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On this episode of Unlocking Us

I have not one but two special guests today. You know, one of my favorite things is podcasting with my sisters, Ashley and Barrett, and in this episode, the three of us are taking questions from listeners and viewers about Atlas of the Heart — both the book and the HBO Max series. We do our best to provide answers, but the questions were very hard — you guys weren’t messing around.

About the guests

Brené Brown

Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston, where she holds the Huffington Foundation Endowed Chair at the Graduate College of Social Work. She also holds the position of visiting professor in management at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business.

Brené has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She is the author of six #1 New York Times bestsellers and is the host of two award-winning podcasts, Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead.

Brené’s books have been translated into more than 30 languages, and her titles include Atlas of the HeartDare to Lead, Braving the Wilderness, Rising Strong, Daring Greatly, and The Gifts of Imperfection. With Tarana Burke, she co-edited the bestselling anthology You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience.

Brené’s TED talk on the Power of Vulnerability is one of the top five most-viewed TED talks in the world, with over 60 million views. Brené is the first researcher to have a filmed lecture on Netflix, and in March 2022, she launched a new show on HBO Max that focuses on her latest book, Atlas of the Heart.

Brené spends most of her time working in organizations around the world, helping develop braver leaders and more courageous cultures.

She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, Steve. They have two children, Ellen and Charlie, and a weird Bichon named Lucy.

Ashley Brown Ruiz headshot

Ashley Brown Ruiz

Ashley Brown Ruiz is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker certified by the State of Texas. She received a Bachelor of Science in Interdisciplinary Studies with a specialization in Early Childhood Education from Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. Fueling a passion from working over a decade in a Title 1 school in Houston ISD, Ashley pursued a Master of Social Work from the University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work. As part of her role as Senior Director of The Daring Way, she leads The Daring Way Internship Program with students seeking a master’s degree in Social Work. Ashley works with the interns to run therapy groups at different agencies around the Houston area. Her experience comes from working with women in residential recovery, adolescents in recovery, and middle school girls. Ashley’s ability to model and teach vulnerability and courage allows her to help clients pull together all the pieces of their lives to help them move toward the life they hope to create. She is a Certified Daring Way™ Facilitator and a member of the National Association of Social Workers.

Barrett Guillen headshot

Barrett Guillen

Barrett Guillen is Co-CEO for Brené Brown Education and Research Group. With her team, Barrett supports both Brené and the organization by helping to prioritize competing demands, managing relationships, and building connective tissue and strategy across all business initiatives. Barrett holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Kinesiology from the University of Houston. After more than a decade in education in the Texas Panhandle, Barrett and her family made the move back to the Houston area to join the BBEARG team in making the world a braver place. Having the opportunity to work with her sisters every day has been one of the great joys of her life. Outside the office, you can find Barrett spending time with her family (immediate and extended), enjoying her daughter’s games, eating her husband’s famous burgers, floating in the water (any water!), or on the pickle ball court.

Show notes

Atlas of the Heart by Brene Brown

Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience by Brené Brown

In Atlas of the Heart, Brown takes us on a journey through eighty-seven of the emotions and experiences that define what it means to be human. As she maps the necessary skills and an actionable framework for meaningful connection, she gives us the language and tools to access a universe of new choices and second chances—a universe where we can share and steward the stories of our bravest and most heartbreaking moments with one another in a way that builds connection.

Over the past two decades, Brown’s extensive research into the experiences that make us who we are has shaped the cultural conversation and helped define what it means to be courageous with our lives. Atlas of the Heart draws on this research, as well as on Brown’s singular skills as a storyteller, to show us how accurately naming an experience doesn’t give the experience more power, it gives us the power of understanding, meaning, and choice.


Brené Brown: Hi everyone I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us. One of my favorite things is podcasting with my sisters and I’m here with my sisters. Ashley and Barrett and I are taking questions from listeners about Atlas of the Heart, about the book and about the HBO series. In case you haven’t heard the Sister Series we did last summer on The Gifts of Imperfection, go back and check it out. It’s so good. You’ve got me, y’all know me, you’ve got Barrett, y’all know Barrett, and then you’ve got my sister Ashley, who’s Barrett’s identical twin, who’s a therapist, and she leads The Daring Way internship program here for students getting MSWs, Master’s in Social Work, degrees. They do artwork at The Women’s Home and a sober high school. It’s incredible. Barrett is the newly appointed co-CEO of Brené Brown Education and Research Group. Let’s just jump in. I have two, not one, but two special guests today. Shall you like to say hello.

Ashley Brown Ruiz: Hello, this is Ashley.

Barrett Guillen: Hey, it’s Barrett.

BB: Got my sisters here. Woohoo!

BG: Yay.

