On this episode of Unlocking Us
In this episode, I share my thoughts on the power of dissent, what happens when we max out our surge capacity during a crisis, and how time spent without purpose can refuel and reconnect us.
Listen to the episode
“Your ‘Surge Capacity’ Is Depleted—It’s Why You Feel Awful” by Tara Haelle
Production by Cadence13
Brené Brown: Hi everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us.
BB: So, if there’s one thing that I’ve learned from 20 plus years of research on how we as humans think and feel and behave, it’s simply that if something is on my mind, you’re more than likely to be thinking about it too. If something’s bothering me, it’s probably not just bothering me; if I’m worried about something, it’s probably a worry shared by many people. It’s like when I’m teaching, and that one brave student raises their hand and asks a question, you can see 90% of the people in the classroom just melt with relief. They don’t know the answer to the question either, they’re stuck too, but they don’t want to ask. The hard part is, if we don’t raise our hand or share what’s on our mind, it’s so easy to convince ourselves that we’re completely alone. And if you go back to the data, we’re almost never alone in our experiences. So, in the spirit of sharing what we’re thinking about, I thought it could be worthwhile to record an occasional “On My Mind” episode to check in and tell you what I’m learning, what I’m holding onto right now for dear life, and some of the things I’m trying like hell to let go of.
BB: Now, my mind is not a place for the faint of heart; it’s a very strange place. There’s a lot of weird stuff that goes on in there. So I’m just going to keep it to my top three things. So, an “On My Mind” episode. Alright, so of course the thing on the very top of my mind is the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. That is just… That’s like on my mind and on my heart. I actually have this… It’s so weird. I have this small painting of her in my entry way, and when I came downstairs this morning, I guess I had temporarily forgotten about her death on Friday, so when I saw the painting, it was like this sinking grief and anxiety all over again.
BB: You know that feeling… I remember this feeling growing up. I remember having like a first boyfriend and you would break up and you would cry yourself to sleep and in the morning you’d wake up and for a split second you’d forget, and everything would be like, “Woo, good morning.” And then it would just wash over you? That’s how I felt when I saw that painting of Justice Ginsburg. And it’s hard too, because the grief that I’m experiencing can’t spread out and take all the space that it needs because my anxiety about this… What this means for our democracy is the biggest space hog in my head right now. I’m like, “Let’s just be quiet and contemplative and prayerful,” and then the anxiety is like, “What are you going to do? What are you going to do?” So, I’ve got grief and anxiety top of mind around Ruth Bader Ginsberg.
BB: I’ll tell you that one of my favorite quotes by Justice Ginsburg is about the power of dissents. So, dissents are written by one or more judges expressing disagreement with the majority opinion of a court. And the dissents are not law, they’re not case law, I don’t think they’re… They’re not binding, but they can carry significant weight and they’re often cited and used to make changes and even reversals in the very laws that they’re written about. And so, she has this great quote about dissents. And she said, “Dissents speak to a future age. It’s not simply to say, ‘My colleagues are wrong, and I would do it this way,’ but the greatest dissents do become court opinions and gradually over time, their views become the dominant view. So that’s the dissenters hope, that they are writing, not for today, but for tomorrow.”
BB: God, it’s beautiful. I loved that quote from the very moment I first heard it, but today in this shame and blame environment, it means so much more to me because it pushes me further into one of my personal prayers. It’s a prayer that I’ve actually shared on social media before, and I think I shared it in a book, but I can’t remember. It’s a prayer that I… I say it all the time actually, and I say it when I’m frustrated in a bathroom stall. I say it in the morning when I wake up, and I often say it in bed at night before I go to sleep. And it’s just, “At the end of this day, and at the end of my life, I hope I have contributed more than I criticized.” And thinking about Justice Ginsburg’s quote, really, I think sometimes dissents are the most important contributions that we can make. Just like actual criticism, not like cheap seat, chicken shit criticism, but really thoughtful criticism and dissents can have real value if they’re thoughtful and intentional, and if they’re future thinking. And I think this is important, maybe the most important part, they have to be able to stand on their own; they need to be completely formed.
BB: You know, a criticism like, “You suck, or you’re wrong, or that’s a stupid idea.” Those are not contributions and they don’t speak to the future. I actually think that those are mostly like the cheap seats, the cheap seat criticism. I think that’s mostly offloading fear and emotion. But a dissent or a thoughtful criticism that makes a real contribution takes so much time and effort, because they’re not reactive. They’re proactively creating what’s next.
