The Ms. Q&A: Dr. Brené Brown Wants Feminists to Choose Courage Over Comfort

I was introduced to Dr. Brené Brown’s work by my aunt. She has worked in the book business for over three decades, and regularly shares her love of good books with her nieces and nephews. A few years ago, on Christmas, my aunt gave me Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly.

From it, I highlighted one passage, then handwrote it and stuck it on my wall to remind myself: “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they’re never weakness.”

Dr. Brené Brown has spent the past sixteen years researching courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She has authored four New York Times bestsellers, and her TED talk, “The Power of Vulnerability,” is one of the most-viewed TED talks of all time. Ms. spoke with her about the ways gender intersects with her work on boundaries, the vulnerability of the #MeToo movement and her favorite feminists.

What would you say to people who have never read one of your books and believe that vulnerability is a weakness?

I would say that the definition of vulnerability is: uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure. If you can give me a single example of courage you’ve observed in your life—or in someone else’s life—that didn’t require uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure, I’ll rethink my position and the 200,000 pieces of data we have.

Conversely, for people who have followed your work, but are still struggling to embrace vulnerability at a behavioral level, what change can they make in their thinking to help them live more vulnerably?

I don’t think that human change is a thinking game—I think it’s a full-contact sport. We don’t have to just change the way we think, but also the way we show up and behave; we have to dig into emotions as well. I call it the three-legged stool: thought, emotions, and behavior. For people who know my work, but are still struggling to be vulnerable, I would consider myself a member of that group. This is not something we achieve and check off, and say: “Oh I know how to do it.” For me, it’s a challenge every day. And the way I handle it is I ask myself one question every morning: “Today, do I choose courage? Or do I choose comfort?”

You’ve written about how people wear armor in their daily lives. How do you think people can change their relationship to social media to make it less of an armor?

I think people don’t spend enough time examining their own intentions about how they use social media. I think they react, and it’s knee-jerk sometimes. I think we all have to examine: what’s the intention, what am I trying to work through here, and is this how I want to show up? I think if you don’t self-reflect and examine your intentions, it gets really messy really fast.

You wrote about boundaries in Braving the Wilderness. I think women tend to struggle with boundaries more than men do. What is the importance of boundaries to you, and how to you enforce them?

I think they’re one of the most important things in my entire life. Ten years ago, when I was writing The Gifts of Imperfection and looking at the idea of “whole hearted-ness,” I had a stack of data that we called the “compassion smackdown,” because it was interviews with the most compassionate people I have ever come across – everyone from activists to monks, just incredibly compassionate people. I tried to figure out what they had in common; maybe it would be faith, it might be self-worth. It turns out, the thing that most compassionate people share in common is: boundaries. Because it’s very hard to be compassionate towards other people when you feel resentful and run over.

I define boundaries as—and I borrow this from a friend of mine, Kelly Rae Roberts, who’s an artist, who wrote an article about this because people were using her art in different ways, and some were appropriate and some weren’t, and she’s social-worker-turned-artist, which I love—she wrote an article that said “here’s what okay, and here’s what’s not okay.” And that is, still today, with a PhD in social work, the best definition of boundaries.

You write in a way that is engaging and conversational, even when you’re talking about scientific data. Did it take time to learn that skill, or were you naturally able to do that?

You know what’s funny? I had to overcome the shame that we’re taught in academics: that if you’re too accessible, you’re not smart. I write like I talk. The barrier for me was getting over that bullshit that accessibility means you’re not smart.

The very first study I did was on women and shame. It was the first time I was doing my own research. And these women, at the end of their interviews, had shared so much of their pain and life with me, and at the end of the interview they would say: “Am I going to be able to read what you learned?” And I thought to myself: No, because it’s going to go in a peer-reviewed article that five people will read. So I made a commitment, saying to the women I interviewed: “Not only will I make sure I get it back to you, I’ll get it back to you in a way that is meaningful and resonates with you, and that we can teach to our sons and daughters.”

Do you consider yourself a feminist? If so, why is it important to you to identify as a feminist?

I definitely consider myself a feminist. I have trouble figuring out why everyone doesn’t identify as a feminist. I think expectations and messages around gender and who we are, what we’re worth, and what we can do, fuel shame. I don’t know how you can be a shame researcher and not be a feminist. I don’t know how you can breathe and not be a feminist. You know why I’m a feminist? Because I believe in people’s inherent worth – men and women – and that’s why I’m a feminist. 

Who are some of your feminist heroes?

bell hooks. Laverne Cox. Gloria Steinem.

Do you feel like your children’s gender has any significant influence on how you parent each of them?

I don’t know that I parented them differently, but I think I made sure that they understand how gender expectations are straightjackets that I wouldn’t want them to live in. I think there’s a toxicity that we have to build resilience and grit in our kids around it. So from a very early age, I have taught my kids what the gender messages are, why they’re bullshit, and who they serve and don’t serve. 

What role do you think vulnerability played in the #MeToo movement?

Know what I love about the #MeToo movement?—and, me too—I thought until I was 25 or 30, that sexual harassment was just the price of entry.  The greatest casualty of trauma is the ability to be vulnerable. So this #MeToo movement is re-defining and re-claiming vulnerability, and putting vulnerability in the context it belongs in, which is power and courage. 

What gives you hope?

The thing that scares me about the world today is the same thing that gives me hope. I believe we’re witnessing white male power over. It’s making its last stand right now. And it’s scary because last stands are dangerous, and people get very backed into a corner. I think this is the last stand, and that we’re going to see a shift, mercifully, from white male power to inclusive power with it too. And I think from that paradigm, we can do anything, change anything, and be anything. 

What advice would you give to your younger self?

You don’t have to choose between brave and afraid. The truth is that we’re all brave and afraid at the exact same time, all day long.





Anne McCarthy is a writer and editor based in Manhattan. She’s a contributing writer to the BBC, The Guardian, Teen Vogue, The Huffington Post, IndieWire, and more. She is a graduate of the Yale Writers Workshop and she has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Westminster in London.