Brené Brown

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Brené Brown, PhD, LMSW is a research professor at the University of Houston's Graduate College of Social Work who has spent the past 10 years studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. She is a nationally renowned speaker and has won numerous teaching awards, including the college's Outstanding Faculty Award. Her groundbreaking work has been featured on PBS, NPR, and CNN. Her 2010 TEDxHouston talk on the power of vulnerability is one of most watched talks on TED.com. Her most recent TED talk, "Listening to Shame," was released in March 2012.

Brené is the author of The Gifts of Imperfection and I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't). She is also the author of Connections, a psychoeducational shame resilience curriculum that is being facilitated across the nation by mental health and addiction professionals.

Brené's current research focuses on wholeheartedness in families, schools, and organizations. She lives in Houston with her husband and their two young children.

Author photo © Danny Clarc

Listen to Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interview with Brené:
The Courage to be Vulnerable »

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The Courage to be Vulnerable

Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston’s graduate college of social work who has spent the past decade studying vulnerability, courage, authenticity, and shame. Brené is the author of the number-one New York Times bestseller Daring Greatly, and with Sounds True she has created the audio learning course The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, and Courage. In this episode, Tami Simon speaks with Brené about the cultural myth that equates vulnerability with weakness instead of recognizing it as the greatest measure of our courage. They also examine Brené’s research into the qualities that allow someone to live in a wholehearted way. (66 minutes)

The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting – with Brené B...

We all know that perfect parenting does not exist, yet we still struggle with the social expectations that teach us that being imperfect is synonymous with being inadequate. These messages are powerful and we end up spending precious time and energy managing perception and the carefully edited versions of the families we show to the world.

On The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting: Raising Children with Courage, Compassion, and Connection, Dr. Brené Brown invites us on a journey to transform the lives of parents and children alike. Drawing on her 12 years of research on vulnerability, courage, worthiness, and shame, she presents 10 guideposts to creating what she describes as “wholehearted” families where each of us can continually learn and grow as we reach our full potential. 

Brené Brown on Embracing Vulnerability

“You cannot access empathy if you’re not willing to be vulnerable.” What a rich and evocative statement from our friend and Sounds True author Brené Brown. There is such a deeply-rooted pull to move toward those emotional-states that we identify as “positive” or “light” or “spiritual” – along with a counter move away from those “darker” or challenging and exposing emotions such as vulnerability, sadness, and grief. But, as Brené reminds us, vulnerability is the ground of all of the so-called positive emotional states, including those of love, joy, and belonging.

When we can allow ourselves to be naked, exposed, to be profoundly touched by whatever appears, we can meet this life – and the sweet, beautiful heart of another – in the most precious way. It is in this turning into the immediacy of our experience, in a truly embodied way, that we come to discover the many fruits of this sacred world. There are times, of course, when doing so is not easy, when it takes everything we have (and more), and feels completely counter-instinctual. But somehow, by some mysterious grace, we learn to stay with what is there, knowing that it has something very precious to show us about ourselves, and about the true nature of love. 

If you are interested in learning more about Brené’s teachings and research in the areas of vulnerability, shame, and worthiness, you may enjoy her original audio programs with Sounds True:

The Gifts of Imperfect Parenting: Raising Children with Courage, Compassion, and Connection

Men, Women, and Worthiness: The Experience of Shame and the Power of Being Enough

The Power of Vulnerability: Teachings on Authenticity, Connection, and Courage

Enjoy the following video from Brené on the gifts of embracing vulnerability.

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Bruce Tift: Already Free

Have you ever wondered how to hold the following two seemingly contradictory experiences? On the one hand, you feel in touch with the vast expanse of being. You sense that your true nature is infinite, boundless, unconditionally loving, and outside of time. And on the other hand, you know that in certain situations (usually involving other people!), you are avoidant, dismissive, reactive, and shut down, and—truth be told—you have a lot of healing and personal growth work to do.

Buddhist psychotherapist Bruce Tift is a master at holding these two seemingly contradictory views, and—ready for this?—he does so “without any hope of resolution.” In this podcast, Tami Simon and Bruce Tift talk about how, in his work with clients, he skillfully embraces both the developmental view of psychotherapy and the fruitional view of Vajrayana Buddhism, the blind spots that come with each approach, and how combining them can help people avoid these pitfalls. 