BB: I think I’m going to work on this in a couple of ways. One, I think I’m going to be more thoughtful when it comes to my dissents, like what’s the why behind it, what’s the alternative, maybe make it less personal. And at work, when there are dissenting opinions, I’m going to ask people to push beyond like, “I don’t think it’s a good idea or it just feels off to me,” or “I’ve got a bad gut on that.” I want them to flush it out with the future in mind. Think about how powerful that could be if we made space for intentional, thoughtful, well-planned out dissent that was future thinking. I don’t know. It’s just so contrary to what we see in the world today. So, thank you, thank you, Notorious RBG. May your memory be a blessing and a revolution.
BB: Okay, second thing is this article that I came across on Medium. It’s by Tera Haelle, who’s a science journalist, also a storyteller, educator, photographer and writer. And the name of the article is, just take a deep breath right now. If you’re driving, if you’re out walking, whatever you’re doing, just take a deep breath. The name of the article is, “Your ‘Surge Capacity’ Is Depleted. It’s Why You Feel Awful.” Subtitle: “Here’s how to pull yourself out of despair and live your life.” Now, I probably don’t even have to say anything else. I’ll send you the link to the article. Like you get it right? By the way, the link to the article is in the show notes on brenebrown.com, so don’t worry, you’ll be able to find the article easily.
BB: For me, this article is the perfect follow-up to… Remember my very first podcast on FFTs and F-ing First Times? First time we’ve been in a pandemic. Don’t overestimate how you’re going to get through this. Reality check your expectations. Take a deep breath. During that podcast, I said that we were not going to be able to get through the pandemic or fuel ourselves on adrenaline for a long time, because there just… There’s just not enough. By definition, adrenaline is for a short period of time. And like all wobbly vulnerable first times, I knew this pandemic would require us to name what we’re feeling, gather some perspective and reality-check our expectations. Then I launched Season Two of this podcast with talking about Day Two that it was just like a minute ago, it feels like, where we’ve hit a very predictable wall now that we’re at the six month mark and we can’t turn back, and we’re not sure how we’re going to move forward.
BB: And it was so funny, the other day I was at work and it just, it was just cluster after cluster. It was a complete shit show. And one of my colleagues looks at me and she goes, “I’m having an FFT wrapped up in a Day Two.” It’s like, “Oh, yes ma’am. That’s exactly right. An FFT wrapped up in a Day Two.” But we’re now six or seven months into this pandemic, and we’re hitting a wall that is inevitable. It’s normal y’all. Like, this is the wall. If you talk to disaster relief people, if you talk to people that, you know, work in war zones or trauma zones, this is a six-month wall. The good news is, we’re going to get through it. The bad news is it sucks. I know, deep inside of me, that we’re going to get through, but when I read this article, I was like, Oh, my surge capacity is depleted, and that’s why it really does feel awful. Like some days, it’s like my feet each weigh 40 pounds. I can’t get them over the side of the bed to get out, I just can’t move. It’s just terrible.
BB: So Haelle interviews several experts. Starts with an interview with Professor Ann Masten who’s a psychologist and Professor of Child Development at the University of Minnesota. Super helpful information. I’m not going to read the article to you because that would be weird, but I’m going to tell you what was sticky to me, so then you can go read it and figure out what’s sticky to you, but it was helpful. So Masten, who studies resilience and surviving trauma, wars, disasters explains that, “Surge capacity is a collection of adaptive systems, mental and physical, that humans draw on for short-term survival in acutely stressful situations such as natural disasters.” The problem… So this is the problem that we’re facing y’all, is that a pandemic, in my opinion, is both an acutely stressful situation, like a disaster, and a slow unravelling of every one of the systems and rhythms that keeps us tethered to our lives and to each other: family gatherings, faith community, school, work.
BB: It is like as someone who lives on the Gulf Coast and has been through my share of hurricanes, it’s like the wind is breaking the windows and we’re in clean up at the same time. It’s too much to ask some days. So, our surge capacity is maxed out and we need to find a new source of energy. So the first thing we have to do, now listen to this, this is… I’ve said this a million different ways and everybody I’ve interviewed who had expertise in everything from grief to mental health has also said this. The first thing to do to find a new source of energy is to acknowledge that the anxiety and weariness is normal. If we spend too much time thinking there’s something wrong with us, and thinking that we’re the only ones that are feeling overwhelmed, that’s a bad expenditure of energy. So the first thing we have to do is say, “Yes, my surge capacity is depleted. I’m at the six-month wall, this is normal.”
