Brené Brown: Shedding Your Armor of Vulnerability

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "Daring Greatly" by Brené Brown. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is a vulnerability armor? Why are we so afraid of appearing vulnerable to the outside world?

We are afraid of what makes us feel most vulnerable, and we are especially afraid of allowing others to see those areas. If you don’t trust that you’re worthy of being seen as you are, your fear can cause you to put up a vulnerability armor to shield your true self.

Keep reading to learn about the three types of vulnerability armor.

What Is the Vulnerability Armor?

Vulnerability isn’t something we want to reveal about ourselves—most would prefer to keep it hidden. To this end, we put up armor of vulnerability to keep our true self—with all of its insecurities and inadequacies—hidden from the outside world. There are three types of vulnerability armor.

Vulnerability Armor #1—Foreboding Joy

The feeling you get when you’re happy, but the happiness is followed quickly by a sense of dread.

  • An example might be realizing you are in love, and then immediately experiencing the fear of loss, or experiencing the joy of giving birth to a child and then feeling the fear of not being a good enough parent.

Research shows that, rather than feeling most vulnerable when experiencing negative emotions, you may actually feel most vulnerable when experiencing positive emotions—particularly joy. Brown actually describes joy as being one of the most difficult emotional experiences to fully access, because when you are unable to face your vulnerability, you are also unable to meet joy with gratitude or excitement, or any positive emotion. You instead feel unsafe and suspicious. You literally begin to dread the experience of joy and plan for disaster. “Too good to be true” becomes an internalized mantra.

The greatest danger with this vulnerability armor is the way you can slip into experiencing life through a lens of perpetual disappointment, to a point where you don’t even feel joy, you just expect pain. The tragedy of this is that you become starved for joy, but unable to be with the vulnerability that would allow you to access it. All you’re really doing when you feed foreboding joy is trying to avoid being surprised by pain. You would rather practice the expectation of it, than be “caught with your pants down”, so to speak. 

Vulnerability Armor #2—Perfectionism 

The self-destructive belief that you can avoid shame if you do everything in life exactly right.

  • An example would be overachieving in school to avoid the shame of not feeling worthy enough or smart enough, or people-pleasing in our relationships at our own expense, to avoid conflict or rejection.

It’s common to believe that perfectionism is protecting you, when in reality, it is preventing the world from seeing who you truly are. Perfectionism is about approval. If you struggle with perfectionism, it’s likely you were rewarded for this behavior from an early age. The risk of being rewarded for perfectionism is that you eventually come to see your identity as directly determined by your accomplishments or validation from external sources. Striving for perfection is a recipe for anxiety, depression, and addiction. It causes you to feel unable to take risks, make mistakes, or disappoint people without becoming debilitated by shame.

Perfectionism is also addictive because you associate your experiences of shame with not being good enough. This becomes a vicious cycle of blaming yourself for your shame, which causes more shame, which causes you to strive even harder to be perceived by others as perfect.

Vulnerability Armor #3—Numbing

The reaching for anything that will allow you to escape from pain.

  • An obvious example is substance abuse, but other forms of numbing are overeating, vegging out in front of the television, or keeping yourself constantly busy.

Interestingly, it seems that we all engage in numbing. Perhaps not to the point of addiction, but certainly enough that we engage in behaviors that devalue our resilience and suppress our vulnerability. Why are we numbing ourselves? It’s more than just avoidance of pain or feelings of inadequacy. We are desperate to experience either less or more of ourselves. So desperate, that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us that drug overdoses are now the leading cause of death in the United States. 

The Driving Forces For Numbing

Force #1—Anxiety. Anxiety arises as a result of social discomfort, and constant, unpredictable societal expectations.  

Force #2—Disconnection. Often mixed up with depression in the research, but encompasses a number of experiences ranging from feelings of meaninglessness, disengagement, and social isolation. Disconnection creates deep pain because of our biological need for connection. Combine this with the unworthiness at the core of shame, and there is a high probability of numbing. 

Force #3—Shame. This comes into play when you become so overwhelmed by the above factors that you begin to internalize everything as a result of your own weakness or inherent inability to cope (in other words, “if I could just get it together..”)

Numbing is dangerous because it prevents, once again, not just negative emotions, but positive ones as well. It’s not possible to numb selectively.

