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About the guest

Elizabeth Lesser

Elizabeth Lesser is the author of several bestselling books, including Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow and Marrow: Love, Loss & What Matters Most. Her newest book is Cassandra Speaks: When Women are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes. She is the cofounder of Omega Institute, recognized internationally for its workshops and conferences in wellness, spirituality, creativity, and social change. She has given two popular TED talks, and is one of Oprah Winfrey’s Super Soul 100, a collection of a hundred leaders who are using their voices and talent to elevate humanity.

Show notes

Cassandra Speaks: When Women are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes

Cassandra Speaks: When Women are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes by Elizabeth Lesser, Xe Sands, et al.

Cassandra Speaks is about the stories we tell and how those stories become the culture. It’s about the stories we still blindly cling to, and the ones that cling to us: the origin tales, the guiding myths, the religious parables, the literature and films and fairy tales passed down through the centuries about women and men, power and war, sex and love, and the values we live by.  Stories written mostly by men with lessons and laws for all of humanity. We have outgrown so many of them, and still they endure. This book is about what happens when women are the storytellers too—when we speak from our authentic voices, when we flex our values, when we become protagonists in the tales we tell about what it means to be human.

Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow by Elizabeth Lesser, Susan Denaker, et al.

Marrow: Love, Loss, and What Matters Most by Elizabeth Lesser

The Seeker’s Guide by Elizabeth Lesser

Omega Institute

Production by Cadence13

“I think what it says is something that I learned from my friend Eve Ensler: “I am an emotional creature” is what she says. And to say it with pride: “I am an emotional creature, and I love music that makes me feel.””


Brené Brown: Hi, everyone. I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us.


BB: In today’s episode, I’m talking with Elizabeth Lesser, my friend and bestselling author and co-founder of the Omega Institute about her newest book, Cassandra Speaks: When Women are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes. This is just… I don’t even know how to describe this conversation for you. It was healing and energizing and really got me thinking about things in a different way. I’m just glad you’re here to listen and to join us.

BB: So Elizabeth Lesser is the author of several bestselling books, including Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow. She is the author of Marrow: Love, Loss, and What Matters Most, and her newest book, Cassandra Speaks: When Women are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes. She is the co-founder of the Omega Institute, which is this incredible place. I don’t… Do you call it the Rhinebeck Valley? It’s maybe an hour and a half from New York City, and it’s probably the most beautiful drive I’ve ever been on. The first time I went, it was fall, and I was like, “Oh, this is where they get the postcards of fall. We just don’t have those.” So she’s the co-founder of the Omega Institute, which is really internationally recognized for its workshops, conferences; they focus on wellness, spirituality, creativity, social change, leadership. She’s given two very popular TED Talks, and she is a part of Oprah Winfrey’s SuperSoul 100, which is a collection of 100 leaders who are using their voices and talent to elevate humanity.

BB: Elizabeth believes that if women’s voices had been equally heard and respected throughout history, humankind would have followed different hero myths and guiding stories; stories that value caregiving, champion compassion, elevate communication over vengeance and violence. And her new book, Cassandra Speaks: When Women are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes is about just that. Let’s welcome Elizabeth.

BB: I’m just going to jump right in and say how happy I am actually just to see your face. Y’all are listening to us, I’m with Elizabeth Lesser, my friend, but we’re looking at each other right now over Zoom as we record this, and I’m just happy to see your face.

Elizabeth Lesser: Yeah, I’m happy to see yours. It’s been a while.

BB: How are you?

EL: Well, I’m probably, like most of us, I’m stunned, I’m hopeful, I’m despairing, I’m crazy, I’m sane, I’m excited, I’m scared. It’s just such a time. So many pandemics at once, and at the same time, I have a book coming out, and it’s both a diversion and I’m trying to figure out its place in the world, so it’s a very intense time for me. The good thing is that it is for all of us, so I feel like part of the community of freaking out people. [chuckle]

BB: Let me just say this for everyone listening. If you know Elizabeth Lesser and her work, you’re welcome. If you don’t know Elizabeth Lesser and her work, you’re welcome. So when I told a couple of people that I was going to talk to you about your new book, Cassandra Speaks, it was interesting that everybody I mentioned it to said, “Oh, she’s one of my spiritual teachers.” Do you get that a lot?

EL: Well, I do get that a lot, but I consider myself a seeker. I am a seeker, and I have many fellow seekers on the path with me, and if I’m a tiny way ahead of them, I’ll lend a hand.

BB: So for me, I met you through Broken Open, which broke me open, because Broken Openis not a beautiful title, it’s like a Surgeon General’s warning to me for that book.

EL: When I came up with the title, and you know what it’s like, titling a book is… I don’t have the title sometimes until very soon to publishing, but that title actually came from a Rumi poem, ‘Dance when you’re broken open,’ is the line. I knew that title from the beginning, but I didn’t tell anybody. When I sat at Random House with all the marketing young people in a meeting and they’re like, “Well, what’s the title?” And I said Broken Open, they were like, “Oh, no, it’s not. That is a scary title. That’s a sad title. How about The Light at the End of the Tunnel? Or, The Journey Through the Darkness?” I’m like, “No, no. Actually, this is about being broken, and then the light coming through the cracks. But first, the breaking. You got to do the breaking first, then the light comes in.” So I held firm for that title.

