Dr. Brené Brown knows the quickest way to shut down unwanted conversations with nosy strangers on an airplane.
In her talks on The Power of Vulnerability, Brown jokes that telling people “I’m a shame researcher” tends to shut them up pretty quickly. (Though I don’t think it would work on me. ?)
Photo by Daniel Dubois
Brown is a researcher, professor, and prolific author who launched into the spotlight with her smash-hit TED talk on The Power of Vulnerability.
Since then, Brown’s research has explored powerful questions like:
“What do wholehearted people have in common?”
Most people are held back by shame and let a fear of vulnerability limit their potential. But after studying these topics for years, Brown began to notice outliers. There was a group of people who did things differently.
Brown called these outliers “the wholehearted.”
As she began studying what made the wholehearted unique, Brown was “looking for women and men living and loving with their whole hearts despite the risks and uncertainty.”
Where others approach life half-heartedly, wholehearted people have the courage to bring their full selves to the table.
But despite these descriptions, “wholeheartedness” remains an intangible aim. How do you actually start living wholeheartedly?
To answer that question, we need to simplify wholehearted living by deconstructing it into its component parts. Fortunately, Brown’s research revealed what she calls the 10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living.
What are the 10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living?
Brene Brown’s 10 Guideposts for Wholehearted Living are as follows:
- Cultivating Authenticity and Letting Go of What Other People Think
- Cultivating Self-Compassion and Letting Go of Perfectionism
- Cultivating Your Resilient Spirit, Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness
- Cultivating Gratitude and Joy, Letting go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark
- Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith, Letting Go of the Need for Certainty
- Cultivating Creativity and Letting Go of Comparison
- Cultivating Play and Rest, Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-Worth
- Cultivating Calm and Stillness and Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle
- Cultivating Meaningful Work, Letting Go of Self-Doubt and Supposed-To
- Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance. And Letting Go of Cool and Always in Control
Each guidepost is like a coin with two sides. On one side, it shares what to cultivate. And on the other, it instructs what to let go of.
The two work hand-in-hand.
Cultivating is about creating something positive. It’s moving you forward by putting your oars in the water to row your boat on the sea of life.
Letting go is about removing resistance. It’s detaching the anchors from your boat so you make effective progress when you row.
Without creating the positive, you won’t move forward. And without releasing what weighs you down, your progress is limited, slow, and painful.
The term “guidepost” also signifies that wholeheartedness is a way of travel, not a destination.
Put another way…
Wholehearted Living is a Practice
As Brown says, “Wholeheartedness is like a North Star. You can never get there. But you know when you’re heading the right way.”
In the rest of this post, I’ll unpack and explore each of the 10 guideposts for wholehearted living.
If you put them into practice, you too can join the ranks of the wholehearted. (!!)
But fair warning, these guideposts aren’t a simple one-and-done check box. They take sincere effort and conscious practice. After all, if wholehearted living were easy, everyone would be doing it!
To support you in your practice, I created A Simple Guide to Wholehearted Living. This free PDF will help you close the gap between theory and practice.
Download the wholehearted living PDF here to make the most of this wisdom.
“Wholeheartedness is hard. But not fully living our lives is much harder. And much more dangerous.”
Guidepost 1: Cultivating Authenticity and Letting Go of What Other People Think
There’s no such thing as an “authentic person” and an “inauthentic person.” Because authenticity isn’t a fixed quality. It’s a skill you PRACTICE over time.
“Authenticity” is also used so frequently that it’s lost its meaning. If you feel burned out on the term, I invite you to practice beginner’s mind and look at it from a new perspective.
Brown shares a helpful definition: “Authenticity is the daily practice of letting go of who we think we’re supposed to be, and embracing who we actually are.”
The quickest way to NOT be authentic is to try and be the person you think you’re expected to be.
Being yourself is hard. It means leaning into vulnerability. It means you’re willing to be seen.
But it’s well worth it. When you practice authenticity, you set an example for everyone around you that they can do the same.
Put Guidepost 1 Into Practice:
- Identify who you are when you’re at your best. Make a list. (“When I’m at my best, I am ______.”) Then, make it a habit to show up in that way. Celebrate your best moments with a “That’s like me!”
- Notice when you’re trying to please others, or get caught in worrying about what others think. Note these moments with a “Needs work” and shift back to your authentic self.
Guidepost 2: Cultivating Self-Compassion and Letting Go of Perfectionism
If you can’t give compassion to yourself, you won’t be able to give it to others.
Self-compassion has three main elements (as identified by Kristin Neff, a leading researcher in the field.)