You will not be able to remove your armor or shields until you are able to believe you are enough without them. You need to give yourself permission to let the walls down, and trust in your worthiness. How do you give yourself permission to remove the protection? The good news is that each of these armor mechanisms can be overridden by taking actions that demonstrate worthiness. You can use the following tools to disarm your protective thoughts and behaviors.

Disarming Tool #1: Foreboding Joy

Instead of catastrophizing when joy arises, shift your perception, and allow the accompanying feeling of vulnerability to remind you what you have to be grateful for. 

Brown notes that gratitude is a common practice for the research participants who are able to embrace the vulnerability attached to joy. On an even deeper level, these same participants seem to see conscious gratitude and embracing joy as practices that allow you to trust in a greater thread of connection between yourself and your human experience, as well as yourself and a higher power. 

Why Is Gratitude So Effective?

The motivating forces for foreboding joy are, unsurprisingly, fear and scarcity. You fear loss of joy, or fear your ability to recover from pain. You worry that joy has a limit, that there isn’t enough, or you aren’t good enough to receive it. Being joy averse has a great deal to do with feelings of unworthiness, so in this vein, practicing gratitude is a reminder that not only is there enough, but you are enough. 

Disarming Tool #2: Perfectionism

No one is perfect. The healthy alternative to perfectionism is striving to be the best version of yourself, and allowing your own perception to determine this, rather than the perception of others. Perfectionism has a spectrum, but the way out is to shift from being other-focused to being self-focused. In other words, you stop thinking, “Do others think I am enough?” and start trusting that you are enough. You can shift the above by cultivating self-compassion, developing shame resilience, and speaking your truth. Put another way, you can give yourself and your imperfections a damn rest, and maybe even see the beauty in them.

Dr. Kristen Neff defines three core components of self-compassion you can engage with to recover from perfectionism:

Component #1—Being Kind to Yourself

Resist the urge to engage in self-criticism. Practice being kind and supportive to yourself when experiencing moments of suffering or fears of not being enough.

Component #2—Remembering You’re Not Alone

Know that we are all in this together. There is nothing you can experience that has not been experienced by others, and you are never alone, even when it feels like it.

Component #3—Staying Present

Choose to react to negative emotions with a balanced presence. Understand that you don’t have to identify with them. When you over-identify, there is a tendency to be extreme, which causes you to either suppress, or blow up your emotions. Mindfulness allows you to stay centered, instead of being taken for a ride by your negative thoughts and feelings.

Disarming Tool #3: Numbing

You can disarm numbing by practicing mindfulness, healthy boundaries, and leaning into discomfort.

Practice #1Mindfulness

Mindfulness is quite simple. It’s about being present with your feelings and allowing yourself to really feel them. You can use mindfulness to notice, without judgment, that you are engaging in, or are about to engage in numbing behaviors. An example of this might be noticing that you’re experiencing anxiety, and then observing the impulse to binge-watch something on Netflix. When you are able to notice these things in the moment, you then have the ability to make a new choice.

Practice #2Boundaries

Boundaries are about understanding and honoring your limitations, both internally and with others. With yourself, this might look like knowing a certain habit or behavior leads to numbing, and lovingly redirecting yourself to a healthier habit or behavior (for example, you want to smoke weed to avoid emotions, but instead, you write in a journal, or exercise). With others, this might look like knowing being around a certain person or in a certain environment is going to make you feel bad, so you choose not to be around that person or environment (for example,  you don’t like bars, but your friend invites you to go. You let your friend know you’re grateful for the invite, but you’re going to pass on this one. Maybe you even offer an alternative activity you would both enjoy). 

Practice #3Leaning In

Leaning in means practicing being present with, or even moving towards emotions that cause discomfort, rather than avoiding them. This is not to say you should push yourself to remain in toxic environments, but leaning in is a great tool for working with challenging, but potentially transformative emotions like anxiety or frustration.

  • An example of leaning in: let’s say you’ve been dating someone for a while, and you have strong feelings for them. One day, they tell you they love you, and despite your feelings being mutual, you feel anxious. Leaning in means being present with that anxiety, but not avoiding it. You might instead take a deep breath and say, “It’s a little scary to admit, but I love you too.”

Practicing these tools allows you to fully experience your life, in all its shades, and develop a more engaged, wholehearted relationship with yourself and others.

Brené Brown: Shedding Your Armor of Vulnerability

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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