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The Power of Empathy & Vulnerability as a Student Affairs Professional

July 16, 2019 Misty Denham-Barrett Residence Life Coordinator

Brene Brown, PhD is a writer, researcher, social worker and generally amazing human being. I first discovered her when I stumbled upon her viral TedTalk on Facebook years ago. Her area of focus is vulnerability and how living a wholehearted life can make you a better person, parent, and leader. After watching every video I could find online of Brene, I turned to her books. I started by reading Daring Greatly. It is no exaggeration when I say that this book changed my life. The overall theme of the book is about embracing vulnerability and imperfections. I consider myself a highly emotional person, struggling with anxiety, PTSD, and a severe fear of abandonment, this book helped me embrace those parts of myself to live a more wholehearted life. Daring Greatly was just the beginning. Over the next couple years, I read two more of Brene’s books including Rising Strong and Into the Wilderness. All of which had lessons that helped me grow as a person, a leader, and a professional.
I never expected that that this personal development would have such tangible benefits to my work as a Student Affairs and Residence Life Professional! I’ve seen it show up in so many areas including supervision, crisis management, team/relationship building and diversity/inclusion… just to name a few. Let’s break it down by book and theme.
Daring Greatly speaks mostly about embracing vulnerability and imperfection. It’s amazing the connections you can make with students when you let your walls down. Vulnerability is terrifying for most but can be especially worrisome for those of us in Student Affairs and Residence Life as we worry about setting and maintaining boundaries in our work. I’ve found that I can maintain my boundaries while embracing vulnerability and imperfection, in fact it’s vital to the process. The most important thing I took from this book was embracing imperfection. This has had a critical impact on how I supervise and engage with students who are having behavioral issues. How often have you admitted to your staff (or yourself for that matter) that you weren’t the perfect RA? Student? Leader? As supervisors we often get caught up our jobs as supervisors and educators. We give feedback. We evaluate. We appraise performance. It all just becomes a part of the job and we lose sight of the opportunity for vulnerability that can be found in these conversations. Sharing that you’ve made mistakes. Most of us have planned a program last minute or half-assed a bulletin board just to get it done in time or made poor life choices. Sharing these with your staff allows them to see that mistakes and imperfection is normal! It allows you to help them focus on the growth and not the mistake. We’ve made mistakes sometimes the same or worse than our staff members may make but we’ve grown from those mistakes. They have allowed to become supervisors who can see the potential in our staffs because of the mistakes they made, not in spite of them.

The second book that I read by Brene Brown was Rising Strong. The lessons I took from this book built on and expanded from Daring Greatly. I found the words of Brene coming up not only in supervision and team building but also in how I am as a colleague and how I respond during crisis situations and how I look at professional development.

Think about the people you are closest to, the students you’ve had the biggest impact on… I can almost guarantee that you’ve seen this person and/or they have seen you go through some type of adversity. Rising Strong emphasizes the importance’s of reckoning with your emotions, rumbling through the tough middle part and then standing up to own your story.

Reckoning and rumbling through your mistakes and hardships is tough and it’s even tougher when you don’t have a space place or person to seek support in. Brene says “We can’t be brave in the big world without at least a small space to work through our fears and falls.” We are often that person for so many of our students. It becomes a million times easier to provide this space when you are aware of your own reckoning and rumbling process. If you struggle with empathy in relation to crisis management or opening up about your asks of improvement, I would highly recommend this book. It’s also important to note here that you don’t have to read her works in any particular order to get something out of them but they Definity build on one another so if you plan to read them all, I’d recommend reading them in the order she wrote them.
The last book that I will discuss here is Braving the Wilderness: The Quest for True Belonging and the Courage to Stand Alone. This book focuses on belonging and being who you are. She also talks about social justice engagement, understanding privilege and power and overcoming divisiveness. These are some pretty big topics that really have an impact on how we do the work that we do with students. Finding true belonging is at the core of the college experience. It’s what most of our students seek even if they don’t know it. It’s also what we seek as professionals. It’s why we move every three years or jump from Residence Life to Admissions to Student Activities trying to find our true fit. It’s a process that all humans go through for their entire lives in one way or another.

I’m a huge believer in the idea that you can’t poor from an empty cup. Meaning that if you want to give and support others you must give and support yourself first. I think this also applies to personal and professional development. It’s critical for us as Student Affairs professionals to work through the areas of our development that Brene talks about so that we can better serve our students as they go through them. No, I’m not saying you have to be “fully cooked” to do this job but I’m saying you have to understand that it’s an ongoing, continuous process. We are never done developing personally or professionally. You may be a Senior Housing Officer or a VP but there are still things you can learn about yourself and in turn learn about the work we do and the students we serve.

What it all boils down to is empathy and vulnerability, two things I believe our world and field needs more of to truly make lasting change, but it will not be easy. As Brene says “Vulnerability sounds like truth and feels like courage. Truth and courage aren’t always comfortable, but they are never weakness.”
I truly believe that these books and Brene Brown’s research have impacted me in so many ways, some I still don’t even fully understand. She also provides lots of resources to help you navigate the books and utilize her methods which can all be found on her website. If I could suggest any of them it would be the checklist for engaged feedback. I’ve implemented this on all levels of my staff and it’s really had a positive impact on how feedback is given and received by those I supervise. If you are interested in Brene’s work and would like to join me (along with a few others) for a virtual book club starting this semester focusing on her newest book, Dare to Lead, please email me at misty.mdb@gmail.com. Feel free to read the book now, we will start weekly discussions of the themes later in the spring semester.

Misty currently works at Rutgers University - New Brunswick and serves on the Executive Board of MACUHO as the Director of Membership Development.  Misty’s passion areas include the importance of living and leading wholeheartedly with empathy at the core of all she does. She is also a Game of Thrones nerd and will never turn down a run to Starbucks and/or Chipotle. Bonus Points if you go to BOTH in the same trip!

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