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cool: the emotional straightjacket 

What has a decade of research on authenticity, shame, vulnerability and courage taught me about "being cool?" 

1. The need to "be cool" is an emotional straightjacket. It keeps us from moving, growing, stretching and feeling free. 

2. "Cool" and authentic are often mutually exclusive. 

3. It takes courage to be awkward, goofy, and silly - all of the feelings that we experience when we're brave enough to try something new or risk being innovative. This is so tough for me. My mantra when I'm trying something new and feeling awkward and goofy is "Effort + the courage to show up = enough."

4. The language of cool permeates our culture and sends messages to the people around us - especially our children. Try boycotting words like LAME, UNCOOL, and LOSER. Also, there is an entire collection of words that are used as cool armour by vulnerable teens and tweens (and adults). They include words like retard, retarded, bitch, fag, and queer. Trying to come off as cool and indifferent often leads to the use of hate language.

5. The greatest casualty of the endless pursuit of cool is connection. When we don't let people see and know our true selves, we sacrifice connection. Without connection, we struggle for purpose and meaning. 

Have a great week, be connected, and be cool you.  

« vulnerability is ___________. | Main | to live a creative life »

Reader Comments (63)

LOVE this! thank you :))
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterPagan Kael

I love this, and so spot on what you say about it taking courage to be silly and awkward and how when we try to be cool we lose that connection.

I think even as an adult I've used the expression, " I'm cool with that" when really I was not so "cool" and feeling vulnerable and hurt by it. Allowing myself to be more honest and vulnerable with my feelings is a continued process, to show that I am "not so cool" makes me more authentic.

Your cool post ( pun intended) really sparked me!

05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterPatty Sherry
I love this. It reminds me that I need to be a little quirky sometimes even if it means I'm not in my comfort zone. I think a huge part of this is accepting yourself as you are, something I am working on every day.
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterKelly
I'm going to share this. Thank you.
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary
Thank you for this very cool blog post. It made me feel cool about letting my goofy self out.
05.9.2011 | Unregistered Commentersuzanne
Patty Sherry: Thank you for your second paragraph! Me, too!
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterMary
Simple yet honest and profound.

And yes to Patty's comment: "Allowing myself to be more honest and vulnerable with my feelings is a continued process, to show that I am "not so cool" makes me more authentic."

A great post to start my already fabulous Monday!
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterMaira
Thank you so much for this! When I was a 6th grade teacher it was one of my missions to show my students how much more fun life is when you aren't trying to be "cool". They loved it! When they didn't have "being cool" hanging over their heads learning and having fun became so much more relaxed and enjoyable. I only hope a little bit of that lesson stuck with them through some of the more difficult next few years...
05.9.2011 | Unregistered Commenterebdb
I find that being authentic makes other people perceive you as cool, even when that isn't what you're going for!
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterAverage Jane
Being original (and therefore authentic) is the coolest existence I can think of!
I know what you meant though... Parenting my insecure teenager is sometimes heartbreaking. The 'emotional straight jacket' (great image) constricts him, but I hope in time he'll learn how to shrug it off. Though I role model as best I can, his peers are such a huge influence as is the media. Thanks for your post.
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobin
Yes, that's true. Authentic vs. cool. Which is harder? Concentrating on authentic (all my training is against it) or faking cool since cool is nebulous and in the eyes of the beholder.
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterMelanie
we just have to make it cool to be velveteen-rabbit to be authentic...then, uncool will be cool....
love this, it's so right on....
05.9.2011 | Unregistered Commenterdlmoore
The raw willingness to be uncool is really quite KEWL ! :)
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterLaurel B
Here is what I wrote when sharing this article on Facebook:

Sometimes, it is more important to find ways to be YOU instead of what "someone" says is "cool" or "in" or "trendy"... this often brings more challenge ~ to find what defines us ~ but is more freeing than constantly trying to fit into someone else's expectations of who we should BE!

Thank you for supporting me in my quest, particularly as I am becoming a new mother soon and seeking ways to be my fullest, most authentic self.
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterAdele O'Keefe
Hi Brene - gonna show this to my 13 yr old son!