First, it’s self-kindness. This means being as nice to yourself as you would be to others when you make a mistake.
Second, it’s recognizing our common humanity. No matter what you’re going through in life, you aren’t alone. Anytime you’re struggling with something, know that there are other people out there who share in that challenge.
Third, it’s practicing mindfulness by allowing ourselves to actually feel what we’re feeling, without over-identifying with those feelings. All feelings are temporary. None define you. Acknowledging what’s there gives you the ability to move forward more effectively.
When you embrace these three practices, you’ll find yourself showing up as a higher version of yourself, even when you make mistakes.
Perfectionism, on the other hand, does the opposite. It encourages you to be mean to yourself, disconnect you from others, and resist feeling what you’re actually feeling. It ignores the constraints of reality and drags you down with it.
Start Practicing Guidepost 2:
- Adopt the Platinum Rule from Tal Ben-Shahar “Do not do unto yourself what you would not do unto others.” Be kind to yourself. Know you’re human like everyone else. And accept what you’re feeling without judgment.
- Pay attention to when your perfectionist tendencies kick in. Choose instead to be an optimalist. This means maintaining sincere effort on the things you can control while embracing the constraints of reality. If it’s out of your control, it’s not worth your energy.
Guidepost 3: Cultivating Your Resilient Spirit, Letting Go of Numbing and Powerlessness
Resilience is your ability to overcome adversity and bounce back from losses, errors, and setbacks.
Brown shares five common qualities of resilient people:
- Resilient people are resourceful problem-solvers
- Resilient people seek help when they need it
- Resilient people take ownership of their ability to take action to manage their feelings
- Resilient people have access to social support
- Resilient people are connected with other people
When Brown talks about cultivating your resilient spirit, she notes that “across the board, wholehearted men and women are spiritual people.”
This doesn’t mean they’re religious. It means wholehearted people have “a deeply held belief that we are inextricably connected to each other by something greater than us.”
It’s this oneness that provides a sense of purpose and perspective in life, even when the going gets tough. It helps you recognize that you always have what you need within you to persevere through challenges and setbacks.
Numbing, on the other hand, is a way of ignoring the challenges that need your attention. Numbing activities like television, surfing social media, impulsive eating and drinking keep you comfortable. But they don’t develop resilience. And since they’re a mechanism for avoidance, they contribute to feelings of powerlessness.
In the long run, numbing makes you less well-equipped to handle the inevitable challenges of your life. And by numbing the low points, you also numb your ability to experience the potential high-points of life.
- Recognize that resilience is a skill you can build through intentional practice. Then, start practicing with these 6 approaches to develop crazy-good resilience.
- Bring awareness to your go-to numbing strategies. Is it food? TV? Your smartphone? Pornography? Alcohol? Awareness of these moments creates a fork-in-the-road, where you can choose a new path. Ask yourself: “Would I like to step forward into courage? Or step back into comfort?”
Guidepost 4: Cultivating Gratitude and Joy, Letting go of Scarcity and Fear of the Dark
Imagine you’re watching a movie. The opening scene is a beautiful, sunlight day in the mountains. There’s a young family driving along the mountain road. They’re laughing, and smiling together. The camera cuts from scene to scene, showing their joy, and watching them as they drive together.
…What do you think happens next?
If you’re like most people, you had a thought like:
- “They get hit by a truck.”
- “They drive off a cliff.”
- “The dad has a heart-attack.”
This is what Brown refers to as “Foreboding Joy.” It’s the fear that the other shoe is going to drop when good things happen to us in life.
Many people carry an unconscious belief that says “I can’t have too much of a good thing…”
This belief comes from a place of scarcity. It says “I won’t let myself feel this joy, because it won’t last forever.”
Gratitude provides a clear pathway to experiencing more of this joy. By practicing gratitude when for the opportunities you have to experience joy, you can be with it fully, even though it’s impermanent. And when the experience ends, you can be grateful that it happened at all!
The quickest way to eliminate joyful experiences from your life is to hold yourself back from feeling joy in the first place.
- Reframe your expectations about the level of joy you’re capable of experiencing in life. What if you expected to bring joy into each day?
- Make noticing what you’re grateful a part of your daily life. (Like keeping a gratitude journal.) There’s always something you can be grateful for. And therefore, always a reason to feel joy.
- When you feel fear or scarcity, use it as an opportunity to practice gratitude. For example, if you fear losing something, connect with the reasons you’re grateful to have that thing/person/opportunity in your life in this moment.