BB: God, I love it. Give me the couple sentence what that book is and what it’s meant to you looking back.

EL: Well, I was listening to one of your podcasts recently. You talked about the Day Two, being in the messy middle and letting yourself, even though you don’t want to, even though you want to escape it, just keeping yourself in it and asking, “What have you come to teach me?” Day Two, I don’t know if that’s how you would say it, but that to me is what Broken Openis all about. I call it the Phoenix Process, where you know something in your life needs to burn, you know that unless you let go of the old, you can’t go into the new. And sometimes it’s a divorce, and sometimes it’s an illness, and sometimes it’s a child going off to school. Sometimes it’s a pandemic, sometimes it’s an entire social justice movement, but it’s when things break down and you ask, “What can I learn?” Not, “Whose fault is it?” but, “What can I learn?” And then you do the work, and then are reborn. That’s what Broken Open means to me. That’s what the book’s about.

BB: We’re five minutes in, I’ve got goosebumps from head to toe, okay? I voted in high school least likely to tell people to get a cup of warm tea and listen, but get a cup of warm tea and listen. Okay, take us to Marrow.

EL: Marrow was my third book. So, sometimes I think I wrote that book too fast, Brené. You know how sometimes a book takes years and sometimes a book just happens? This book just happened because I was my little sister’s bone marrow donor. My little sister had cancer, she got over it, she lived for seven years, and then suddenly it came back, and it’s a blood cancer, and if you know anything about leukemia or lymphoma, if you need a bone marrow transplant, it means you’re about to die. So she was about to die, and siblings are the ones who are most likely to match, you got to match your DNA markers, and the closer the match, the more likely it will work, and I come from a family of four daughters, and all of the siblings got tested, and I was the only one who tested for perfect match. We matched every point along the way.

EL: So, being the kind of self-reflective, psychologically therapized, spiritual lady that I am, I had this idea, because I read about how if we went through with this, there was a chance that she would reject my bone marrow, or my bone marrow might attack her, it’s called reject and attack in medicine, and I thought, “Oh, my God, that’s what she and I have done to each other our whole life.” We had a loving yet very combative relationship. She’s a tough Vermont nurse practitioner, and I was this meditating spiritual person, and she thought I was just ridiculous, and I always wanted her to like me and value me, and we had a lot of back and forth. So I thought, “Hey, if we clean up our relationship and stop attacking each other, maybe, once my bone marrow gets into her, it won’t attack, and she’ll live.” And so we went through a lot of therapy together, something she never would have done before, and it was amazing. We got down to the marrow, I called it our soul marrow transplant. We deepened our relationship, we both learned so much about ourselves, and then she lived for a year. She lived for a good, wonderful year. She called it the best year of her life. And then the cancer came back and she died. So the book is about the transplant, the soul marrow transplant, and her death.

BB: God, it was just… Sometimes books feel like too generous of a gift, you don’t know what to do with them as a reader. And that just felt like such a generous gift to us. So thank you for that.

EL: Thank you.

BB: And tell me why, I’m curious, why too fast?

EL: I was so in it still. I started writing it while she was sick because she had been writing some things and she wanted to write with me. So we started writing it together, and there are a lot of her words in the book about her experience. And so I had not really processed a lot of it. So it’s a pretty raw book because I was writing it as we were going through it. Now, maybe that’s great. And I think I would write it a little differently now, but whatever. Books are their own people.

BB: Books are their own people. You know what, you said Marrow was your third, and I forget about that because before Broken Open, you had The Seeker’s Guide.

EL: Yeah, thank you.

BB: Yeah. So it went The Seeker’s Guide, then Broken Open, which was like Brené-centered starting because that’s what broke me open and introduced me to you in a really profound way, so tell me about The Seeker’s Guide, which was your very first book, right?

EL: Yeah. I am the co-founder of Omega Institute.

BB: Woot, woot.

EL: Omega’s about 40 years old now, and I had been at it for maybe 20, and I was in my young 20s when we started it, and just about every guru and holistic health professional and sports psychologist and artist, all these wise and wonderful people had been coming through the doors of Omega. I’d been like a canary in the mines of the Human Potential Movement and I felt a really good bullshit detector. Like, “That guy’s a fraud, that guy is all about his ego, that woman says she’s this, but she’s really that.” And I had figured out for myself what really was helping me grow and change, what meditative techniques, what psychological processes, what health regimes, how to become comfortable in my own skin in a variety of ways, and I wanted to help other people, give them a shortcut. Like, “This works, this doesn’t work.” So that’s what The Seeker’s Guide is.

BB: When you look back on The Seeker’s Guide, any changes in opinion?

