Released in 2010, The Gifts of Imperfection is a New York Times bestseller by researcher, speaker, and author Brené Brown. The book explores 10 strategies for “living Wholeheartedly”: a concept Brown devised after years of research into shame, vulnerability, and self-worth. Wholehearted living has many aspects and nuances, but we can succinctly understand it as a way of life that cultivates a feeling of worthiness.
The Gifts of Imperfection begins with a primer on the concept of worthiness, which Brown defines early in the book because it’s foundational to understanding the book’s other key concepts. According to Brown, worthiness is the conviction that you are good enough as you are, flaws and all, and deserve to be loved. In simpler terms, feeling worthiness is having high self-esteem.
The Low Self-Esteem Epidemic
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown acknowledges that many of us struggle to see our worthiness. But why do so many of us have low self-esteem? Many writers and researchers have attempted to answer this question. For instance, writer and speaker Rachel Hollis writes in her book Girl, Wash Your Face that low self-worth is often a result of childhood trauma. Psychological research supports this theory.
Childhood trauma is widespread—the US government’s Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) reports that, by age 16, almost 70% of young people have experienced some form of trauma. Therefore, it’s not surprising that so many adults have low self-esteem.
So we’ve learned what worthiness is, according to Brown. The next question is, how can we cultivate worthiness? Brown’s research suggests that there are three values that you need to practice to increase your sense of worthiness:
(Shortform note: These three values are the “gifts of imperfection” referred to in the book’s title. They’re “gifts” of imperfection because they come about only when you’re willing to be vulnerable. You develop the courage to accept that you’re imperfect, and you connect with other people because they empathize with your vulnerability. Finally, you become compassionate with other people because you realize nobody’s perfect and forgive their imperfections. In contrast, if we all lived perfect lives free from vulnerability, struggles, and mistakes, we’d never need to put these values into practice—meaning we’d never reap their benefits.)
According to Brown, one of the main barriers to developing worthiness is shame. Based on her research, she defines shame as feeling that you don’t deserve to be loved because you’ll never be “good enough.” Brown argues that shame prevents worthiness from developing because it’s completely antithetical to everything worthiness represents. It’s built on foundations of fear, self-hatred, and the sense that you’re not “enough.” Worthiness simply can’t flourish if you think this way.
(Shortform note: In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown predominantly highlights the negative effects of shame on self-worth. However, shame can affect us in many other ways than just inhibiting worthiness. For instance, in his book Healing the Shame That Binds You, the late author and speaker John Bradshaw linked shame to the development of mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety. He also argued that shame informs numerous toxic behaviors, including addiction, forming unhealthy relationships, and dishonesty.)
According to Brown, the best way to overcome shame and remove this obstacle to worthiness is to develop shame resilience. She conceives shame resilience as being able to identify shame as it occurs and move past it in a healthy way that protects your worthiness. Healthy ways to approach shame include confiding in someone trustworthy regarding your feelings of shame and evaluating whether the thing that’s triggered your shame is actually something to be ashamed of.
Further Reading: Brené Brown on Shame
While Brown mostly ends her discussion of shame and shame resilience in this book here, she discusses shame further in her other works, including:
I Thought It Was Just Me, the book in which she outlines her research into shame, vulnerability, and perfectionism
Daring Greatly, exploring in detail topics such as the effects of shame on both men and women and how shame inhibits vulnerability
Dare to Lead, in which she focuses on shame in the workplace and how leaders can help people who feel ashamed
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Released in 2010, The Gifts of Imperfection is a New York Times bestseller by researcher, speaker, and author Brené Brown. It’s one of many works by Brown on the themes of overcoming shame, embracing vulnerability, and learning to accept ourselves—flaws and all.
The “gifts” of imperfection referred to in the book’s title are courage, connection, and compassion. These are “gifts” of imperfection because they come about only when you’re willing to be vulnerable—you develop the courage to accept that you’re imperfect, you connect with other people because they empathize with your vulnerability, and you become compassionate with other people because you realize nobody’s perfect and forgive their imperfections.
In contrast, if we all lived perfect lives free from vulnerability, struggles, and mistakes, we’d never need to put these values into practice—meaning we’d never reap their benefits.
Brené Brown is a writer, speaker, and researcher who currently holds positions at the University of Houston and the University of Texas. The main focuses of her work are:
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown explores “Wholehearted living”: a concept she devised after years of research into shame, vulnerability, and self-worth. Wholehearted living has many aspects and nuances, but we can succinctly understand it as a way of life that cultivates a feeling of worthiness.
In this first part of the guide, we’ll explore the theory behind worthiness, including the factors that promote and undermine it. In this chapter, we’ll define worthiness more concretely, covering the key principles that underpin it and how you can cultivate it.
