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On this episode of Unlocking Us

In this first episode in a series on the possibilities and costs of living beyond human scale, Brené and Esther Perel discuss how we manage the paradox of exploring the world of social media and emerging technologies while staying tethered to our humanness. How do we create IRL relationships where we see and value others and feel seen and valued in the context of constant scrolling and using digital technology as armor?

About the guest

Esther Perel

Psychotherapist and New York Times bestselling author Esther Perel is recognized as one of today’s most insightful and original voices on modern relationships. Fluent in nine languages, she helms a therapy practice in New York City and serves as an organizational consultant for Fortune 500 companies around the world. Her celebrated TED Talks have garnered more than 40 million views and her bestselling books, Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs, are global phenomena translated into more than 30 languages. Esther is also the host of the hit podcast Where Should We Begin?, which is available on Apple Podcasts. Her latest project is Where Should We Begin – A Game of Stories with Esther Perel. Learn more at or by following @EstherPerelOfficial on Instagram.

Show notes

An Evening With Esther Perel: The Future of Relationships, Love & Desire

Join Esther for an evening unlike any other as she shines a light on the cultural shifts transforming relationships and helps us rethink how we connect, how we desire – and even how we love.

Where Should We Begin?

Join Esther in her office every Monday to listen in as real couples in search of help bare the raw, intimate, and profound details of their stories.

“Carry This All” sung by Esther in this episode is an original song by Alexandra Blakely


Brené Brown: Hi everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us. This is the first episode in a series that we’re doing about Living Beyond Human Scale: The possibilities, the Cost and the Role of Community. It’s just going to be a series of conversations about everything from social media, what’s great about it and what it is shit showy about it, AI, everything that’s changing in our work lives and in the way that we produce information and consume information personally and professionally. There are so many possibilities around this crazy big stuff happening around us. But at the same time, I’m not sure that we are socially, biologically, cognitively, and spiritually wired to live at this kind of scale. And so I am going to do several podcasts that are Unlocking Us, we’re going to do a crossover episode, and then several podcasts on Living Beyond Human Scale for Dare to Lead. This first one is with Esther Perel, and I’ll tell you more, but I’ll just use her language from this interview that you’re getting ready to listen to. One, I thought it was just an incredible way to capture Living Beyond Human Scale. Esther said, “I have a thousand friends, but not a single person to feed my cat.” It seems like, again, there are incredible possibilities, and there are some big fat red flags that I’m experiencing and feeling about the scale at which we’re living right now.


BB: So this first episode is with Esther Perel and we recorded it live at South By Southwest in front of the most amazing audience, just… Thank y’all for everyone that was there. I know there was a huge line and about 40% of the people in line were able, because it was limited seating, and I have to say a huge obregada to the Brazilian fans that showed up en masse. Just love y’all. Let me tell you about Esther; she is a psychotherapist, New York Times bestselling author. She is recognized as one of today’s most insightful and original voices on modern relationships. She’s fluent in nine languages. She helms a therapy practice in New York City and serves as an organizational consultant for Fortune 500 companies around the world. Her TED talks have garnered more than 40 million views, and her best-selling books, Mating in Captivity and The State of Affairs are just kind of phenomenons. They’ve been translated into over 30 languages, and they have been the source material for some of the greatest conversations and debates that I’ve ever been in with friends and family. She’s the host of the podcast, Where Should We Begin, which is available everywhere you listen to podcasts, and she also has a game.

BB: And let me tell you this thing’s tricky. You pull out like a prompt and you have to share your answers, I’ve done it in a professional room, which you guys set some boundaries there, and then personally it is… There’s some hard prompts. I will tell you another exciting thing about Esther before we jump in. She shared in our interview that she wants to go on some first dates with the community. And so she’s doing a tour, it’s called An Evening With Esther Perel: The Future of Relationships, Love, & Desire, and she is describing it as a 3,000-person first date, she wants to talk about love, desire, heartbreak, sex, and all the topics that she is so incredibly gifted at talking about, and so we will put on the website page where you can get tickets. After being with her in person and in front of a group of people, I can say that, wow, she’s just going to go right there, whether it’s just you, I mean, she and I have a relationship off the stage and she’ll go right there personally, I know, but she’ll go right there in front of hundreds of people too. So I think it could be really fun. Let’s jump into the conversation. Hi.

Esther Perel: Hello Brené.


EP: It’s been a while.

BB: We just figured out the last time we were together in-person was five years ago today here. So we got to stop meeting like this.


EP: And so much to talk about.

BB: So much to talk about. I’m going to jump right in because I have literally just an hour, and it usually would take Esther and I about an hour to order a sandwich. So we’ll just get started. So I want to start with a story that was a real life re-arranger for me. It’s going to be our topic, and it’s going to start a whole series of podcasts that I’m going to do on the topic. So here’s the story; I’m getting my hair done, highlighted, and I’m in those the foils. I’m in all the foils, and I’m on the phone trying not to crush the foil into the phone, and I’ve got my laptop out. And I look up for a second and I said, “Hey, do y’all have a printer I can use?” And I’m at the salon. And this man that I’ve just seen one time looks at me and says, “Wow, it feels like you’ve really been shot out of a cannon.” And I’m like, “I’m sorry?” And he said, “No, it’s just I’m watching you, and you seem really busy and stressed out.” And I said…

EP: And in your own bubble.

BB: In my own bubble, for sure. And I said, “Yeah.” And he said, “I think you might have a human scale problem.” And I was, I was getting increasingly pissed, because I’m like, “No, right now I feel like I’ve got a you problem while I’m trying to work and get my hair done.” Because it’s a long commitment, two hours is a long hair commitment.