EL: I hadn’t even looked at it for a long time. I talk about the history of psychology and the self-help movement and the “New Age,” I wanted to give some sort of clout to it, to this burgeoning self-reflective work that was happening in America, especially the East, coming to the West. And I hadn’t looked at it in years. It’s about a 20-year-old book. I went back and I was like, “Wow, I really did some very cool research for this book.” I completely forgot how William James started American Psychology. And so I don’t think I would change much about it, no.

BB: That’s amazing because it did what it was supposed to do then. Yeah. Before we go into Cassandra Speaks, I really do want to lay this foundation. Describe the Omega Institute to people.

EL: Well, what I’m going to be describing now, I pray is going to still be something because we’ve been in lockdown all year, and we have lost all of our income. And like so many non-profit educational organizations or restaurants or art colonies or whatever, we are hanging on by a thread. But what we are and what I hope we will continue to be is a conference and retreat center in the Hudson Valley, about two hours north of New York City, where people can take weekend workshops or intensive retreats, and everything in art and literature and writing, and spiritual study and trainings for all kinds of therapists, whether it’s a singing workshop with Bobby McFerrin or a basketball thing with Phil Jackson, we’ve like… Because it’s a holistic learning center, where anything that helps a human be fully alive in their body, in their heart, whole-hearted, healed, that’s what we teach. And we have about 30,000 people come through every year, but not this year.

BB: Godspeed to recovery because it’s an important place. I’ve had some of the hardest learnings and some of the best learnings and probably the most beautiful sky I’ve seen in my life. Actually, before we start that, tell me the premise of Cassandra Speaks.

EL: I divide the book into three parts. The first is called Origin Stories, because I believe that stories is how humans learn. They stick to us, they stick to us longer than nations live. Those stories stick to us, and they are origin stories, whether it’s a story of Eve, born second, first to sin; the story of Pandora, first to sin in Greek; or Cassandra, who knew the truth but was doubted, she spoke the truth, she warned the truth, but no one believed her, she was called a hysteric. Every one of these old stories in so many cultures in the world, and I went back and read them, and I read many different translations of them, and those are just three, I tell quite a few of them, they paint a picture of women as someone not to be trusted, as second born, first to sin. Not just not to be trusted, but the cause of sin in the world. And these are stories, they’re not real, they were told, they were made up by people. And if we want to change now, we have to know those stories. I’ve been comparing it, after the book came out, to the Black Lives Matter movement, because America is based on a story of white supremacy, and unless we know that story, how could we have enslaved people without a story being deep in our DNA that white people are better than Black people?

BB: You could not. You could not do it.

EL: We need to own that story and feel discomfort about that story and take it in, and then we can write, as you say, a brave new ending. So if we don’t really own these stories about women, and know them, we can’t write the brave new ending that the world needs now. So that’s the premise of the first part of the book, and then I talk about power a lot, and then the third part, I give tools for women, both strengthening our backbone, but keeping our vulnerability intact.

BB: I love it. So the book… And I love the subtitle, so good, the book is Cassandra Speaks, the subtitle is When Women are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes. And I want you to read this piece to us because it centers you as the storyteller, who you are and how you see the world. This kind of dual lens of both, I think of you as an activist and I think of you as a spiritual leader, and I don’t have any conflicts there, between activist and spiritual leader, but a lot of people see those as conflictual things. So tell us the story, starting with “All my life…”

EL: Okay, it’s in a little chapter called Women, Power, and the Shadow. [reading] All my life, I’ve toggled between being an activist, someone interested in healing and changing the world around me, and an innervist. That’s a word I made up to describe the part of me that seeks inner change, inner healing. I’ve never regarded activism and innervism as mutually exclusive, in fact, one keeps the other in check. If we focus only on fighting what we perceive to be wrong out there, we miss out on the very real work waiting to be done within our own hearts and minds and lives. If we don’t look at our blind spots or projections or hypocrisies, we can end up doing what Friedrich Nietzsche warned. He said, “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster.”

EL: [reading] We see this every day. The very people spouting tolerance and inclusivity becoming intolerant and insular, or those pushing family values in public acting out the opposite in their private lives, or the revolutionaries, after the revolution, turning into the tyrants they toppled. And we see it in our own lives. I see it in mine, like when I proclaimed that women are capable of changing the human story, helping it to become a more kind, just and peaceful one, and then I fail to bring those very qualities into my daily relationships at work and home. This is where innervism comes in. Taking responsibility for how I behave, recognizing my own flawed nature so that I can forgive others their imperfections too. Walking the talk, being the change.

EL: [reading] When speaking of women and power, we need to talk about both innervism and activism. Innervism, because women hold personal and collective pain in their bodies and souls that needs healing from the inside out. Activism, because there are indeed monsters in the world who need to be confronted now. There is evil; there is cruelty, greed, and injustice. I use the word activism to describe any call you answer to confront those monsters. Sometimes, what we long to see changed in the world is an inside job. By innervism, you may think I’m referring to a type of relaxing self-care, and certainly, some inner work is like that. It’s good and necessary to care gently and kindly for our bodies and hearts and nervous systems. I’m talking about a different kind of innervism here. Becoming aware of the monster within has not been a day at the spa for me. It’s been hard work. The Swiss psychologist, C. G. Jung used the term shadow work to describe this kind of innervism.

