My mom died on Christmas morning. Our family has spent a lot of time together over the past few weeks, holding tight to each other and our shared memories, assuring one another that everything is going to be OK, and confirming that absolutely nothing is going to be OK.
The last time we were with my mom, late on Christmas Eve, we took turns telling her our wishes for her. My wish was that she would soon be at the best honky-tonk in heaven, playing dominos with my grandmother, Molly Ivins, and Ann Richards, and that she’d have a lot of enchilada dinners with her younger brother. No one knows if there’s a heaven, but I chose to believe that there is and that is exactly what my mom is doing right now.
I know that many of you are intimately familiar with the brutality of caregiving for someone with dementia. Yes, there are incredible moments of tenderness and closeness, but there are also unsparingly vicious parts of the helplessness and the hurt that manage to take you by surprise no matter how many times they happen. There’s also a certain jagged-edged grief that must be endured when someone you love is torn away in bits and pieces.
Four years of caregiving for my mom was not the beginning of this difficult season in my life, and it’s unlikely that her death is the end. I get the sense that I’m still in Act II — the long, messy part of all stories where we watch the protagonist try to solve problems without being vulnerable and asking for help. It’s the part where surrender is the only path to triumph. And, as Sarah Lewis once shared with me on the podcast, it’s not the surrender of giving up, but the surrender of giving over.
It’s the part where surrender is the only path to triumph.
I like the “put a bow on it” vibe of Act III: I’ve won the battle and, more importantly, I’ve resolved the internal struggle. Unfortunately, I’m still sensing a lot of Act II energy in my life. I can tell because I’m 50% ready to give over and 50% thinking: This shit is hard — and for fuck’s sake — no more whammies.
The insightful professional folks who have been shepherding me through this process would likely (and irritatingly) reframe this to, “I acknowledge the struggle and pain of the past couple of years, and I understand that all whammies will unfold as they are meant to unfold.”
I get it. AND YET, in the most grating teenage voice you can conjure: Shut up.
An Armored Heart
The extraordinary stress and heartbreak of caregiving and grieving for my mom, combined with trying to keep our family and our organization afloat during COVID, broke me. There’s really no other way to say it. And, the pain of spiritual and emotional breaking is real. Looking back, I think I responded to the breaking and the hurt the only way I knew how — by creating and becoming a fortress.
Many spiritual teachings talk about the ability to straddle the tension of paradox as the most central midlife milestone. Can we get to a place where two seemingly opposite things might both be true? Can we hold that tension without having to resolve it? I write a lot about paradox in my work — especially the idea of living with a strong back, a soft front, and a wild heart. In Dare to Lead, I write, “For me, the strong back is grounded confidence and boundaries. The soft front is staying vulnerable and curious. The mark of a wild heart is living out these paradoxes in our lives and not giving into the either/or BS that reduces us. It’s showing up in our vulnerability and our courage, and, above all else, being both fierce and kind.”
Outside of my awareness, I slowly traded my strong back, soft front, and wild heart for a guarded back, a defended front, and an armored heart. I didn’t get mean or cynical or apathetic, but I became intensely self-protective and hyper-focused on creating as much certainty as I could in a world that felt completely out of control. The only people with the ability to regularly lower the drawbridge and make it into my fortress were my kids. But they also saw it. Whatever I was doing was the opposite of giving over to anything — it was simply: Fight’s on!
Guarded backs, defended fronts, and armored hearts are seductive. They promise you a sense of safety and certainty and convince you that, above all others, you are uniquely tough and capable to tackle whatever is in front of you. All of that protection is also a smokescreen. With an armored heart, blaming people for not seeing your exhaustion feels justified — even when they continually try to help (and never really asked to be saved by you). And, perhaps worst, your resentment becomes so comfortable you stop noticing it.
The sneakiest part of living with so much protection is its systemic nature — there are plenty of situations and people who, over time, have started relying on your unique toughness and grind capacity — even when they find the side effects of your efforts difficult. Yes, the disappointment you think others feel toward you is partially emanating from the weight of your own insane expectations, but there are also hero expectations that have formed around you, and not all of the disappointment is your own.