EP: That’s why you have office hours at the hair salon.


BB: That’s why I have office hours at the hair salon. Okay. That’s fair enough. So I said, “What do you mean?” I close the laptop, I turn the phone off, I put it in my bag, and I said, “What do you mean?” And he said, “You know, I’m a private pilot, and when you first learn to fly, you’re in these little two-seater planes. And if it’s hot outside, it’s hot in there, and if it’s cold outside, it’s cold in there.” And he said, “When you turn left, you have to move your whole body left, and when you turn right, your whole body moves right, and if a gust of wind comes, you can feel it under the plane. And when you’re going down, you get kind of like disoriented because you are just at human scale.”

BB: And he said, “But then it becomes not enough, so you want to fly something faster and you want to fly something that goes higher, and then all of a sudden you’re in a jet, and if you stay present, you die. You actually have to live 60–90 seconds ahead of the moment you’re in, because you’re going so fast and so hard and so high.” And he said, “Then it’s controlled flight into terrain.” And I was like, “What?” And he said, “That’s an aviation term for when a pilot crashes, but they thought they had control of the flight to the minute they were all dead. Controlled flight into terrain.”

BB: So the flight never, was always in control, but they flew right into the side of the mountain or whatever. So he has my attention. I mean just honestly like controlled flight into terrain, how many of you feel a little resonance with that? Right. And so I left there never not thinking about the idea of human scale and the cost of living beyond how we are physically, biologically, spiritually, cognitively, emotionally wired to live. And so the question I’d like for you to solve in the next 45 minutes, which is why I’m starting the series with you, is from social media to trying to do something about what’s going on in the Congo, in Gaza, in Sudan, in Ukraine. And we are, we are taking in information, AI. Everything that we’re living in right now feels beyond human scale. I don’t understand how we leverage the possibility and innovation inside of being beyond human scale while also not crumbling. And so do you, do you see a human… I mean, and this is, it’s not like we rehearsed this. So this is like, do you see us trying to live beyond human scale right now?

EP: When I grew up, a scale was something you stood on that gave you bad news.

BB: Yeah. That is one of the scales, my least favorite. Yes.

EP: I would answer it like this; I see the multiple expressions of yearning, of longing, of loneliness, of seeking connection, community that is a response or a reaction to the beyond human scale.

BB: Okay. You got to say it again.

EP: Yeah. What I see and what I do and who I work with and why I speak about what I speak about is because the longing, the yearning, the quest, the sheer need for connection, for community, for transcending the burdens of the self that have never been heavier, for having freedom that is unprecedented, but also living with the tyranny of doubt and uncertainty that is unprecedented, that’s what I am working with. I’m looking at what’s on the other side of this. The bigger things go, the more people are looking for something that is actually nurturing. In my world, the other AI is the rise of artificial intimacy.

BB: Whoa.

EP: Artificial intimacy is all the experiences that we currently have that are pseudo experiences. They should give us the feeling of something real, but they don’t. I am talking to you about something deeply personal, and you’re answering me, “Uh-huh. Uh-huh.”

BB: Thumbs up.

EP: And I should be feeling connected, open, vulnerable, but in fact, you’re there, but you’re not present. And I’m feeling a certain kind of loneliness. I’m feeling this as-if. I, another way of talking about it is, you’re there, but it is almost like what we call ambiguous loss, because instead of feeling connection with you, I am actually grieving, I feel like something is just not happening. Ambiguous loss is a term that was coined by Pauline Boss about grieving and the impossibility of grieving. So you are there and sitting in front of me, I see you, but you have Alzheimer’s and you are psychologically or emotionally gone.

BB: Oh, God.

EP: So you’re physically there, but emotionally absent, or you are deployed or you are disappeared, and you are physically gone or miscarriage, but you are emotionally and psychologically present. In both of these situations, I can’t really resolve, are you there? Or are you not there? This is what’s happening in many of the interactions at this moment. And that creates a particular kind of loneliness. It’s not the loneliness of being alone, it’s the loneliness of being with people next to whom you should not be feeling lonely, but in fact, you do. That’s AI, my emotional AI, is the consequence of living in a contactless world where there is very, very little friction. Now, I’m a sex therapist too, so I believe in the importance of friction. It actually [chuckle] it makes, it makes for better sex, you know? But if everything is supposed to be polished and glossed, then you don’t get to experience experimentation, doubt, friction, conflict that are part of what my friend Terry Real calls, fierce intimacy. And then you start to have all these experiences of artificial intimacy. I could go on, but what do you think of that?

BB: I mean I think it… I see it every day. I think I call it counterfeit connection in my work. And I think one of the things that’s really hard about counterfeit connection is the loneliness it creates. We are the most hyper-connected group of people in human history, and the loneliest.

EP: Yes, but I would switch the order of the words. Modern loneliness masks as hyper-connectivity.

BB: Ohhhh.

EP: I can have 1,000 virtual friends, but nobody to feed my cat, nobody to ask to go and pick up a prescription at the pharmacy, but 1,000 people who are giving me likes and dislikes, and all kinds of things that are now becoming the foundation of my self-esteem. And that’s a different kind of loneliness. It’s not about being physically alone, it’s about being misunderstood, unseen, rejected, ostracized, all of that.

BB: I definitely know something about that.

EP: Tell me. Yeah.

BB: No, I mean I do know that when I went off social media for a year, it was one of the best things that ever happened to me personally. To be honest with you, I’m really wrestling with it right now, because what I realized is that I had so much more energy for connections with people…

EP: In real life.

