Showing Up in the Arena: A Look into Brene Brown’s Work

October 27, 2017 by Cassy Taverna, LCSWA

“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt, the Man in the Arena. Delivered at the Sorbonne (Paris) on April 23rd, 1910.

I wanted to dedicate a blog post to a topic I have encountered numerous times in sessions with clients, as well as wrestled with myself as a developing therapist continuing to explore her therapeutic style and sense of self; external and inner criticism. When covering this ground, I turn to the work of Brene Brown. Brown is an American scholar, author, and public speaker, who is currently a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work. She has spent over a decade researching courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy and is the author of four #1 New York Times bestsellers and her labor has been featured on PBS, NPR, TED, and CNN.

In one of her presentations entitled, “Why Critics Aren’t the Ones Who Count” delivered in front of an audience at the 99 Conference, she covers this topic and highlights:
• Why (creative) human beings must embrace their vulnerability
• How to handle (external and inner) criticism and public scrutiny that accompanies exposure
• Which feedback matters, and which does not, in the “public arena”

Criticism can stifle creativity and can anchor people from daring greatly and taking risks. Brown poses the question: What would you try if you knew people wouldn’t say ___ (fill in the blank) about you? She explores the benefits of not allowing fear of criticism to inhibit the display of one’s own work. Brown conceptualizes this through “the arena.” When a person is thinking about or preparing to enter the arena, there is fear, self-doubt, comparison, anxiety, uncertainty, and shame. People tend to “armor up” emotionally and psychologically and when they do, they shield themselves from vulnerability. Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, joy, belonging, trust, empathy, creation and innovation.

When a (courageous) person chooses to enter the arena, they are greeted with rows of seats and people. The three seats that will always be filled in the arena are: shame, scarcity, and comparison – 1). Shame (which Brown describes as a “universal human emotion”), 2). Scarcity (Does this matter? Is this important or original?) and 3). Comparison. The fourth seat is reserved for a teacher, ex-coworker, family member. Brown summons the audience to recognize that the critics will be there and to invite them in, however one may not be interested in their feedback. Brown believes by taking the stance that unless your critics are also exposing themselves and exhibiting vulnerability, their opinions and feedback are extraneous – using the dialogue: “I see you, I hear you, but I am going to show up and do this anyway.” In addition, Brown shares that we are often our own worst critic, so she advises us to save a seat in the arena for ourselves. Brown says, “We orphan the parts of us that don’t fit the ideal… leaving only the critic. On the contrary, the person (or the part of us) who believes in what we are doing and why we are doing it should be in that chair.”

Choosing to be seen in the arena is no easy feat. Brown encourages a clarity of one’s own values and having a support person that is willing to pick them up and dust them off when they fail or make mistakes. Brown notes, “if one isn’t making mistakes, then one isn’t really showing up!” She explores why “not caring what people think” sends a huge red flag as human beings are “hard-wired for connection.” However, when a person becomes defined by what their critics think, they lose their willingness to be vulnerable.

Is it petrifying to show up and be seen? Yes, absolutely. But remember to make space in the arena for the people and part of you that values courage and creativity.

Disclaimer: Some profanity is used in the following video.
Brene Brown; Why Your Critics Aren’t the Ones Who Count:

Brene Brown’s Official Website:



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