On this episode of Unlocking Us
Have you ever struggled with feeling lonely – even when you’re surrounded by people you love? I have. It’s painful and confusing. In this episode, I talk to Dr. Vivek Murthy, a physician and the 19th Surgeon General of the United States, about loneliness and the physical and emotional toll that social disconnection takes on us. We talk about his new book, Together, and what it takes for each of us to tilt the world toward love and connection.
Listen to the episode
Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World by Dr. Vivek H. Murthy
Together is a book about the importance of human connection, the hidden impact of loneliness on our health, and the social power of community. The timeliness of Together cannot be understated—as COVID-19 sweeps across the globe, the public health imperative is clear: to save lives, we need to radically increase the space between us. But will this crisis lead to social, as well as physical isolation? Will social distancing condemn us to loneliness and a “social recession?” Dr. Murthy believes healthy relationships are as essential as vaccines and ventilators for our global recovery and that we have the opportunity to fortify and strengthen our connections and communities during this crisis.
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Brigham Young University. julianneholtlunstad.byu.edu
Emmy E. Werner, Ph.D. and Ruth S. Smith, M.A., “An Epidemiologic Perspective on Some Antecedents and Consequences of Childhood Mental Health Problems and Learning Disabilities”
Production by Cadence13
Brené Brown: Hi. I’m Brené Brown and this is Unlocking Us.
BB: Today I’m going to talk to Dr. Vivek Murthy, who served as the 19th Surgeon General of the United States from 2014 to 2017. As America’s doctor, he called the nation’s attention to critical public health issues, including the opioid epidemic, e-cigarettes, emotional health, and well-being. As the vice admiral of the US Public Service Commissioned Corps, he oversaw a uniformed service of 6600 officers dedicated to safeguarding the health of the nation.
BB: Dr. Murthy, or Vivek, as I call him in our interview, has a new book out on loneliness. And, God, it just hit me right and just pierced my heart a little bit. The book is called Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. And we’re going to dig in today about what is loneliness, what isn’t loneliness, and how we can be more connected to ourselves and to each other. This is an important episode for me. I can really battle loneliness sometimes, even with people I love, and he helped me dig in and understand. So, I hope it resonates, and I hope you get something out of it.
BB: This is such an important time to be talking not only about what loneliness is, but about what loneliness is not. And so, can we just start at the very beginning? What is loneliness?
Dr. Vivek Murthy: Well, I’ll answer that in two ways, Brené. I’ll tell you what researchers and scientists would say loneliness is, and then I’ll tell you what people, real people in communities across the country, told me loneliness was. Loneliness, as you’ll see it defined in the literature, is a discrepancy, a gap, if you will, between the connections that you need and the social connections that you have. It’s by definition a subjective term. What it also means is it’s different from objective terms like “isolation,” which are more descriptors of the number of people you have around you. So, I can have many people around me and feel quite lonely, but I could also have just a few people around me and not be lonely at all. It’s often about the quality of my connections both to myself and to the people around me.
VM: But there is what people, I think, describe as loneliness and have experienced it in their own lives. When I was Surgeon General, I began my tenure visiting communities across the country, and I didn’t ask people about loneliness. Actually, I asked them just a very open-ended question, which was, “How can I help?” And I tried to listen to what they had to say. But as they described many of the concerns they had, whether it was substance use disorders or violence or chronic diseases like obesity that they saw ramping up in their communities, what I heard were these stories of loneliness. And people wouldn’t say “I’m lonely,” but they would say things like, “I feel like I’m carrying this entire load all by myself. I feel like, if I disappear tomorrow, nobody would even care. I feel like I’m invisible.” That’s what loneliness feels like to many of us who are experiencing it in everyday life.
BB: It’s such a hard thing to identify and address, because I, like you, have talked to just thousands of people over the course of my career, and I’ve had very few people identify loneliness as the experience or emotion that they’re feeling, but so many of them just describe it to us. I’m thinking about some work that the Air Force is doing with our work, and there’s a story that DeDe Halfhill, an officer in the Air Force, tells where she’s addressing troops and she said, “How are you doing?” And they all said, “Tired, tired, we’re really tired.” And she started digging in and kind of peeling the onion, and she said, “How many of you are lonely?” And people just couldn’t even speak, they put their heads down and their hands up and said, “I’m lonely, I’m really lonely.” It just shows up so many different ways. What are some of the ways that loneliness shows up in our lives?
VM: Yeah, that’s such a powerful story you just mentioned, and my experience was almost identical to that. That while nobody came to me and said, “I’m lonely”, when I started to surface it more explicitly and ask, “How many people feel lonely or how many people are worried about loneliness in their lives and the lives of people that you love,” I saw these visceral looks of recognition.
VM: Over the time that I served, I had to talk about so many public health issues, and sometimes I could see the people weren’t really connecting with them. Sometimes I could see they were connecting cerebrally. Zika actually was an example of that. When I was dealing with a Zika outbreak, that was a time when people would put two and two together and say, “Okay, I understand these are the risks, these are things I should do to prevent it. Okay, I got it. This makes sense.” But there were some moments where people would connect really viscerally to a topic because it touched on a life experience they had had, and loneliness was one of those topics. But I think the reason that we don’t hear about it, and we ourselves may not even recognize it’s in our own lives, I think have to do with a few things.