The slipperiest part is an armored heart’s ability to make your sadness feel like a weakness you have to push down and its power to transform your loneliness into a heroic emotion — like you’re out there completely on your own and you wouldn’t have it any other way.
I was an easy mark for the transition to a guarded back, defended front, and armored heart. Like many of us over the past few years, I was drowning trying to hold it all together and take care of everything and everyone during the pandemic. My mom’s diagnosis and the first worrisome symptoms started the same month as the pandemic. After a couple of near misses with toaster fires, she ended up moving out of our house and into assisted living. Not only was she confused and needing us on a daily basis, but our organization lost 75% of our project revenue in four days as speaking events and engagements were cancelled. If I let this company fail, people I care about will lose their jobs and health insurance. And people are getting sick.
So, I did the only thing I knew how to do — got tough. Bear down and don’t let people down.
We pivoted to podcasting and other projects, and the organization survived. My mom stayed safe when many in her situation did not. Of course, I had great days and I enjoyed some very meaningful times with friends and family during this season, but I also got stuck in a gear — a way of being — that I couldn’t climb out of, even when the immediate threats were resolved. I couldn’t let up even when I tried. It was unbearable to not slow down and soften up, and it was even more unbearable when I tried.
For the past five years, I’ve been doing new research on mental toughness, and, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that some people can tap into a pool of hard-won resources, including compartmentalization, tenacity, and toughness, for a limited amount of time, but, if they can’t shift down and pull out of that way of being — if they can’t get back to that strong back, soft front, and wild heart — the consequences can be deadly. I could not pull out.
Armored and broken is not a good combination, so I reached out for professional help. With support, I realized that my desperation to save everything and everyone was not only the biggest threat to my wellbeing, it was the greatest threat to the most important relationships in my life. And it turns out that there was some real work that had to be done — tough, grueling work — but living in that fortress was allowing me to avoid my pain, my loneliness, and the grief.
What the hell? I thought I knew this. I research this stuff. Why couldn’t I see it?
Many spiritual teachings talk about the ability to straddle the tension of paradox as the most central midlife milestone. Can we get to a place where two seemingly opposite things might both be true? Can we hold that tension without having to resolve it?
It turns out that I do know it. I do have it in me. But, over the past few years, I’ve slowly become separated from myself and from my knowing and, most importantly, from my spirituality. And it wasn’t the pain that pulled me away from all of these touchstones, it was the fear of feeling pain and the fear not being able to make everything OK — especially for my mom.
Straddling the Tension
Over the past year or so, as I’ve started to find my way back to myself, I’ve had to be very thoughtful about doing the work that energizes me and pulling back from the work that doesn’t. One professional highlight for me has been focusing on the part of my work that’s been my passion over the past decade or so — leadership and organizational development work. I started in this field of study as a graduate student under the incredible mentorship of Dr. Jean Kantambu Latting, so it always feels like home to me.
The world of work has changed dramatically over the past five years — from remote/hybrid work and digital transformation, to increasing accountability around inclusivity and navigating intergenerational workplaces — it’s been equal parts important learning and total chaos. The Dare to Lead team recently celebrated taking over 100K people across the world through our courage-building program. It’s been such a gift to continue learning. I’m forever grateful for the certified facilitators, the organizations with whom we work, and our team.
In addition to deepening the Dare to Lead work, I’ve been doing new research on the emotions of learning, the construct of grounded confidence, and, as I mentioned earlier, what I think we’re missing when we talk about the concept of “mental toughness.” Getting lost in new research is always one of my favorite things!
I’ve stepped back considerably from the public part of my life — especially social media, where defensiveness and armor (and words as weapons) seem to be currency of the realm. I don’t know exactly how to do social media anymore. I love community, conversation, and debate. I enjoy sharing what I’m researching, what I’m observing about the world, and what I’m learning about myself. I also love learning from other people’s experiences and insights.
But, honest to God, I am a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad public person. I’m an introverted homebody who can’t be away from my family for more than a few days. And, when it comes to social media, I can come completely undone when people are publicly cruel, threatening, or make up untrue things about me or other people for likes and attention. There was recently an AI video of me saying stuff that sounded like an inspirational greeting card, and I was like, “Oh, nooooooo!”