05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterBonnie
As someone who is aware of her awkwardness and wouldn't know where to begin to try to be cool, I am happy to see that maybe it's not such a bad thing.
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterBridgette
A resounding "YES!"
Very wise words worth pondering this morning. I'm constantly making efforts to seem "cool" and it definitely does conflict with my effort to be vulnerable.
Thanks for putting words to this concept! I've been in conversation (at least TRYING to be!) with my teenage sons about this very thing. It's hard for me at age 46, much less for kids who are trying not to attract attention while they figure themselves out. It's so sad that the "cool" shield keeps us from really connecting and kind of gives us a false sense of safety.
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterRena
This reminds me of a line I read from Canadian designer Bruce Mau: "Cool is conservative fear dressed in black."
Thanks for the post.
05.9.2011 | Unregistered Commentergunilla
Here is an AWESOME song on the matter: (Ben Folds, Always Someone Cooler Than You) - this is my little theme song right now!
05.9.2011 | Unregistered Commenterchel
I love this quote and love your thoughts on it. Cool is something I struggle with... even though I cannot define what it would look like to be 'cool'.
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnnie
I love this post, and I linked back to it from my blog to share with others. Thanks for such a fresh perspective.
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterAnne
05.9.2011 | Unregistered Commenterliz
Oh, how I love this! Timing is perfect: I just bought myself a card from a local artist that says "I was uncool before uncool was cool." :-) I spent most of my life wishing I was cool like them - whoever "them" happened to be at the time. I'm 45 and have just recently reached that place of acceptance where I recognize I have the heart of a quirky, loving nerd. And I'm cool with that!! Thanks for your amazing words... xox
05.9.2011 | Unregistered Commenterjag
Yes. I was stereotypically "uncool" as I stumbled my way through my first public guitar recital/performance a week ago. At 50 I was the oldest and "geekiest" one performing, by a long shot. Uncool + geeky + COURAGE turned me into AWESOME.
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterSharon Terhune
Simply acknowledging your words doesn't seem enough, yet I was struck by what you said and the profound effect that being cool or attempting to be cool has on middle schoolers today. Having grown to a point where kids develop unique qualities that allow them to shine, the middle school mindset is, "fit in and don't do anything that will get you noticed." The only exception of course are the trend starters, whose individuality starts a new round of ways to fit in. Case in point, the Justin Bieber haircut (part 1). It's hard to find middle schoolers who don't sport the cut although few would admit to the reason why they chose the style.

Your post reminded me of the challenge we face as parents to continue to acknowledge the uniqueness of our kids while being aware of the social pressure they feel to be accepted.

Can't wait to see what you bring to the table next.


Joe Bruzzese
05.9.2011 | Unregistered Commenterjoe bruzzese
Thank you! I once was fired for objecting to a co-worker's use of the word "gay" as a negative, as I am, you guessed it, gay.

Of course, they didn't call it being fired, they called it being let go. (They did have an ad in the paper to replace my position two weeks later.)

That firing led to some very bad things happening for me around lack of money and the things that happen to a person who can't pay their bills. All because of a word and objecting to hate language. And the girl using it was and trying to be cool.
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterEm
Thank you so much. You are dead on about this!
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterAlice
Thank You!
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterPrashant
Chel, I love the Ben Folds song. Love that guy!!

Brene, once again, THANK YOU. It's a bit crazy how often i need authenticity reminders. Falling into the cool trap still happens to me - at 40.

I love hanging out with my 8-year-old son, because he's all about just being him, and does not yet (yet!) strive for coolness.
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterTracy

Found you through Twitter and LOVE this post and your work. Looking forward to reading much more.
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterNancy Jo Rose
Right on the spot. Loved the post and I will keep reading. Thank you
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterBasil
Wonderful reminder to follow our hearts - to be ourselves - and just show up. This also reminded me of one of my favorite TED Talks I keep coming back to (in addition to yours and Simon Sinek's): Derek Sivers - How to Start a Movement.

When I just watched it again, I saw it through the eyes of 'uncool' - and the courage of the first dancing guy - the 'lone nut'. His being willing to put it all out there and dance to the beat of his own drummer inspired others to do so. He wasn't alone for long - and soon many others 'got it' and joined in. The connections formed because of him being uncool!