VM: Number one, there is this deep stigma around loneliness. The shame that comes with loneliness and makes us think that if we are lonely that we’re not likable, that we’re broken in some way. And that prevents us not just from admitting it to other people, but even from admitting it to ourselves. And I think the second reason, though we don’t always see it, is because it doesn’t look like the person at a party sitting alone in the corner. Loneliness, in fact, can manifest in different ways as social withdrawal, it can manifest as anger, it can manifest as irritability. It can show up in different ways, and it can also lead to different types of illnesses. I came to realize, in the work that I did during my time in government and afterward, that loneliness was often one of the root contributors to substance use disorders and addiction, that it was a key part of what was driving violence in so many people’s lives and in their communities.
VM: And so, if we look around us, I think we will see the manifestations of loneliness. But it looks very different from the stereotype that we often have in our heads. It flies underneath the radar, there at a really deep level, affecting us in profound ways. But just beyond our vision, and hence we don’t address it, and we don’t talk about it nearly as often as I think we need to.
BB: It’s hard because I think about my own experiences of loneliness, which I believe we all have experiences of loneliness. Right? We all have.
BB: And when I think back on my life and the bouts of loneliness that I have had and the experiences of loneliness, I have never been more lonely in my life than when I was surrounded by people I knew and even loved, and some of the most fulfilling connected times I’ve had I’ve been alone. I didn’t know what to call it when I was growing up, but I would be surrounded maybe by family or I’d be at school, and there would be 10 people around me, but I would be so deeply lonely. I thought something was wrong with me, I didn’t know if I was having a panic attack. We, for sure, didn’t know what that was back then. But one of the things that you write in this book is…I’m going to read it to you, and then let’s talk about it. Is that okay?
BB: Okay. “Researchers have identified three dimensions of loneliness to reflect the particular type of relationships that are missing. Intimate or emotional loneliness is the longing for a close confidant or intimate partner, someone with whom you share a deep mutual bond of affection and trust. Relational or social loneliness is the yearning for quality friendships, and social companionship and support. Collective loneliness is the hunger for a network or a community of people who share your sense of purpose and interests. These three dimensions together reflect the full range of high-quality social connections that humans need in order to thrive. The lack of relationships in any of these dimensions can make us feel lonely, which helps to explain why we may have a supportive marriage yet still feel lonely for friends and community.” Tell me about those experiences that I had, I can still have them, when I am surrounded by people I love and who love me, but I feel deeply lonely. Am I the only one?
VM: Absolutely not. In fact, there are many of us who have those experiences, myself included. When I was a child, I felt that same way. I had parents and a sister who deeply loved me, and those would constitute the intimate connections, those relationships where we feel like we can truly be ourselves with another person, where we can show up as who we are. And where we don’t have to hold back, and we know that we’re loved. I had that. But what I didn’t have, Brené, is I didn’t have those relational connections, that second category. I didn’t have the friendships where I could hang out with somebody in PE, or in between classes, or sit next to them. I’ll tell you the scariest time for me in the school day was lunchtime, going into that cafeteria and wondering who am I going to sit next to, or will there be anybody who’ll want me to sit next to them? And this wasn’t because I didn’t like being with people, or I was an extreme introvert, it was that I was actually quite shy.
VM: And so, lacking those relational connections left me quite lonely, even though I had those deeper intimate connections in my life. The reason I think this is so important to understand is that, if you’re in a deeply fulfilling marriage, but you feel lonely because you don’t have those relational connections, or you’re experiencing collective loneliness, the lack of a community, if we don’t understand that there are different types of relationships that we need, it could lead your spouse to think that they’re failing you in some way, to think, “Well, if you’re feeling lonely, that must mean that this marriage isn’t as good as I thought.” But that’s not the case. We can have deeply fulfilling marriages and best friends, and family that we know loves us, but still feel lonely in other dimensions of our life. And it doesn’t mean that our intimate connections are deficient in any way.
BB: We need all three dimensions to feel socially connected in the way that feeds us. Right?
VM: That’s right.
BB: What about in situations where… I kept thinking, as I was reading your book, about that I was with people who loved me and people I loved, but not people that I could really be myself with. I was the good girl, the performer, the pleaser. Do you think those behaviors, the perfectionism and the pleasing, can drive loneliness because we’re not allowing ourselves to truly be seen?
VM: Absolutely. One of the things I learned in the writing of this book was that the foundation for connecting with other people is connecting with our self. And to be connected to yourself means, one, that you understand your worth, that you understand your value, and that gives you the power to be yourself in different settings, and to not try to be somebody that you’re not, because you feel you’re not enough.