BB: Mm. Mm, man. Okay, let me just read this part here, [reading] “Because sometimes the very evils that we want to fight in the world, the broken behaviors we blame on others, are also alive in us and in need of our attention, our kindness, our understanding, our healing.” The killer is in the house, like that scene from the movie where they call 911 and they’re like, “Ma’am, do you hear someone on the phone?” And you’re like, “Oh, no!” I like the term you have for your own shadow work. Do you know what that is?

EL: Yeah, I call it looking at my own bullshit.

BB: [laughter] You’re really a Texan way deep in there, Elizabeth Lesser.

EL: Well, I’m married to one.

BB: Oh, that’s right.

EL: [chuckle] Yeah, confronting my own bullshit. And it’s the hardest work and the best work, and the most necessary work, I feel, especially for those of us who want to change the world. Because the propensity of humans to blame other people is so strong and such a waste of time, and projecting out into other people what needs to change, when really, the most gratifying and the only work that really works is working on ourselves. There’s just a long, long history of people blaming each other, and blame, shaming other people, blaming other people, it’s the root of violence and war. And so, I often feel that the work I do on myself, my shadow work, is just as important as any activism I do. It feels like powerful, important work for the world.

BB: I have to agree, and I have to say not only do I not think innervism and activism are… They’re not mutually exclusive. I think they’re completely interdependent. I worked with so many activists who have paid for their rage and fury with their lives, with their partnerships, with their children. They’ve paid, and that’s not okay, because that’s also a form of oppression in a really hard way. And so, let’s start with Part One. Now that I think people understand more about you, get to see a little bit of you, Part One pissed me off.

EL: Yeah, well, as Gloria Steinem says, “The truth will set you free, but first, it’ll piss you off.”

BB: What is the story? If women told the story, what story would Eve tell about picking the apple? How would it be different than what we know? Because let me tell you, these stories that you talk about, Eve, Pandora and Pandora’s box, Cassandra, these stories became a part of my DNA without my effing permission.

EL: Right, they live in us. People might say, “They don’t live in me. I’ve never even read the Bible.” No, they live in us. So, Eve, I’ll give you a little primer on Eve, in case anybody forgets the story. Everything was so great in the Garden of Eden. Adam was there and God was there, and a few animals. That’s all who was in the Garden of Eden for thousands of years, and everything was just fine. There was no illness, there was no death, there was no anger. There was nothing but just a dude in a garden, with fruit and animals, and God was looking after him. And in a way, it reminds me of childhood. It was childhood. He was well looked after and there was no problems. Many of us don’t have that childhood, but it was like idealized childhood. And then, Adam was lonely, and he needed some help, so God made a helpmate named Eve. And Eve was in the garden, and the only instruction she got was, “Ye shall not eat the fruit from that tree, yet ye will die if you eat from this tree.”

EL: And a snake came along. And in biblical days, a snake was the harbinger of wisdom. Snakes were good luck in biblical days. The snake said to Eve, “You won’t die, die. You will be born again. You will become wise. This is the tree that will make you wise. Also, it’s delicious.” So Eve wanted to eat the apple, she wanted to become wise, so she ate it and gave it to Adam. And after that, there was the fall, all evil came, and they were exiled and they went out into the world. Now, the Bible is full of stories of heroes: Moses, Jesus, Job.

BB: Job. Yeah.

EL: People who are tested, who don’t do good things and they go against the status quo. That’s all Jesus was about, going against the status quo. And they go through tests and they go through dark nights of the soul, but then they rise, they become the men they were born to be. Eve is the only protagonist who follows that longing to become wise, to leave home so as to find herself. She’s the only one who’s punished for it. She bears the sin of too much curiosity, too much desire to individuate and become a whole person. She is punished for it, and nobody else is. And so, I actually think of Eve as the first grownup. She’s the first person in the Bible to seek herself, her true self, and to be tested. And if she had told the story, she would have told it as a hero’s journey. She would have become wise, would have learned, and would have been able to return home a whole person.


BB: I read this part, this is on page 46. [reading] “The essence of the teachings, many of which found their way into the Old and New Testaments of the Bible, can be distilled down to this: 1] Men are better than women, even the wicked men are better than women. 2] A woman’s sense of shame is deserved. Shame for what? Out of control emotions, wanton sexuality that has the power to tempt a man and destroy his virtue. 3] A woman should be silent with a “bound-up mouth.” 4] Men dominate women to protect women from other men. And 5], and you just see this lived out everyday now, alliances between women are dangerous.”

EL: I have many quotes that I found, and my mouth was open as I was finding them, from great Jewish and Christian thinkers, from Augustine to great rabbis. The quotes are astounding in their abject…

BB: Misogyny?

EL: Women to lower-class citizens who must keep quiet and do the men’s bidding. Misogyny.

