As part of her New Year’s resolution, a friend of mine is trying to watch a few TED talks a week.  Together we were revisiting Brene Brown’s moving TED talk on vulnerability as a key to emotional connection and I was struck by her use of the word, “worthiness.” (Many, hopefully most, of you have seen this talk, it was given in 2010. If you haven’t seen it, I’d suggest you take 20 min and watch it, especially with someone you love. It’s well worth the time). MRaynes blogged about Dr. Brown’s book here.

In Mormon culture, we hear worthiness so often associated with a checklist of behaviors we may or may not do, according to current church teachings and policies (these have changed widely over the years).  Even things as small as the number of earrings a girls wears, the length of her hem, or if she wears a skirt or pants to church may fall into the worthiness category.  For me, the notion of worthiness sometimes brings with it feelings of guilt of not being perfect. Perhaps this has to do with how worthiness is gauged by someone outside ourselves, often a priesthood leader.  Also, there are so many categories to measure our worthiness, we’re bound to not hit them all, and often feel guilty about our shortcomings.  Additionally, I wonder if it’s also part of a culture of guilt within Mormonism.  Needless to say, worthiness is not a word that makes me feel warm and fuzzy.  I’ve never really associated it with connection to others or really even about something I would determine for myself.

That was why I was so surprised that Dr. Brown describes the main difference between two groups of people: those who feel strong connections with others and those who don’t, as an issue of worthiness.

The first group she describes as the “wholehearted” having, “a strong sense of love and belonging” while others are “wondering if they’re good enough.”

She posits that the only difference between these groups is that the first group, “believe they are worthy of love and belonging.”  She goes on to say, “What keeps us out of connection is the fear that we aren’t worthy of connection. ”

A few more descriptions of the Wholehearted:

1. Courage- the ability to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart. The courage to be imperfect.

2. Compassion-  be kind to ourselves first and then others.

3. Connection as a result of authenticity. Let go of who we think we should be and embrace who we are.

4. Fully embrace vulnerability. (Still uncomfortable, not excruciating, but necessary)

If you’re looking for a new year’s resolution (or two?), I like this list as starting point.  Dr. . Brown took this list to a therapist and worked through ways to embrace vulnerability. I’m on my way to one this year, in a similar effort.  These ideas sound so good and seem relatively easy on paper, and yet in real life, they can be brutal.  Even thinking of myself as worthy is often a struggle, but it’s something I want to master both for myself and for my children.

In a similar vein, since we often teach worthiness to children and youth in the church, I find it relevant to mention Dr. Brown’s opinion on how these ideas affect us as parents and youth leaders. She says that while we think of babies as born “perfect” and we try to keep them perfect by making sure they get on the tennis team and into Yale.  However, if we instead see them as wired for struggle in life, we can teach them that they are worthy of love, no matter what happens to them and what choices they make.  For the most part, this notion lines up will with Mormon doctrine. I’d like to see it better implemented in Mormon practice.  Maybe a first step is acknowledging our own failings more often and expressing at the same time our continued worthiness of Christ’s love and the love of our family and friends.

I have a new friend who is in a difficult spot in life and has reached out for support from me and other women. Her honesty and vulnerability are so admirable and I feel a strong connection with her.  And while nothing about her situation changes because of our friendships, I see the connections give her hope and peace.  And to me, she is an example of how to be wholehearted and worthy.

What does worthiness mean to you?  Do you consider yourself worthy?

I’d also love to hear a discussion on the TED talk if you’ve had a chance to read it.

Also, here is Dr. Brene Brown’s website



Jessawhy is a wife, mother, community volunteer, activist and student. She is currently working towards a Physician Assistant degree.

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18 Responses

  1. Libby says:

    “Wired for struggle in life” — I like that. It acknowledges that most of our difficulties are because we’re just human, while leaving open the possibility that we can struggle and make it through. Good stuff.

  2. Jessawhy says:

    I think that being aware that we are wired for struggle makes it easier to think about life and raising children. In a gospel perspective, I guess we understand that we encounter temptation and will be tested and tried. But for some reason, I find more peace understanding that my brain is wired that way, not that my problems are only external.