BB: Yup. And we are taking questions from Atlas readers and viewers, and we’re going to do our best to answer them. It’s very exciting.

BG: Yeah, I can’t wait. These are good questions.

ABR: They are good questions.

BB: They’re hard questions, did we not vet for easy questions? What’s the deal here?

ABR: [laughter] We do hard things over here.

BB: Okay. Glutton. Okay. Shout out, shout out. All right, let’s take number one. This is a question from Jake. Let’s hear Jake’s question?

Jake: Hi Brené, my name is Jake and I’m a social worker in Toronto. While reading Atlas, I was thinking about the phrase mixed feelings. And specifically, how experiencing more than one emotion at a time can make it hard to identify and label emotions accurately. I’m wondering how we can develop emotional precision when emotions and experiences inevitably start to stack and layer on top of one another. I really want to get to the language portal; I just don’t know if I’m feeling separate layers of emotion or if the layers are combining to produce a new emotion with a new name. Thank you so much.

BB: I love this part, I love the, I want to get through the portal, but am I feeling separate layers of emotion or are they combining to produce an entirely new emotion with a new name? Yes. I think yes, and. [laughter]

BG: I was like, please tell us it’s one, please tell us it’s just one single emotion.

BB: No, I think some emotions by definition are a mix of feeling. So like bittersweet.

ABR: Oh yeah.

BB: So there are emotions that are layered and they’re actually… We know from the neurobiology on bittersweetness that sometimes it’s not a single emotion with one name, but it’s actually a very fast switching back and forth between two distinct emotions that brings up a specific feeling in us. So I don’t think I can answer the question, Jake, because I think it depends on what you’re feeling, but it’s so funny because you’re a social worker. I think this is the gift of therapy.

BG: Oh.

ABR: Yup.

BB: Do you know what I mean? That you have all these huge, big feelings that seem inextricably connected, and you’re bouncing between grief and rage and fear and vulnerability, and I think therapy for me anyway, is the place where there’s a big enough space to put them all out and start sorting them and understanding them and where the pieces come from. And I’d be curious for… because for sure, Ashley is one of them. [laughter]

BG: Don’t we have an alarm for the… Don’t we have a therapist alert?

BB: Beep, beep, beep, beep. Yeah, yeah. Awooga. Therapist response. Awooga. So Ashley is one of them, she’s a therapist. But one of the things I’m curious about is for me, when I bring all these layered feelings in and I don’t understand what the primary one is, or if there is even a primary one, I usually… with Diana, get to a place where it’s almost a singular thing.

BG: Yeah.

BB: What do you think?

BG: I can get to that place too, why don’t you tell us how we get there, Ashley? [laughter]

ABR: I was just thinking, with so much of your work, including Atlas, we come in with this big bag of emotions and we don’t know what it is, or why we’re feeling it, or what’s underneath it, or why we’re acting the way we are. And the language and the sorting out, we’re able to do, because we know new language. We have new language, we know what these words are, we know what these feelings are called, and once we’re able to sort them out, then we’re able to get to what’s underneath it. So it’s like pulling back the layers of an onion was one thing I thought. The other thing I was thinking about when you were just talking was sometimes emotions happen so fast that it’s hard to answer this question, or it made me think of surprise, right?

BB: Oh yeah.

ABR: Surprise is a really fast emotion and then it takes us somewhere else. Where that takes us could be joy, could be terrified, could be lots of different emotions.

BB: Yeah, that’s such a good point, because sometimes emotions are gateway to other emotions or bridges to cognitions and thinking. And a lot of times I think it’s really complicated. This is such a good question, Jake, because I think a lot of times, we feel something and instead of just feeling it and not attaching judgment to what we’re feeling, we judge ourselves. And then now we’re dealing with a mix of feelings, self-judgment, bad self-talk. This is the stuff we untangle when we have someone. And a lot of times, it’s funny because the Lifetime movie therapist is always saying… Not you, Ash, but the Lifetime therapist one. That’s how they’re portrayed in movies. “What I hear you saying is.”  A lot of times Diana will say, “So is it your fear of rejection,” and I’ll think about it, but it won’t land with me when she says it. Like, “No, I don’t think it’s that it’s… ” And they’re like, “Aaw shit, here it comes. I know what it is.”

ABR: And the judging ourselves, part of it is so big too, because we can be so hard on ourselves and not even stop and think like, okay, this is like 48 years of what I’ve been trained to do. And yeah, I love this idea of un-training myself, but give me more than 47 seconds, you know? Oh yeah. [laughter]

BB: You have one second for every year that this trauma has settled in.

ABR: Untrain, untrain, unlearn.

BB: It’s a good question. It is a good question.

BG: And I have to tell you the portal scene in the HBO Max show is one of my favorites. It it’s because it’s such a good way to think about the portal to think about going into your emotions.