BB: And I have to say that I am a… If you could see right now, I have a whole… Statues and gods, and I’m a believer. I’m a proud Episcopalian, which is code word for believer with some caveats and open to other ideas. But these people that you quote here, I read their stuff. And when I saw, like, Martin Luther, “If women become tired or even die, that does not matter. Let them die in childbirth, that is why they’re there.” St. Thomas Aquinas, “As regards the individual nature, a woman is defective and misbegotten, for the act of force in the male seed tends to the production of a perfect likeness in the masculine sex, while the production of woman comes from a defect in the act of force.”

EL: And then you wonder why women have so much shame about our bodies, our emotions, our desires, our dreams. And that doesn’t mean that Thomas Aquinas and all the great Christian mystics who I love too, I love them. That was my entree into spirituality. That doesn’t mean everything they said was wrong and bad, but I’m fine to cherry-pick the beauty from the great world’s religious leaders.

BB: Me too.

EL: And I do it. But it’s good to know, because it helps you think it’s not just yourself. It’s not just you who, either from your childhood or just your makeup, that is carting around this wagon of shame. It has been with us from the beginning.

BB: Tell me about Cassandra.

EL: Well, Cassandra was… First of all, she was made up. All these people were made up, okay? They weren’t real people. It’s a good thing to remember. Some men told some stories, and they’ve become real. But Cassandra was the most beautiful princess of Troy, and Troy was the enemy of Greece, and you know about the Trojan War and Odyssey, and Odysseus. Cassandra was King Prius’s daughter, and everyone was after her. Zeus, king of the gods; Apollo, his son; mortal men, everyone wanted her to be their wife.

BB: Is she a god, a demigod, a…

EL: She was not a demigod or a god. She was a mortal princess.

BB: A mortal, okay.

EL: King Priam of Troy. And so, Apollo was the one who wooed her with a gift she really wanted. He said, “You will be clairvoyant. You will know the future. You’ll be able to tell the future.” And she wanted that. And so, he neglected to say that, “Should I give it to you, then you will have to have sex with me right now.” And she took the gift, and then when he tried to have sex with her, she refused. And he was furious, and as the story goes, he spat a curse into her mouth, and the curse was, “You’ll still be clairvoyant, Cassandra, but no one will believe you. In fact, they’ll think you’re hysterical, they’ll think you’re making it up.” This is the original gaslighting, is the story…

BB: Yeah, this is.

EL: And she did see everything. She saw the sacking of Troy, the death of all of her brothers, the end of the reign of her father. She saw everything, and no one believed her. In fact, they thought she was crazy, and she went mad. And as I was writing the book, I didn’t know I was going to call it Cassandra Speaks. But when I was writing the Cassandra story, it was when the trial of Dr. Larry Nassar was going on for the girls and women who had been sexually molested by him when they were gymnasts.

BB: Yes, the U.S. gymnastics, yeah.

EL: Yeah. Many of these girls were Olympians. They won olympic gold medals. And some of them had been saying that he’d been molesting them for 20 years. This has been going on for 20 years. Hundreds of girls, in the guise of him giving medical treatment, he had been sexually abusing them. And they had told everyone. They told their parents, they had told the Olympic Committee, they’d told their coaches, their universities, and no one had believed them. And when I watched the televised trial, with this awesome woman judge, Judge Aquilina, she actually changed trial law by allowing 120 of the girls to testify one after another over several days, and she made Dr. Nassar sit there and listen to their stories. And she said to them, “I’m doing this because you’ve never been heard, you’ve never been seen, you’ve never been believed, and one person, me, I’m going to hear you now.” And their testimony… You can watch it, they made a movie of it. Their testimony is unbelievable, and their courage. They were Cassandras, they told the truth.

EL: But they changed the ending, they wrote a brave new ending, because people were listening. And I thought, “Well, this is what we women have to do now.” We have to believe that some of the things we’ve been told forever that are hysterical or too emotional, or soft… The soft things we want, like peace and communication, and love… Yeah, keep that in the home, or in the kindergarten school. But we have to now say, “No. We know something, we know it in our bones, and we’re going to use our voice to change the way power is used.”

BB: God. The definition of power that I have always used in all my research and work is data-driven. All the data come up and then does it fit the current definitions in the literature? Or do I need to find something? And sometimes I have to find something because the definitions don’t work, but to me, what our data was really aligned with was Martin Luther King’s definition of power, which is just the ability to affect change with purpose. It’s so funny because women in general reject the word, but they will be very quick, in my research, to tell me that their experiences of powerlessness are the most injurious and dangerous thing in their lives. So rejecting power, but acknowledging the danger of powerlessness, what the F word.

EL: And you know what happens when you want something, but you don’t go for it. Of course, women want power, if all power means is the ability to affect change in your own life or in the world. Of course, we want it, but we’ve been trained that a woman does not want power, especially if we think of power in the old way: Power over, power…

BB: Power over.