BB: Yeah. That would hold my hair back if I was sick and throwing up, would talk to me about my mom’s dementia journey, would feed my dog. And it’s almost like if we believe that time and energy and focus is finite, when you live in that world online, something’s going to give in your real life. I mean something’s got to give. And what’s so ironic to me as I’ve been really, we’ve really been studying social media and talking to a lot of researchers in that area so I can better understand it. Because what’s interesting is that the online relationships require very little real vulnerability. And the in-person relationships are massive pains in the ass. With real people that require a ton of vulnerability, a ton of tension, a ton of friction and messiness, bids for connection, missed bids for connection, circle backs, apologizing, yet the irony to me is the stuff that goes viral online are normally intimate moments of connection that we’re missing. They’re the simple moments. I mean how many of you have sat in front of a dog or cat video for 10 minutes? And then sent it to everyone, and then have no idea where your own dog or cat is in your house. And if you’re finding them, you’re just finding them so they’ll do something funny, so you can put it online and figure out how many people like you.

EP: So this is just an interesting thing. Right? Never before have we commodified and commercialized our personal experiences to such a degree, to such a degree that sometimes instead of living life, we’re living experiences of which the value will only come once we’ve posted it.

BB: Oh my god. I mean if you’re a snapper this would be the time to do it. Or if you’re a clapper, yeah. I mean…


BB: I was with my daughter, and we were at a restaurant, and we were kind of talking to the people across the aisle from us, and our food came at the same time, two different servers at the restaurant. And we were just really looking and then we looked over at them and the woman immediately said, I think she was with a male friend or partner, he immediately went for the food, she’s like, “Stop. The phone eats first.”

EP: Oh yeah, let’s take a picture. Oh. Oh. Oh.

BB: Yeah. And then I was almost like does this meal exist if we don’t photograph it?


BB: And Ellan was just, you know, and she’s twenty… My daughter’s 24, she’s like, “Dig in.” And I was like, “But does it matter if it’s good if everyone doesn’t see it and know that we’re eating good food?” She’s like, “Are you having an existential crisis? Or a research moment, because I’m eating, I’m starving.” And I was just like lost in that question.


EP: You know, I sat here, two days ago, with Trevor Noah and all what he was emphasizing was, can we still have moments of which the importance is bound with what’s actually happening in that moment and not in the sellable, replicable value that it will have of the records. Can we have a situation where we’re not taking the picture of it? Can we be at the concert and listen to the music without having to see through the phone and record it? And we have less and less of these mediated… Non-mediated experiences. You know? Eat.

BB: But, I’m going to tell you, I think the phone is a vulnerability shield.

EP: The phone is a vulnerability shield on occasion. Yes.

BB: Yeah.

EP: Many occasions. Yes.

BB: Yeah, I think so. I think it’s, it’s our new body. It feels things, it consumes things instead of us. It’s… and I have to fight it. And I’m old AF, I’m not like 20 trying to reconcile this stuff.

EP: It’s both. It’s that and other things. I mean, I sit on the subway in New York City and it’s like there’s not a single person lifting their head. And on occasion when I catch one, they quickly go back down, [laughter] God forbid.

BB: It’s scary to make eye contact people with people now, you’re like…

EP: You know, where is flirting? Come on, you know? It’s like…

BB: She’s going to keep pulling it back, y’all too. [laughter]

EP: The commute has become very boring. It’s like, there used to be all these… So where is the happen, but it’s, the flirting is not about, just the narrow meaning of it, it’s where is happenstance? Where is serendipity? Where is spontaneity? Where is improvisation? Those aspects of life that actually enliven you, that give you energy, that make you curious, that make you want to approach the other, that make you want to meet those that you don’t know. It’s in that sense, the phone becomes a real vulnerability shield, not just on the, on a personal level, but on a social level. Because when you stand in line, you meet people that you otherwise would not meet. And you start to talk with people. And we call it small talk, but that small talk is actually what allows us to develop social skills. And as we become more and more atrophied, we seek refuge in this phone. At the same time, this phone is also what is allowing families across the globe this very moment to be in touch with people who are in dire circumstances or who are in a celebratory circumstances, who they can’t participate in. So it’s this connect and disconnect. It’s both at the same time. But what happens is, when I’m sitting with you, and I do this as I’m talking to you…

BB: Oh, that hurts.

EP: What I’m basically saying is, “You matter, but not that much. You are important, but not really.” There is this and there is that. And that is the kind of loneliness, that is the kind of feeling we’re not worthwhile that starts to creep in on people. That starts to make people feel anxious. And from there people want to talk about a mental health crisis. And I’m thinking, is that really so? Is there a mental health crisis or is there a normal behavior and a normal response to a crisis situation?


BB: Yeah. Yeah, yeah.


EP: The piece I showed last year, actually, when I was here was the Still Face Experiment. The, if you don’t know it’s a two-minute video on YouTube by Ed Tronick a developmental psychologist who does research on infants. And the child plays with the mom. And at some point they say to the mom, now you do a still face. And within literally 30 seconds, the child has reached out, the child has smiled, the child has tried to make contact, and then the child totally lose their composure. Their whole spine just loses it because the connection has been broken. And then when the mother reengages the child follows. When we sit with people and we basically kind of are ghosting them in real life, they’re sitting there, but we are busy. One second, no, no, no. And you cannot listen. You cannot pay attention. One of the things that makes us not feel lonely is when you feel that somebody deeply cares about who you are and what you are. And that means singular focused attention. Deep listening. Why? Because the listening is not just what happens to the person who listens. The listening is what shapes what the person will tell. The listener creates the speaker, the openness, the, what you divulge, how you connect, how vulnerable you are. And so that’s another way in which the phone becomes a vulnerability withholder. Not just your own, but that of the person that you are with.


