The book The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are explores the power of love, belonging and “being enough” by cultivating courage, compassion and connection, all with the goal of developing resilience to shame.
Each of the 10 chapters in the book explains one virtue that can help you overcome the feelings of imperfection and live a more meaningful and happier life.
The main idea of the book is that when you develop shame resilience, you finally get a chance to let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you really are. That’s something the author calls Wholehearted Living.
The book is written by Dr. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, where she studies shame, vulnerability, empathy, worthiness and similar psychological topics.
The ten virtues or skills (since they can all be learned) that lead to Wholehearted Living are:
|Virtue or skill …||That leads to letting go of …|
|1. Authenticity||What other people think|
|3. Resilience||Numbing & Powerlessness|
|4. Gratitude & Joy||Scarcity|
|5. Intuition & Trust||Certainty|
|7. Play & Rest||Exhaustion|
|8. Calm & Stillness||Anxiety|
|9. Meaningful work||Self-Doubt|
|10. Laughter, Song & Dance||Always being in control|
|Courage, compassion, connection|
The book is short and easy to read. The style and voice of the author are an interesting combination of research‑driven writing, seen especially in many eye-opening definitions of virtues, and an integrated, more spiritual view on life in a very nonintrusive way.
No matter what gets done and how much is left undone in a day, you are enough. – Brené Brown
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The Gifts of Imperfection and Dealing with shame
We all have to deal with shame, since it’s a universal feeling. The only people who don’t experience shame are the ones who lack the capacity for empathy and human connection.
But even though we all have to deal with shame, we’re also all afraid to talk about shame. There’s an obvious reason why.
Shame is a very intense, powerful and destructive feeling of believing that we are internally flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. Nobody wants to feel or be perceived like that, so it’s very hard to talk about shame.
The physical symptoms of shame are usually a dry mouth, time slowing down, tunnel vision, hot face and racing heart. It can also be disguised as rage or anger, since it’s easier to admit to yourself that you’re angry than it is to admit that you’re feeling ashamed.
The problem with shame is that it leads people to everything that devalues life, from violence, aggression and depression to addiction, eating disorders and bullying.
Shame doesn’t hit you in the darkest corners and times. It actually lurks in very familiar places – for example your feelings about how you look, your family, parenting, how much you earn, your work status, health, addiction, sex, aging, love and religion. These are the areas where humans struggle and feel shame the most.
These are a few ways how people deal with shame in general, in a non-healthy way:
- Moving away (freeze, flight): Withdrawing, hiding, silencing yourself, keeping secrets
- Moving towards (fawn): Seeking to appease and please
- Moving against (fight): Control, gaining power over others, bullying
Shame needs secrecy, silence and judgment to thrive. That’s why by far the best way to deal with shame is to practice courage and reach out. Shame loses power when it’s spoken, and thrives in isolation and secrecy.
It hates it when you reach out and share your “shame” story with the people you trust. When dealing with shame, you have to do the opposite of your instincts. If you bury the story, as most people do, shame gets the power to spread.
The less you talk about shame, the more control and power it has in your life.
But you can’t share your shame story with just anyone. It has to be someone who has earned your trust, someone who has earned the right to hear your shame story.
When you decide to share your shame story, you need to find somebody who is deeply rooted, able to bend, and prepared to embrace your strengths and struggles. You need to find the right person at the right time about the right issue.
- Guilt = I did something bad.
- Shame = I am bad.
The best way to deal with shame is to develop shame resilience. Shame resilience is the ability to recognize shame, to deliberately maintain worthiness and authenticity while feeling shame, and simultaneously develop the courage to reach out, show compassion towards yourself and others, and to connect with other people in love and belonging.
That is to say, the three most powerful weapons against shame are:
- Courage – to share your stories and be who you are
- Compassion – towards yourself and others
- Connection – together with love and belonging
Courage is not so much about being heroic, but more about honestly and openly speaking of who you are, how you feel, and how you experience things.
The original ancient Greek definition of courage is “to speak your mind by telling all your heart” and that’s what we’re looking for when dealing with shame. It’s about putting your vulnerability on the line, by asking for help, sharing your stories and being who you are.
Compassion is about “suffering with” ourselves or others. In compassion, a relationship is not between the healer and the wounded, but between two equals. The heart of compassion lies in acceptance. The more you can accept yourself and others, the more compassionate you become.
What might sound strange is that the prerequisite to feeling compassion for someone is to set clear boundaries and be self-assertive enough. That’s because it’s impossible to feel compassion if we feel threatened by our relationship with someone, or if they are hurting us, taking advantage of us, or even walking all over us.
So, make sure you set strong boundaries and hold people accountable in relationships, because only then can you show compassion to them when the time comes. Only in relationships where mutual respect is practiced, clear boundaries are set, and people hold each other accountable, can compassion exist.