BB: Yeah. I think the answer is you may be feeling separate layers of emotion and you might be feeling one emotion that really brings together thoughts and behaviors and feelings of a lot of different things. I think it’s about untangling them having two things, not just the language, but the space.

ABR: Oh yeah.

BB: We talked about this quote in the Dare to Lead that Barrett and I did on kind of a reporting live on how it’s been to regather for the first time, since the pandemic. And it’s a huge quote for me, it’s between stimulus and response, there is a space and in that space there’s a choice and in that choice, there’s liberation and there’s growth. Again. We’re not sure who that’s attributed to. Some people say Steven Covey, some people say Victor Frankl, Steven Covey said it wasn’t me some say be it Skinner. I don’t know. But I think we need the language, but we also need the space and maybe that’s why I go straight to it. Why that feels like therapy to me because Diana is such an amazing space holder. Like I’m going to wedge open this space for you to put all the different things you’re feeling and thinking in, and then we’re going to spend time together, sorting it out.

ABR: Yeah. It’s like when your necklaces are tangled, [laughter]

BB: It’s totally when your necklaces are tangled.

ABR: Oh. And how frustrated do you get when you can’t get it untangled? How frustrating is it when you know that you have these feelings and you’re trying to figure out what to do with them, how to name them, how to give yourself the space, because we’re not taught to give ourselves or each other space.

BB: No.

BG: Um, asking for a friend. [laughter] what happens to those people who just throw the necklaces across the room because they can’t untangle them.

BB: They don’t have any cute necklaces [laughter] they don’t have any cute necklaces. Not me, man. I’m like I go in with a safety pin, tweezers. I’m like, I want my necklaces. Well actually I bring the safety pin and the tweezers to Steve [laughter] I can’t see anymore that small.

ABR: That’s a whole different podcast.


ABR: Aging. Where’s the book?

BB: Where’s the book. All right, let’s go to Tanya from Australia. Let’s listen to her question.

Tanya: Hi, Brené… Tanya from Australia calling to ask when Atlas of the Heart will be translated in Italian. My mum lives in Italy and has read all of your translated books. And I can’t wait for her to read this one. Thanks so much Brené.

BB: Okay. I love that Tanya’s mom is in Italy and has read all the books translated and I’m glad we’re actually including this question. This was a really good question to include because hard answer, we are not translating Atlas of the Heart and it’s the first book. I think it’s the first book, right? That we have not translated. The other books have been translated into something like over 40 languages. The reason we’re not translating it is really kind of the social work ethic of “do no harm.” Emotions happen in the context of culture and language is an artifact of culture and both a creator of culture and a byproduct of culture. And I don’t know how to ensure the accuracy of the translations. I could probably get us through in Spanish and might even be able to like maybe push it. Ashley’s looking at me with the side eye.

ABR: Except for that one time we were in Paris and she ordered in Spanish.


BB: Okay. But all right, baby. Yeah. I could probably not get us through in French, but I do watch a lot of French film. I don’t know if that’s going to help. I know all of the, no, I couldn’t do it in French, but maybe Spanish, but I don’t know because Spanish translation of The Daring Way and Dare to Lead curriculum took eight years.

ABR: Yeah. Eight years. And people that speak Spanish in different countries, not just like we probably know…

BB: Right.

ABR: One Spanish. There are so many different. Yeah.

BB: Yeah. I mean it took eight years, a dozen people looking at it, a two-year fight over the word for shame.

ABR: Yeah, it’s been.

BB: So I don’t think I can do it with the integrity that we commit to bringing to you. So there will not be any translations of Atlas of the Heart.

ABR: Yeah.

BB: Okay. Next question from Victoria. Let’s listen.

Victoria: Hi, my name is Victoria. I’m calling from the UK. I was reading the section on grief and when I read the description of disenfranchised grief, I was struck by a really quite powerful emotional response and became quite overwhelmed and tearful. When I reflect on this reaction. I wonder if disenfranchised grief is how I feel about the pandemic and where we are now. I work as a therapist in the hospital, in the UK and during COVID outbreaks or waves. My role also included ward based, psychological and emotional support. In parallel I was also providing therapy to outpatients and staff. So had a bird’s eye view of ward trauma as well as how it was affecting people in the outside world. I think seeing the suffering, the death, and then if I’m honest, the horror of it all juxtaposed with our media, comments on social media and the politicians’ behaviors, I’ve lost my prior worldview and it’s gone for good, I think, in that I’ve also lost my sense of trust and security. I wonder if many of us feel this way.

Victoria: Even can all of us be in some form of disenfranchised grief? Does this explain all the anger in the world at the moment? Does it offer up another reason why our grief is affecting our reality? Is it why we are seeing more cases of psychosis? There are so many other aspects that affect this, but I do really wonder if disenfranchised grief has contributed to while we so unbalanced. I’d really love to know your thoughts on this, thank you.