BB: So true.


EP: I said it differently, but I, it’s that idea. [laughter]

BB: I know. We’re tracking. Y’all tracking? Yeah.

EP: She knows me. She understands.

BB: I do. I speak Esther. Attention is such an undervalued form of love.

EP: Attention is an amazing quality because much of the time when people suffer or struggle, they don’t need fixing because some things can’t be fixed and not in the moment. So all they need is a witness. Attention is witnessing.

BB: To be seen and known.

EP: Is to be seen and held. And somebody next to you, you are weeping, you’re doing your thing, but they’re standing there. They don’t have to say much of anything. And that standing there, and the fact that they can hold it, meaning that they’re not getting reactive to it and want you to get better fast because they can’t tolerate it, that is what makes us feel not alone. People have suffered from the day human beings have existed. There’s nothing new. But they always knew that the suffering needs to take place in the company of others. And these days we do too much suffering alone. That’s the modern loneliness too. Why? Because there’s less religion. There’s less places where we go collectively. This moment here, this quiet in this room, everybody feels it. We are breathing the same air after years of not breathing the same air because we all wear potential contaminants. There’s a phone.


EP: We shall wait.


BB: Hello, I’m in community right now.


EP: Exactly. And we feel it. We know we are supported by the presence of these people. They have reactions to what we say. They feel it with us. They agree, they disagree. They want more. They’re curious and discerning, the best two qualities you can have.

BB: Two thoughts are coming to mind. One is about a team meeting and one is about Dave Grohl.

EP: Who’s that?


BB: The lead singer for the…

EP: Here’s the American foreigner for you.


BB: The lead singer for the Foo Fighters.

EP: Oh, okay.

BB: The former drummer of Nirvana.

EP: I do know who that is.

BB: Yeah. So I’ll go with the team meeting first. So one of the things that happened when I took my social sabbatical is also at the same time doing a lot of really important couples work. And we, Steve and I, were real… in coming out of COVID very difficult season for many partners. Right? Just tough.

EP: It’s mating in captivity.


BB: On the best day.

EP: On the best…


BB: Yeah. So really hard season, doing a lot of work, really working on one thing, noticing and responding to bids for connection. And so we’re doing that…

EP: I think you should explain what is bids for connection.

BB: Oh man, I think you should explain what bids for… I mean, I learned it from the Gottman’s.

EP: Yes. It’s a very, actually, the best way, in short, to bids for connection is not just to be nice and, it’s in the middle of a fight, we are having an argument, we are having a fight, and in the midst of this, I’m reading this newspaper, this article… Who reads a newspaper? Article. And I say, “Did you read this?” Or I’m making myself a cup of tea, and I say, “Do you want a cup of tea?” That’s a bid for connection in the middle of conflict. So it’s not just the obvious bids for connection that you make when you say, I think of you, how are you, thank you. It’s the way that you maintain the connection when the thread is frayed.

BB: Yes. And in those moments, I’m like, okay, so how do you do no, [laughter] it’s like, get your shit together, Brené, you’re hosting a podcast. You’re not in therapy. Pull it together. But y’all could watch and it would be so good, right? [laughter] I think for me it’s also in the moments of the bid for connection, turning toward versus turning away. Like did you read the, you know, like things are kind of frosty and we’re in the like the cold war. And then Steve might say, “Did you read that article in the paper, I thought of you.” And then saying, “No, tell me about it. Or send it to me. I’d like to read it.” Turning toward that rather than saying, “I don’t have time to read the paper right now.”

EP: That’s right. That’s right. That’s the very important part too of the bid. Yes.

BB: Yeah. Like I don’t, it must be nice to be able to read the paper today, because I’ve got a lot of work. I don’t know who would respond like that.


EP: Brené, in order for you not to be alone, may I ask something? How many of you have felt like this?

BB: My people are here.


EP: You’re not alone.

BB: Yeah. And you know how like when there’s a bid, I didn’t know this until I understood the architecture of the bid and how it worked. Like I have to do things cognitively first. I go and my researcher sees it first and then a year or two later my emotions catch up with it. But, or there’s just like, “How’s that feel?” Like “It feels smart, but I wonder if the hypothesis… ” No, no, no, no. How does it feel? Spot on. No, I’m like, “Feels hard, feels scary.” So when I came off the sabbatical, I was also simultaneously working on bids. So one of the things that happened is I lost a tolerance. I’ve got a couple of my team members here. I lost a tolerance for, in the middle of very difficult rumbles at work. People starting to type on their laptop or checking their phones. I became re-sensitized to it. And so now I’m notoriously like, “Hey, do we need to call an adult swim? Because I see people checking your phones and if there’s work that needs to be done, I’m happy to take a five-minute break.” But I have become so re-sensitized to it, that it almost feels like a punch to the throat when people do it.

EP: But you know, I think that when you say, “Do we need a break?” Suddenly people actually are aware of what they’re doing because we’ve gotten to a place where we don’t even know we’re doing it.

BB: Yeah.

EP: The dissociation is so powerful at that moment that you don’t even realize that you’re not present. Which is why these gatherings, which is why coming in community, which is why understanding that whatever the bid that you’re not responding to and the way that you over-intellectualize, that these are human experiences, collective experiences. This is normal. This is not an unusual thing that just needs to be talked about in the office of a therapist behind closed doors. And what starts to happen is that vulnerability is entering smaller and smaller spaces.