VM: But the other piece of this, of being connected to one’s self has to do with being grounded. And we live in a world, and especially now at a time when the world around us is often chaotic, and being able to let that noise settle, and center ourselves, and be in a place of peace is so powerful. Because when we approach other people from that place of groundedness, and when we approach other people knowing our true sense of worth and believing in ourselves, the kind of interaction we have is very different. We approach people with a willingness to listen and an ability to more be ourselves, as opposed to trying to get something from them, which is a sense of validation, as we try to be somebody that they think we should be. And so I do think that…
BB: Wow. Wait. Wait, wait, wait, wait. You’ve got to stop and say that again. Approaching people for genuine connection versus approaching people for validation.
VM: That’s right. And I say this from personal experience, having spent many years of my life not being in a good place of connection with myself, feeling insecure about who I was, trying to be somebody else, and bringing that to my interactions with other people, and it didn’t feel good. As human beings, we are extraordinary creatures. We have evolved these systems over thousands of years, and these instincts that guide us toward deeper connection with other people. And we often may not know when something is off in an interaction, what exactly is off, but we often know something is off. There are times, for all of us, where we may go into a conversation, and we’re nervous and we’re trying to be, again, who we think the other person wants us to be, and we sort of feel okay in the moment, “Hopefully, this is going well. I think that they like me,” etcetera, and then you turn away from that conversation and you just feel emotionally drained. Because the thing about having to live in a persona that’s not you or trying to strive to be somebody who’s not you, is it has a massive emotional tax, and it drains us of our energy. And that means we have less to give to other people, and it also means that we don’t feel as good. And I spent a lot of time in my life feeling that way.
VM: And so I think, yes, when we think about the power of social connection and how to address loneliness, we not only have to think about how we engage with other people, we have to think about that connection we have to ourselves and recognize that a lot of times the problem begins there. And it’s not actually on the outside.
BB: It’s so interesting to me because I get this question a lot around different constructs, but I’m going to pose it to you; it’s unanswerable for me. This question comes up all the time. It’s a chicken-egg question. Social connection and reciprocal relationships really drive a sense of self-worth, and we need a sense of self-worth to enter into reciprocal meaningful relationships. That’s hard, right? Is it just a slow stacking of those things, or is there a temporal relationship between those variables?
VM: Yeah. No, you’re absolutely right. And I think, if you don’t find a way to think about how these things work together, it can be paralyzing… It can be like, “Wait, I’m not ready to go out and interact with other people, because I’m not fully connected to myself yet.”
VM: But I actually think that these things do work off of each other, and they’re simply the recognition that our connection with ourselves is important and that it influences how we connect with other people. Simply that can be powerful, because it gives us the ability to observe our interactions with others and to understand more deeply why we may feel good or not so good after an interaction. But these things build. One of the things that I’ve tried to do in my own life…and I say this as somebody who has spent many years of his life trying to build a more connected life, but has by no means always been successful at that, and still struggles with this every day. But one of the things that I’ve tried to do is to make sure that I’m keeping tabs and checking in on how I’m feeling during my interactions. And if I’m not feeling good, then I actually try to pull myself out and say, “Hey, am I just not in a good place?” And if I’m not in a good place, then I need to spend a little time getting in a better place before I try to keep pushing and pushing and building a connection with people, or finding more friends, or connecting with more people at a party.
VM: And I say this because I feel like I spent so much of my life in a culture that was telling me that the way we advance in our lives, the way we solve problems, the way we succeed, is through action. And what I’ve come to realize is that being and doing are two parts of who we are, but the doing part is guided by the being, meaning, if we can be in a good place, then we can often do better. But if we don’t focus on how we feel, on how grounded we are, if we’re not focused enough on the being, then we’re just spinning our wheels so often in action, trying to work so hard to push a boulder uphill, whereas we can get so much more leverage in our life if we can be in the right place, a place of centeredness, a space of peace, a place where we value and love ourselves.
VM: And so that’s where I think it’s really important to recognize that there is this interplay. And it also means that, if I interact with somebody who makes me feel good, then I also try to think about that, too, “What was it about that? Was it that I had a breakthrough a moment where I let my guard down, allowed myself to be vulnerable, and was real with the other person? If so, then I want to do more of that. Is it that they did that with me? And by being vulnerable, they actually empowered me to be the same with them?” And that’s such a gift. In this way, I think, we don’t have to seclude ourselves until we get to a point where we are maximally connected with ourselves and then venture out into the world. We can do these two things at the same time and, in fact, I think we need to, because they do play off of each other.
BB: Yeah, that’s how we learn, right? God, I really prefer doing to being sometimes, but…it’s just easier. Okay.
VM: Me too, it’s easier.
BB: It’s easier. Let’s talk about the consequences of loneliness for a second. Am I saying this right, Julianne Holt-Lunstad?
BB: Yes, her research. Reading again from your book, Together, “Julianne’s study showed that people with strong social relationships are 50% less likely to die prematurely than people with weak social relationships. Even more striking, she found that the impact of lacking social connection on reducing life span is equal to the risk of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It’s greater than the risk associated with obesity, excess alcohol consumption, and a lack of exercise.” You write, “Simply put, Julianne had found that weak social connections can be a significant danger to our health.” Five years later, Julianne published another massive analysis of data,” I think these were meta-analyses, right? These were…
VM: They were, yeah.