Guidepost 5: Cultivating Intuition and Trusting Faith, Letting Go of the Need for Certainty
All humans have a craving for certainty and control.
But there’s only so much you ever can control in life. There’s a limit to the level of certainty you can experience. (Especially if you’re creating something new or meaningful.)
Which is why intuition and faith are so helpful. They’re powerful tools for navigating uncertain environments.
Intuition might seem a nebulous word. But it’s actually quite simple. Intuition is a cognitive process where your mind compares the situation you’re in with all the others you’ve ever experienced. This happens at a subconscious level, which is why it’s difficult to explain your intuitions and hunches.
As Brown says, “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 have developed knowledge and insight, including instinct, experience, faith, and reason.”
So if you want to get great at navigating uncertainty, cultivating your intuition and faith is essential.
- When you find yourself in uncertainty, check in with your intuition. Find stillness and consider: What’s your gut telling you to do? What would you do if you had no fear?
- Create open space in your life to foster your internal connection. If you’re constantly bombarded by media and events and the thoughts of others, you lose track of what’s true for you. Make time for meditation, journaling, movement, and other alone-time to keep your internal connection strong.
Guidepost 6: Cultivating Creativity and Letting Go of Comparison
There’s no such thing as a “creative person” and a “non-creative person.” There are only people who practice creativity, and those who don’t!
All of life is naturally creative. That includes you! But oftentimes we put up barriers that hold us back from expressing this creativity.
Comparison with others is one of the biggest culprits here.
Little kids are a great example of our natural creativity. They love to play make-believe, draw pictures, make things with legos, etc. And for many years, they express this creativity endlessly, without regard for others.
At a certain age, the brain develops in a new way and we become self-conscious. We fear judgment if our creative work isn’t “good enough.” Eventually, this comparison with others squanders our creative habits. And when you don’t flex your creative muscles regularly, you stop seeing yourself as a creative person.
But you haven’t lost your ability to be creative. In the same way that a clogged pipe doesn’t lose its capacity to carry water, the creative force within you is still alive. You just need to rid yourself of what obstructs it.
- Get in the habit of making things. What’s your favorite way to be creative? What’s a way you used to love being creative, but haven’t practiced in a while? What’s a creative class you’ve always wanted to take? Get creating, and share your gifts with the world!
- Bring awareness to when you fall into the trap of comparison. Note this without judgment. Pay attention to the sensations you feel in your body while you’re in comparison. Then, return your focus within to clarify your intentions. What do you value? What do you want to create? What’s important for you right now in your current situation?
Guidepost 7: Cultivating Play and Rest, Letting Go of Exhaustion as a Status Symbol and Productivity as Self-Worth
This guidepost has two big elements.
First, play. There are a few key properties of play:
- It’s time spent without purpose
- It’s something you don’t want to end (lose track of time)
- It dissolves your hyper-self-consciousness. You lose yourself in the action.
Play is the opposite of how most achievers live their lives: Everything has to be for a specific aim, time must be tracked intensely, and we’re constantly concerned with how we’re appearing to others.
As such, play is written off as trivial, or foolish.
But Stuart Brown, author of Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul, begs to differ. He tells us that play isn’t a luxury. It’s actually a necessity for us to operate in the fullness of our potential.
This is because “The opposite of play is not work, the opposite of play is depression.”
Put another way: the more that play disappears from your life, the closer you move towards a state of depression.
The same goes for rest. Many people see rest as a luxury and vilify it with an “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” attitude.
But again, the exact opposite is true. Without appropriate rest, you prevent yourself from fully experiencing the moments of your days. I’d propose a revised version of the above quip: “Without sleep, I’m practically dead already.”
Furthermore, the TIME you spend working is a shoddy metric for progress. What matters most is the quality of the ATTENTION and ENERGY you bring to what you do.
- Create regular time for unstructured play. Get physical. Dance. Play games. Throw a ball. Be with others, and let your inner child free! (Recommended reading: Play it Away by Charlie Hoehn.)
- Practice bringing a playful mindset to the activities of each day. Ask: “How would I approach this if I were having fun?” Or “What would I do next if this were just a big game?”
- Notice when the thought that “play and rest are luxuries” shows up in your mind. That’s like a warning sign that you’re in need of rejuvenation. Use it as an opportunity to recommit to your top self-care practices.
Guidepost 8: Cultivating Calm and Stillness and Letting Go of Anxiety as a Lifestyle
Imagine you have a pot of boiling water on the stove, and you want to cool it down. So you add a block of ice to the water. This cools it down briefly, but soon enough, the heat is back and the water is boiling. So you add more ice, and the process repeats. Soon enough, you’re out of ice, and the water is boiling over.
