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About the guest

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.


Brené Brown: Hi, everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us. This is my deep breath right now, I don’t know about y’all, but I am tired. I’m tired and I’m seeing tired everywhere right now. I don’t think I’ve been on a Zoom call over the past three days, and I’ve been on 475 of them, I believe. I don’t think I’ve been on a Zoom call over the past few days where at least one or two people didn’t break down in tears. We have collectively hit weary. And this is especially true for the brave folks on the front lines and the people who love and support them. And it’s also true for all of us. We are nearing an exhaustion that we need to talk about. I think it’s really important. There’s one thing you can count on from me, is to normalize when I think we need to normalize and to also say, “Whoa, this is not normal”, when we need to say, “Whoa, this is not normal”, but I do think it’s important to normalize right now what we’re in.

BB: The adrenaline surge of crisis is never as long as we need it to be, but it’s often long enough to get us through the immediate danger: the flood, the hurricane, the landslide, the death of someone we love. Many of us have lived through natural disasters, and all of us have lived through personal crises, and we know there’s a rhythm. We know that there’s the moment of crisis, and everyone comes together, and we’re incredibly fueled by “Get it done, and how can I help?” We’re so focused on what needs to happen next that we barely notice how normal… And by normal, I mean that sacred holy place that we are never grateful for enough until it’s gone. Sweet, wonderful, normal life. We don’t even notice during crisis that it’s been ripped away.

BB: Slowly the crisis part of struggle comes to an end, the waters recede or our friends leave after the funeral, and what we don’t talk about, I think enough in the world right now, is there is just so much mess, and so much loneliness and overwhelm once the waters recede, once everyone goes home after the funeral, that is when the loss of normal swallows us whole. And we are coming to the end of our adrenaline surge. And we are standing, I think, at the gaping mouth of the end of normal, and we’re feeling swallowed a little bit. And I just wanted to normalize that for everyone. Unfortunately, the crisis, the COVID-19 pandemic is not going to be a crisis that follows the natural rhythm of things. I do not believe. I think it is not a sprint, it’s going to be a marathon. And without shifting mindsets, I think the fear of collapsing will become the actual collapsing. We are going to have a long run of lockdown and remote working and out of school, and we are going to continue being plagued by awful politics, a lack of leadership; this is going to continue for a while. We’re also going to continue to mercifully see the best in people.

BB: We need a new mind shift; we need a way to think about this right now that moves us out of crisis and adrenaline-fueled thinking into something longer. And, for me, the metaphor that comes up is “settling the ball.” Ellen played soccer for 10 years. Charlie played for a couple of years. And I remember when they were little, the kids would kick the ball and it would come in to another player like chest high, and instead of using their body to settle the ball and get the ball down in front of them and be strategic about where they’re going to kick next, they would just raise their little legs as high as their shoulders and kick the ball, and then it would bounce and kick up and then someone would kick it again, and then we’d kick it on to the field next to us, and then that ball would go to the next field and they just didn’t know how to do it. The bounces were kicked, the high balls were kicked, there was no settling, no using our bodies to bring the ball down, to give ourselves time to read the field, to position the ball where we need it with our feet, and then to get strategic about where we want the ball to go next.

BB: We do not have infinite energy to continue to kick the ball at shoulder height right now. We’re going to need to settle the ball. And we’re going to need to create new normal and grieve the loss of normal at the same time. And I think that’s going to require focus, breath, and moving from fear and anxiety to proactively developing a strategy with solid information. And I just want to say, be very… I’m going to say this five times, and in this podcast probably: limit your news intake, limit your screen time, find one or two reliable sources that you trust that are around science and epidemiology. And even within a good science and epidemiological crew, there are calm spreaders and fear mongers. So find the right folks. Lean in, trust, gather what you need to be strategic, but don’t overwatch right now.

BB: I’m going to share two strategies with you that I think will help us settle the ball a little bit. The first strategy is what we call our family gap plan. So I have to start by debunking one of the worst myth in the world, and that is the myth that strong, lasting relationships are always 50-50. I call BS. That is not the case. Strong, lasting relationships are rarely 50-50, because life does not work that way. Strong, lasting relationships happen when your partner or friend or whoever you’re in relationship with, can pony up that 80% when you are down to 20, and that your partner also knows that when things fall apart for her, and she only has 10% to give, you can show up with your 90, even if it’s for a limited amount of time. Let me tell you where this started for us.

