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About the guest

Brené Brown

Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston, where she holds the Huffington Foundation Endowed Chair at the Graduate College of Social Work. She also holds the position of visiting professor in management at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business.

Brené has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She is the author of six #1 New York Times bestsellers and is the host of two award-winning podcasts, Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead.

Brené’s books have been translated into more than 30 languages, and her titles include Atlas of the HeartDare to Lead, Braving the Wilderness, Rising Strong, Daring Greatly, and The Gifts of Imperfection. With Tarana Burke, she co-edited the bestselling anthology You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience.

Brené’s TED talk on the Power of Vulnerability is one of the top five most-viewed TED talks in the world, with over 60 million views. Brené is the first researcher to have a filmed lecture on Netflix, and in March 2022, she launched a new show on HBO Max that focuses on her latest book, Atlas of the Heart.

Brené spends most of her time working in organizations around the world, helping develop braver leaders and more courageous cultures.

She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, Steve. They have two children, Ellen and Charlie, and a weird Bichon named Lucy.

Show notes

Braving the Wilderness _ Brené Brown MSW


Brené Brown: Hi, everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us.

BB: So I’m recording this on Tuesday, November 3rd, Election Day, and I spent the morning thinking about what I could possibly say to you, this amazing whole-hearted community of listeners. This is going to drop tonight, or I guess tomorrow morning at on November 4th, and I have no idea what tonight or tomorrow will hold, none of us do, no crystal ball, not even a great gut on how the election will turn out. I’m just feeling a swirl of uncertainty, anxiety, and definitely a lot of stubborn hope as well.

BB: I was texting with my daughter, who’s 21, and she is navigating the election, she is navigating her senior year in college, which looks very different than I think what she had planned or what she had hoped for, and just going through a lot of kind of hard new grown-up stuff. And the only thing I could offer her right now are the words that I often whisper to myself when I feel wobbly and worried. Those words are: “Strong back, soft front, wild heart.” These words breathe something into me that make me kind of straighten up and take a deep breath and keep doing the next right thing. So I thought I’d spend a few minutes with you talking about what strong back, soft front, and wild heart really means, and hopefully these words are helpful to you too.

BB: So the first time I heard the term “strong back, soft front,” it was from Joan Halifax. We were doing an event together at the Omega Institute in New York. If you listened to the podcast with Elizabeth Lesser, this is the gathering space that she runs and has operated for many, many years, and it’s just an incredible… One of my favorite places. So I’ll admit that I was very intimidated to meet Joan Halifax. Dr. Halifax is a Buddhist teacher, she’s a Zen priest, she’s an anthropologist and activist, she’s the author of several really important books on engaged Buddhism. And we met for the first time during the technical rehearsal for our talk, and she was super down to earth, and what I remember most is she was funny, I mean like Texas-level funny, dry, funny as hell.

BB: As we were leaving this technical rehearsal for the event that we were going to do together, I turned to her and said, “Wooh, I’m wiped, but I guess it’s off to the meet and greet.” And she looked at me and said, “I’m not going to the meet and greet. I’m going to my room to rest before tonight. Why don’t you do the same?” And that sounded so great to me, I’m like, you know, if there’s one thing that you should not sign me up for, it’s a meet and greet, it is an introvert’s nightmare. Small talk, meeting strangers, moving around. Oh, no, uh-uh, I’m just not good at it. So I was like, “That sounds really good, but I feel really bad to say no, like I felt bad, so I said yes.” And I’ll never forget what she said back to me. She looked at me and she said, “Tonight, we will exhale and teach. Now, it’s time to inhale. There is the in-breath and there is the out-breath, and it’s easy to believe that we must exhale all the time without ever inhaling. But the inhale is absolutely essential if you want to continue to exhale.”

BB: Oh, man, let’s just inhale together, just… It was so powerful to me. So when I heard her talk about strong back, soft front, it just resonated so deeply in me, here’s what she writes about it. She writes, this is Roshi Joan Halifax. “All too often our so-called strength comes from fear, not love. Instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front, shielding a weak spine. In other words, we walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence. If we strengthen our backs, metaphorically speaking, and develop a spine that’s flexible but sturdy, then we can risk having a front that’s soft and open. How can we give and accept care with strong back, soft front, compassion, moving past fear to a place of genuine tenderness? I believe it comes when we can be truly transparent, seeing the world clearly and letting the world see into us.”

BB: Oh, man, just… Let me just read this part of this quote again. If she was a guest right now, which she should be one day, for sure, if she was a guest right now, I’d have her read this part again. “All too often, our so-called strength comes from fear, not love. Instead of having a strong back, many of us have a defended front, shielding a weak spine. We walk around brittle and defensive, trying to conceal our lack of confidence.” Oh, that just… That just cuts me to the core.

