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On Reading The Gifts of Imperfection

December 8, 2011

This book piqued my interest when I received a notification from Meetup telling me that someone was forming a group based on this book. As you might imagine, the notion of a book that warrants a group unto itself definitely makes one want see what it is all about. So, intrigued by the book’s currency, needing a gentler read, and feeling a bit empty in the soul food department, I permitted myself to splurge and download the book, hoping against hope that it would give me a formula to live by, some explanation of the inexplicable contortions my nafs can take sometimes.

Well, no book can ever live up to such grand expectations. But I’ll be forgiving, and do my best to focus on what’s important: the self awareness this book gave me by taking on the form of an emotional glossary.

I may have not found the book to be overwhelmingly brilliant or life changing, but I do give the author props for being an academic who so sincerely, earnestly, and passionately shares her work and her findings for the betterment of the human condition. Often, attempting to capture the human experience from a sociological or psychological standpoint tends to engage with distilling, freeze-drying, and vacuum-packing material in the form of obscure academic journals that few people will ever read. So one especially refreshing aspect of this book was how such work becomes humanized, how Brown breathes life into the patterns that emerge from her qualitative research to reveal what it is about people who are living full, wholehearted lives.

One might expect this book to make a case for how imperfections are our saving grace, but the true essence of the book lies in the second part of its title: Let Go of Who You Think You’re Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are. Cliched as the sentence sounds, I believe there is something is to be said about how Brown outlines this process. Embracing who you are, she says, is about engaging in wholehearted living, and wholehearted living “is about engaging with the world from a place of authenticity and worthiness.” By letting go of what people think, practicing courage, compassion, and connection, and feeling worthy of love and belonging every bit as much as wanting it, Brown illustrates how we can live in the now rather than elusively chase happiness.

If that sounds too vague and New Age-y for your liking, I don’t blame you. (If you do care for it, then you should read the book. You’ll like it a lot.) But even though this book’s “feel-good” aspect is cloying at times, even though it panders to Oprah-watching soccer moms with social calendars bursting at the seams, I’m glad I bought it, and here is why.

The Gifts of Imperfection does an incredible job in describing the phenomena that constitute our beings. The book did not completely work for me a whole, but Brown’s definitions of concepts such as shame, faith, and joy have created portals in my understanding of myself that I know I will work onwards from. I may not have the full picture that Brown intended me to see, but I now have a self-aware emotional vocabulary that helps me understand myself, my relationships, and my being part of this world in a way I could  not before having read this book.

So this isn’t a review as much as a compilation of a few of the definitions I found especially powerful:

  • Connection is “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.” Kind of ties back to my post on friendship. Maybe a relationship that’s so focused on giving doesn’t qualify as a connection, simply because those are no more than one-way streets. Brown goes on to highlight that we need to receive with open hearts as liberally as we give with open hearts, and that attaching judgement to receiving help means attaching judgment to giving help. One of the things that drew me close to Islam was the discouragement of reminding another person of the good you did for them. What Brown says here is taking that one step further: don’t just not remind them. Don’t think of the fact that you’re not reminding them.
  • “We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, and when we honour the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.” The things that hinder love include shame, disrespect, and betrayal and “love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged, healed, and rare.” How’s that for wisdom that can save thousands in couple’s therapy?
  • Shame is “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Brown makes a compelling case for why the silence about the things that trigger shame is destroying the fabric of our beings and societies. Since shame is her area of expertise, she was especially eloquent in drawing out its dark forms, its connection to vulnerability, and how it can be mastered as a means of connection.
  • Spirituality is recognizing and celebrating that we are all inextricably connected to each other by a power greater than all of us.” I suppose I always adhered to a definition that factored out the “each other” part. Spirituality, I tend to think, is about me and that greater power, and that’s it. But maybe not. Our rows for prayer are made to resemble that of the angels. Even angels pray in a congregation. Even angels are social.
  • Addiction is “chronically and compulsively numbing and taking the edge off feelings.” This is one of the profound lessons the book taught me. We often tell ourselves that because drinking is forbidden, we as Muslims are made to confront our realities rather than escape from them. What Brown points out, however, that the numbing process doesn’t have to just be through food or drinking or drugs or sex. It could be watching eight back-to-back episodes of a sitcom. It could be–and this was news to me–staying busy. Yes, staying busy to numb oneself is an addiction, a phenomenon Brown calls “busy-aholicism.” The idle mind may be Satan’s workshop, but I suppose too much of something is never a good thing.
  • Faith is a place of mystery, where we find the courage to believe in what we cannot see and the strength to let go of our fear of uncertainty.” It was surreally unnerving to see, in print, the definition of something I’ve practiced for years, but have never really been able to put words to. And now I think of faith in strange times, and wonder if this is why the ummah is so fragmented, so confused, so figuratively plagued. The stranger our times get, the greater leaps of faith are needed to hold fast to our tradiiton.
And that is why we need more. We need more than to know that being there for a friend is the be-all, end-all. We need to know more about what it takes to sustain a marriage. We need to truly let ourselves go, allow our loved ones to see our real selves and not have them look away. We need to counsel and be counselled in the light of our faith. We can’t let our cultural baggage be a means of division and have self-help books come in and save the gaps. We need to go back to the tradition and build on it. And we need to pray to Allah to make us worthy of the majestic bounty that can result from a fusion of advances in sociological and therapeutic research and the wisdoms embedded in our beautiful traditions.

Note: In compiling these quotations, I have done my best to adhere to the fair use guidelines outlined here

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6 Comments leave one →
  1. December 10, 2011 1:20 am

    It’s amazing how a different definition of a word can change our perspectives, and even in turn, our actions. Semantics can be powerful and yet divisive in that manner. I like how you summed up that we must go back to our traditions lest, as you eloquently put it, we turn to self-help books to fill in the gaps. But it begs the question on what is the definition of tradition? Will it differ from culture to culture? Is it the rituals or the mindset? Ah, too many questions I have! :p

    • December 10, 2011 10:10 pm

      I don’t see it as self help filling the gaps, but as self help building on top of the tradition. For example, it’s very simple for someone to not engage in slander because it is forbidden, and leave it at that. But going further into how slander can damage the workplace, relationships, and the strength of one’s networks as well as one’s own character are things that emerge from studies in social psychology.

      And Islamic tradition is not at all the same as the anthropological definition of ‘tradition:’ I love thinking of Islamic tradition as a sort of algorithm that lots of cultures can build upon and humans can incorporate without compromising on our individual identities.

      • December 10, 2011 10:55 pm

        Tradition as an algorithm… that is beautiful. Love it! Your perspective is refreshing.

  2. December 10, 2011 6:46 am

    Well done. Thank you for your thoughtful review of Brene’s book. I am a big fan of this book precisely because she gives me vocabulary to finally explain my own experiences with courage, connection, community – and how vulnerability was a door for me step into these things more than 30 years ago.

    I especially appreciated your additions which deepen my understanding of these words and way of being. Thank you.

    • December 11, 2011 1:39 pm

      Thank you so much for your comment. Allowing vulnerability to be the portal through which wholehearted living can be realized requires immense courage and I greatly admire you for it. I wish you the best on your project.

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