BB: When I first started doing a lot of speaking and traveling, I would be on the plane flying back to Houston and think, “I just need to crawl in bed. I just need to crawl in bed. Please, God, let me get to the bed. Let me get to the bed.” And I had no idea that what was happening at home was that Steve was holding down the fort, parenting our kids, running carpool, cooking, working full-time, and he was at home thinking, “I just need to get in bed. I just… I cannot wait for that back door to open so I can go get in bed. I just need to close my eyes for just an hour, I need to get in bed.” So, the back door would open, and I would expect him to say, Oh, welcome home, babe, go get in bed, rest, you’ve been out there working so hard. I know it takes so much.” And he would expect me to say, “Hey, tap out, love. I’m back. Go get some rest.”

BB: That is not how that shit went down. Let me tell you, I would open the back door, I’d come in, and I’d say, “Hey, I’m just exhausted.” And he’d say, “Yeah, me too.” And I’d say, “Oh, really?” And we’d go back and forth. And it would turn into a nightmare. It was just a nightmare, and it was like this maybe for six months. And one day, of course, the whole idea, therapy taught, not to talk about situations when you’re in the situation, but when you’re in a good place. So one day, we were feeling close and intimate, and connected, and I said, “We gotta do something about the back door fights when I come in from out of town.” And he said, “We do.” And as we started talking, one of us said, “When you get back… ” I think it was Steve, he said, “When you get back, I’m at 20%.” And I said, “That’s problematic, because when I get home, I’m at 20%.”

BB: So from that moment on, we started naming where we are, we just absolutely… I talked to him on the phone last night, and I said, “Look, I’m on the edge. I got a solid 15 right now.” And he said, “I was at 15, I’m up to 40.” We got a gap, 15 plus 40, 55, we got a 45 gap to 100% relationship, 100% parenting, 100%… We’ve got a gap. So, what’s the family gap plan? This is where I think it is incredibly helpful. So, about, I don’t know, 10 years ago… Let me think about this for a second. Ellen’s 20, she was probably 9 or 10, so I guess it’s probably a decade ago. When we first came up with this plan, we sat down and put together a family gap plan. What happens when collectively, Steve and I are one unit of analysis, we need 100%. I’m at 20, he’s at 20. Our family is also another unit of analysis, we’re at 100 and maybe we’ll do a family check-in and Ellen might say, “I’ve only got 10 right now, I’ve got papers and my friends and I are having problems.” And Charlie will say, “I don’t feel good, I’m… ” What’s the gap plan?

BB: So our gap plan, when we’re not at 100, we move into the family gap plan with complete seriousness. One, sleep, eight hour minimum for everyone. Two, move your body, it’s where we store anxiety. Not one of us can get back to where we need to be without moving our bodies in our family, and I believe that’s true of all of us, it’s where we store anxiety, it’s where we store our grief, it’s where we store hard things. Number three, eat well. A crisis, whether it’s this pandemic or just any crisis at home, during more normal times, crisis can lead to Buddy the Elf eating. You know Buddy’s four food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup. That gives us an instant relief and then that insulin sugar up and crash, and up and crash, is so hard on our emotions and our body. So, eat well, limit the news, again, gasoline on the anxiety fire. Then this is where it gets interesting. Again, if Ellen was 10 when we first started doing this, then Charlie was four, and we sat down and we talked about when we are having a hard time and we are not 100% as a family, what do we do to make sure everything’s okay? And I still have these written down. Here was the family gap plan, circa-2010: No harsh words, no nice words with harsh faces.

BB: This is the peril of being an emotions researcher as a mom, because my kids have a lot of language and they can really use it sometimes against me, because… I’ll never forget the first time Charlie said, “Why are you mad?” And I said, “I’m not, Charlie. I’m using nice words; I’m using kind words.” And he goes, “You’re using kind words, but you’ve got a harsh face.” So number one, no harsh words. Number two, no nice words with harsh faces. Number three, say you’re sorry. Number four, and this was… When I found this to do this podcast, it made me start crying. Now, I’m not sure I’m going to get through it without crying now: accept apologies with thank you. So we taught our kids from the time they were young that real apologies require acknowledging the hurt that you’ve caused someone else.