BB: Wow, the grief of losing our prior world view, Victoria says hers is gone for good and her sense of trust and safety are gone, I wonder how many of us feel this way, can we all be in disenfranchised grief right now, is that why the world is so angry? Is that why we’re seeing more and more cases of psychosis? I’m going to go out on a limb here, and I’m going to say that a particularly new wave of disenfranchised grief for white folks and confirmation for people of color that the systems are not broken, that they’re performing exactly as they were built. To privilege some at the cost of everyone else, and I do think we’re experiencing disenfranchised grief, I’m just going to freaking go all the way there, I’m going to go all the way there.

ABR: Do you want to start with your reminding people, what disenfranchised grief is?

BB: Yes, let me do that. Let me actually right here, just the book… Let’s read it from the book exactly.

ABR: Chapter starts on page 88.

BB: This is not my research on disenfranchised grief, so I want to read it to y’all because I want to get it right. Yeah, it’s in the bold.  Okay, this is based on the research of Tashel Bordere. “Disenfranchised grief is a less studied form of grief: grief that is not openly acknowledged or publicly supported through mourning practices or rituals because the experience is not valued, or counted by others as a loss. The grief can also be invisible and hard to see by others. Examples of disenfranchised grief include a loss of a partner or parent due to divorce, loss of an unborn child and or infertility, the multitude of losses experienced by a survivor of sexual assault and the loss of a loved one to suicide. As an illustrative example of disenfranchised grief, Bordere explains that sexual assault survivors suffer from numerous losses, many of which are invisible to others, some of these losses include loss of one’s prior world view, loss of trust, loss of identity, self-identity, self-esteem, freedom and independence, a sense of safety and security.” So, I do think it’s been… for people who had the luxury and privilege of trusting in systems that serve them.

BG: Yeah.

BB: I think even for most of us, and I count myself as a white middle class, straight person, Christian person, I consider myself to be supported by many of the existing systems in the US. I am completely disenfranchised. I don’t believe anything works anymore.

BG: Yeah.

BB: I always believed and understood white supremacy, but even things like the power grid in Texas.

BG: Yeah, totally.

BB: Kids are freezing to death, and the people, the Governor in Texas and those people are playing politics with people’s lives and making sure their friends in gas, make a shit ton of money. There is a disenfranchised grief, I remember one time during that… It was like we’re in our house, we went, I don’t know, 36-72 hours without in heating, it was below freezing in the house. And I remember Steve saying, “Wow, the preppers, the people who have the Spam, the Y2K.”

BG: Oh, yeah.

BB: I get it, have your own water, have your own food, have your own heating source. The public infrastructure that keeps us safe.

BG: Scary.

BB: Yeah, I think the world is feeling disenfranchised grief, and then you’ve got presidents like Trump who every, I guess, understood rule of civility and… I don’t know, I think there’s a ton of disenfranchised grief right now.

ABR: Yeah.

BG: And just even, if we’re going to go there.

BB: We’re already there, we’re here.


ABR: We’re there.

BG: Getting vaccinated or not vaccinated, believing in science.

ABR: Yeah.

BB: Yeah, teachers getting hit in the face at school board meetings.

ABR: Yeah. Teachers having to choose between losing their contract for teaching and their license or having to teach within a system that is broken with sick kids everywhere. Those are your two choices?

BB: Yeah

BG: Taking care of your own sick kids.

ABR: Yeah,

BG: I don’t know what’s happened.

ABR: But also, do you think that we’ve been so intentional and mindful about how we come back to work and how we take care of each other in that process. I can’t imagine a lot of people are doing that. I bet there’s a lot of fear.

BB: We just did a podcast update on how hard it’s been and how we try to keep people centered. Yeah, yeah, I don’t think people are putting people first, I think people are putting money first, I think about raising our kids. Our kids.

BG: Yeah.

BB: Were raised on active shooter drills.

BG: Mm,hmm And if you want to go back to teachers, teachers now having to decide if they want to keep their job as a teacher or report families for child abuse of kids who identify as trans.

BB: God damn, it just makes me sick.

BG: Me too.

ABR: Me three.

BG: It’s like that whole proud Texan thing. It’s almost like, “Oh, I don’t want to be associated with Texas right now.”

ABR: It’s hard.

BB: It’s really hard, yeah. And it’s not who we are.

BG: No.

BB: But, you know…

BG: And who… I don’t understand it, and maybe it’s just because… Who wins?

BB: Oh, who wins? I can tell you who wins, there’s a clear winner, the question is, who wins when you go after young children? The far-right politicians going after them, completely mobilize the far right vote.

BG: That’s disgusting.

