusting faith; creativity; play and rest; calm and stillness; meaningful work; and laughter, song and dance.
As Brown writes, these are not check-off-your-list kind of guideposts. Instead, “it’s life’s work. It’s soul work.” Each chapter features one guidepost along with relevant research, inspiring quotes and thoughtful stories. At the end of the chapter, there’s a section in which Brown lists several strategies to try. For instance, in the chapter on meaningful work, Brown suggests making a list of the work that truly inspires you and considering what brings meaning to you.
One of the strengths of the book, among many, is Brown’s ability to take concepts that have the potential to become scientific psychobabble and turn them into clear, concise, meaningful and interesting stories. In every chapter, she clearly defines the guidepost with examples born out of her own research. For instance, on authenticity she writes:
“Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen.”
She also talks about the components of authenticity, such as accepting imperfection, setting boundaries and believing that we are enough. “’Staying real’ is one of the most courageous battles that we’ll ever fight,” Brown writes.
Getting through the “I’m-not-good-enoughs” is an important theme in The Gifts of Imperfection. It means approaching life with kindness and compassion toward ourselves. Brown writes:
“When we spend a lifetime trying to distance ourselves from the parts of our lives that don’t fit in with who we think we’re supposed to be, we stand outside of our story and hustle for our worthiness by constantly performing, perfecting, pleasing and providing.
Our sense of worthiness—that critically important piece that gives us access to love and belonging—lives inside of our story.
The greatest challenge for most of us is believing that we are worthy now, right this minute. Worthiness doesn’t have prerequisites.”
The book is filled with thought-provoking perspectives and surprising insights. In the chapter on play, Brown talks about the work of Dr. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and founder of the National Institute for Play. According to Dr. Brown, “play is not an option,” Brown explains. “The opposite of play is not work—the opposite of play is depression.”
In another chapter, Brown dispels the myths of perfectionism. She notes that, “perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best,” and it’s “not self-improvement.” Instead, perfectionism is a shield we create to protect ourselves from the potentially painful stuff. “Perfectionism is more about perception—we want to be perceived as perfect.” We yearn for acceptance.
The stories from Brown’s personal life are particularly powerful, such as the time she gave a “train wreck” of a speech. She writes with openness, humor and humility about her own experiences. Readers will no doubt connect to her stories of insecurity, struggle, criticism and past battles with perfectionism.
After all, these are universal struggles. We all feel shame, worry what others will think, struggle to be ourselves and show our true selves to others, and second-guess ourselves and our worth.
The Gifts of Imperfection is a beautifully written, powerful guide that you’ll keep coming back to, for inspiration, information and reminders—for the times we inevitably forget—that you are worthy precisely as you are, without striving for and agonizing about perfection.
Paperback: 260 pages
Publisher: Hazelden Publishing (September 1, 2010)
ISBN-10: 159285849X / ISBN-13: 978-1592858491