Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection: Review by Catherine Cottam

The Gifts of Imperfection was published in 2010 by Hazelden Publishing in Center City, Minnesota and was written by Brené Brown, Ph.D., L.M.S.W..  Its full title is “The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are (Your Guide to a Wholehearted Life).  It is a fascinating and inspiring read and, at only 130 pages, it doesn’t take too long to read.  I learned about Brené Brown at some point during graduate school when someone showed me her first TED Talk.  I wish I could remember who so that I could give them full credit here because I have loved her ever since.  I’ve watched her TED talks dozens of times each and have read all but one of her books so far (I plan on reading the latest soon).

In the preface, Dr. Brown explains that you must love yourself before you can live a wholehearted life.  She says, “Knowledge is important, but only if we’re being kind and gentle with ourselves as we work to discover who we are.”  Knowledge itself is self-awareness while knowledge and kindness together are self-love.  She also establishes that what happens when we marry, divorce, become a parent, move, become empty nesters, retire, experience a loss or a trauma, work in a soul-sucking job, receive a medical diagnosis, or have a health crisis is an unraveling rather than a midlife crisis.  It’s “a time when you feel a desperate pull to live the life you want to live, not the one you’re ‘supposed’ to live.  The unraveling is a time when you are challenged by the universe to let go of who you think you are supposed to be and to embrace who you are.”  I so identify with that because I certainly felt unraveled when I was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder, but the letting go of who I think I’m supposed to be and embracing who I am isn’t done yet three years post diagnosis, so maybe the unraveling is an ongoing process rather than a single event.

One of my favorite things Dr. Brown says is that “owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing that we will ever do.”  She even has an online course where you can learn more about this.  I took the course that she co-facilitated with Glennon Doyle Melton on Courage Works and it was a transformative experience to hear the two of them interact and talk about storytelling.

Brown also says, “I am imperfect and vulnerable and sometimes afraid, but that doesn’t change the truth that I am also brave and worthy of love and belonging.”  Wow!  That is so profoundly true but hard to grasp.  How do we make ourselves truly believe that we are worthy?  If you have ideas on this, let me know in the comments section.  I’m personally still searching for ways to believe in my worth.

Brené writes, “Owning our story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it.  Embracing our vulnerabilities is risky but not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love and belonging and joy – the experiences that make us the most vulnerable.  Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.”  This doesn’t discount her theory that we should only tell our story at the right place at the right time to the right person, it just means that when all of those conditions are met, it’s best to be vulnerable and authentic about ourselves and our stories.  Brown states that sharing our shame story with the wrong person or people is dangerous and that “they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm.”

Dr. Brown talks about how we often hustle for worthiness and trade in authenticity for approval.  We act in ways that are inconsistent with our beliefs and our values.  There have been several people throughout my life who have made me feel like I need to do this.  Hardly any of them ended up long term friends.  I’m sure we have all agreed to something we didn’t really want to do or acted interested in something we weren’t really interested in or listened to music we didn’t really like because we wanted someone else to like us.  That’s hustling for worthiness and it doesn’t feel very good.

Brené explains that “courage originally meant ‘to speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart’ and that ‘heroics is important and we certainly need heroes, but I think we’ve lost touch with the idea that speaking honestly and openly about who we are, about what we’re feeling, and about our experiences (good and bad) is the definition of courage.'”  Heroic courage is about putting our safety on the line while ordinary courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line and speaking honestly and openly.  I strive to be courageous in this sense and I wish I was strong and brave enough to always be as authentic as this describes people being.

I know I’m using a lot of quotes in this blog post, but Brené Brown just says things in such an easily accessible way that it’s sometimes hard to come up with different or better ways to say things.  I love it when she says, “I think asking for what you need is one of the bravest things that you’ll ever do.”  I am very slowly learning how to ask for what I need.  It’s a skill that requires practice and doesn’t come easily to me as one of my negative core beliefs is that I am a burden to those I care about.

Dr. Brown talks about the necessity of boundaries and accountability and explains that a lack of those two causes people to feel mistreated, manipulated, or abused.  She also explains that it’s impossible to practice compassion from a place of resentment.  I think this explains why practicing compassion with family members can sometimes be very challenging as there is always a history with family.