BB: It is, but that’s exactly who wins,  power and money win, and it’s so funny because people are like, I see these comments all the time, “I have to stop following you because you’re a Texan and y’all are all pieces of shit,” and I was like, “Well, you live in the US, did you think that about yourself when Trump was our president?” And then they’re like, “If you cared, you’d vote them out,” but what people don’t understand here is Texas is a very sophisticated blueprint for gerrymandering, restricting voters’ rights, and it’s very hard here because I’ll be honest with you, I’m not at every water board election, every school board election, and that’s the infiltration points, and it’s not just us. I mean you look at the French election that just happened when last week or earlier this week, he won, but barely against Le Pen candidate, I mean a far-right authoritarian. I’m voting “yes” on the disenfranchise grief. Where are you?

ABR: Well, I mean I think we can’t forget Russia right now either.

BB: Yeah. And the harrowing existence of an oligarchy. When we’ve got Elon Musk owns Twitter now, Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post, the richest people in this country control what we see, what we hear, what we have access to. I mean, this is going to be like Dancing with the Stars or one of those Britain’s Got Talent or whatever, like… I’m a “yes,” on disenfranchised grief.

BG: Yes.

ABR: Yes.

BB: Yes, yes. We have got to vote.


BB: Okay, let’s go to the next question. This is from Lauren. Let’s hear what’s on Lauren’s mind.

Lauren: Hi, Dr. Brown, my name is Lauren, and I’m calling from Maryland. My question for you is, could you explain a little bit more about empathy and this idea of compassion fatigue? I understand technically what you’re getting at with the new term of misalignment, but I would like a little bit more explanation here, I just left a tenure track job because of what I understood to be compassion fatigue, which I also see in my first responder family. I’m in a different way and family that is negotiating different vaccine and political stances. I also see this idea in communities that are just exhausted. I think there’s a deep knowing here and that the tools you are suggesting can be used to build a more truly compassionate society, but I’m still confused, and a bit burned out. Help. Thank you so much.

BB: Okay, great question from Lauren, we had several questions about compassion fatigue, where it comes from, what it is, how it’s different. Let me go into the book and read to you from it I’m on page 125 in Atlas of the Heart. We don’t talk about this in the HBO show. So, I’m in the book, “compassion fatigue is a term used to refer to the emotional exhaustion or burnout that can occur among caregivers, the term comes up most frequently in research focusing on medical professionals, but is also used as related to other clinical professions like psychology, psychologist, therapist, social workers and non-clinical service professionals,” we just mentioned teaching, huge teaching issue, customer service, anyone dealing with the…

ABR: The whole service industry, even with the pandemic, I mean.

BB: Oh, oh totally. So, there’s compelling research, I’m reading again in Atlas 125, “there’s compelling research that shows that compassion fatigue occurs when caregivers focus on their own personal distress reaction rather than on the experience of the person they’re caring for. Focusing on one’s own emotional reaction results in an inability to respond empathically to the person in need. In this view, the more appropriate term rather than ‘compassion fatigue’ might be ‘empathic distress fatigue.’ We’re not hearing the story; we’re inserting ourselves in the story.” So, I can remember exactly the first time that I understood the difference between compassion fatigue and maybe what is more accurately known as empathic distress fatigue, I would call it over-identification, secondary trauma. What would you call it?

ABR: Same. Yeah.

BB: Yeah, so it’s a really hard story, I’m going to give y’all a little warning, this is a really hard story, but it was the year 2001 when the Houstonian, Andrea Yates, drowned her children.

BG: Oh yeah.

BB: Do you remember that?

BG: Mm-hmm.

BB: And so I was teaching at the University of Houston, Clear Lake in their bachelor’s in

Social Work program. And my friend Dawn, who’s a therapist now, at the time, I think she was getting her MSW, but she came for the summer to teach part-time at U of H, Clear Lake with me. And I remember her coming out of class into my office at UHCL. And she said, “What’s wrong?” I was like, “Oh my God, this Andrea Yates thing,” and then I started telling her in excruciating detail what every one of those drownings must have been like. Like you know and she said, “Stop, what are you doing? What are you doing?” And I said, “I’m just trying to empathize.” She was like, “Woah woah woah woah. That is not empathy. That is not empathy. That’s trauma. And you’re traumatizing yourself. And I’m not doing it with you.”

BG: Shit.

ABR: Yeah.

BB: Then… And this is really interesting and really just – game changer. Then Sandy Hook happened, and I did the same thing, just every detail of what it would be like, and I took it to Diana, my therapist way back then, and still now.