BB: Yeah.

EP: When, you know, Where Should We Begin is an attempt to open the therapy office and to bring you in there and have you be a fly on the wall and listening to the conversations and the vulnerable exchanges of others so that you can actually see yourself and feel less alone.

BB: I love that. The normalizing.

EP: Normalizing. So many things that we think are pathologized are actually normal human experiences. And especially in the realm of relationships. Who isn’t experienced heartbreak, jealousy, envy, betrayal, nascent love, the unrequited love. I mean, these are human experiences. These don’t need to be psychologized only and put in a therapist’s office. That is a piece that goes together with social media, is the psychologization of our society.

BB: Yeah. I mean, I wonder about that because on the one hand, the more information the world has, it’s really good, because people could say, “Wow, I’ve got some of those symptoms. This is what’s happening for me,” and it’s so helpful. And on the other hand, you definitely see the over pathologizing of normal human response to hard things.

EP: Correct. So the positive is the de-stigmatization, the, taking people out of shame and secrecy. The less positive things is the way that we take normal range of human experiences and make them problematic and pathologized and psychologized. And then we try to weaponize the psychology. That’s the next part, is you can weaponize it on other people too. And you put people in boxes and you think that they don’t change. You’ve named them something as if this is it for life. We change, we evolve. That fluidity doesn’t participate enough anymore.

BB: How related is the pathologizing of human experience in response to human experience and the individualization of the world?

EP: Very, very much.

BB: Say more.

EP: That’s my expression.

BB: I know.


BB: Crushed it.

EP: Wow. [laughter] It’s so interesting to hear it said to me.


EP: So I think that one of the interesting transitions that has taken place is that for a long time we live primarily in tribes and in communities that is still the case for the majority of the world, but not in our western corners. And in that traditional model, the authority is clear, it comes from religion and it comes from social hierarchies. And the stories are clear, the answers are given to the big questions. And the three main category of answers have to do with what do we do with what we cannot understand? What do we do when we suffer and what do we do with evil? Those are probably the three most important social concerns that religion has addressed for us. And it gives you set answers. There’s not much freedom, not much personal expression, but there’s a ton of certainty.

BB: Oh, I love the, that part. I hate the answers, but I love the certainty.

EP: Right. It, that’s it. And then we move and we gain, we individualize and the individual becomes more and more of the central person and the central unit of concern. But that individual now has to find the big answers themselves to the question of evil, to the question of morality, to the question of suffering, and to the question of what do you do with the stuff that is just too complex to put in a little meme? And that puts a burden on the self that creates tremendous amount of doubt and uncertainty. But at the same time, we don’t want to give up that freedom because we like to be able to generate multiple stories and multiple truths. But we become more and more anxious and we become more and more isolated.

BB: Do we also become more susceptible to crazy theories that answer those things?

EP: It’s two things that happen. We become more recognized in our uniqueness in ways that we were not before. When you need to conform to a community, nobody wants to know your authentic self. And we become more amenable to other stories that don’t fit the large stories, because now there is a free market of stories by people who don’t always have the experience to tell the stories, but they have good branding and marketing.


BB: Wow.

EP: I think it’s individualism, secularization, and capitalism. Those three together that are kind of creating a quite a soup.

BB: That’s one hell of a braid.

EP: Yep.

BB: I mean that plaits together really tight.

EP: Yes. Yes.

BB: So Dave Grohl, so I asked him if he would do this really weird thing with me at ACL. Was that this year? This was, that was this year. Austin City Limits, a music festival.

EP: Thank you.

BB: Yes. And he was like, “Sure.” And I was like, “Should we plan it?” And he goes, “No, when we get on stage we’ll figure it out.” Okay. And so what I wanted, I’d been studying this idea by Emile Durkheim of collective effervescence. So collective effervescence is when people come together, when they first started studying it, they thought there was like some kind of magic or something scary. They saw it always in community, often at church where people came together and left individual affect or emotion to join collective emotion. And so I’ve been really interested in this idea of collective effervescence, especially as it pertains to music.

EP: And dance.

BB: And dance. Music and dance for sure. And so what we did is I looked at some research studies that studied globally what songs, globally…

EP: Oh, what a great question.

BB: Yeah. Do people just sing together randomly, no matter what’s happening? Like what would you guess is the number one song in Germany? It’s close. “Sweet Caroline” is one of them. “Country Roads,” number one song sang by Germans in October Fest across Germany.


BB: Right. So what we, what I did is I put together a playlist and I put together like 90 seconds of the song to see what this audience would do. And Dave and I were on stage talking about the response. So I would play a song and see what people would do. And I, it was everything from like, “Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns N’ Roses to “Sweet Caroline” to “Take Me Home, Country Roads.” I’ll sadly say I ended with Garth Brooks because it was a Texas event and Dave had never heard that song.


BB: “Friends in Low Places.”

EP: Neither have I. [laughter]

BB: Yeah. I’ll sing it for you sometime. It’s good. But people were like listening to us talk about the theory of collective effervescence, and the second the music came on…

EP: They lived it.

BB: They were embodied, holding hands with people that you could tell they weren’t with, arm in arm. And then it would stop and they would get more cognitive, and we would talk about elements of the song, a good hook, a singable, whatever that thing is, verse, thank you. Certain elements that researchers know contribute to sing alongs like Freddie Mercury, Wembley, like his set at Live Aid, where he even did his vocal exercises like…


BB: And the whole audience was completely in sync. And so one of the things that I’m sad about is we asked people to put their phones away, Dave and I did. And people were kind of standing there like… But then they got it and they listened and they laughed and they did all these things together, and it’s like, we are missing so much of collective joy as we start to lose the capacity to be together without the mediator of technology.