BB: And that when someone offers you a real apology for something they’ve done, that they shouldn’t say, “That’s okay.” You should say, “Thank you.” And my kids do that now, and I gotta tell you, it’s a little painful at times because recently, I… I don’t know. I was less than optimal parenting with my son. I was super frustrated about something, and I said, “I apologize. I did not show up the way I wanted to show up with you around this conversation.” And he looked at me and he said, “Thank you. I accept your apology.” [laughter] My first reaction was like, “You’re grounded. What do you mean?” Because can you imagine? Can any of us imagine our parents, first of all, maybe apologizing by acknowledging the hurt and saying, “I’m sorry I showed up that way.” But two, “Can you imagine saying to your parent, “Thank you. I accept your apology.”

BB: It’s perfect, and it’s good and it’s meaningful, because it’s not okay, for him to say, “It’s okay.” It’s not okay. So that’s number four, apologies with thank you. And then five is puns and knock-knock jokes. So again, our family gap plan, no harsh words, one. Two, no nice words with harsh faces. Three, say you’re sorry. Four, accept apologies with thank you, not with “That’s okay”. And five, more puns and knock-knock jokes. Sit down with your family right now. This is such an incredible opportunity for some container building. What does the family gap plan have? How can you number? How can you check in with numbers? If you say grace before meals, sometimes when we do it, or how can you check in? Okay, so, settling strategy, settle the ball strategy. One, talk about where you are, name what you have, name the gap, have a gap plan.

BB: Strategy number two, is around comparative suffering. So, fear and scarcity are driving a lot of our thinking and feeling right now. So, we all know what fear is. Scarcity is a first cousin of fear, born of fear. It is the, “I’m not enough. We don’t have enough. When is there going to be enough?” You can see scarcity actually manifesting itself right now in the grocery store aisles. It’s in Daring Greatly, I wrote that you can tell a culture is deeply in scarcity when this conversation at a cultural level revolves around, “What should I be afraid of right now, and whose fault is it?” And so, you can see a lot of scarcity leadership right now, a lot of fear, a lot of blaming, and so we are in deep fear and scarcity.

BB: Unfortunately, one of the things that’s immediately triggered when we go into fear and scarcity is comparison. Comparison and who’s got more, who’s got it better? What are they doing? What’s crazy about comparison when it’s triggered by fear and scarcity, is that even our pain and our hurt are not immune to being assessed and ranked, So, without thinking, we start to rank our suffering and use it to deny or give ourselves permission to feel. “I can’t be disappointed about my college graduation right now. Who am I to be sad that I’m not going to be able to have this great ceremony, because there are people sick and dying?” Or, “I can’t be angry and afraid about being sick right now, because there are people sicker than me. I can’t be scared for my children because there are homeless kids who have nowhere to sleep tonight. Why should I be tired and angry, I have a job right now and so many people don’t.”

BB: I get it, I do it, I fight with it, but this is not how emotion or affect works. Emotions do not go away, because we send them a message that, “Hey, message incoming. These feelings are inappropriate and do not score high enough on the suffering board. Please delete all feelings related to this. You are not in pain enough. Thank you.” That’s not the way this works. The emotions that you’re feeling, that we feel, when we deny them double down, they burrow, they fester, they metastasize. And not only do our feelings double down and grow, they invite shame over for the party. Because now, we’re like, “I am a bad person, because I’m sad or scared or lonely, or frustrated or disappointed or pissed off. And other people have it so much worse than me.” It’s really dangerous, and let’s break down why this is dangerous.

BB: The entire myth of comparative suffering comes from the belief that empathy is finite. That empathy is like pizza. It has eight slices. So, when you practice empathy with someone or even yourself, there’s less to go around. So, if I’m kind and gentle and loving toward myself around these feelings, if I give myself permission to feel them and give myself some resources and energy of care around them, I will have less to give for the people who really need them. “Like what about the healthcare workers on the front line right now or the grocery shop folks or the hourly… The people who are delivering packages?”