EL: I tell a story in the book about going into the basement and finding a box of one of my son’s college books from a course in the History of Power, and I had never read some of these books: Sun Tzu’s The Art of War, Prince by Machiavelli, books from the Greeks, books from the American founding fathers. I felt so naive, I was like, “Why haven’t I had been informed of… ” This is how power has been taught forever, and the word war, violence, domination is associated with power. Over all the years, power and military, it’s all been about power over. Who would want that if that’s not one’s nature? You’re the researcher, so I’m sure you know this research better than I do, but in the 1930s was the first time that phrase fight or flight came up from a research done by Walter Cannon, I think his name was, that he took people, aka men, because that was the only people psychological research were done on in the 1930s, and tried to figure out what do people do under stress, under trauma? What is the reaction biochemically? Psychologically what happens? And he came up with the phrase, fight or flight. People either fight or they retreat. Either retreat literally, or they retreat into alcoholism, or coming away from relationships. That’s what people do.

EL: And then, in the early 2000s, a woman researcher at UCLA, Shelley Taylor, did research on women. She was like, “Wait a second. That’s not my experience of what happens to me under stress. My first instinct is not to fight or to flee.” So she started doing research on women and she started culling all sorts of research done on female mammals, monkeys, rats, and she came up with the phrase ‘tend and befriend.’ That, under stress, women and female animals tend, they tend the least powerful in the group, the children, the old people, and they befriend. They create groups of belonging. Instead of lashing out and fighting, the instinct biochemically, oxytocin, other hormones, is to befriend. “Hey, can we wrap our arms around this and find some common ground and create a sense of belonging?” This goes back to all the old stories. The old stories, the hero journey stories are ones of fight or flight. That’s the only thing that happens, and that’s the definition of power. You fight to get what you want, or you retreat and you let the victor take over. Well, I do believe that many women have more of an instinct to tend and befriend, and that I’m not just interested in women getting more power. What would the point of that be? The world’s on fire. We have to change the way we do power.

BB: It reminds me very much of Audre Lorde’s, The Master’s Tools Will Not Dismantle the Master’s House, her paper on white feminism. And when these white feminist scholars became empowered and became power, they used the only form of power they knew, which was power over.

EL: And then feminism just became a failed male system anyway. So that is not what I’m interested in, and it’s kind of a tricky area because not all women identify with what I’m saying that alive inside of us is the tend and befriend instinct. But I do think, whether through nature or nurture, and I don’t really care anymore why, because what I care about is that there have been many studies that show a women’s way of leading, which is different. Look at the women leaders in the world now who are dealing with COVID.

BB: Oh, yeah, for sure.

EL: I think that the top five most successful countries in slowing the growth of COVID-19 and having the least people die from it, they’re women. And when they asked Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand, “Why? What did you do?” She was just like, “Well, first of all, I spoke to the people as if they were my family, and it’s just like, ‘Come on, let’s take care of each other.’” She tended and befriended, she created a culture of belonging. Then also she said, “I didn’t know what I was doing. No one knew what they were doing so I asked everybody. I didn’t have the hubris to think I knew anything, because no one knew anything. I asked every leader in every country, I asked so many different doctors and scientists, and I culled it all. I felt, as a leader, that was my role. Not to be the one, but to take the many and create something that worked for everyone.” And this is, I do believe, skills that us women who are great multi-taskers and have a history of caring for the least among us, has to bring out of the family, out of the schoolroom, out of the nursing profession, and into the highest levels of leadership.

BB: I agree. And we need men with the same traits doing the same thing. So I love that you have old story power versus doing power differently. So old story power, strong, weak hierarchical model; doing power differently, a partnership model. Old story, authoritarian; new story, interactive. Old story, collaborates competitively; new story, collaborates connectively. It’s just values, individualism, fortitude, and action versus values, relationship, empathy, and communication. Huge one I see in organizations all the time, old story power withholds praise and encouragement versus doing power differently, generous with praise and encouragement. And then I’m just thinking about what we’re seeing right now in the political… In the U.S., dominates, interrupts, and overrides versus listens, processes, and includes.

EL: No names. We will not name names. [chuckle]

BB: We can because just this administration, the Trump administration, is… It’s interesting, this is like a really full circle moment with you, because I was asked to write the foreword for a book coming out from the Nobel Women right after the election of Trump, and I wrote the foreword for it, and they asked me to address this election. He had not been… What do you call it that happens in January? It’s not…

EL: Inaugurated.

BB: Inaugurated, yes. I was going to say installed, but I think that’s another realm of academic nostalgia. But I wrote that my biggest fear about the 2016 election was this was going to be white male power over making a final last stand. And last stands are violent and desperate and scary, and know no boundaries and no rules, and do not follow any protocols because a last stand is a last stand. And I’m afraid that that’s what’s happening. I think that’s what we’re seeing is this not white male power. I’m raising a white son, I’m married to a white husband that are great people, but it’s male power over, it’s this paradigm of the old story power that you’re talking about that is destroying us, including those who believe they’re wielding it.

EL: Yeah. And last stands can last a long time.

BB: Hell, yes.