  3. Emily U says:

    Thank you for this post, I really needed it today.

    I watched her TED talk and then a follow-up talk from maybe a year later. One point that jumped out for me is that it’s not possible to selectively block emotions, that if you shut down the vulnerability that can lead to pain you also shut down the vulnerability that can lead to joy. When I make myself vulnerable to someone and the result is that they hurt me it’s really hard to want to stay vulnerable. I need to remember that if I want the joy it’s worth it to stay vulnerable. But after having been through the vulnerable-pain-vulnerable-pain cycle multiple times with someone, is it OK to just say, “Stop. I’ll never have a real connection with this person.”? It is hard to know if putting up a wall is legitimately protecting myself or if it’s being unforgiving.

    • Jessawhy says:

      Yes, Emily U, I love the talk on shame from a year later. Both are very good. I love the idea that the joy is worth it to stay vulnerable, but as I get older, I just see so much more pain, disappointment, and dissatisfaction, that the joy doesn’t seem to balance it out. Maybe I’m just caught up in exactly what she’s talking about, though.

      I believe it is okay to recognize that you can’t have a real connection with someone and stop trying. My struggle is that it’s my family members that I’m having this realization about lately. It’s hard to see things this way, especially when it’s partly the way I see and interact with the world that is to blame. (sheesh, there’s that word again!)

  4. CG says:

    Well said. Thank you. God gives us weaknesses, but I think we vulnerable without any help from Him. And those vulnerabilities can be in and of themselves strengths because they force us to evaluate, then we either progress or retrogress.
    I’m still processing all of this. You said it better.
    I really like this post.

    • Jessawhy says:

      Thanks for stopping by. I hadn’t thought of the idea that God gives us weakness as it plays into vulnerability. Very interesting. I guess God wants us to improve those weaknesses with His/Her help to make them strengths, but vulnerability may be a way of interacting with others to create stronger connections.

      • CG says:

        Could vulnerability be our tool to being faith-ful? Weakness makes us humble, vulnerability provides us with an opportunity to show faith. Thoughts?

      • Leon says:

        Our Creator also does not give us an endless to-do list. Consider Luke 7:36-50.

        He said to the (evidently single, childless) woman not to do a thousand prerequisites, rather “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.”

        Sometimes, it is important to see what the (written) Word actually says, rather than relying upon somone’s opinion of what it says.

  5. Ziff says:

    Thanks for posting this, Jessawhy. I like how you’ve explained the two ways of thinking about worthiness. Brown’s point about babies–

    However, if we instead see them as wired for struggle in life, we can teach them that they are worthy of love, no matter what happens to them and what choices they make.

    –made me think the difference in focus is that Mormon worthiness is focused on what we do, while the worthiness Brown is talking about depends on what we are. That is, it doesn’t matter what we do, that we are imperfect, etc.

    It makes sense, then, why Mormon worthiness would be such an anxiety-inducing topic. (I’m definitely with you on having negative feelings about the word.) Worthiness is something that can always be lost, can be lost in an instant if we aren’t vigilant, like we teach the youth so well. But the worthiness Brown is talking about is more secure. Permanent, even. If we believe in our worthiness in this sense, we should have no cause to stop believing in it, since who we are doesn’t change.

    Interestingly, this latter view of worthiness is also expressed in Mormon thought. “I Am a Child of God,” for example, seems to suggest with the title line that we are worthy because of who we are. Of course, the “what you do” strain is probably more dominant. Even this song has us sing “teach me all that I must do,” suggesting again the importance of behavior.

    • Jessawhy says:

      Yes! This is the analysis that I couldn’t quite get out. Thanks for your comment.

      I’ve been trying to find something that I could bear testimony of, and I think you’ve hit it. Our worthiness of being loved, by family, friends, even God, is permanent. From that perspective, repentance and change doesn’t sound so scary. It’s not as if we won’t be loved if we don’t repent and become better, we’ll be loved no matter what.

      But I guess the best part is that it’s not that we need a constant reassurance from others that we are worthy of love. The data shows (and I know you love data) that we can have worthiness from within.

