The Gifts of Imperfection – A Book Review

Brené Brown wants you to think of The Gifts of Imperfection; Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (2010) as an invitation to join a Wholehearted revolution.

Revolution might sound a little dramatic, but in this world, choosing authenticity and worthiness is an absolute act of resistance. Choosing to live and love with our whole hearts is an act of defiance. You’re going to confuse, piss off and terrify lots of people – including yourself,” warns Brown.

In this book, which predates the runaway success of her TED talk (now at 20 million views), Brown introduces the concepts of courage, compassion and connection. “If we want to live and love with our whole hearts, and if we want to engage with the world from a place of worthiness, we have to talk about the things that get in the way – especially shame, fear and vulnerability.”

Noting all the gauzey words attached to this movement, she does an excellent job of breaking them down in plain and palatable language. (And for a vulnerability primer, see my previous post reviewing her 2012 book Daring Greatly; How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.)

So how, exactly, does one live a wholehearted life? Brown says we must feel our feelings, stay mindful of numbing behaviors, and practice leaning in to the discomfort of hard emotions. The bulk of the book describes her 10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living chapter by chapter.

Guidepost # 1: Cultivating Authenticity…letting go of what people think

Not to be confused with being self-indulgent or self-focused, Brown encourages us to take the risk of being our most genuine selves at every turn. “Authenticity is a collection of choices that we have to make every day. It’s about the choice to show up and be real. The choice to be honest. The choice to let our true selves be seen,” says Brown.

Guidepost # 2: Cultivating Self-Compassion…letting go of perfectionism

As a self-described recovering perfectionist and aspiring good-enoughist, Brown tackles perfectionism with the gusto of a Dallas Cowboy. She makes the distinction between healthy striving and perfectionism, calling the latter self-destructive, addictive, unattainable and other-focused. Take that!

Guidepost # 3: Cultivating a Resilient Spirit…letting go of numbing and powerlessness

Without sentencing folks or making anyone wrong, she speaks candidly about the prevalence of numbing and taking the edge off in our society. Given the wide range of anesthetizers out there – including alcohol, drugs, food, sex, relationships, money, work, caretaking, gambling, staying busy, affairs, chaos, gossiping, shopping, planning, perfectionism, constant change and the Internet – there is no shortage of “helpers” to get us through the tough spots. Brown says the litmus test for actual addiction is to determine if you are engaging in the behavior(s) chronically and compulsively.

Guidepost # 4: Cultivating Gratitude & Joy…letting go of scarcity and fear of the dark

Having an “attitude of gratitude” is not the same as practicing gratitude, says Brown. The act of writing or speaking gratitude is far more powerful, and may or may not coincide with the feeling of being happy. “Happiness is tied to circumstances and joyfulness is tied to spirit and gratitude,” according to Brown.

Guidepost # 5: Cultivating Intuition & Trusting Faith…letting go of the need for certainty

According to her research, it is our need for certainty that silences our inner voice. Instead of being a professional pollster (as Brown calls herself), we need to learn to check in with our gut – and not the gut of our friend – as well as be willing to stand in the place of not knowing for longer than is comfortable.

Guidepost # 6: Cultivating Creativity…letting go of comparison

Along with Julia Cameron and others, Brown claims we are all inherently creative as human beings and it is the need for conformity that often squashes the creative impulse. “The only unique contribution that we will ever make in this world will be born of our creativity,” says Brown.

Guidepost # 7: Cultivating Play & Rest…letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth

Prioritize downtime. ‘Nuff said.

Guidepost # 8: Cultivating Calm and Stillness…letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle

Brown aptly defines calm as creating perspective and mindfulness while managing emotional reactivity, and encourages us look at anxiety as an occasional reality instead of a lifestyle. “If we stop long enough to create a quiet emotional clearing, the truth of our lives will invariably catch up with us,” according to Brown.

Guidepost # 9: Cultivating Meaningful Work…letting go of self-doubt and “supposed to”

Brown explains that our gifts and talents are wildly unique and easily squandered. She beautifully quotes theologian Howard Thurman: “Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive.”

Guidepost # 10: Cultivating Laughter, Song & Dance…letting go of being cool and “always in control”

“Laughter, song and dance create emotional and spiritual connection; they remind us of the one thing that truly matters when we are searching for comfort, celebration, inspiration or healing: We are not alone,” says Brown.

As I send my first born off to college in August, I want to equip her with some last-minute directives. To that end, I am giving her (and her friends) this book as a graduation gift. While introspection is not necessarily top of mind for this age group, I rather like the idea of delivering them cloaked in the guideposts…most especially cultivating authenticity and self-compassion. A mere 13 pages to consume, I’m hopeful to get them to read at least those two chapters.

And if not, perhaps just this quote by Christopher Germer:

“A moment of self-compassion can change your entire day. A string of such moments can change the course of your life.”

Some questions to ponder:

  • Which of these guideposts feels most daunting?
  • What is your drug(s) of choice when battling tough emotions? (See list in Guidepost #3, and tell yourself the truth.)
  • Where in your life are you hustling for approval or worthiness?
  • If you could teach just one of these guideposts to a young person on the cusp of adulthood which one would it be?
  • On a scale of 1-10, how good are you at practicing self-compassion?

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