BB: A decade later, and she said exactly what’s in here interestingly, “Why are you putting yourself in that story?” And I said, “So I can be more empathetic”. And she said, “Again, that’s not empathy, that’s… ” There’s another word for secondary trauma, I forget what it is, but that’s secondary trauma, and she said, “Let me take you to a place in time where you’re actively practicing empathy.” And I said, “Okay.” And she said, “You were running groups with a clinician to pilot your curriculum, the Connections curriculum, that became The Daring Way Curriculum.” And I said, “Yeah, I was, I did that.” And she goes, “So you were running a group with a clinician, and these were sexual assault survivors and incest survivors” And I said, “Yes.” And she said, “Really hard traumas.” I said, “Yes.” And she said, “Did you picture every minute of it? Did you put yourself in that situation?” I said, “No, no, no, no, no, I can’t do my job when I’m doing that.” And she said, “Well, what is your job?” And I said, “Oh, holding space and being empathetic.”

BG: Oh, man.

BB: Yeah, so she’s like, “So if you can’t do your job when you’re traumatizing yourself, you need to understand that that traumatizing yourself is not empathy.” Does that make sense to you?

ABR: Yeah, and the different roles that you were playing in those two, would that be like mom versus clinician or facilitator?

BB: I think it is mom versus… But I think under no circumstances does putting myself…

ABR: Oh, yeah, no.

BB: In that situation do anything but make me one more person that’s traumatized and needs to be taken care of. Now we’re all going to be traumatized to some degree about stuff like that. We should be.

ABR: Yeah.

BB: Clearly not enough to change gun laws, but we should be traumatized. So I asked Steve, my husband, pediatrician, “How do you do it?” Because this guy was voted best pediatrician in Houston, I don’t know, decades running, 80% of his patients were the kids of physicians and nurses and medical… Beloved pediatrician, right?

ABR: Yeah.

BB: And known really for his empathy, and I said, “When you’re having to tell a parent something really hard about their child’s health, do you picture that being Charlie or Ellen?” And he’s like, “Absolutely not. How can I be helpful if I do that?” And so then he gave me this metaphor that this is the fence.

ABR: Yeah.

BB: He said, “I go up to the fence, I lean over the fence, I embrace across the fence, but I never go through the gate, because once I go through the gate and I instead of attending to the wound, become the wound, I can no longer attend to the wound.”

ABR: Yeah.

BB: And so, I’m sure this is why great therapists have therapists, right?

ABR: Yeah, and I’ll never forget the first time something really hard happened as a clinician seeing… Well, I had pulled myself together and then I saw you and started crying again, and you told me the story about the fence and I still use it to this day because I don’t know where we got this from or why people do it, but it does not serve the people that need to be served at all when we do that.

BB: No, and I want to tell you what’s interesting is, I think we were raised around very graphic, traumatizing language.

BG: I do too.

ABR: Yeah, I can see that.

BB: Kind of like, “I know you’re going out tonight, but don’t drink and drive, because I don’t want to have to go identify your body on the… ” Very graphic and I think it’s our go-to place to imagine.

ABR: Yeah.

BB: I think… I’m a visual person anyway.

BG: Oh, yeah.

BB: I can put myself there.

ABR: Yeah, totally.

BG: Me too.

BB: It’s like one of those things, but I think we’re only able to be with people in deep grief and pain when we connect with their humanity not their trauma necessarily. Does that make sense?

ABR: Yeah.

BG: Yeah.

BB: Yeah, I think that’s why I could see empathic distress fatigue is a better word than compassion fatigue, because I think both compassion and empathy have the ability to be regenerative, the more you give, the more you feel. So if empathy is leaving you empty… Do you know what I mean?

ABR: Yeah.

BB: And not your job, because your job is prying those parentheses, or creating that space, but I think when we’re empathic with someone, it should give back in some way. And if it’s depleting us, we may be crossing the threshold.

ABR: Yeah, that’s a really good way to look at it.

BG: Yeah, I think it relates here. My therapist told me one time that I’m such a bad what-iffer, and I can play through every scenario as graphic or not graphic as whatever the situation is. But she was like, “Your body doesn’t know that you’re pretending, and what-iffing, your body is living it.”

BB: Oh, yes.

BG: And so when we do that, I can’t imagine the toll it takes on us personally too on just our own health.

BB: Oh no, but the foreboding joy, my whole thing now is like, “No foreboding joy, do not what if, do not visualize it, that creates whatever leads to belly fat.”


BB: Whatever hormone there is always on like the infomercials late at night, there are these…

ABR: Or the…

BB: Or the what?

ABR: Hallmark channel. [laughter]

BB: I can barely feel bad for you. I’m going to start a Hallmark Channel de-programming program with a van and everything, and on the van, it’s just going to show rom-coms and people will be watching them and be like… Oh yeah, that’s how life is, then I’m going to pull them in the van.

ABR: And then what?

BB: And de-program them.

ABR: Okay.

BG: We should probably turn off all social comments when that happens. [laughter]

ABR: Is that going to be like the Scooby-Doo van?