I know that my soft front and wild heart can’t be dependent on strangers on the internet acting right. I can’t be OK only if the people of the internet are OK. Damn! 27 years of sobriety and when it comes to social media, I’m back at square one in Al-Anon: I can NOT allow my wholeheartedness to be dependent on something I didn’t cause, I can’t control, and I can’t cure.
As I once heard my friend Liz Gilbert say, “There is indeed a knife up against my throat. And I’m the one holding it.” That’s how I feel about our culture’s relationship with social media. And when I say “our culture” — I mean all of us who recognize that we feel like shit after we doom and compare scroll, yet we do it. Again and again and again.
I can NOT allow my wholeheartedness to be dependent on something I didn’t cause, I can’t control, and I can’t cure.
There’s also this new insanely predatory advice-giving that’s happening on social media. I can’t believe the volume of posts that are some version of: “If you sleep with your arms like this and wear yellow socks, you were raised by a narcissist and you have this serious diagnosis. You must immediately buy a small candle that smells of elderberry and eat a wafer-thin mint.” And, this so-called expert’s bio simply reads, Support my personal travel fund. Trying to see the northern lights by 2025. People are as adamant as they are uninformed. And, when we’re hurting or vulnerable or our self-worth is plummeting due to compulsive scrolling, it’s so easy to believe there’s a magic bullet.
For example, anyone who has taken care of a parent with dementia knows the panic of thinking, Am I next? You forget a song lyric or an area code or a date, and your first thought is, “Oh, God — it’s here.” Several times over the last couple of years, I’ve been sucked in by the “Number one life hack to avoid dementia!” videos on social. I want it to be true so bad. But, if you just scroll for two more minutes, whatever snake oil that person was selling will be the focus of another video that says, “This causes dementia faster than any other thing on the planet.” I have to say the level of exploitation on social is a tragic reflection of the current human condition. From preying on people’s fears to traumatizing children for likes and laughs or featuring parents with dementia for followers — it can be heart hardening.
A Community of Wild Hearts
In trying to straddle the tension of wanting to be in community and protect my heart and the hearts of the people on my team, we’re trying some new things! I don’t know how it’s going to work and I’m slowly accepting that being OK with not knowing is key to reengaging with my strong back, soft front, and wild heart.
I’ve spent my whole life finishing the sentence: It’s going to be ____________. Sometimes I’d say great, because I’d damn well make sure of it. Or I’d say really dangerous, because I had convinced myself that catastrophizing or dress rehearsing tragedy helped me feel a sense of preparedness. Now, all I can do is tell you, Here’s what we’re doing, I’m excited and curious about it, and it’s going to be.
We’ve been working on adding an entire new content library to brenebrown.com, called The Awkward, Brave, and Kind Edit (The ABK Edit).
One of my very favorite things to do is to amplify the voices of people who are being brave with their lives and work. Our writers and design team have absolutely crushed this project, and I can’t wait to share it with you. And, I can’t wait to hear what you think!
To build our community — a gathering of people committed to building connection, learning, and engaging with kindness and accountability — we’ve opened a monitored comments feature on brenebrown.com. We’re also going to be very disciplined about the comments section on social. If you want to engage in conversation or share thoughts — we’re so happy to have you. I’m not sure if it will work, but we’re trying it. We absolutely will not tolerate mean-spiritedness.
You can read more about the community expectations here.
As for me, I’m going to hang out in Act II until I have less fight energy when I hear the word surrender. It’s coming — I can feel it.
Give over, not give up. Give over, not give up. Give over, not give up.
I do believe that connection is why we’re here, and I hope we can find a way to be in community. I also hope you love The ABK Edit on brenebrown.com as much as I do. People are hard but, damn — there are so many folks doing such amazing awkward, brave, and kind things in the world. If you pay attention, it’s enough to make your heart go wild.
People are hard but, damn — there are so many folks doing such amazing awkward, brave, and kind things in the world. If you pay attention, it’s enough to make your heart go wild.