EP: I used to say, the quality of your relationship determines the quality of your life. Now I say, the quality of your relationships determines the quality of your life, and in real life, IRL. And I’m going on tour.

BB: Okay. Wait, you have to tell me about that. Because I was like, Esther Perel on tour.


BB: I’ll be the opening act with the Foo Fighters. Let’s go.


EP: You come, you come. And I have on my mind to sing with the audience for exactly that. I know the concept of collective effervescence, and I am a person who loves to sing in groups as well. And part of the tour is to be together, to breathe the same air, to feel the heat that comes from the person next to you, to understand that so many of the experiences that we are grappling with are collective experiences, and that they are not meant to be dealt with alone. In the positive, in the rejoicing and the celebratory aspects of life, and in the painful suffering aspects of life, this is completely why I want to be in-person in real time and in real life with an audience to discuss love, sex, desire, heartbreak, the stuff that we’ve all gone through. And too often when we go through it, we think it’s just happening to me.

BB: I mean that’s it.

EP: So we are going to eight cities, not to you yet, but, you know?

BB: I’ll find you.

EP: But I keep being asked, Trevor also asked me like, “Why in real person, why a tour?” And because I am, I cannot bear the thought of talking to a green dot on the screen anymore and imagining people laughing without hearing anything. It’s just so numbing, numbing. You talk about being embodied people. We come, we are together. We don’t just listen with our ears by the way, we listen with our voice. We just heard it here.

BB: Yeah.

EP: Yeah. Mm. It’s like when you do that, that changes something inside of me. That makes me want to say something else. That is the dialogue we… That is living in community. That is being human for me.

BB: It’s beautiful. And I do think we are living beyond human scale. I think AI is going to really pull us into a vortex that’s beyond human scale. It already is, but I do think that we can leverage the possibility and the innovations of that while still staying embodied and healthy and happy. As long as we have human scaled community and human scale real relationships. I think to me, I’m quoting you to you, holding the tension of paradox that I can explore a world that’s so much bigger than me, and so tremendous, and my ability to do that while remaining whole is completely dependent on the scaled relationship and community that I build. To me, that tension of having both, but having to reconcile them feels like my work, at least personally, that I am interested in AI. I do love machine learning. I love what’s happening. I could go to every session here and be like, yeah, then I’m going to run that through this and I’m going to do some Python, and then I’m going to neurolinguistic program the shit out of that. And like I’m into it. I am. But then I’m going to have a dinner party with my real friends and no technology, and…

EP: And my cards.

BB: Oh, your cards are a shit show.

EP: And you’re going to ask the real questions.


BB: Your cards give new meaning to stack the deck. If you’re going to use her cards, you make sure you know what’s on the top five or six.


BB: Y’all know her deck? Where they’re like story and conversation starters, you do not want to do that with some of those with people you do not know well. We are out of practice for that kind of discussion. I can’t do that.

EP: The reason I’m bringing up the cards is because you’re going to be at a dinner, and you’re actually going to have a meaningful conversation that connects, I mean you’re a storyteller. Stories create bridges for connection, they create intimacy and they’re fun. And so that, it can be my cards, any cards, but it’s about the quality of the conversation. And then you’re going to also know that one of the things that is different, at least for now with the world of machines versus the world of relationships, is that relationship questions are often not binary. They’re not ones and zeros. They cannot be reduced in an either/or. And the more complex the relationship from personal to interpersonal to international, the more it demands the ability to hold the contradiction, to hold the paradox, and that it’s not a problem that you solve, but the paradox that you manage.

BB: Okay. All right.



BB: I want to be mindful of time.

EP: Yes.

BB: So I have some questions for you.

EP: Oh wow.

BB: Do you know… Wait, let me ask this. Do you know what you’re going to sing on… I’m asking about the singing on tour, and I’ll tell you why. When we did the Braving the Wilderness tour, I don’t know if anyone here was at that. We did the joint singing, we were there. So we sang, I think I should have gotten the world record book. I’m looking for someone on my team. We, make a note, like we need to get the world record book for this, for the biggest Townes Van Zandt sing along of all time, because at the end, we sang, “If I Needed You” by Townes Van Zandt together. I put up the music and the lyrics and it was… I still look at videos from that, and it was the most amazing experience. So do you know what you’re going to sing?

EP: So I have two answers. One is I actually wrote a song. I’ve had a lot of fun. A lot of fun.

BB: You are dangerous in all the best ways.

EP: I figured that way I don’t have to deal with rights and all of that. [laughter]

BB: Yeah.

EP: I write my own. But the other one is that I was doing a retreat recently, a week-long retreat on relationships. And at one point, a person was going through something alone, and I remembered a song that I had just been taught a few days before. And I basically asked the whole group to sing it to this person. And it just really says, “This is way too big for you to carry this on your own so you do not carry this all alone.”


EP: It was so fitting. You know, suddenly, 120 people sing this to this woman and she’s… And there were, nothing needed to be said. So I don’t know that I will, it’s not prepared in advance, but I thought if that moment happens to someone else, this is the song that needs to be sung. That, that. You… we can’t take your sorrow away, but we can create a community around you that makes the sorrow worth bearing. So that’s my… But my other song, the one I wrote is very fun. It’s basically, I took all my lines, “Say more,” and put it in a real good pop tune.

BB: Can you give us like a little preamble here or are you saving it for the tour?

EP: No, that I won’t do. I save it for the tour.