BB: Yeah, meta-analyses. So, for you all listening, this is where you look at a lot of different research from different researchers that’s valid and reliable data and combined to see what the trends are across the research. Another study, a meta-analysis, confirming the higher risk of early death among the lonely. By that point, you write, “A growing number of research papers were reporting that loneliness was associated with a greater risk of coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, stroke, dementia, depression, and anxiety. Studies were also suggesting that lonely people were more likely to have lower quality sleep, more immune system dysfunction and more impulsive behavior and impaired judgment.” Like, this is no joke.
VM: You’re right. And this was one of the things that struck me and it, in fact, smacked me in the face when I was Surgeon General. Because I didn’t know this before, I didn’t learn that in medical school. I didn’t learn it in residency training.
BB: Why not?
VM: Well, I think there are few reasons. I think one, just traditionally, in medicine, we have focused so much on the physical body and so little on the mental and emotional dimensions of health. And I think the other reason is that, I would say, doctors, nurses, are just like any other human being in this respect: they tend to focus on what they know. There’s this old parable I remember hearing growing up about the man who’s looking under a streetlamp, and then the passerby comes by and says, “Hey, can I help you? What are you looking for?” And he says, “I lost my keys, I’m trying to find them.” And he said, “Okay, let me help you.” And they keep looking together. And after a while, the gentleman who walked up to help said, “I really can’t find anything. Are you sure you lost them here?” He said, “No, I lost them in the bush over there, but the light’s over here that’s why I’m looking here.” It’s an almost ridiculous story, but it illuminates something about human nature, which is that we tend to look where it’s easy to look.
VM: And in medicine, too, we tend to look and examine and focus on where our expertise is. So, this becomes like a self-fulfilling prophecy. The less we understand about emotional well-being, the more we keep focusing on physical well-being and don’t look at what’s happening. But I’ll tell you that, from the very earliest days that I stepped into the hospital as a third-year medical student, I remember being struck by how many patients would come into the hospital with serious illnesses but would be all alone. And sometimes, when big decisions had to be made, do we pursue this new course of treatment that may have serious side effects, I would go to the patient and I would say, “Do you want me to call somebody so that we can bring them in and you can make this decision together? This is a really tough thing to decide entirely on your own.” And it would break my heart, Brené, that so often they would say, “No. There’s nobody to call. There’s no one else. I’ll just have to figure it out myself.”
VM: And even at the time of death, there were so many occasions I can remember where it was just me and my colleagues were the final witnesses to so many people’s last moments on earth. And that always made me deeply sad. Loneliness was around us so often, in medicine, but I didn’t know how to address it. I was observing it, I was feeling powerless in the face of it, and it was only when I started delving into research, like Julianne Holt-Lunstad’s, that I started doing that. When I was Surgeon General, motivated by the stories of people that I was meeting across the country, it was only then that I started to realize loneliness is so much more than a bad feeling; that it has profound consequences for our health.
BB: One of the things that I read in Together that really took my breath away was how loneliness…let me read what you write again. “One more change stoking the current trends of loneliness is the politicized climate of distress and division that hangs over much of the world. While many factors play into this polarization, social disconnection is an important root cause.” How does that work? What is the relationship between loneliness and social disconnection and this highly charged polarized world?
VM: It’s a good question, and it was…when I realized this connection, it really stuck with me. I’d been spending so many years during my time in government working at the heart of polarization in America, which was Washington DC, and feeling terribly about it, and wishing there was some way around it, but not really understanding what was driving it. Here’s how social connection fits in. When we are deeply connected to other people, one of the great things that happens is that we’re more able to listen to them, we’re more able to give them the benefit of the doubt, and that makes a dialogue possible.
VM: If you think about Thanksgiving or holidays, when you had relatives who come over, or good friends and people who you may have really different political views with, or differ on some other philosophical basis, you may still have a deep well of love for them, because they’re family or they’re good friends. And so even though they might irritate you a little bit with their points of view, and you might get annoyed at them, if they still needed help, you would respond. If you were in distress, they’d probably respond, too. And you’re likely much more able to listen to their point of view than to somebody with whom you had no connection. So, it turns out that relationship is the foundation of dialogue. The reason this is really important…
BB: Wow, wait. I got to stop you again, this is huge. “Relationship is the foundation of dialogue.”
VM: That’s right.
BB: Jeez, we’re not having dialogue because we’re not in relationship.
VM: That’s exactly right. When people say, “Well, if we want to get people together on reproductive health rights, if we want to get people together on issues related to gun violence, we should just put people with different points of view in the same room and have them duke it out and share their points of view and understand where they’re coming from.” That doesn’t often work, because you’re not building that dialogue on anything substantive. As human beings, we are relational entities. We seek each other out to connect, and that’s how we are assessing other people often. “Oh, is that person like me? Would I want to hang out with that person?” This is how our social brain thinks, and we do that just instinctively.