Tune in as they discuss unconditional openness, and how it is important to be “open to being closed”; how neurosis requires disembodiment, and further, how our neurosis is fundamentally an avoidance strategy—“a substitute for experiential intensity”; our complaints about other people (especially our relationship partners) as opportunities to take responsibility for our own feelings of disturbance (instead of blaming other people for upsetting us); how to engage in “unconditional practices,” such as the practice of unconditional openness, unconditional embodiment, and unconditional kindness; and more.

Unwinding Trauma and PTSD: The Nervous System, Somatic...

The mind-body connection is still a new concept in Western medicine. Descartes’s declaration “I think, therefore I am” encouraged many to view the mind as separate from and superior to the bodyfor almost 400 years! So, to understand the discovery of feedback loops in the nervous system linking body and mind is to undergo a major paradigm shift, with radical implications for how we view and treat conditions like trauma and PTSD—and how you can empower yourself around your own healing journey.

Why Embodiment Decreases for Trauma Survivors

Until trauma survivors feel their safety has been truly restored, their nervous system relies on defensive mechanisms like dissociation, numbing out, or immobilization. This can feel subjectively like becoming a two-dimensional “stick figure” energetically, with a body that’s barely there.

If you feel like you’re not really inhabiting your body, know that it’s not your fault and you probably had very good historical reasons to leave it. With recent advances in mind-body therapies and somatic psychology, however, there are many ways—when you’re ready—to safely return to experiencing your fully embodied self. 

Perhaps the most popular of these therapies is Somatic Experiencing®.

What Is Somatic Experiencing?

Somatic Experiencing is a form of therapy originally developed by Dr. Peter Levine. It proceeds from the premise that trauma is not just “in your head.” Though you may feel off-kilter psychologically in the wake of trauma, you’re not “crazy”you have a nervous system that has been put into overdrive.

The body can’t distinguish physical trauma from mental or emotional trauma, and this leads the brain, once you’ve had trauma, to get stuck in a state of believing that you’re in perpetual danger.

Without a way to shake off the effects of having been in a dangerous situation in the past, trauma survivors disconnect from their bodies; the trauma gets “frozen” inside. With this frozenness in the body, your emotions can become dysregulated easily; you might at times feel spacey, agitated, depressed, panicky, collapsed—or all of the above.

Again, it’s not your fault that any of this is happening: dissociating and numbing are a natural  defense mechanism. Still, it may take some work, often within a therapeutic container, to start to “thaw” the frozenness or unwind the trauma.

Somatic Experiencing practitioners help clients increase their awareness of their kinesthetic, embodied experience, and lead them through techniques to gradually release stresses that have been locked into the body. Allowing both physical responses and emotions to come through, bit by bit, restores psychological balance and can help resolve even long-term PTSD.

How It All Works: Polyvagal Theory

Neuroscientist and psychologist Dr. Stephen Porges synthesized Polyvagal Theory as a way to explain human behavior in terms of the evolution of our autonomic nervous system. It not only provides a biological frame for parts of Somatic Experiencing, it has helped therapists develop a host of somatically attuned interventions and refined the way they interact with clients.

The centerpiece of Polyvagal Theory is the vagus nerve. This long nerve mediates what Porges calls the “social engagement” system. The vagus nerve’s ventral branch supports social engagement: a calm and playful, pro-social state. Its dorsal branch supports the opposite: immobilization (characterized by dissociation, depression, numbness, or “freeze.”)

If you undergo a trauma, the dorsal branch of the vagus nerve activates a state of immobilization. On the other hand, when you feel safe and embodied, your parasympathetic nervous system functions smoothly and you can (ideally) engage socially. What makes all this possible is neuroception, perception that takes place without our conscious awareness, tipping us from safety into other modes, like fight, flight, or freeze.

Clinicians trained in Polyvagal Theory support clients in making shifts in their autonomic responses, from “freeze” and shutdown to fight or flight—to safety—in order to restore a healthy range of responses and the feeling of being safe. 

Practicing co-regulation with their clients helps the clients to re-establish inner safety and other positive feeling states.