Don’t shame and blame, instead set boundaries and hold people accountable. When you do that, always address people’s behavior, rather than who they are.
It’s in our biology to connect and get attached to other people. The attachment theory has proven that people have a hard time prospering without healthy attachment. From our birth until death, we need to emotionally, physically, spiritually and intellectually connect with other people.
Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued. A connection between people gets established when people can give and receive without any judgement.
Unfortunately, technology has become an imposter for real connection, rather than an enabler and accelerator, as we might think. We shouldn’t confuse being communicative with feeling connected.
If you’re plugged in, that doesn’t yet mean that you also feel seen and heard. Spending more time chatting with people online and not face-to-face drives us away from real connection.
Love, belonging and being enough
If you want to experience real love and belonging, you must believe that you’re worthy of love and belonging. The greatest challenge in this is believing that you are worth of love and belonging right now.
We usually all have a list of when we’ll be really worthy of love: If or when we lose 20 pounds, have a kid, are rich, have an awesome job etc. But you are already worthy now. Not if. Not when. Now. Right now. As you are.
Feeling worthy or being enough and your capacity for love are deeply interconnected. You cultivate love when you allow your most vulnerable and powerful self to be seen and known, and when you connect with other people in trust, respect, kindness and affection.
Love is not something that you give or get, but rather something that you nurture and grow. You don’t want to be surrounded with people who only say they love you, you want to be surrounded with people who practice love for you every day.
Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal and withholding affection damages the roots from which love grows.
If we feel enough and have the capacity to love, we can also belong. Belonging is the primal human desire to be a part of something larger than us. It might sound ironic, but trying to fit in gets in the way of belonging.
Fitting in means becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted. Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are. We belong when we can be who we really are without any pretending or façades. True belonging happens when you present your authentic, imperfect self to the world.
In all this, a very important fact is that your sense of belonging can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance. You practice self-acceptance and self-love when you learn how to trust yourself, when you treat yourself with respect, and when you are kind and affectionate toward yourself (and others).
Now let's move to the ten virtues.
1. Cultivating Authenticity: Letting Go of What People Think
Authenticity is about the choice to show up and be real and honest. It’s about letting your true self be seen, it’s about being a warm, down-to earth and honest human being. You are your most authentic self when you let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are.
If you want to be your authentic self, you have to cultivate the courage to be imperfect, to set boundaries and to allow yourself to be vulnerable.
Being authentic is about keeping a connection with yourself, and not live by the standards imposed by today’s society to fit in, play it safe, to stop feeling and start earning, and to give up on meaningful connections by only being connected online.
Sometimes when you show your most vulnerable side, some people will criticize you. Haters gonna hate. But never forget that cruelty is cheap, easy and rampant. And it’s also chicken-shit, especially when people attack and criticize anonymously.
So, don’t shrink, don’t puff up, stand on your sacred ground. Have the courage to be a congruent person. As you will soon see, courage is contagious and by practicing courage you’ll soon be surrounded by courageous people, no matter what haters say.
2. Cultivating Self-Compassion: Letting Go of Perfectionism
Shame always lurks where perfectionism exists. Shame is actually the birthplace of perfectionism. The first thing to know is that perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be your best. It’s also not about healthy achievement, growth and personal improvement.
Perfectionism is a false belief that if you live perfectly, look perfect and act perfectly, you can minimize the pain of blame, judgment and shame. Perfectionism is only a shield.
It’s about trying to earn approval and be accepted. Most perfectionists were raised being praised for achievement and performance (grades, manners, following rules, appearance, rewards etc.), instead for their efforts, as the growth mindset suggests.
Perfectionism is not the same as striving to be your best. It’s a false belief that if you do everything perfectly, you can avoid or at least minimize the painful feeling of shame, judgment, and blame.
Healthy striving for progress is based on the question How can I improve, perfectionistic tendencies are focused more on What will others think. In the end, perfectionism rarely leads to success, more often to crippling depression, anxiety, addiction and life-paralysis.
You should always remember that you are not what you accomplish and how well you accomplish it. Your self-worth should never be connected to achievements. And there is no such thing as perfection, since it’s impossible to control how others perceive you.
The first step towards healing a perfectionistic personality is to talk about your imperfections in a tender and honest way, without any shame and fear. It’s also important to be very slow in judging yourself and others, and to be satisfied with good enough. Operate from a standpoint that we’re all doing the best we can. And most importantly, practice self-compassion.
Self-compassion has three elements:
- Self-kindness: Being warm and understanding toward yourself, especially when you suffer, fail, or feel inadequate. Don’t ignore your pain and punish yourself with self-criticism.
- Common humanity: Recognize that suffering and feelings of personal inadequacy are part of the shared human experience, something we all have to go through.
- Mindfulness: Make sure your feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. Don’t be ignorant towards what is happening inside you, but also don’t over-identify with your thoughts and feelings.