BB: Okay. I am literally having the most weirdest goose bumpy serendipity moment about, and it’s written down. So you’ll see why I’m having this moment at the very end of our conversation. You ready for some rapid fire?

EP: Okay. I’m very bad at rapid fire.

BB: I know. We’ve done it before…

EP: And it wasn’t… [laughter]

BB: Yeah. This is not a therapist forte. This is more like, well…

EP: I never have the best, the most, the only, I have 10 things popping in my head at the same time.

BB: I know. But that’s why we love you, because we do too, but we live in a world of like bumper stickers and slogans, and we reduce ourselves and other people to them. So you give me as many answers to these as you want.

EP: All right. Let’s go.

BB: So I’m curious about this. Can I have your first answer? From when we did this on Unlocking Us a couple of years ago, fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is…

EP: Getting my chest congested, having my tears come, but not sure yet if they want to stream, and wondering where is this all going to take me?

BB: Ooh.

EP: Say the question again.


BB: Okay.

EP: Because I had another thought that just popped…


EP: At the moment I finished the next one, right?

BB: Okay. Vulnerability is…

EP: In my world, where I grew up, the vulnerable die. That was one thing that I learned from my parents when they said, they talked about their experiences in the concentration camps in the Nazi camps. And it was clear when the vulnerable die, only the fighters survived. And that has been a real challenge for me to actually have a different set of answers.


EP: And that was a vulnerable thing to say.

BB: And that was vulnerability in vulnerability.

EP: Yes, in the moment.

BB: Yeah.

EP: As a mother, that’s not an easy thing. And as a child of me, it probably is not an easy thing either.

BB: Yeah. As a child of me too. And I’m a big prayer person because I’m a big faith person. But one of the things I pray for a lot, and it’s kind of my take on the world around vulnerability is that vulnerability, we all need it the same, but the world is hostile, a hostile place for some people’s vulnerability.

EP: Absolutely.

BB: And it should be a birthright, not a privilege to be able to be vulnerable, because it is the connection to every experience that we want more of; more love, more joy, more belonging, more art, more… Requires vulnerability, yet in a world with systemic racism, with homophobia, I mean like if you look at the number of trans laws right now being pushed into the legislative system, like vulnerability is dangerous for many people. And it robs them of not just that experience, but all of the experiences that vulnerability flows from. And so it’s just now when people call and say, “Hey, we want to do Dare to Lead,” the first thing we ask is, “Great, are you willing to create an organization where armor is not rewarded or required?”

EP: But sometimes it is required in the moment.

BB: In the moment, for sure.

EP: It’s developmental. There are moments when to be vulnerable will kill you. And then there is the next moment when everything you pushed down in order to survive comes out. This is an odd context.

BB: And so hard. I mean, it’s so hard. Let me tell you a story really quick about a second grade teacher who, to me, was one of the most amazing people that we’ve seen do some of the work that we do. She has, her husband made a coat rack. And when the kids come into their class, they don’t have coats on it, but they hang their invisible armor on it.

EP: Oh.

BB: And then they are in her class, but when they leave, they’re given a couple of minutes to put it back on, because she can’t ensure the safety in other classes and their lives, but she wanted to create a space. And so this visual of that is so like, okay.

EP: Beautiful.

BB: You, Esther, 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?

EP: The very first thing I do is I go to the bathroom.


BB: Raise your hand if you relate. Yeah.

EP: I discharge. The second thing I do is I breathe. And the third thing I do, which is the most important one, is I hum. I hum melodies in my head. A melody dissociates me a little bit from the thing that is grabbing. [humming] And then you can’t hum and think at the same time.

BB: So are you getting… Are you regulating by humming?

EP: Yes. Yes.


EP: No, no, no, it’s not…

BB: No, not like that?

EP: It’s not, it’s very… But honestly, when you hum, you create a barrier, a space between the thought that is creating the anguish and your nervous system. So I am not somebody who can get my thoughts to move away and all of that. I’ve done just, they keep coming, so, but humming quietens me and it quietens a lot of people.

BB: I’m going to practice it.

EP: If you do cold plunges, and you go like this and you hum, you can stay another extra two minutes too.


BB: I will not be able to report back.

EP: Because humming is… You know, when it’s… You hum, you hear your voice from inside.

BB: Yeah, you do.

EP: And that is, it’s like the voice of the uterus in utero. When you have the baby, the first thing you hear is the voice of your mother inside. And when you hum, you recreate that experience of the voice inside. That’s right.

BB: Wow.


EP: I’ve never actually talked about this.


BB: I mean it’s helpful, right? How many of you are going to try humming? I’m going to try it. I’m going to have to find good songs, because I’m such a like, yeah. Okay. So last TV show that you binged and loved.

EP: I actually went back to watch again, Phoebe Waller-Bridge on Fleabag.

BB: I mean, Flea… I mean…

EP: No, I met her, and I decided now that I know you and you are this person here and there, I need to go and watch the whole series again.

BB: It’s so smart.

EP: It’s brilliant.

BB: And talking about making what’s personal, communal, it was so normalizing in many ways.

EP: That scene with the sister in the church, I mean it’s just… [laughter]

BB: My favorite scene is the sister with the haircut.

EP: That too. [laughter]

BB: Yeah. She’s like, it’s awful. It’s French.


BB: Okay. Favorite movie? Do you have one?

EP: No. I have so… I’m a major cinephile and I don’t have a favorite movie.

BB: What movie would you tell us to watch if we haven’t seen it?

EP: I mean right now, I would say watch Anatomy of a Fall, watch Zone of Interest. That’s the first two probably.

BB: Wait, Anatomy of a Fall and…

EP: Zone of Interest.