VM: And so, when we have a relationship… And it doesn’t have to mean that you can only listen to a dialogue with your best friends, not at all. This is the fascinating and powerful thing about human connection, is it can often be established in a relatively short period of time. If you spend five minutes talking to your neighbor in a really open way and you understand some of their shared experiences and you understand, “Hey, they’re also struggling to care for their toddler and figure out how to tele-work at the same time.” That gives you a shared experience, it gives you an insight maybe a little bit into their values, into who they are. And it makes it much easier to have a conversation about a difficult issue versus just walking in cold.
VM: The reason that online dialogue is so challenged, the reason so many people say that reading comments on social media or in articles just drives them crazy, is because there is no relational context for those exchanges. And there’s also no visual cues. So, as human beings, we evolve not just to listen to the content of somebody’s speech, but to process their body language and their expressions and the tone of their voice. And when you’re devoid of all of that, you add that to the lack of relationship, and you have what can be often toxic exchanges between people.
VM: And so, this is why relationships and connection are so important for the future of society, because we do have big problems that we have to address, whether that’s healthcare, whether that’s the next pandemic, whether that’s issues like climate change. And the only way we can address them, because they’re too big for one person to do alone, is if we’re able to talk to each other. And that doesn’t happen without relationship.
BB: It’s so interesting because, what I have found, especially when I was doing the research for Braving the Wilderness, about how true belonging can’t happen with other people unless you belong to yourself first, very much aligned with what I’m reading in Together. But one of the things that’s interesting is, most of us, I would say – I’d probably venture to say all of us, but we’ll play it safe and I’ll say most – most of us love someone and are in important relationships with people whose political or cultural beliefs we find incomprehensible. But what we tend to do is we tend to consider them the exception to the group that they belong to that we hate. And you write about this, this was a mind blower for me, let me read what you wrote:
BB: “Today’s technology creates the illusion that we do know our enemies, that we see them, we hear them in our own homes every day, at any hour we choose to look. The versions that we ‘know’… ” in quotation marks, “are often deceptive and unidimensional. Yet we believe what we see and hear, even when the videos are completely fabricated. As a result, the people we learn to fear seem both closer and even scarier than they ever used to. Whether we’re talking about Republican versus Democrat animosity or conflicts in the Middle East, a sense of imminent threat makes our world feel less safe and hospitable. It erodes our sense that we all belong here.”
BB: I do feel like I know these people, because I see their craziness on social media, I see their crazy avatars, I see the crap they write. I feel like I know them; therefore, I engage in personal combative stuff with them, like I would never do in real life. What’s happening here?
VM: First, I don’t think you’re alone, Brené. I think all of us have that instinct. I stopped watching the news a long time ago, and I’ll watch it periodically here and there for a specific purpose, but partly I stopped watching it because I was having that same reaction, too. I was seeing these people on TV saying things that I thought were just utterly reprehensible, and I had seen them saying similar things over weeks and months, and I was like, “I feel like I know where they’re coming from, and I don’t like it, and I feel angry.” And that just made me feel worse and worse and worse. And the truth is, I didn’t really know who they were.
VM: One of the things I used to do when I was younger, when I would have conflict with people, and this is something that my parents taught me, is I would step back sometimes from the conflict and I would just try to think that this person has a mother who loved them. And I know that’s not always true, but conceptually, what I was trying to remind myself of, is that as crazy or unlikable as people can seem at times, there are parts of us that are lovable to others. And there was something about just reminding myself of that that would soften some of that anger and just make me take a deep breath. And I think that…I try to think about that in an expanded context, too. I try to also think that this person, whoever it is, has something that they’re scared about. And that might be they’re worried about their children; it could be that they’re worried about their own health, could be that they’ve got an elderly relative who’s sick and can’t access healthcare, and they’re worried about that. We don’t know what’s going on in people’s lives, but it’s safe to say that most people, if not everyone, has something in them that’s lovable, and they have something that they’re scared about. And that makes us deeply human.
BB: It’s interesting because I would say I have found the exact same thing in our research, that mutual vulnerability is the thickening agent that takes thin, transactional, context-based only relationships and adds the good stuff. And mutual vulnerability is emotion and experience, it’s not knowledge. It’s not, “I know you because I read your CV.” It’s – that’s so true. This was related to this, and this was like, wow, this was fascinating. What I want to talk about is motive attribution asymmetry. Okay. [chuckle] I didn’t know what that was, but I have it. Okay. (reading from Together): “It’s a cognitive bias, again, known as motive attribution asymmetry. It tells us that our beliefs are grounded in love, while our opponents’ beliefs are based on hatred. Studies found that this bias applies to Israelis who believe they are fighting out of love for their people, while Palestinians are driven by hatred, and vice versa. The same bias infects both Democrats and Republicans in America who believe that their own fervor is driven by love of country while wondering why the other party ‘hates us’.”