Self-compassion is often called self-mothering, in psychology. It means showing tender, kind, and encouraging feelings towards yourself when things go wrong.
3. Cultivating Resilience: Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness
Resilience is a very important weapon against shame and when developing shame resilience in particular. Interestingly, resilience comes from hope, believing in yourself and having sufficient external support.
There are five most common characteristics of resilient people:
- They are very resourceful and have good problem-solving skills.
- They are more likely to seek help, they have no trouble asking for a helping hand.
- They are extremely proactive or, in other words, they know they can always do something to manage their feelings and they always possess at least some power to cope with life problems.
- They build a social support system for themselves, and they invest a lot of energy into being connected with others, such as family or friends.
- Most importantly, resilient people are hopeful, aware and in connection with their own emotions, while knowing how to take the edge off discomfort and pain.
Resilience starts with hope
Resilience always starts with hope. Surprisingly, hope is not an emotion, emotions only play a supporting role. Hope is born out of realistic goals, being able to stay flexible about how you will get there, and believing that you can achieve these goals.
Hope is actually a combination of goal setting, having the tenacity and perseverance to pursue your goals, and believing in your abilities to do so at the same time.
Hope = Realistic goals + Staying flexible about how you will get there + Believing in yourself
The good side is that hope can be learned and is not a given thing. The bad side is that contemporary cultural values state that everything should be fun, fast and easy.
That’s inconsistent with hopeful thinking, which requires smart goal setting and perseverance. An individual gets most hopeful when they begin to understand that some worthy endeavors are difficult, time‑consuming, and not enjoyable at all.
What kills hope the most is a numbing of feelings. If you resort to anesthetizing yourself with stuff like:
- Food (gluttony)
- Sex (lust)
- Relationship drama
- Money (greed)
- Staying busy
- Excessive shopping
- Planning (analysis – paralysis)
- Constant change or
- Entertainment (the Internet, games, TV)
you are killing hope and with that, you are killing the power that you possess over your life direction and your goals. You can’t numb or outrun vulnerability and uncertainty, you can only embrace it and make sure it brings out the best in you.
4. Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark
The first good thing to know is that gratitude is a practice, something you have to regularly put effort in.
It can be practiced in many different ways, namely by keeping a gratitude journal or a gratitude list, practicing daily gratitude meditations or prayers, creating gratitude art, and stopping during a stressful day to remind yourself what you are grateful for.
Joy goes hand in hand with gratitude. Being joyful is not the same as being happy. Happiness is actually tied to outer circumstances, while joyfulness and gratefulness are related to inner circumstances – a strong spirit, believing you are part of something bigger and practicing daily gratitude for what you have.
Neither happiness nor joy are constant, but they come and go. Although by practicing gratitude, you always have the chance to bring joy back into your life.
The thing that takes daily joy and gratefulness away the fastest is the scarcity mindset. You operate out of the scarcity mindset if you constantly complain, explain or worry about what you don’t have enough of. The scarcity mindset can be seen in expressions like:
- I didn’t get enough sleep
- I don’t have enough time
- I didn’t get enough exercise
- I’m not thin enough
- I’m not rich enough
- I’m not educated enough
- I’m not successful enough
- We don’t have enough work
- We don’t have enough money
- We don’t have enough power
- We don’t have enough weekend
- We don’t have enough of … ever.
You wake up and before you even get out of the bed, you’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something. The same thoughts haunt you during the day all the way until you go to sleep. That’s the scarcity mindset that chases away any chance of you living a happy and joyful life. Thus, it’s absolutely mandatory to get rid of the scarcity mindset.
One way to deal with the scarcity mindset is to develop an abundance mindset. But an even better approach is to go from the abundance mindset to a sufficiency mindset.
Sufficiency isn’t about barely enough or more than enough or abundance. It’s not an amount of all. Sufficiency is an experience, the right context, a declaration, knowing that there is enough and that you’re enough. It’s an intentional choice to think the right way about your life circumstances.
5. Cultivating Intuition and Trust: Letting Go of the Need for Certainty
Intuition can greatly help a person make sound choices. The kind of choices that are congruent with internal wishes, needs and desires. It’s important to know that intuition is a reasoning process that exploits the power of all information stored in the unconscious mind.
The brain makes the observations, scans all the available data, analyzes existing memories, knowledge and experiences, and creates an output in the form of a gut feeling. Sometimes intuition can tell you to listen to your gut feeling, other times to gather more information. If you learn to listen to your intuition, it can be a very powerful thing.
Intuition is not a single way of knowing – it’s our ability to hold space for uncertainty and our willingness to trust the many ways we’ve developed knowledge and insight, including instinct, experience, faith, and reason. – Brené Brown
What most often silences intuition is the need for certainty. Human beings are not very good at not knowing. We like sure things and guarantees, even at the price of not listening to ourselves.