How You Can Increase Your Embodiment

Trauma severs us from our body, and embodiment brings us back. 

Embodiment practices like somatic therapies, qigong, and various athletic activities are some of the best medicine around for the nervous system. Even just taking a long walk while paying attention to your feet making contact with the earth can be quite supportive.

Sounds True also has created The Healing Trauma Program to offer support for your healing. The course has a faculty of 13 esteemed trauma experts—including Somatic Experiencing founder Dr. Peter Levine, Polyvagal Theory expert Deb Dana, Dr. Gabor Maté, Konda Mason, Thomas Hübl, and many others. The program takes place over nine months and is truly an immersion into the world of trauma recovery, with teachings, guided practices, live practice sessions and Live Q&As. Find out more about The Healing Trauma Program.

A Compassionate Approach to Recognizing Trauma Bonding

The theory of attachment styles became popularized in the last 15 years; now trauma is (finally) getting recognition from the mainstream. But most of us aren’t yet clear about the very deep connection that exists between trauma and certain attachment styles. This is where the concept of “trauma bonding” comes into play.

What is trauma bonding?

Trauma bonding happens when we get attached to someone who is often neglectful or abusive (physically, emotionally, or psychologically), but is also occasionally kind. When we’re attached to someone like this, we typically explain away their bad behavior, claiming “they had a hard day” or “it was my fault they got mad at me.” Rationalization offers us a semblance of protection from seeing the reality of the danger and inequality in the relationship. 

It’s common to form a trauma bonding pattern when one of our parents or partners is erratic, abusive, or absent. But often the template of trauma bonding gets applied to many of our relationships.

Signs You Have a Trauma Bond

If you’re in a trauma bond relationship right now, you may make dramatic or sudden life changes or even great sacrifices for the sake of the relationship to the detriment of outside friendships, family, and your autonomy. 

Even if the original, harmful relationship is now a thing of the past (e.g., you moved out, you broke up with the manipulative partner, or your former abuser has died), the trauma bonding pattern may remain embedded until you learn how to consciously uproot it.

Signs this trauma bonding template is still present can include:

  • Emotionally caretaking others while your own needs and desires are swept under the rug
  • Acting as if you continually need to prove your worth to others (and yourself)
  • Avoiding being authentic or open because it feels like too great a risk
  • Feeling frustrated, exhausted, hypervigilant, or unsupported in relationships due to perceiving pressure coming from others
  • A pattern of feeling disempowered around coworkers, a spouse, or family members

What Causes Trauma Bonding?

When we experience stress and feel (consciously or unconsciously) we’re in danger, our sympathetic nervous system activates the “fight or flight” response. As long as that circuitry is activated, we’re not able to plan for the future or assess risks very clearly; our nervous system gets locked in survival mode to get through the stress. In other words, it’s not your fault that you can’t see what’s going on.

The challenge is heightened because of the intermittent reinforcement that characterizes trauma bonds: we receive occasional comfort or love in the relationship, which is sprinkled on top of the typical abuse or neglect. Like other forms of intermittent reinforcement, it’s an addictive combination to be exposed to, and one that hampers our ability to understand we’re being mistreated. 

Because we focus so intently on the positive reinforcement we experience from time to time with our abuser, we contort ourselves psychologically to try to get the love as often as we can. Once this pattern is established, it is naturally hard to stop engaging it—again, because of the way our nervous system developed. Getting outside support to stop the cycle is an act of strength and wisdom.

Should You Break a Trauma Bond?  

If you’re in clear and real danger, it is most important to find a way to safely remove yourself from harm. Over the longer term, the best approach is learning to create healthy relational boundaries so as not to form or reform trauma bonds.  

Once you start to become aware of the trauma bonding pattern operating in you, you can recognize and address the behaviors it causes. You can uncover and listen to your buried needs and wants, and reclaim your personal power and freedom. Doing this can help you shift your nervous system out of past trauma bonding tendencies and toward new possibilities, including nurturing mutual relationships with people who are interested in your happiness and will support your thriving.

To find out more about healing traumas (including trauma bonding), please check out The Healing Trauma Program, hosted by Jeffrey Rutstein, PsyD, CHT.

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