It takes courage to be the 'lone nut' - to be willing to take risks and speak what is true for you - to dance to your own music - to risk being uncool. I feel it frequently. But as the video shows - and you model everyday through your work -- authenticity is contagious. I am not the first dancing guy, but rather perhaps an early follower. When I know that there are others who share my longing to be true to myself, I know that I am not alone. The community inspires me and allows me to more easily access my courage to dance.
05.9.2011 | Unregistered CommenterAngela Stauder
Ahh, such a clear description of cool. When cool is thought to be hip and in, we are so disconnected from our human wholeness and therefore, others. Thanks for illuminating this concept a little more.
05.10.2011 | Unregistered CommenterSusie Amundson
Wonderful. Thanks. So True
05.10.2011 | Unregistered CommenterWendy
Awesome post, Brene! I could not agree more. Whenever hate language appears it is a true indication that we are not well....we are not wholehearted. I will attend more to my words as an indication of my losing authenticity and connection.
05.10.2011 | Unregistered CommenterDeri Latimer
Thank you for this post. Will share it with my two teenage daughters. Great inspiration!
05.10.2011 | Unregistered CommenterBritta
This makes me wonder if the people I think of as "cool" from afar are missing out on deeper connections, or if what I'm seeing is the result of them letting their goofy out.
05.10.2011 | Unregistered CommenterMiss Britt
Reading this really moved me, because I realized how hard we've worked to redefine "cool". Being labelled “cool” is so tied to being the leaders and fitting in, that we dare to say caring is cool. Since 2005, I have spent many hours mentoring youth that wanted to volunteer for various organizations and were turned away because they were too young. Instead of giving up and feeling like they couldn't do anything about current issues, they found a way to channel their passion, learn project management, and recruit peers, teachers, parents and adult volunteers. We wanted them to feel that leading others to connect and act is the new “cool”. Many of them used unique gifts, talents and unconventional methods to address social issues and make a difference. Over the years, as a group they’ve raised awareness, funds, and done supply drives for Friends For Life Animal Shelter, Trees for Houston, The Houston Arboretum, The Houston Zoo, End Hunger, and The Houston Area Women's Center. As individuals, they developed projects to educate peers on the Holocaust, made and sold crafts for fundraising for non-profits of their choosing, and developed a self esteem workshop for girls entering middle school.
In my mind, these kids put a new spin on who the "cool kids” are. Their projects are a result of understanding what matters most to them, what gifts they have to offer, and finding the courage to try new ways to impact the issues they care about.
care | connect | act
05.10.2011 | Unregistered CommenterBrooke
Great post. I think on PT 3 you mean it takes courage to BE goofy etc, rather than feel it. It takes little to feel awkward, and others will readily help you in this endeavor, but to be goofy, or even to act in a manner that others see as Oppositional ( I write a series of Oppositional thoughts on twitter @thefactorypod having been described in these terms before!!), can, at least initially take courage, persistence, optimism, risk taking, self efficacy.

I see our lives and careers in terms of the Chaos Theory of Careers. Recognizing yourself as a complex dynamical and open system that is continually changing, yet fractally self-similar I see as an important step in self acceptance, and understanding that to live, being on the edge of this chaos is the most fulfilling and creative place to be. The inherent uncertainty of this place where being and becoming are acknowledged can be scary and does require courage at times. see this for more on that line of thinking
and this one that cites your work

Thank you for stimulating my thinking.
05.10.2011 | Unregistered CommenterJim Bright
Thanks for the spelling/word corrections. I normally write from passion here and don't pay enough attention to these things. I appreciate the crowd-sourced editing!
05.10.2011 | Registered CommenterBrené Brown
I study and blog about the Power of Connection at, so your post really resonated with me, Brene.

I'm participating in a group this month led by Cyndi Briggs (The Sophia Project) in which we're exploring the importance of PLAY in our lives. Someone shared your blog post on our Facebook group page. Wonderful stuff. At age 61, I figure it's never too late to learn to be more playful.
Hi Brene,

I've written something more specifically inspired by your post, illustrating how your message is compatible with the Chaos Theory of Careers.

It is called Having the courage to live authentically on the edge of chaos

it also links back to your excellent blog

thanks again for stimulating my thinking.
05.11.2011 | Unregistered CommenterJim Bright
I proofread, therefore I am authentic:correct spelling correlates with credibility.
05.11.2011 | Unregistered CommenterM.D. Champ
I am working on this very idea with my almost 12 year old daughter who will be heading into middle school next year. I love that she is so confident and willing to be herself and dont want her to pull this emotional straight jacket out of her closet when the pressure to be cool increases. As an educator I am troubled by how little we focus on this type of learning and development...we dont test it so we dont teach or model it...
05.12.2011 | Unregistered Commenterliane
A lot of folks are commenting on middle school-aged kids, and yes, that is where the problem begins.

But I just wanted to comment that some of the most difficult people in my adult life are those who are trying very hard to be perceived as "cool". They ridicule others' taste in clothes, music, movies, books, etc. As a result, I am reluctant to share my interests with them and we are unable to have an authentic relationship. Who wants to hang around with people who make you feel "less than"?
05.12.2011 | Unregistered CommenterMs M
I was writing just the other day and this line hit me. In fact, it's still haunting me.

Cool Fades Away...
05.13.2011 | Unregistered CommenterSpencer
05.13.2011 | Unregistered Commenterkatie
Here... Here...I think we need to be ourselves and just keep learning!

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