The Gifts of Imperfection by Brene Brown is a great resource for anyone who is interested in getting started doing some deeper work on what may be holding them back in personal, professional or relationship situations.
This book is not new – there are many reviews out there and what I am going to cover in this review isn’t all the book is about or all that it contains. But there are a few topics I’m cherry-picking (as a professional counselor and coach) to give a taste of what this short but rich work has to offer.
I was assigned this book to read during my seminary training as a professional counselor. Like most good books for counselors in training, The Gifts of Imperfection is simultaneously insightful for the practitioner and the client. I have recommended this book to several clients with great success, in part because I always remember what a great impact it has had on me as a growing person. We are people before we are clients or therapists!
Who Do We Tell?
One of the central themes running through The Gifts of Imperfection is “telling.” Brown is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker, and I am a Licensed Mental Health Counselor. So we both value the importance of talking and relating to others in real-time when it comes to personal growth and healing, especially from wounds of the past. Even if your growth tool of choice is writing, that’s perfectly fine. Writing, to me, is a form of talking. And here is what Brown has to say about its importance:
“When we’re looking for compassion, we need someone who is deeply rooted, able to bend, and, most of all, we need someone who embraces us for our strengths and struggles. We need to honor our struggle by sharing it with someone who has earned the right to hear it. When we’re looking for compassion, it’s about connecting with the right person at the right time about the right issue.” (10)
I like this description because it names well what I try to be when I work with people who are hurting, struggling, seeking for answers. In fact, not getting compassion in our primary relationships (when we were growing up, or in our relationships with our partners, spouses, or friends) is one of the primary and most common sources of pain I encounter clients experiencing in my counseling practice.
When begin working with a new client, and the working relationship is just beginning, I always point out that it will take time (and should!) to build a deep and trusting working relationship. Fortunately, I have been doing this for long enough to help the client feel safe in the very first session through active listening, careful attention, and empathy.
I also appreciate Brown’s personal and vulnerable approach. I am not the first to say so. It is one of the primary qualities of her work that I believe makes it so effective and almost universally appealing.
Most of us are looking for someone who is not only safe but consistent – in other words, they act the same in the office as they do at home or abroad. Not many of us can say that we, ourselves, are the same regardless of context, but most of us would agree that it’s an admirable quality worth aspiring to.
When Brown describes what it was like after she took the risk of working on herself, there are several qualities that stand out: joyfulness, gratitude, peace, creativity, and reconnection:
“I was healthier, more joyful, and more grateful than I had ever felt. I felt calmer and grounded, and significantly less anxious. I had rekindled my creative life, reconnected with my family and friends in a new way, and most important, felt truly comfortable in my own skin for the first time in my life.” (Preface)
Keep in mind: Brown is a practitioner herself. Even practitioners get stuck and need care. I can speak from experience on this, and I appreciate Brown’s vulnerability and candor. Again, consistency!
The Meaning Of Compassion
When Brown unpacks the meaning of compassion, she comes upon two phrases she feels captures its essence: “to suffer with,” and “to relax and move closer to what scares you.” How many of us shrink back from the suffering of another person?
We care, we feel concern, but we just don’t know how to connect with that person. So maybe we say nothing. Maybe we “don’t want to be a burden.” But if we take the safe way out of an emotionally painful situation, it very rarely leads to progress, growth, or healing. Trying to back out of an emotionally difficult context without assistance or further work is understandable but rarely helpful.
To “move closer to what scares you” is a very powerful way to learn from our fear, to test it, and to see where it is coming from. Much like the famous metaphor of “the wizard behind the curtain” from the Wizard of Oz, it is very rarely as large and terrible as it may seem at first.
Even more importantly, moving closer to what scares us allows us to move closer to what scares others. In other words, the more willing we are able to look inwards and learn from what is difficult in our own pasts and stories, the more capable we find ourselves of walking into the dark places of others’ stories. We are able to feel empathy for the co-sufferer. We are able to say “I am not above it. I think I get enough what this is like to stay in and offer some comfort, peace, and support.”
Brown defines “connection” as “the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.” (19)
Much of what happens in counseling, in my view, is modeling what healthy interaction looks like. Everything I do, I often tell clients, can be copied and practiced in the marriage relationship, or at work, or in a friendship or other partnership. Active listening, compassion, striving first and more to understand than to be understood – all of these are what hopefully begins and continues to establish safety in a relationship.
The Transformative Power Of Story
In The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown says that there are “four elements of shame resilience: name it, talk about it, own your story, tell the story.” (43) But what does shame have to do with telling a story (or not)? Shame is a central topic in Brown’s work, and since this review is meant to spur the reader to dive deeper, I won’t explain it in full here.
In order to understand Brown’s point regarding the importance of story, a short definition might be helpful. Shame is basically the fear of being unlovable – it’s the total opposite of owning our story and feeling worthy.” (38) Brown says that much of the work she does as a professional counselor involves naming, “that is, helping my client put good names and descriptions to what has happened.
Talking in session is the act of exploration that leads to ownership.” (43) I would agree. Talking and journaling have a lot in common therapeutically in this particular way. Putting a name to something reduces the hold and power it has on us, especially when that hold and power is predominately negative (i.e. – shame inducing).
Brown implies in The Gifts of Imperfection that one of the ways we can get stuck is by telling a story about ourselves (or others) that simply is not true. Maybe it’s a story someone told us. Maybe we don’t know where we got this story of who we are or what happened, but since we never bothered to explore it whether it was true, we have been walking around for years acting as if it is true.
One thing Brown is passionate about (and I agree) is that We cannot ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time. We must avoid numbing behaviors, and one of the best ways to do that is to talk about what has happened.
At the very beginning of The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown says “I now see how owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.” (Preface) I agree. I am thankful I went through a counseling training program that required each counseling candidate to do his/her own counseling. How can I expect to walk my clients throughout something I’ve never experienced?
The same is true for group work, which I believe can be very powerful indeed. Fortunately, I was blessed with an internship director that had fifteen plus years running counseling groups in prisons. She ran our group like a group.
She used what was happening in the room in real-time to show each of us what both “resistance” and “authenticity” looked like. I’m forever grateful for this experience, and I apply what I learned during this time with each and every new client that I meet.
If anything in this book review – which is really more of a brief overview – makes you want to go deeper into your own story, I or another therapist at Seattle Christian Counseling would be honored to walk with you.
“The Birds”, Courtesy of Ariana Prestes, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “I Spy”, Courtesy of Karina, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Come Along”, Courtesy of Remi Walle, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Worship,” courtesy of Zac Durant, unsplash.com, CC0 License
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