BB: “The contempt…” And we’ll talk about the word “contempt,” that’s a serious word. “The contempt that results from this type of bias is visceral and righteous, feeding not just…” I’m laughing, because I’m like, I see myself. “Feeding not just intolerance, but also the same emotional stew that makes loneliness so toxic. If you must deal with people who you believe are driven by hatred, you’re bound to feel rejected and frustrated. The contempt that results from this type of bias is visceral and righteous, feeding not just intolerance, but also the same emotional stew that makes loneliness so toxic.” I have this, I have motive attribution asymmetry.
VM: Well, we all do, because we’re human beings.
BB: I don’t like it.
VM: Neither do I. This is why…if you bring two people together around a table who have these deeply opposing views and you ask them to dig into that conflict, this is why it’s so hard to have a real conversation, because people don’t trust each other’s motives. They think the other person is motivated by something bad, while they’re motivated by something good. And the only way we really get to dispel that is when we build true authentic relationship with each other. That can only happen when we’re willing to open up and be vulnerable and be ourselves, even if it’s for a brief moment. But what I worry about, Brené, is that, I think in the world in which we live, there are so many signals coming at people telling them who they need to be, telling them that the definition of success and worth is often driven by your ability to acquire wealth, reputation, or power. Those three things have become the gods at whose altars we worship as a society. But I don’t think they serve us well, because I think the reality is that the true definition of worth is much more intrinsic, it has to do with our ability to give and to receive love. And that does not require wealth or power or reputation. It requires courage, a courage to be vulnerable. It requires the ability to recognize that we have deep value intrinsically within us.
VM: But because society often tells us to chase those false gods, I think many people end up feeling that they’re just not good enough. And I worry in particular about young people who are growing up today, members of Gen Z, but also millennials. When I was younger, these influences were there, too; it’s not like they cropped up overnight, but the number of messages that I was bombarded with was so many fewer than what people are bombarded with today, because there just weren’t as many channels. And so, if I did something dumb in middle school, 10 people knew about it in my class, and this did happen often. But you do something today and people worry that it’s going to be all over YouTube within an hour.
VM: To me, when I think about my children, when I think about our collective children, I think about what I worry about for the next generation, it’s actually this. It’s my worry that we’re not setting our children up to believe in themselves, to recognize their true source of power and self-worth. And that we’re instead telling them that your value is conditional, it’s based on your ability to acquire a bunch of extrinsic things. It’s based on circumstances. And if you can’t reach those, if you can’t “succeed,” then that means you’re less valued. And that starts a downward spiral when it comes to loneliness, because the less secure we feel in our worth, the less likely we are to believe that other people want to hang out with us, the more we start to retreat into our shell.
VM: And this is very interesting, Brené, and unfortunate, because this downward spiral of loneliness actually is evolutionary in nature. Thousands of years ago, when we were hunter-gatherers, being separated from our tribe, being lonely, if you will, that was a really, really important moment, because that meant that our likelihood of survival just went down, because we were more likely to get attacked by a predator, to not have a stable food supply. And so, what happened in that moment is that our threat level shifts up, but our attention also focuses inward as we are worried about our own safety. In the modern context, that can be extraordinarily difficult.
VM: When you’re trying to interact and have a conversation with somebody who has an elevated threat level, and they’re worried that maybe something you say is different from what you’re intending it to be, and they’re just on edge, when they’re excessively focused on themselves, that makes it harder to connect with them. But the insidious thing about loneliness that lasts for a long time is it also chips away at our self-esteem, and you come to believe that maybe the reason you’re lonely is that you’re not likable, or you’re not lovable. And so that downward spiral is really, really powerful. And that’s what I worry about for our children and for future generations, is that unless we make a conscious decision to shift something in our culture that tells us what self-worth is defined by, then we will continue to lead people to a place where they don’t feel they’re enough, and that unfortunately is a recipe for loneliness.
BB: I have so many thoughts. Everything I’ve found in 20 years of research completely supports what you’re saying. And it’s what I was reminded of when you were talking about threat level, when your threat level is up and you’re self-focused, it reminds me of the relationship that we know that exists between shame and empathy. Shame and empathy are not compatible affects or emotions, so when we’re in shame, we’re very self-focused, we’re worried about not being enough, we’re not other-focused at all. It is really hard to build meaningful relationship from a place of shame, because shame corrodes our capacity for empathy with others, because it’s so self-focused.
BB: One of the things that I thought was really hopeful, you write about Emmy Werner’s landmark study, it’s a long-term study of childhood resilience, and here’s what you write that I think is so helpful: “Today, it’s widely understood that one of the most important factors in preventing and addressing toxic stress in children is healthy social connection. While a traumatic past may increase our risk of bad things happening, we are not destined to crash and burn. Adversity doesn’t mean that we’re destroyed. Werner’s research and the work of others tells us that we can rescue one another. It is in our relationships with one another that we can all find healing and a better path forward.”