EL: It still is a last stand. Even if this goes on for a while, I so believe that we have to stay in our most hopeful, most positive state. When I feel myself being dragged down into despair and fear, I go back to that Pandora story. Pandora, she had, as the story goes, but actually they have unearthed some shards of pottery that tell the story very differently now. Pandora was the first woman in Greek mythology, and when she was being sent down to be with the humans, Zeus gave her this jar, they call it a box, so we’ll call it a box, Pandora’s box, and he said, “Don’t open this box because there’s all sorts of stuff in there you don’t want to release.” But she, of course, she was like Eve, she was too curious, Brené. She was just too curious for her own good, and she opened the box and all the evil came out into the world, but also lots of other spirits came out. And right before the last spirit came out, she shut the lid, and that was Elpis, the spirit of hope.

EL: And the new way of telling the story is that actually Pandora didn’t open the box, she found it open, and she was the one who kept hope in the box because the evil was out and we needed hope, we needed to have at least one of the spirits left with us that we could call on when things got really dark and to keep us energized and aligned with the arc, the arc of justice.

BB: God, this arc is feeling so long, but you’re right, we need that. Two things before we go. Just give me a quick overview of this chapter that has my favorite title of any chapter of any book I think I’ve ever read, which is, Do No Harm and Take No Shit.

EL: Well, actually, you were at a Women in Power conference when I was first taught a meditation technique from Roshi Joan Halifax. And Roshi Joan, who’s a Zen teacher, called this meditation, and she was leading it specifically for women, but it’s for all people, the strong back and the soft front, that if we have a strong backbone, almost like we’re a noble human being riding a horse through our land. We know we belong, we have our seat, like, “This is my place, I belong here.” If we have that strong backbone, we can keep our heart very soft and vulnerable. Both together. And for years, I have done that practice, so much so that all I have to do since I’m going into a hard meeting is just sit up strong, but soften my belly and my chest, and it just reminds me. And then when my sister was very sick and dying, I was cleaning out her office, and she was a nurse practitioner, and she had a needlepoint that she had made that said, “Do no harm,” which is the Hippocratic Oath of a nurse, and then she had needlepointed under it, “But take no shit,” because she took a lot of shit as a nurse, as many nurses do.

EL: And I just loved that, and it reminded me of that practice that Roshi Joan Halifax had taught. Do no harm, stay soft, stay open to the other, stay vulnerable, but only if you are taking no shit. So I call the meditation practice, Do No Harm But Take No Shit, because I think for activists or anyone who’s living today, we need both of those qualities within us. We need to be committed to doing no harm, but if that’s all we do, we’re going to take a lot of shit and it’s going to hurt us. So it’s that balance. It’s both. It’s both, and it’s the marriage of both.

BB: Oh, my god, I love it so much. Okay, I want to close with this quote because… Well, we’re going to close this part, but then we have to do our rapid fire. This quote from you, which I think is so beautiful, “It’s time to tell stories where no one is to blame for the human predicament, and all of us are responsible for forging a hopeful path forward.”

EL: I agree with myself.


BB: I agree with you too. I see you on that noble horse riding through your noble land, and I agree, this is just Cassandra Speaks, and I’ll tell everyone where to get it because it’s honest and it’s in some way, in an important way for me… What is the opposite of gaslighting? What is the opposite, do you think?

EL: I would have to say… I’m going to have to use your phrase, it’s vulnerable communication. It’s being vulnerable. If gaslighting is making someone feel they’re crazy just for being who they are, then the opposite of it is greeting the other, even if you disagree with them, with an openness, so you can learn their story, and not projecting all over them your own.

BB: That’s what this…

EL: And no one’s ever asked me that, so I just made that up. So yeah.

BB: It’s beautiful, and that’s what this book was for me. It was the opposite, it said all those narratives that you try to fight and you try to not include in the stories you’re making up about yourself and your life and your work and your voice, they actually are in there, they were implanted without permission, and there’s nothing wrong with me.

EL: Yeah, that’s a great take-away. Thank you.

BB: Yeah. Alright, you ready for the speed round?

EL: I guess so. [chuckle]

BB: Fill in the blank. Vulnerability is…

EL: Staying open even when you feel threatened, even when you’re scared. Staying open and having some kind of faith that it’s safe. It’s safe to stay open.

BB: Number two. You, Elizabeth, are called to be very brave, but your fear is real. You can feel it in your throat. What is the very first thing you do?

EL: I actually believe that there’s a divine purpose to everything. I believe that in a very real way. And so when I’m the most scared, I remember that there is a divine purpose at work.

BB: God, that’s good. I’m going to try that. Number three, what is something that people often get wrong about you?

EL: As you started, saying what do I feel about people thinking I’m a spiritual teacher, so if people think that maybe they think a spiritual teacher just glides through life on a little woo-woo car, I, like I’m a person, and I suffer and I have problems and I’ve had children and I have grandchildren and a husband, and I’m just so far from perfect. So that’s… Yeah.

BB: You can be pushed so far into the spiritual leader realm that it’s dehumanizing.