Brené talks about the things that get in the way of wholehearted living before moving on to her 10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living.  Those Guideposts are:

  1. Cultivating Authenticity: Letting Go of What People Think
  2. Cultivating Self-Compassion: Letting Go of Perfectionism
  3. Cultivating a Resilient Spirit: Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness
  4. Cultivating Gratitude and Joy: Letting Go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark
  5. Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith: Letting Go of the Need for Certainty
  6. Cultivating Creativity: Letting Go of Comparison
  7. Cultivating Play and Rest: Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-Worth
  8. Cultivating Calm and Stillness: Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle
  9. Cultivating Meaningful Work: Letting Go of Self-Doubt and “Supposed To”
  10. Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance: Letting Go of Being Cool and “Always in Control”

She also takes time to explain the difference between shame and guilt.  Guilt is thinking, “I did something bad.” Shame is thinking “I am bad.”  “Shame is about who we are, and guilt is about our behaviors.”  Guilt can be helpful while shame is destructive and harmful.


Dr. Brown says more about sharing our stories later when she says, “Our stories are not meant for everyone.  Hearing them is a privilege, and we should always ask ourselves this before we share: ‘Who has earned the right to hear my story?'”  I really appreciate this idea, especially since I am currently writing a memoir about my experiences with Bipolar Disorder.  I’m being honest and authentic about my experiences without choosing to share every single detail.

When talking about cultivating authenticity, Brené says, “authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be and embracing who we are.”  While the concept seems pretty straightforward, it’s much more difficult to put it into practice- at least for me.  I struggle to be authentic and I don’t always do a very good job at it.  I admire the people Brené calls “Wholehearted” and my goal is to become more like them, but I’m certainly not there yet.

Quoting Lynne Twist, the book says, “Before we even sit up in bed, before our feet touch the floor, we’re already inadequate, already behind, already losing, already lacking something.  And by the time we go to bed at night, our minds race with a litany of what we didn’t get, or didn’t get done, that day.”  I wonder if this is in all cultures or just in Western cultures.  When I traveled to Kenya and when I lived in South Africa, the people who lived there seemed to be significantly more grateful for less than people in the United States are grateful for.  The first time I went into the grocery store after returning from South Africa, I had to turn around and walk back out because there were too many choices.  There was a whole AISLE of bottled water and a whole section dedicated to different cheeses.  Scarcity here means something completely different from scarcity in Kenya and South Africa.  In my, admittedly limited, experience, people who have less seem more grateful for what they have.

In closing, I am so grateful for Brené Brown and her writing.  Her books always make me look at life a little differently and more brightly and The Gifts of Imperfection is no exception to that.  This was an intriguing, fun, and fast read and I would definitely recommend it to friends, family, and anyone who is interested in learning more about humanity and about him or herself.

Assignment for January

Make an “ingredients for joy and meaning” list.  This should be a list of specific conditions that are in place when everything feels good in your life.  Compare it to your to-do list and your to-accomplish list.  It may surprise you.

Related Resources:

Click on goireadingcompanion for a guided worksheet for The Gifts of Imperfection.

Brené Brown TED Talk- The Power of Vulnerability

Brené Brown TED Talk- Listening to Shame

Brené Brown- Why Your Critics Aren’t The Ones Who Count

Living Brave With Brené Brown and Oprah Winfrey

Brené Brown on CreativeLive


2 thoughts on “Brené Brown’s The Gifts of Imperfection: Review by Catherine Cottam

  1. Monica LeBlanc says:

    Love the new assignment! That part of “Gifts” where she completes that assignment with her husband is one of the things I remember most from the book. My list is changing all the time. The hardest part of authenticity for me is knowing what I need with enough time and thought to ask for it ahead of time. I usually have a tantrum when I don’t get (insert thing) that I didn’t even know I needed. Just ask my husband about the dishes meltdown of Tuesday night! Hahaha. At least there is laughter and humility to keep me authentically growing… ❤


    • illuminatedbyu says:

      I love that we both noticed the same part of the book! I feel like my tantrums similarly happen when I don’t get something I didn’t even know I needed. Sometimes that is alone time and sometimes it is good or other things. Thank you so much for reading and commenting!! ❤❤❤


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