BB: So I really adopted this strong back, soft front belief and practice. And then as I started writing Braving the Wilderness, which is a book about belonging and how difficult belonging is. You know, fitting in is easy; belonging, which requires the courage to be yourself and let the world see you, that… That’s when I added the wild heart. And so to me, not only does strong back, soft front, and wild heart get us through hard times, it is the cornerstone of my actual belonging practice, my true belonging practice, because true belonging is so hard these days. It’s not about fitting in or staying quiet or hating the same people that your family or friends hate, even when you don’t know them.

BB: This is how I define true belonging. True belonging is the spiritual practice of believing in and belonging to yourself so deeply that you can share your most authentic self with the world and find sacredness in both being a part of something and standing alone in the wilderness. True belonging doesn’t require you to change who you are, it requires you to be who you are. So I think if we’re going to make true belonging a daily practice in our lives, we’re going to need this strong back and soft front and this wild heart. We’re going to need both courage and vulnerability as we abandon the certainty and safety of our ideological bunkers and head off into this wilderness where we say, I don’t agree. We say, I believe this.

BB: And I think once we’re able… Once we’ve found the courage to stand alone, to say what we believe and do what we feel is right, despite the criticism and fear, we may leave the wilderness, but I believe the wild has marked our hearts. I think this is the wild heart piece of true belonging. That doesn’t mean that the wilderness is no longer difficult, it means that once we’ve braved it on our own, you know, once you’ve stood up for what you believe in, once you’ve said, look, I’m going to belong to myself first and betray myself last, that’s the mark of the wild heart, and we become painfully aware of when our choices stray from that.

BB: We can spend our whole life betraying ourself and choosing fitting in over standing alone, but once we’ve stood up for ourself and our beliefs, God, the bar is so much higher. A wild heart fights fitting in, and it grieves betrayal, it grieves when we betray ourselves. I think all of us will spend our entire life constantly strengthening our back, softening our front and trying to listen to the whispers of our wild heart. And for some of us, the focus of our work will be developing that strong back, that will be where we have to concentrate. When strengthening our back is our particular challenge, we’re often driven by what people think. We perfect, we please, we prove, we pretend, these things get in the way of the strong back, and our work becomes to get to the place where we choose honoring ourselves over being liked and avoiding criticism. And our strong back reacts when we judge ourselves too harshly, I think, or allow other people to silence us. I don’t think we can brave the wilderness without a level of self-love and self-respect.

BB: For some of us, the strong back is easier than that soft front. It is so hard to keep the front soft when there’s so much mean-spiritedness and cruelty in the world today, it’s hard. I think about… Just over the last few weeks, I’ve shared opinions with this community, I’ve shared my opinions about politics on social media, and I’ve experienced push back that really some of it took my breath away. I mean, everything from keep your mouth shut and keep writing the same books that you’re writing and don’t talk about politics, to kind of graphic and violent threats against me or my family. And my visceral response to that, I’m going to be honest with y’all, my visceral response is strong back, armored front, like, come and take it. You want to do this? I get a ton of fight energy when I’m scared. I’ve talked about this before on this podcast. I can get scary when I’m scared.

BB: I really default sometimes to strong back, armored front, just strong everything. But it’s no way to live. Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, joy, trust, intimacy, courage, everything that I want more of in my life. And an armored front sounds good when I’m hurting, but it ends up causing us so much more pain in the end. You know, when we let people take our vulnerability or fill us with their hate, we turn over our entire lives to them. It’s like I try to look at some of these comments and I try to say, “You just can’t have my hate. I can’t give up my soft front for you.” Because the price is too high.

BB: And I think many of us armor up early as a way to protect ourselves as kids, and once we grow into adults, we just start to realize the armor hurts, it’s heavy, it prevents us from growing into our gifts. And I think just like we can strengthen our courage muscle for a stronger back by examining our need to be perfect and please others at the expense of our own lives, we can exercise the vulnerability muscle, we can build that strength that allows us to soften and stay open rather than to attack and defend. I am definitely someone who the strong back comes easier to me than the soft front.

BB: And I think most of the time when I think about the armored front, two reasons. One, we’re not comfortable with emotions and we equate vulnerability with weakness or sometimes our experiences of trauma have taught us that vulnerability is actually dangerous. And that’s not just emotional trauma, that’s also violence and oppression, things that can make a soft front a liability. So we have to struggle to find a place emotionally and physically safe enough to be vulnerable.

BB: Taking you back to the definition of vulnerability, I mean, just always an important kind of pull back to that, vulnerability is uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure, but it’s not weakness, it’s our most accurate measure of courage, we literally, 400,000 pieces of data, we actually measure, we have an instrument that measures your capacity for courage by evaluating your willingness to be vulnerable. So when our barrier to a strong back, soft front, wild heart practice is our belief about vulnerability, we really have to challenge ourselves. The question becomes, “Are we willing to show up and be seen when we can’t control the outcome?” That’s the vulnerability work, and when the barrier to vulnerability is real safety, the question becomes, “Are we willing to create courageous spaces so we can be fully seen and bring people into those spaces to be seen?”