According to Brown, worthiness is the conviction that you are good enough as you are, flaws and all, and that you deserve to be loved. In simpler terms, we might conceive it as having high self-esteem.
Brown develops the idea of worthiness organically through anecdotes, advice on how to feel worthy, and descriptions of love and belonging, and it can be hard to pull out the main ideas about worthiness. We’ve synthesized the four key principles that seem to underpin her idea of worthiness:
Principle #1: Accept yourself unconditionally. Don’t set prerequisites for being...
We’ve explored the factors that help to cultivate worthiness. Now, we’ll consider the main barrier to developing self-worth: shame.
Shame is the focus of much of Brené Brown’s work, from her research, to her books, to her speeches. Based on her research, Brown defines shame as feeling that you don’t deserve to be loved because you’ll never be “good enough.” Brown reminds us that everyone experiences shame at some point; it’s an innate part of being human.
What Is Shame?
Brown’s definition of shame is intrinsically linked to the idea of worthiness. She presents shame predominantly as a “foil” to worthiness—the thing that stops worthiness from developing—as we’ll explore in the next section.
Generally, psychologists have accepted and supported Brown’s ideas on shame. Her seminal paper on shame has been cited more than 150 times, predominantly to agree with and build on her ideas. Furthermore, other authors have put forward definitions of shame that, similar to Brown’s, center on self-worth. For instance, in _[Get Out of Your...
Learn how to combat shame by building shame resilience.
Describe the last time you felt shamed. What did your shame relate to? (For instance, it could be connected to your job, your appearance, your relationships, or something else entirely.) What triggered this shame?
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In Part 1, we explored worthiness and the factors that help and hinder its development. Now, in Part 2, we’ll explore Brené Brown’s strategies for living Wholeheartedly. These are the behaviors that Brown believes develop worthiness and allow us to live a Wholehearted life.
We’ve reorganized these strategies and grouped them according to three themes:
We’ve also tried to link each strategy explicitly to worthiness, courage, connection, and/or compassion.
In this chapter, we’ll examine three Wholehearted living strategies that encourage you to accept and be your true self:
Brown’s first strategy for living Wholeheartedly by being yourself is being authentic. But what does it mean to be authentic?
According to Brown, authenticity is a way of thinking and acting: It’s actively making the decision to show your true self to the world. This means all of your true self, including the more vulnerable parts—for example, your fears, your imperfections, and your quirks.
**Accepting All of Your Authentic...
In this chapter, we’ll explore three more of Brown’s strategies for living Wholeheartedly. These strategies all involve developing inner strength: in other words, developing the fortitude necessary to fight unhealthy mental and emotional processes and adopt healthy ones instead. The strategies are:
Brown’s first strategy for developing inner strength is fighting perfectionism. Brown notes that people often frame perfectionism as a positive thing: for instance, “trying to be the best version of yourself.” However, she believes that perfectionism is actually a damaging process that’s about trying to control people’s perceptions of you. It’s an attempt to gain approval and acceptance from others—and, crucially, avoid being shamed or judged by them—by hiding your flaws and projecting the image of being perfect.
The Psychological Definition of Perfectionism
In the world of psychological research, the definition of perfectionism is somewhat complex. The widely supported work of Gordon Flett and Paul Hewitt—two prominent perfectionism...
Learn how to practice self-compassion to overcome perfectionism.
Describe a situation in which you were very self-critical. What drove this self-criticism? Had you made a mistake, or failed in some way?
Learn how to practice calm in stressful situations.
Describe a recent situation in which you struggled to remain calm. What made the situation so stressful?
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In this chapter of the guide, we’ll explore Brown’s final four strategies for living Wholeheartedly. All of the following practices not only facilitate Wholehearted living but can also help you to find either happiness or joy more broadly:
Note that Brown conceives happiness and joy as two distinct emotions, as we’ll discuss when we explore practicing gratitude.
One strategy for finding happiness and living Wholeheartedly is finding meaningful work. In Brown’s view, meaningful work is work that enables you to use your gifts and talents. This work might be paid work (although Brown acknowledges that finding a job that perfectly fits your skillset is difficult). However, it doesn’t have to be: Meaningful work can be anything from parenting, to volunteering, to engaging in a hobby.
According to Brown, failing to find meaningful work that uses your gifts and talents can trigger numerous negative emotions, like shame and anger. In contrast, finding meaningful work...
Learn how to incorporate your gifts and talents into your working life.
Name two or three of your gifts and talents that you’re not currently using in your working life. Describe these gifts and talents in detail.
Acknowledge the things you’re grateful for, and learn how to practice gratitude each day.
Describe all of the things that you’re grateful for today. (This could include small things, like your coffee this morning being particularly delicious, and big things, like having a loving partner and a fulfilling job.)