EL: Yeah.

BB: You’re not given the liberty of being human. Yeah, so I can see that. The last TV show that you binged and loved?

EL: Oh, man. I’ve been on a tear of watching Australian television shows. I’m telling you, they’re great. They’re comfort TV. They’re absolute… They’re like Dallas, remember the Dallas…

BB: Oh, my god, yes!

EL: It’s totally like that. And I just finished binging, it’s like seven years’ worth of Offspring, it’s called. Oh, my god! It’s so great. For some reason, I’ve just gotten into Australian television shows.

BB: It sounds great. I’m going to go check that out. Okay, one of your favorite movies. I can’t ask favorite movie because it’s too hard for people, but top two, or just give me one of your top movies.

EL: Well, a classic movie favorite is To Kill a Mockingbird, that’s a classic. But my favorite, more recent movie, no one I know liked it who saw it, except me, Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life. It is the weirdest, deepest movie. Please watch it and then tell me if you like it or hate it. Tree of Life.

BB: I’m just going to give every listener a little warning that I hear it’s tough, right?

EL: Tough, but it’s amazing. And Brad Pitt and Jessica Chastain are amazing in it.

BB: Okay. A concert you’ll never forget?

EL: Oh, well, I’m a Springsteen fan. I’ve gone to so many Bruce Springsteen concerts, you wouldn’t believe. And I sure hope we can do it again before either one of us dies, me or Bruce. But his tour, the Rising Tour, after 9/11, that was church, that was church.

BB: Favorite meal?

EL: Once someone had a dinner party and made pasta with lemon zest, butter, and caviar. It was erotic.

BB: Love it. Tell us what’s on your nightstand.

EL: I’m reading Caste by Wilkerson, and it’s such a hard read, and it’s such a brilliant book.

BB: Yes. Brilliant. That’s the only word you can use, it’s just brilliant. A snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that gives you real joy?

EL: Well, I have quite a few grandchildren, I have three sons and their kids, and two of them live next door to me, so it’s sort of like a compound, so I do a lot of cooking for big family meals, and that’s just a great, great joy of my life, cooking for these little kids.

BB: Last, tell me one thing you’re deeply grateful for right now.

EL: Well, I’m looking outside at the changing leaves here in the Hudson Valley and it’s fall, and I’m grateful for nature, and that’s why I’m devoted to protecting it.

BB: I love that. Okay, you gave us seven songs that you would prefer not to live without, all the way, Earth, Wind and Fire, Fantasy, all the way to Mozart’s Requiem. What does this soundtrack say about you? What does this mini mix tape say about you?

EL: I think what it says is something that I learned from my friend Eve Ensler, “I am an emotional creature,” is what she says. And to say it with pride, “I am an emotional creature, and I love music that makes me feel.”

BB: I too am an emotional creature, and I say that with pride, and I too love your songs, and I love everything that makes us feel because what would be the point if we didn’t, right?

EL: Right.

BB: Oh, man, Elizabeth Lesser, you are a total badass. Thank you for joining us on Unlocking Us, and thank you forCassandra Speaks, and…

EL: And one thing before we…

BB: Yes.

EL: Once I said that to a friend of mine who’s a Catholic nun, Joan Chittister…

BB: Oh, I love her.

EL: And we were on the phone, and she said, “No, no. Don’t say badass. I say, you are leaven. I say you are leaven. You help people rise.” I’m like, “Yeah, I’m going to say that. You are leaven.”

BB: You are leaven.

EL: You are leaven, Brené, you are leaven.

BB: I was going to say, “And you are 12,” but that would be funny. [laughter] Because it’s not 11, it’s leaven, as in the… Yes, but I… But we also also share a love for goofy jokes. Thank you, Elizabeth. It’s been such a pleasure.

EL: Thank you, Brené. Thanks for having me on.


BB: You know what? It’s time to step up to the storytelling platform. Time to change some of the myths, to re-examine the stories that even live inside of us. I think many times the stories that are inside of us were put there without our permission and they’re just not true. It’s time for us to interrogate those stories, see them for what they are, and as we talk about in the work all the time, write a brave new ending. Cassandra Speaks: When Women are the Storytellers, the Human Story Changes is by Elizabeth Lesser. You can find it at wherever you get your books, and you can find Elizabeth on Twitter @ElizabethLesser, Instagram is @elizlesser, E-L-I-Z-L-E-S-S-E-R, Facebook is Eliz Lesser, E-L-I-Z L-E-S-S-E-R, and then her website is Also, one way to tell your story, make sure you’ve got a voting plan. Take good care of yourselves. It’s a tough season right now, it’s a hard time. Use your voices. Always stay awkward, brave, and kind. And I will see you on the next podcast.

BB: Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast, it’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden, by Weird Lucy Productions, and by Cadence13. Sound design is by Kristen Acevedo, and the music is by Carrie Rodriguez and Gina Chavez.

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

Brown, B. (Host). (2020, October 28). Brené with Elizabeth Lesser on the Power of Women’s Stories. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Cadence13.

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