VM: Yeah. Thank you for reading that, because it just reminds me of how inspired I was when I came across Emmy Werner’s work. Because the story of loneliness is actually a hopeful story. It’s a story that doesn’t just end with sadness and an increased risk for illness. But it reveals the power of human connection in our life, and the extraordinary power that connection has to heal deep trauma, and to heal wounds that may have been there for years and years and years. We’re learning more and more that trauma, especially when it occurs in childhood, has an extraordinary impact of the trajectory of our life, not just on our physical health, but on our job prospects, on whether or not we run into trouble with the law. So much of our life is impacted by these early experiences.
VM: And if all we know is the science of childhood trauma that tells us how bad the consequences are, that can be a very disheartening story. To me what is so extraordinary about the power of human connection is that something that feels so simple, that we take for granted, has this ability to heal in extraordinary ways, because it is through our relationships that I believe we channel love, and love allows people to accept themselves and to put down that veil of shame that so often covers us and constrains us. And then I think about this often, Brené, as a doctor who has written prescriptions for so many medicines over the years, like antibiotics, medicines for blood pressure or for diabetes, and I believe that medicines can help. But there is nothing more powerful, Brené, than love, in terms of its ability to heal. There’s nothing that I had written a prescription for that eclipses what love can do in the face of extraordinary injury and trauma and pain. And the most clear way that we feel love is in the context of relationships – authentic, open relationships.
VM: When I left government, it was a tough time for me, I was feeling pretty lost, I was feeling burned out. I was actually feeling this deep sense of shame, which I spent many months trying to make sense of. I still haven’t 100% made sense of it. But that shame was really holding me back and it was making me turn further inward. And I felt really, really lonely during that time. And one of the things that I came to realize during that time was that building community was so essential for me, because the pain that I had endured, some pains which were very public, many of which were not, I needed to find a source of healing. And that as much as I had a wife who I loved dearly and who loved me, my wife Alice. As much as I was blessed with parents and a sister and a brother-in-law who loved me, and some very close friends, I realized that what I really needed to do was to work through some of my own demons, and start to love myself, and accept myself, and throw off that coat of shame that was really weighing me down.
VM: And it was really hard to do, and I couldn’t do it alone, I had to do it through a relationship, by the hard work of actually opening up to close friends and saying, “Hey, I’ve actually been struggling, this is what I’m going through.” And the reason I decided to focus on the whole topic of loneliness and social connection in my work thereafter is that, when I look back at all the issues that I was dealing with as Surgeon General, whether it was addiction or whether it was violence, or whether it was obesity, or whether it was depression and anxiety, I realized that the root of so many of these was loneliness. And part of the solution for so much of it was actually human connection. It struck me as almost obvious, and I felt silly for not realizing this earlier, that something that we need so desperately to heal what ails us today has been right there under our noses for millennia. It’s what we’re drawn to naturally. It’s how we’re born.
VM: Children, when they’re born, they’re born to be relational creatures themselves. They don’t feel ashamed of things. They say what they think. They’re who we want to be. And I feel actually really blessed to have a 3-year-old and a 2-year-old right now, because they remind me of how all of us were and how I was, too, and I realized that what’s happened is not that I have somehow become broken, or that any of us have. It’s just that we’ve allowed things to layer on top of us: other people’s expectations, societal beliefs, shame about experiences that we had that perhaps didn’t go the way we wanted. And that’s all constrained us from being who we were.
VM: So, my mission, my hope, is that I can do something small, and God willing, maybe even something bigger than small, to help move us as a society toward a world where we value connection, where we put people at the center of our lives, and we rebuild not only people-centered lives, but a people-centered society. Because what that looks like, is that looks like a world where we make people and our relationships the focus of our time and attention. It looks like a world where we design our schools, and even our workplaces, to strengthen and support connection. Like a world where we think even about policy, and not just about the financial impact of policy, but the impact it’s going to have on our ability to connect and build relationship with each other. And a society where we prioritize people is also one where we bring that to our public dialogue, into even how we vote at the ballot box.
VM: Because this isn’t about politics in the toxic sense, this is about making politics what it can be in its best moments, which is an opportunity for people to lead from a place of their deepest values, to inspire other people with that leadership, to build structures and institutions that can serve all of us and lift us all up. And so, when we build a society and when we build lives that are centered around people, that’s what is possible. That’s what we can achieve for ourselves. It’s also the world that we can leave for our children, and that to me feels like a cause worth working on.
BB: Amen. Amen. That may be all I have to say. I think the biggest barrier to everything you’re talking about, when you were talking about your 2-year-old and 3-year-old, I think the biggest barrier we have to building the world you’re describing, building a world where we’re socially connected, is the weird, not natural, but passed down and taught shame for needing each other. I would bet a lot that your 2 and 3-year-old have no shame about dependence and need.
VM: That’s right.
BB: Yeah. And my kids are the same, but somehow, we grow up believing that if we need each other we’re less than. And I always say, “We don’t have to do this alone, we were never meant to,” from the way neurobiology works in our lives, from mirror neurons down, and it’s not going to work alone. It’s not going to work if we do this by ourselves. Yeah, so grateful for the book.