BB: Zone of Interest. Okay.

EP: Poor Things.

BB: Oh, Poor Things. Did you watch Poor Things? What’d you think?

EP: I’m putting it on the list.


BB: Okay. I’m scared to watch it for some reason.

EP: So, here’s the thing you need to know. As one of my handouts when I teach around relationships and sexuality, I have a list of about 225 movies that I give to the students. It’s an updated list that starts when I started kind of in the ’70s, about movies, about relationships, about love, desire, infidelity, betrayal, all the subjects I write about and their transposition to fiction.

BB: That’s my kind of therapy.

EP: So I don’t have a favorite.

BB: That, yeah, you must have so many. Is there anything that you would say just stands out to you as, boy, they get this wrong?

EP: I don’t know if any of you have ever watched Night Porter? No, I don’t hear anything in the audience. It’s a movie that really shaped me. It’s Charlotte Rampling and Dirk Bogarde, and it’s a reenactment of an S&M scene of he was the guard in the camp, and then they meet again in a hotel by fluke, and then they create this whole reenactment of the trauma. It’s a trauma movie. For me, it’s a film that had really… I had the mistake of recommending, when I talked with my boys, and my husband and I will just… We talked about movies that really… Clockwork Orange is another one of those. I watched it way too young. And one of my sons went to watch this movie, and just didn’t get it. Like what? It was a horrible experience for him. [laughter] And I realized recommending movies, you have to be a little bit more careful. Because you see a film at a particular moment in your life, who knows why those are the films that just become… They had shaped you, but not… And never go watch them again. That’s the other thing, because then you think, oh my god.

BB: Yeah.

EP: What was that about?

BB: Where was I that I thought this was it, yeah.

EP: Exactly. Exactly.

BB: Okay. Favorite meal of all time.

EP: Oh, favorite meal is a good pasta pesto. Very simple. Homemade with the olive oil that just like…

BB: Give us a snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that’s really joyful for you.

EP: I’m a Belgian girl who left Belgium, but you can’t take Belgium out of the girl. So I bike, everywhere in New York City. And one of my great pleasures is that to I finish a day of patience, I put on my helmet and I bike down, and I’m on the path, and I cross the park in Washington. And if I can put a little bit of music in my ear too, it’s just an ordinary moment. And I’m alone and nobody can stop me to say hello. [chuckle] It’s a moment of aloneness that is a real pleasure twice a day.

BB: I can see it. Can you picture it?

EP: With high heels.

BB: Yeah. Oh.


BB: I wouldn’t have imagined it any other way. And then you talked about your song that you sang to this woman. One of my favorite songs is You’ll Never Walk Alone, and I’m wondering if you’re excited about Liverpool beating Man City today as we speak.

EP: Are we… Which sports are we talking?

BB: Oh my God. Are you not a football fan? A Premier League, European football fan?

EP: I watch the World Cup, but I don’t… I am a big fan of the World Cup, but I don’t follow all… No, no, none of that. Tennis, yes, but not soccer.

BB: Do you play tennis?

EP: Yes.

BB: Do you play pickleball?

EP: No, I insist on continuing to play Tennis. I’m one of those, but there will come a moment when I will play pickleball.

BB: It took me five years and then five minutes. So yeah, I was really hoping she was going to be a Liverpool fan, because… Any Liverpool fans in the audience? Party of… Any Man City fans? Okay. Good. We win. Okay.

EP: Where I live in New York, close by, there is one restaurant that is Argentina, one restaurant that is Brazil, one restaurant that is France, and one restaurant that is Mexico.

BB: Oh yeah.

EP: That’s the World Cup for you.

BB: That’s the World Cup.


BB: That is…

EP: Then comes Morocco and a few other new people.

BB: I mean those are some serious football restaurants right there. Yeah.

EP: Yes. So I do follow that. But not the Liverpool thing. Sorry. [laughter]

BB: Esther Perel, y’all.


BB: Woo, what did y’all think? You know what I’m still thinking about? I’m still thinking about AI, not artificial intelligence, but artificial intimacy. I’m thinking about the ability to hold the paradox of exploring a world that’s so much bigger than us, while also trying to stay whole and tethered to what’s real in my everyday life. It’s like I’ll be standing in my house thinking about AI, and ways to use generative machine learning, and then be like, oh shit, I’ve got to unload the dishwasher before I leave. Like we’re traveling back and forth, it feels like at the speed of hard, and that that’s the way I’m feeling. You can learn all about Esther, and you can learn more about the tour that she’s going on, how to get tickets for that on the episode page on I appreciate you being here. I think this series is going to be really interesting.

BB: I’m going to open up comments. I mean one thing I want to tell y’all is that, part of me trying to survive, being thrust into bigger than human scale, but maintain community and connection is opening up the website with comments and having discussions there. I’m also playing with the idea of getting off social, more and more newsletter to the community where we can do surveys together and talk to each other in different and fun and innovative ways. But if you go to, you’ll learn more about Esther. We always have transcripts for the podcast. You can look up her books and then you can also talk about what you’ve learned. I’m excited to hear more, especially questions that you have. All right. Stay awkward, brave, and kind, and I’ll see you next time.


BB: Unlocking Us is produced by Brené Brown Education and Research Group. The music is by Carrie Rodriguez and Gina Chavez. Get new episodes as soon as they’re published by following Unlocking Us on your favorite podcast app. We are part of the Vox Media podcast network. Discover more award-winning shows at


© 2024 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Brown, B. (Host). (2024, March 20). New AI – Artificial Intimacy. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Vox Media Podcast Network.

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