But what if you slowed down enough to turn down the heat on the stove? Or better yet, turned it off entirely?
This is the approach many people take with anxiety. They think “Anxiety has always been around in the past, I just need a better way to manage it.”
Which is like looking for bigger ice cubes instead of figuring out how to turn off the stove.
And understanding how to turn off that stove requires space in your life for calm and stillness. This is time for emotional processing and self-regulation. To feel what’s going on in your life, question, dream, and explore possibilities.
- Start a daily meditation practice. Even as little as 2 minutes every day makes a big difference. Not sure where to begin? I assembled a free guided meditation bundle pack you can download here. Put them on your smartphone, and you’ll be a few taps away from your practice at all times.
- Create space for introspection via solitude and journaling. Give yourself the opportunity to understand yourself more deeply. What patterns of behavior are serving you in life? Which ones aren’t?
Guidepost 9: Cultivating Meaningful Work, Letting Go of Self-Doubt and Supposed-To
Meaningful work doesn’t necessarily refer to how you earn a living. Brown uses it to refer to the fact that we all have gifts and talents. And when we don’t use them, we feel distressed, because we know we’re capable of something more.
Committing to using these gifts and talents isn’t easy. One of the big barriers is doubting the fact that we have gifts in the first place. Or, defaulting to doing what we’re “supposed to” do to fit in.
I always tell my clients: “I don’t care what you feel like you should do. I only care about what you want to do.”
“Supposed-to” is a way of deferring to external sources. This is an attempt to keep you safe. (“If I do what others want, I’ll be okay…”) But in the process, it disconnects you from yourself.
- Reflect on what your unique gifts are, and start sharing them with the world. As Howard Thurman instructs: “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.”
- When you notice that you’re should-ing on yourself, pause and switch directions. Drop “should” and “supposed-to” from your vocabulary and replace it with “want.” (So “I should do X” becomes “I want to do X/Y/Z.”)
Guidepost 10: Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance. And Letting Go of Cool and Always in Control
Just like play and rest, laughter, song, and dance might seem like luxuries to Type-A achievement-oriented people.
But a life without laughter, song, and dance would be undoubtedly missing something.
Brown summarizes what these activities bring to our lives:
“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.”
Laughter, in particular, is a core element of resilience. Without the ability to laugh at yourself and your inevitable missteps, you’ll be hard-pressed to continue through adversity.
Song and dance are clear indicators of good moods. When we feel great, we sing and dance more. And since feelings follow behavior, when we authentically express ourselves through song and dance, we feel better.
The gremlin that holds us back from laughter, song, and dance is the desire to be seen as cool and always in control.
Playing it cool is how the ego tries to protect itself. The subconscious thought is that “If I don’t play it cool, people will judge me. They’ll think I’m immature, stupid, foolish, uncool, …”
But the flip side of that worry is even more powerful. As Brown shares it:
“When we value being cool and in control over granting ourselves the freedom to unleash the passionate, goofy, heartfelt, and soulful expressions of who we are, we betray ourselves. When we consistently betray ourselves, we can expect to do the same to the people we love.”
Which is why I now see being perceived as “weird” as a compliment. My aim isn’t “fitting in.” I just want to be true to myself. THAT is the path to forming authentic connections. And THAT is what it means to live wholeheartedly.
- When you notice that you’re low on your ladder of consciousness…take some LSD: Laughter, Singing, and Dancing!
- Next time you have the thought “But what if people think I’m weird…” Remember that fitting in is far less important than making authentic connections with others. Don’t let a fear of looking weird prevent you from doing the things that serve you.
Start Your Journey to Wholehearted Living
If you’ve read this whole guide, you may be suffering from information overload.
Below you’ll find a few prompts to help you put this wisdom into practice. And if you haven’t already, be sure to download the simple guide to wholehearted living, which I created to help you make wholehearted living your new default setting.
Which guidepost are you doing the best with? What comes naturally to you? —> Amazing! Celebrate it #thatslikeme style and keep at it. ?
Which guidepost, if given 5% more attention, would make the biggest difference for you today/this week? —> Make a commitment to something small to do that.
Which guidepost feels like the biggest stretch of your comfort zone? —> Identify one tiny action you can take to move forward there.
Start small. Commit to practicing one guidepost at a time. Focus on consistency over perfection. Love the practice. Re-commit when you stumble. And keep leaning into discomfort.
Here’s to you and your wholehearted life!