BB: While I am empathic with myself, there’s less to go around because empathy is finite. False. False. When we practice empathy with ourselves and others, we create more empathy. Love, y’all, is the last thing we need to ration in this world. The exhausted doctor in the ER room in New York doesn’t benefit more if you conserve your kindness only for her and withhold it from yourself or your co-worker who lost her job. The surest way to ensure that you have a reserve of compassion and empathy for others is to attend to your own feelings. Okay, let me break down how the shame and empathy thing work. So first off, empathy is the antidote to shame, so that’s a really important piece to understand. If you put shame in, remember petri dishes from high school? If you put shame in a petri dish, and you douse it with secrecy, silence, judgment, stuffing it down, keeping it quiet, shame grows exponentially into every corner and crevice of our lives.

BB: On the other hand, if you have shame in a petri dish and you douse it with empathy, shame cannot survive empathy. Empathy is a hostile environment for shame. So, empathy is really an interesting emotion because it is an other-focused emotion. It draws our attention outward toward another person’s experience. When we’re truly practicing empathy, our attention is fully focused on the other person, and we’re trying to understand their experience. We only have thoughts of ourself in order to draw on how our experiences may help us understand what another person is going through. That’s why to have empathy for someone, you don’t have to experience what they’ve experienced. You just have to be able to connect in yourself to something that may lead to a similar feeling.

BB: Shame is a very egocentric, self-involved emotion. It draws our focus inward. Our only concern with others, when we’re feeling shame, is to wonder how others are judging us. Shame and empathy are incompatible, inversely correlated. When we feel shame, our inward focus overrides our ability to think about other people’s experiences. We become unable to offer empathy and we’re incapable of processing information about that other person unless that information specifically relates to us.

BB: So, let’s stop ranking suffering. There’s enough love and empathy to go around, putting ourselves down because we’re struggling, but have it so much better than others right now, can kill our empathy for others. What’s helpful is perspective. Complaining is okay, letting ourselves feel these hard emotions is important and mandatory to be empathic people, but we can also piss and moan with a little perspective. Hurt is hurt, y’all. And every time we honor our own struggle and the struggles of others by responding with empathy, the healing that results affects all of us. Here’s one caveat I would share with you, and it’s a note to parents and teachers and people working with kids. I talked about this in our first podcast episode on FFTs – effin first times – like our pandemic, and working remotely, and 5,000 other things we’re doing right now. Perspective is a function of experience.

BB: Kids can feel like their worlds are ending because their worlds are smaller than ours. Kids don’t have the experience to have full perspective and understand the bigger picture of what’s going on. So, what we can do is let them feel. Give them permission to feel and more importantly, be super brave and let them see us feel, and let them watch us navigate our feelings in awkward brave and kind ways. So final thoughts for today. We have entered collective weariness, our adrenaline has done all it can do, and that’s probably good because it’s hard on our bodies, time to settle the ball, bring it down, get it between our feet, read the field, be more thoughtful about where we’re sending things next, put together a family gap plan. I really encourage you to see if the naming, the percentage you have right now is helpful.

BB: I’ve been on the best, some of the best, Zoom calls for work this week, although I’ve been on too many of them. I’ve seen everything from… My favorite was, I’ll give you $5, if you will get your sister in the other room for the next 10 minutes to someone not knowing that their mute was not on and saying, “Holy shit. My milk is coming in.” And the person leading that call saying, “Let’s… Why don’t we push the meeting back 30 minutes?” And then this person saying “Why?”, and everyone saying, “Well, we thought your milk is coming in.” Get together a family gap plan and start naming where you are today. I have 50. If Steve says, “You know, I’m down to 20.” I can say, “Right now, you know, I got your 80 covered today. I think we’re okay.” When we can’t come up with 100 what’s the gap plan? And let’s move away from comparative suffering. We don’t need to rank order hurt and anger and pain and fear right now. We need to attend to it. Love on it so it dissipates, and we put more empathy in the world. You all take care of each other. Love each other. And I’ll be back. This is Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us.


© 2020 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Brown, B. (Host). (2020, March 27). Brené on Comparative Suffering, the 50/50 Myth, and Settling the Ball. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13.

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