BB: Yeah, except it’s…

ABR: Or the A-Team van.

BB: Yeah, the A-Team van. “I pity the fool.”


BB: No. And then inside the van I’m going to say, “You can love that person, but get your own 401K, and if he’s a dick about Christmas now, he’s always going to be a dick about Christmas.” That’s what I’m going to say. [laughter]

ABR: When they show you who they are, believe them.

BB: Believe them. [laughter] Maya Angelou. Okay, let’s go to Cynthia.

Cynthia: Hi, Brené. This is Cynthia in Atlanta. Thank you so much for everything you do. My question is, in episode one of Atlas of the Heart on the HBO Max series, you shared that while you were growing up, your family didn’t allow expressions of sadness, but anger was permitted as an acceptable emotion, and most people in the audience shared the same experience. It kind of got me wondering why and when as a culture, we agreed that displaying emotions was inappropriate, seemingly indulgent and gratuitous? Does it stem from times of war or severe strife when austerity measures maybe seeped into every aspect of people’s lives? Hope you’re doing well, thank you so much. Bye.

BB: That is such a good question. I… I don’t know. I don’t know the answer to it. All I can tell you is I can tell you this story of… You were there, we did a training in London. Were you in that training in London?

ABR: No…

BG: I was.

BB: Oh you were, yes.

ABR: That’s Barrett.

BG: That’s me, Barrett.

BB: They look so much alike.

ABR: Eating fish and chips.

BB: No, it was Burger Lobster. Was that the name of it? Or Lobster Burger?

BG: Burger or… It was something… Oh God, that place, we ate there like twice, I think.

BB: Yeah, no, we did this training and there were 50 countries represented in this training, and it was so incredibly beautifully diverse and inclusive, and it was amazing, and everyone from our team was worried that shame and vulnerability would not culturally translate, and it turns out that the thing that we had in common more than anything else, was shame and vulnerability. And what was this… I would give a gajillion dollars for a recording of this. We went around the room and everyone in their own language gave us an idiom or a saying from their country of origin in their language about why vulnerability is so terrible.

BG: Yes.

BB: Do you remember that?

BG: Yes.

BB: I mean everyone… And I remember the person from the UK was like, “Don’t get a notion above your station,” and then the person from the Netherlands was something like, “Don’t be a tall flower, don’t be a tall poppy” or something, but every single country… And there were Asian countries, and African countries, and Eastern and Western Europe, and Australia… Every continent was represented. It was incredible. So I think my answer to this question would be, Cynthia, that our brain above all else is wired for survival, and that makes uncertainty and vulnerability feel scary, even though vulnerability and uncertainty are the pathways to connection and courage, and all the things that we want from our life that are meaningful beyond survival, but I think because vulnerability is seen as weakness or dangerous, emotion is therefore seen as weakness or dangerous… That would be my hypothesis. Y’all have thoughts?

ABR: I mean, the first thing when I read this question was just how… I mean, you said it really in a much better way, but I was just like how people dodge and avoid hard, scary, uncertain, unknowing things. I don’t know what those emotions mean, I don’t know how to help you, so let’s just not go there.

BB: The need for comfort is the true deadly pandemic.

BG: I think about this and I just think of… Generationally, people just don’t know how to do it, they don’t have the tools, they don’t… And I think…

BB: Skills, yeah.

BG: Yeah, so I think hopefully for us, for our family, we’re changing that.

BB: What’s really interesting, I think is… I’m trying to think of a global example, and the one that comes to mind is football or soccer, and how emotion is not allowed, but look at everything from the sheer joy and connection…

BG: Oh my god.

BB: To the violence.

BG: Rage.

BB: And rage, so we’re not allowed to feel anything but man, I’m going to need y’all to get your shit together when I make my pilgrimage to Anfield.

ABR: Well, if you need a pep talk from Pep Guardiola.

BB: Jeez, I do not need a pep talk.

ABR: Or Man City, woot!

BB: No, okay. No I do not. But just know that I don’t need a pep talk, but you will never walk alone Ash… Okay, let’s go.


ABR: Fair enough.

BG: Maybe we should have… We should revisit a sister episode once the Premier League ends up since… One and two, one point.

ABR: I mean it’s not just Premier League, it’s Champions League, it’s…


BG: There’s too many leagues, it’s… You know what I mean? I don’t even know what it means.

ABR: If you really want to talk about emotions, have you ever recently… Man City and Liverpool played each other two weekends back-to-back, and the way that the coaches treat each other is something that I’ve not really seen. There’s so much respect and love and just like…

BB: Huggy.

ABR: Huggy. I appreciate how bad-ass you are and you appreciate how bad-ass I am, and they keep saying it about each other, “Well, he’s the best,” “No, he’s the best.” You know what I mean? That is not something that we usually see.