VM: What you just said there, I think, is so important, because that piece around the need to be independent and to be able to go it alone and accomplish it by ourselves is so deeply ingrained in modern culture. It’s not just American culture, it’s become the culture in many other countries in the world which are “modernizing.” And I think it’s dangerous, because it’s not true to who we are, it’s not reflective of our real nature. I find myself even still today, in moments where I feel ashamed to ask for help, because I feel like I should be able to figure this out all on my own.
BB: Yeah, me too.
VM: Yeah. And I get upset with myself sometimes in those moments and I want to fight back against it, because I’m like, “No, that’s not how this is supposed to be, that’s not how we were built as human beings.” I think that we came to recognize that behind all of the complicated decisions that are being made, and this has become a touch point for me now, is I came to realize that people are being primarily driven by just one of two emotions primarily, by love or fear. And the love can manifest in different ways, as generosity, as kindness, as empathy. The fear also has a lot of manifestations, as insecurity, as anger, as indifference. And whether you’re at the highest levels of elected office, or whether you’re on the frontlines of a hospital, or whether you’re a teacher in a school or a student in a classroom, we’re all subject to these two forces.
VM: And all I could think of in those months that followed, while we were waiting for our son to arrive, was, “What can we do to tip the world toward love in terms of what drives us?” Because right now it feels like the world is locked in this deep struggle between love and fear, and it’s affecting all of us. It’s affecting our countries; it’s affecting how we function and how we are as a human race. But that, to me, has become the central question of our time, “How do we move the world away from fear and toward love? How do we do that in our own lives?” By what we choose to speak up for in the public square, by the issues we choose to support, by the way we raise our children. This is a deeper question that I worry about, that I think about. But it also gives me hope, because I do think that our true nature, Brené, is that of love. When we’re living in fear, I don’t think that’s really who we are or who we were meant to be. And the most clear way that we feel that love is in the form of relationships, which is why human connection is such a deeply important part of the healing that needs to take place in the world.
BB: I’m going make that my new prayer or mantra, “tipping the world toward love.” I love that, I’m just trying to tip the world a little bit toward love.
VM: Just a small tribute to you, you have done so much of that in your work. I’m one of many people who has been inspired by the writings that you’ve done and by the speeches that you’ve given. I didn’t tell you this in the beginning, but when I was Surgeon General, you were something of a celebrity in our office. People read your books, they would always tell me, “Hey, we’ve got to do something with Brené Brown. We’ve got to make this required reading in the office.” You’ve managed to inspire just so many people through your extraordinarily beautiful, honest, and vulnerable conversations, and, of course, through the great research that you’ve done. I just want to thank you for that contribution that you’ve made to humanity, because it’s helping make the world better for me and for my kids. So, from the bottom of my heart, thank you.
BB: Thank you. Thank you. I want to close by reading something from Together, your new book. It speaks to tipping the world toward love. You write: “Creating a connected life begins with the decisions we make in our day-to-day lives. Do we choose to make time for people? Do we show up as our true selves? Do we seek out others with kindness, recognizing the power of service to bring us together? This work isn’t always easy. It requires courage, the courage to be vulnerable, to take a chance on others, to believe in ourselves. But as we build connected lives, we make it possible to build a connected world.”
BB: That will be our final word. Beautiful. Thank you, Vivek. Thank you for showing us that science and kindness and love are not mutually exclusive. And that love and connection matter. I wouldn’t want a world without medicine and science and data, and everything else, but I think sometimes we think we can hot-wire connection and cures that take less work than leaning into each other. But how do we give up on people, because we’re all we have, right?
VM: That’s right. No, that’s absolutely right. And these things do go together. And, to me, this story of loneliness and connection is a deeply inspiring and empowering one, because, well, one thing I’ve learned through this experience is that all of us have the power to be healers, because all of us have the power to love, to build a relationship, to see each other, give each other the benefit of the doubt, but to show up as ourselves. We don’t need anything from the outside to be able to do that; we were born with those abilities. And so, as I imagine a world with healers, I see endless possibilities of what we can build, what we can fix, and ultimately what we can all be together.
BB: My money’s on us. Yeah, it is. I believe it, and I think we’ll get through this pandemic. I think we’ll learn…I think we’ll learn to lean into each other, and if nothing else, we’ll have a huge reminder of our inextricable connection. Thank you so much for joining us today on Unlocking Us, it’s been really powerful.
VM: Thank you so much, Brené, I really enjoyed this conversation.
BB: Me too.
BB: I really appreciate you listening to Unlocking Us. I hope this episode brought you some information, some ideas for connecting, at least really helped you understand the importance of it. And I also want to let you know that if you want to find out more information about Together, Vivek’s new book, you can go to the show notes page at brenebrown.com. I know that it feels long. I know we feel disconnected. I know we want it to get back to normal. We want an end date and what’s going to happen next. I’m with you. I don’t know when that’s coming. I do know it’s going to come at some point. And I just, I wish you love. I hope you help tilt this world toward love, and stay awkward, brave, and kind. Thanks y’all.
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