Editor's note: Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent 10 years studying vulnerability, shame, authenticity and courage. She is the author of "The Gifts of Imperfection" (Hazelden) and has a blog on courage.
(CNN) -- The quest for perfection is exhausting and unrelenting, but as hard as we try, we can't turn off the tapes that fill our heads with messages like "Never good enough" and "What will people think?"
Why, when we know that there's no such thing as perfect, do most of us spend an incredible amount of time and energy trying to be everything to everyone? Is it that we really admire perfection? No -- the truth is that we are actually drawn to people who are real and down-to-earth. We love authenticity and we know that life is messy and imperfect.
We get sucked into perfection for one very simple reason: We believe perfection will protect us. Perfectionism is the belief that if we live perfect, look perfect, and act perfect, we can minimize or avoid the pain of blame, judgment, and shame.
We all need to feel worthy of love and belonging, and our worthiness is on the line when we feel like we are never ___ enough (you can fill in the blank: thin, beautiful, smart, extraordinary, talented, popular, promoted, admired, accomplished).
Perfectionism is not the same thing as striving to be our best. Perfectionism is not about healthy achievement and growth; it's a shield. Perfectionism is a 20-ton shield that we lug around thinking it will protect us when, in fact, it's the thing that's really preventing us from being seen and taking flight.
Living in a society that floods us with unattainable expectations around every topic imaginable, from how much we should weigh to how many times a week we should be having sex, putting down the perfection shield is scary. Finding the courage, compassion and connection to move from "What will people think?" to "I am enough," is not easy. But however afraid we are of change, the question that we must ultimately answer is this:
What's the greater risk? Letting go of what people think -- or letting go of how I feel, what I believe, and who I am?
So, how do we cultivate the courage, compassion, and connection that we need to embrace our imperfections and to recognize that we are enough -- that we are worthy of love, belonging, and joy? Why we're all so afraid to let our true selves be seen and known. Why are we so paralyzed by what other people think? After studying vulnerability, shame, and authenticity for the past decade, here's what I've learned.
A deep sense of love and belonging is an irreducible need of all people. We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. When those needs are not met, we don't function as we were meant to. We break. We fall apart. We numb. We ache. We hurt others. We get sick.
There are certainly other causes of illness, numbing, and hurt, but the absence of love and belonging will always lead to suffering.
As I conducted my research interviews, I realized that only one thing separated the men and women who felt a deep sense of love and belonging from the people who seem to be struggling for it. That one thing is the belief in their worthiness. It's as simple and complicated as this:
If we want to fully experience love and belonging, we must believe that we are worthy of love and belonging.
The greatest challenge for most of us is believing that we are worthy now, right this minute. Worthiness doesn't have prerequisites.
So many of us have created a long list of worthiness prerequisites:
• I'll be worthy when I lose 20 pounds
• I'll be worthy if I can get pregnant
• I'll be worthy if I get/stay sober
• I'll be worthy if everyone thinks I'm a good parent
• I'll be worthy if I can hold my marriage together
• I'll be worthy when I make partner
• I'll be worthy when my parents finally approve
• I'll be worthy when I can do it all and look like I'm not even trying
Here's what is truly at the heart of whole-heartedness: Worthy now. Not if. Not when. We are worthy of love and belonging now. Right this minute. As is.
Letting go of our prerequisites for worthiness means making the long walk from "What will people think?" to "I am enough." But, like all great journeys, this walk starts with one step, and the first step in the Wholehearted journey is practicing courage.
The root of the word courage is cor -- the Latin word for heart. In one of its earliest forms, the word courage had a very different definition than it does today. Courage originally meant to speak one's mind by telling all one's heart.
Over time, this definition has changed, and, today, courage is more synonymous with being heroic. Heroics are 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.
Heroics are often about putting our life on the line. Courage is about putting our vulnerability on the line. If we want to live and love with our whole hearts and engage in the world from a place of worthiness, our first step is practicing the courage it takes to own our stories and tell the truth about who we are. It doesn't get braver than that.