The most frequent reaction when we don’t feel sure is that we stop listening to our instinct and we start polling other people. And we so often get the response to listen to our gut feeling. And that’s exactly what you should do, as long as you relearn to listen to yourself.
One of the best ways to overcome uncertainty and start listening to intuition is to develop faith. Faith simply means possessing the courage to believe in what we can’t see, and having the strength to let go of the need for certainty. We need faith and reason to create meaning in an uncertain world.
6. Cultivating Creativity: Letting Go of Comparison
Comparing yourself with others is one of the biggest thieves of happiness. Employing creativity and seeing that creative endeavors are making you unique and incomparable is the best way to overcome the desire to measure yourself against other people.
Everybody can be creative, and creative endeavors are the only unique contribution we can offer to the world. Now and ever.
If you want to make meaning, you have to make art. And there are many ways how you can express yourself, from cooking, writing, drawing, doodling and painting to taking photos, knitting, rebuilding things, dancing, decorating, and so on.
Cultivating creativity gives you the ability to see beauty everywhere around you. When you start creating, you start pushing shame away and shining with your true soul.
7. Cultivating Play and Rest: Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol
It’s impossible for life to be a joyful experience without play. Play shapes your brain and helps you to foster empathy and navigate through complex social groups. Play also helps you relax and is at the core of creativity and innovation.
The point of play is that it is purposeless, meaning that you play for the sake of playing – to enjoy life. One might imagine that the opposite of play is work, but in reality, it’s depression. We humans can’t thrive if we don’t know how to play.
Every one of us needs play and every one of us needs rest. When you’re doing well in life, you get enough sleep, you work out, eat healthy food, take time off, do creative things, you are present with the people you love, you take weekends off, you hang out with people, you do meaningful work, and so on. You play.
Yet more often we instead wish to have a bigger house, to travel to new expensive places, higher status, more money and more achievements. Money and achievements are important, but things that make you feel alive are play, rest, creativity and fulfilling connections. In other words, what makes life worthwhile is taking good care of yourself.
8. Cultivating Calm and Stillness: Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle
In every crisis, people who get out of the situation in one piece are thes people who know how to stay calm. Being calm means creating a healthy perspective on the situation and staying mindful, while managing emotional reactivity.
A panic response only produces more panic, fear and anxiety. Both calm and anxiety are contagious. So, if you learn to bring perspective to complex situations and feel your feelings without overreacting to fear and anger, you’re going to bring peace into your life and into the lives of the people around you. Without calm, the only thing left for you is to be anxious.
Breathing is the best way to start beating anxiety. The next thing to do is to deliberately take quiet hours in your life – in meditation, prayers, hiking or any other type of time off. You need to cultivate stillness and introduce quiet hours into your life.
When you manage to do that, you create an emotional clutter‑free space, allowing yourself to feel and dream and enjoy calm without worrying about the future.
9. Cultivating Meaningful Work: Letting Go of Self-Doubt and “Supposed To”
The best way to beat self-doubt is to find engaging and meaningful work. A calling of a kind. The fact is that we all have gifts and talents. When you share those talents with the world, you create a sense of meaning and purpose.
On the other hand, squandering your gifts brings distress to your life. If you don’t use your talents to cultivate meaningful work, you definitely struggle. Sooner or later, feelings of emptiness, frustration, resentment, shame, disappointment and grief bubble up.
The biggest challenge with meaningful work is that it doesn’t always pay the bills. Not many people find a way to align their gifts and talents with a way to feed their souls and families.
But you can definitely piece everything together somehow, by finding the best work that gets you sufficient pay and introducing some form of creative or meaningful hobbies into your life.
Slashes on LinkedIn profiles are one great example of how meaningful work can be pieced together. Researched/storyteller or artist/real estate agent are only two examples of how one can integrate and fully express several passions, talents and interests at once.
10. Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance: Letting Go of Being Cool and Always in Control
Shame resilience is best seen in one’s capacity for laughter. Laughter, singing and dance are ways to emotionally and spiritually connect with others and with forces greater than one’s life.
These three activities can help you find comfort, celebration, inspiration, healing, and the notion that you’re not alone. Happy and joyful people laugh, sing, and dance.
If you don’t let yourself be free, you’ll never tolerate freedom in others.
Songs elicit emotions, dance is a form of self-expression that makes you the most vulnerable, and humor is one of the healthiest coping mechanisms. And as we said, you can’t fight shame if you don’t let yourself be vulnerable, it’s impossible to fight shame if you don’t open yourself up.
Knowing that, we can say that if you’re afraid of being awkward, goofy, silly or uncool when you dance, there’s a great probability you try to have too much control over your life or that you struggle with shame.
So, if you don’t like to dance (like I don’t), absolutely read the book!