BB: So that’s a lot of emotion, but then you also see unfiltered rage, racism.

ABR: Oh, yes.

BB: You see the emotion. So, in our family, we could be pissed or angry, because that was a tough emotion, we couldn’t be any of the other emotions because they were weak. We could be happy, but we couldn’t be sad or grief or fearful or any of those things, so then you take driving, sporting events, places where we have a long way to go. All right, last question for this episode, you want to…

ABR: Which ties in beautifully.

BB: To?

ABR: What we’re talking about.

BB: Oh, let’s listen to Grace.

Grace: Hi Brené and team, my name is Grace. In the HBO Max special, you quote that, “We are emotional beings that sometimes think.” How should this realization change or impact the way we operate interpersonally and as a society as a whole? Thanks.

BB: What a good question, Grace, “How should the realization that we are emotional beings impact the way we operate interpersonally and as a society as a whole?” Make space for feelings, acknowledge feelings, name feelings, share feelings, they matter. Check in with your teams at work, check in with your partner, with your kids. It matters.

ABR: Yeah, it matters.

BG: It does matter.

ABR: What a difference you have all around you when you’re doing that.

BB: Yeah, it’s life changing.

BG: Yeah, I think so too.

BB: That is life-changing because not only did I… I’ll speak for myself, because we obviously… Not obviously, but we have the same parents, same family, but eight years apart, I’m eight years older than Ashley and Barrett, and so sometimes we talk about how different the families were, for example…

BG: Here we go.

ABR: Let’s see what he says.

BB: I couldn’t see a PG movie until I was like 17. My grandmother took me to go see Gumball Rally, and it was a clusterfuck.

ABR: Never even heard of that. [laughter]

BG: No, me neither.

BB: I think it was called Gumball… Or like a Trans Am racing movie.

ABR: Are you sure you’re not talking about Smokey and the Bandit?

BB: No, I think it’s called Gumball Rally, but we’ll see. And then my parents got divorced and everything kind of fell apart then I’d come home to visit, Ashley and Barrett would be 14 watching American Gigolo on cable.

ABR: Which we shouldn’t have been.

BB: That’s true.

ABR: And that’s probably why we visualize so many things we shouldn’t.


BB: That’s maybe so.

ABR: I think somewhere in the middle, we probably should have landed…

BB: Yeah, I just think in our family, you could be mad, but I don’t think we were acknowledged as emotional beings, and I think we grew up in a very emotionally mercurial household, but denied, emotions that were denied and manifested into behaviors.

ABR: Which we were sometimes afraid of.

BB: Yeah, yeah.

ABR: Because they were big.

BB: They were big. Big feelings turn into big behaviors. It’s a great question Grace. All right, Ashley and Barrett, thank y’all.

BG: Thank you.

ABR: Always a pleasure to be here.


BB: Go Reds.

ABR: Love ya Blue.

BG: That was a little bit like the Oilers.

BB: That was I love ya blue from the Oilers. All right, y’all stay awkward, brave and kind, we’ll be back for part two with Ashley and Barrett on Atlas of the Heart.


BB: I love when we ask y’all for questions, I hate the questions you send. They’re hard, right?

BG: They’re so hard. These were especially hard.

BB: These were really hard. It’s funny, because as a teacher, I always think to myself, “The more complex and sophisticated the questions get, the more we’re learning together.” And I’m always like, “This is great, damn it.” Hey, before I sign off, I want to remind you if you haven’t heard yet, if you haven’t seen social or listened to Dare to Lead or heard it on… I guess maybe on the Viola podcast, is that the other place where we announced it? I’m taking a sabbatical; I’m taking a sabbatical.

BG: Or if you heard the Karen episode.

BB: Oh yeah, if you heard the Karen Walrond episode about seasons and rest and getting bored, I’m taking, I think a 14-week sabbatical. We’re going dark on social media for that entire time, we’re doing paid Fridays off all summer, we’re doing kind of mandatory four-week paid vacation for all employees on top of their already scheduled vacations. We are doing critical rest and restoration at Brené Brown Education Research Group this summer, and so we will be on a hiatus with the podcast, back in September. We will miss you. I will be sleeping or reading or playing pickle ball or watching British mysteries. Y’all take good care of yourselves and we’ll be back for one more episode, part two of Atlas of the Heart, questions, hard questions and hard answers. Stay awkward, brave and kind.


BB: Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, and Tristan McNeil, and by Weird Lucy productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil and music is by the amazing Carrie Rodriguez and the amazing Gina Chavez.

© 2022 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.


Brown, B. (Host). (2022, May 18). Brené, Ashley, and Barrett on Atlas of the Heart, Audience Q&A, Part 1 of 2. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Parcast Network.

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