Brene Brown’s 10 guideposts for wholehearted living

Brene Browne is a scientist of human stories. As an academic and researcher she has interviewed thousands of people about their life experiences, and from this data she draws insights about human behaviour and emotions. In 2012 she became famous for her research on shame – the powerful emotion that leads us to “close down”, to switch off our emotions, and to close our hearts.

Daring Greatly by Brene Brown

In her book Daring Greatly : How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead Brown expands her insights on shame, vulnerability and courage in to a philosophy of wholeheartedness. Wholehearted people, Brown argues, have learned strategies to deal with the hard events and emotions of life without closing down their hearts. She summarises these strategies as 10 guideposts for wholehearted living, behaviours that her research has identified as common between the wholehearted, and that we can all cultivate in ourselves.

AUTHENTICITY – it’s too easy to make what other people think the measure of our value. But this can lead us to very inauthentic behaviour, from copying fashions to going along with the mob even when they are wrong. The wholehearted are authentic and true to themselves.

SELF-COMPASSION – nothing and no one is perfect, so constantly striving for perfection can lead us in to punishing and self-destructive behaviour, that rarely if ever actually yields better results. Wholehearted people have compassion for their own self.

RESILIENT SPIRIT – modern life is full of ways to numb difficult emotions, from shopping and television to alcohol, anti-depressants and hard drugs. But we can’t numb life selectively, and killing our emotions makes us powerless. We have to cultivate a resilient spirit by facing and dealing with hard events and emotions instead of numbing out.

GRATITUDE AND JOY – is that glass half-empty or half-full? We’re a glass half-empy culture, however much we have, scarcity thinking means we think we need more. To be wholehearted we need to spend time being grateful for what we have, and feeling the joy that comes from just having enough and not needing more.

INTUITION AND FAITH – we chase after certainty, but life is not certain. The irony is that the more we try to feel safe and secure, the more damaging and self-destructive our behaviour becomes. Your life will be more certain if you never leave the house, but it won’t be much fun. Wholehearted folks tend to have faith that things will work out, and trust their intution to guide them.

“Go forth and dance, and take a step towards a more wholehearted life.”

CREATIVITY – it’s beautiful to play music, or tell stories, or make art. But when we start to compare what we create to the creations of others, we stop being creative and start to be competitive and ambitious. Letting go of comparisions is a powerful way the wholehearted become more creative.

REST AND PLAY – this is my favourite of Brene Browne’s 10 guideposts. I spend a lot of time sleeping, and as much as possible loafing around doing nothing. Too often in our work we make exhaustion a status symbol, “oh I’m so tired I was working all night” and measure self-worth via our productivity. The wholehearted take plenty of time to rest, and treat work like play.

CALMNESS AND STILLNESS – how easy do you find it to just do nothing? It’s hard, right? Humans are anxious creatures, but there’s rarely cause for such anxiety in modern life. One step to being more wholehearted is to put time aside for activities like meditation that help us to become calm instead of anxious.

MEANINGFUL WORK – wholehearted people tend to find meaningful work to do. We all want meaningful work, but sometimes we miss opportunities to get it by believing there are things we are “supposed to” do instead. For instance, if you are “supposed to” make $250,000 a year at work, there’s every chance you’ll miss lower paid but much more meaningful opportunities.

LAUGHTER, SONG AND DANCE – here’s a secret – cool people aren’t cool. In fact often they are very uptight, closed off, and unhappy. If you can’t dance, sing and have fun because you’re so concerned about what people will think of you, then you’re likely suffering from exactly the shame and emotional numbness Brown is taking about. Go forth and dance, and take a step towards a more wholehearted life.

I find it fascinating just how closely Brene Brown’s empirical, scientific studies of human stories mirror the insights revealed by religion and art. These 10 guideposts for the whole hearted have much in common with the 5 spiritual principles taught by Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh or the subtle insights in to human suffering explored by Haruki Murakami in Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage.

Daring Greatly is a wonderful introduction to Brene Brown’s work, and is also complimented well by the Power of Vulnerability, a series of seminars recorded by brown with a live workshop audience. Essential listening.


Published by Damien Walter

Writer and storyteller. Contributor to The Guardian, Independent, BBC, Wired, Buzzfeed and Aeon magazine. Special forces librarian (retired). Teaches the Rhetoric of Story to over 35,000 students worldwide.

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