    • Alisa says:

      I found this such an interesting insight, Ziff. Although, isn’t it better to have your ups and downs tied more to what you do than what you are? Here’s where I’m going to process this a bit:

      In Dr. Brown’s follow-up TED talk on shame, she says guilt (which to her is more positive) is saying, “I made a bad choice,” while shame is saying, “I AM bad.” Detatching your choices from who are intrinsicly are leads to more wholeheartedness; it leads to being more comfortable with imperfection and ability to move on from mistakes.

      So I am trying to process Ziff’s comment in light of this–maybe what you’re saying is that in Mormon culture, what you DO becomes what we think we ARE? That there is no healthy detatchment (guilt) but it all becomes one (shame). So if I make a poor decision, it’s all the sudden who I am, which becomes unbearable? I AM the chewed gum. Maybe?

      • Ziff says:

        Interesting thoughts, Alisa. Thanks for trying to tie my point to Brown’s other talk. So if I understand right, you’re saying her point was that we’re better off when we connect bad feelings about what we’ve done to the behavior rather than to who we are. But that seems to contradict the idea I took from the post that we’re better off seeing our value in what we are rather than what we do. Is that fair?

        So, just making things up as I type, maybe it doesn’t have to be symmetric. Maybe it is good for our good feelings about our worthiness to come from something unchanging and for our bad feelings to come from something that changes (behavior). That way we don’t doubt our worth, but we can still learn from mistakes without hating ourselves? I don’t know. This probably doesn’t entirely work because it’s difficult to disentangle feeling guilt over bad behavior from feeling good/worthy because of good behavior.

        I’m not sure. Sorry to not be terribly coherent!

      • Alisa says:

        No, I totally get the confusion. Krista Tippet in her On Being interview also asked about this confusion with distancing ourselves from the bad behavior, but what do we do with our good behavior, and can we derive worth from that? Dr. Brown laughed and said of course that’s what we WANT to do.

        But as you say, I think the unchanging good things about us should be where we get our worth. We are inately deserving of love.

        I think that really, our good behavior shouldn’t tie into our sense of worth any more than our bad behavior does. Those who derrived their sense of worth from good behaviors didn’t end up on Dr. Brown’s “wholehearted list,” but ended up on those who couldn’t be vulnerable; she listed perfectionism, caring what others think, always having to be the best/skinniest/smartest as things that isolate us and bring shame just as doing bad things bring shame.

        I believe what she is saying is that if we just have intrinsic worth and really buy into it, then we come from a place of warmth and love and wholeheartedness, and we allow ourselves to not do all the good things perfectly and we forgive ourselves for the bad things, which ultimately means we can have the courage to be vulnerable, to be ourselves, and to make real connection with others.

  6. Linda says:

    Thanks for this, Jessawhy! Very thoughtful and valuable perspectives and just what I needed to hear!

  7. Alisa says:

    Love this topic. Dr. Brown is an inspiration to me. I listened to her two TED talks daily for about three weeks this summer during an especially hard time when I shifted careers and was feeling extremely vulnerable. She carried me through. I can’t say enough how she helped me.

    I think of vulnerability and shame and these topics almost daily, but I am surprised that I have failed to really think about worthiness until reading this post, Jess. This is why I love this forum and I think conversation is so important–you’ve noticed something I’ve completely missed, something I needed. I am going to have to think about worthiness, both my own, and how I treat my husband and son. It’ll help me be gentler across the board, I hope.

    I also wanted to say that her interview for On Being is totally fabulous as well, and through iTunes you can hear the unedited version if you’re inclined. http://www.onbeing.org/program/brene-brown-on-vulnerability/4928

  8. EmilyCC says:

    I love this post, Jessawhy. I need to listen to Dr. Brown’s talks again. I remember they were amazing.

    I wish we could incorporate these teachings of worthiness (I love Ziff’s points of “are” verses “do”) when we teach our youth. I worry we focus too much on telling our youth what to do because it’s less nebulous and mystical than telling them they worth of love because they are.

  9. Vajra says:

    In historical Christianity no one is worthy. Worthiness is unattainable and it doesn’t matter. “Lord, I am not worthy that you should come under my roof. But only say the word, and my servant shall be healed”.

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