BB: The wild heart, man, I’ve written before that I just wish there was a secret handshake for the wild heart club. You know, I love that, I love the kind of like mystery and intrigue, like we would have a special song or a handshake. And I love that kind of payoff for being brave and braving the wilderness, some kind of ritual or symbol that says, hey, I’m part of this wild heart club. I’ve got the stretch marks and bruises and scars to prove it. I know what it means to stand alone and brave criticism and fear and hurt. I know the freedom of belonging everywhere, but nowhere at all. Referencing a Maya Angelou quote that says, we belong everywhere and nowhere. She talks about that’s real belonging, and the price is high, but the reward is great.

BB: And she’s not kidding when she says the price is high. When you decide that you’re going to carry belonging in your heart and not look externally for it, the price is high, and the reward is great. She was right on both accounts, per usual. But alas, the wilderness does not issue membership cards, a wild heart is not something you can always see. I think the mark of a wild heart is living out the paradox of love in our lives. It’s the ability to be tough and tender, excited and scared, brave and afraid. For me tonight, wobbly and full of stubborn hope, to be all these things in the same moment, it’s showing up in our vulnerability and our courage, being both fierce and kind.

BB: And I think this is so important for tonight and tomorrow and this week, in this hard effing 2020 year. A wild heart can straddle the tension of staying awake to the struggle in the world, fighting for justice and peace, while also cultivating its own moments of joy. I know a lot of people, myself included, who feel guilt and sometimes even shame about experiencing moments of joy or deep connection. And here’s the thing, I’ve been an activist since I was 20, so three decades of activism, and when we’re out there, whether you’re a full-time activist, a volunteer, a new activist, an old activist, we’re showing up to make sure that people’s basic human needs and civil rights and dignities are upheld, but we’re also fighting to make sure that everyone gets to experience what brings meaning to life, love, belonging, and joy, these are irreducible needs for all of us, and we can’t give people what we don’t have.

BB: We can’t fight for what’s not in our hearts or our experiences. So a wild heart is awake to the pain in the world, but doesn’t diminish its own pain. A wild heart can beat with gratitude and lean into joy, which we know there is no joy without gratitude. A wild heart can really beat with that gratitude and practice gratitude and know joy without denying that there is struggle in the world. We hold that tension with the spirit of the wilderness, and it’s not always easy or comfortable, and sometimes we struggle with the weight of the pull, but what makes it possible is that front made of love and that back built of courage.

BB: The mark of a wild heart may be earned in the wilderness, but there’s a daily practice that I’ve learned that is critical, I think, to this quest for true belonging, and it’s something that I’ve really tried to teach my kids. I talk about it a lot in my work, and this is it: We’ve got to stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that we don’t belong. We will always find it because we’ve made it our mission. We’ve got to stop scouring people’s faces for evidence that we’re not enough. We’ll always find it, because we’ve made it our goal. True belonging and self-worth are not goods. We don’t negotiate their value with the world.

BB: The truth about who we are lives in our hearts, and our call to courage, right now, the day after election, next week, next month, next year, next decade, our call to courage is to protect our wild heart against constant evaluation, especially our own. No one belongs here more than us. I know that braving the wilderness is not easy right now. I know that standing alone when it looks like and feels like everyone else is protected in these ideological bunkers with people that they don’t know but they feel close to because they hate the same people. I call it common enemy intimacy. I don’t really know that much about you, but we hate the same people, so we must be connected. It’s just a counterfeit connection at best.

BB: It’s so hard. It’s so hard to brave the wilderness right now, to stand on our own. And there are going to be times when standing alone feels too hard, too scary, and we’ll doubt our ability to make our way through the uncertainty, because someone somewhere will say, don’t do it, you don’t have what it takes to survive the wilderness. And I think that’s when we reach deep into our wild hearts, you reach deep into your wild heart at that moment when someone says, don’t do it, you don’t have what it takes. And remind yourself, I am the wilderness. We’re going to get through what’s ahead of us, and it’s going to require us to protect our wild hearts, to love each other, and to stay awkward, brave, and kind.

BB: I will see you next week. Deep breath. We deserve the inhale. Strong back, soft front, wild heart.

BB: Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. Produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, by Weird Lucy Productions and by Cadence 13. Sound design is by Kristen Acevedo, and the music is by Carrie Rodriguez and Gina Chavez.

© 2020 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Brown, B. (Host). (2020, November 4). Brené on Strong Backs, Soft Fronts, and Wild Hearts. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13.

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