BB: And it’s really interesting, because Haelle actually writes in here, “It’s different from a hurricane or tornado where you can look outside and see the damage. The destruction is, for most people, invisible and ongoing.” Oooh, I don’t think I’ve ever whistled on the podcast before. What do you think? I can make my own sound effects. Let me just read it again. If I were interviewing her, I’d say, “Hey, wait. Stop, say that again.” “It’s different from a hurricane or tornado where you can look outside and see the damage, the destruction is, for most people, invisible and ongoing.” So, I don’t think I’ve given myself permission to experience COVID as a terrible long-term disaster, but it is. And I think we’re doing that thing, a lot of us, myself included, where we’re looking for disaster relief while the hurricane is still blowing the shutters off the house. We just don’t know how to do it.
BB: Which brings me to the second expert that Haelle interviewed, Pauline Boss. Dr. Boss is a family therapist and Professor Emeritus of Social Sciences at the University of Minnesota, and she specializes in ambiguous loss. Haelle also talks to Michael Maddaus, who’s an MD and a professor of thoracic surgery, also at the University of Minnesota. Now, I’ll say I know a lot about ambiguous loss because while I’ve experienced it, I’m experiencing it now, and again, I’ve experienced it in the past, and I’ve also studied it. An ambiguous loss or ambiguous grief is really tough because it can be a little crazy making, because there’s not the kind of evidence that we need to show ourselves or show other people, because we feel like we have to justify our grief. It’s like it’s a loss that’s hard to name.
BB: And again, I’ll let you dig into the article because there’s a lot more than what I’m sharing with you on the podcast, but I’ll tell you what came up for me around ambiguous loss. And I wish you could see me right now. I’m clenching my fist, because I don’t want to talk about this, but I’m going to share it with you in case anyone else needs to hear it. I’m a problem solver and a go-getter, and I’m also in recovery, so I try not to… Anne Lamott says that, “Help is the sunny side of control,” so I try not to orchestrate people’s lives, especially my kids, but I do help them when I see them struggling, and I do try to problem solve. And we have this kind of rule in our house, where it’s not our job to dream your dream or set your goal, our job is to encourage you to set your own dream, set your own goal, and then we’ll use our experience and perspective to let you know how we think you could achieve it, and you can act on that, or you don’t have to act on that. But that’s our job as a parent, not to set the goal, not to dream the dream.
BB: But say, “If your goal is to make this team or get this scholarship or get this job, here are some things you should think about that will be helpful.” And then you can choose to do them or choose not to do them. Oh my god, and when you choose not to do them… And I know that you’re setting yourself up for a real disappointment, it’s so hard, but I really try to step back. But this ambiguous loss that I’m experiencing right now that just hit me like a ton of bricks when I was reading this is, I feel helpless around being able to protect my children right now, and that’s a really tough thing, because I feel somewhat helpless from being able to prevent them from getting sick, but also I feel equally helpless in facing the perils of not living their lives right now, like every decision is fraught. Every decision feels scary; every precaution feels like it comes with a huge price around social connection. Especially because we are so much more conservative than the parents of their friends.
BB: And I don’t know, we feel comfortable with our values and our kids believe in our values, but it doesn’t mean it’s less crushing. And so, the fact that I can’t make my daughter’s senior year in college what she hoped it would be or that I just can’t help them, I can’t change things, I can’t control the environment. I guess I could never control the environment, but I could problem-solve. And in this article, Dr. Boss, the ambiguous, grief, ambiguous loss expert, even says that, “It’s really hard for those of us who are problem solvers and really are used to getting shit done.” So, I guess I’m really struggling there. If you’re struggling too, I think the best thing we can do is just name it and normalize it and reality check our expectations. I feel like I say that so much it’s starting to feel like cliche or something, but the actual work of doing it is hard.
BB: One of the things… There’s a lot of advice offered by the experts interviewed in the article, and a lot of it makes a ton of sense to me, and a lot of it’s familiar, and we’ve actually talked about some of these ideas on this podcast. But one explanation that really helped me understand my project obsession right now, I’ve got a lot of big projects going on y’all, in addition to books and research and this podcast. So, Dr. Maddaus explained, this is the Professor of thoracic surgery, again, at the University of Minnesota, where they got some resilient stuff going on. So Dr. Maddaus explained why building things and creating is bringing some of us joy and real feelings of restoration and recharge. He explains that there are two ways the brain deals with the world: the future, including things we need to go after and get done, and the here and now, seeing things and touching things.
BB: He explained that, “Rather than being at the mercy of what’s going on in the world right now, we can use elements of this natural reward system that we have and construct things to do that are good, no matter what.” So he says, “These kinds of activities have a planning element, a real here and now experience element.” For Maddaus, he gave the example, he said, “It was simply replacing all of the shower heads and light bulbs in the house.” He said it’s a silly thing, but it made him feel really good. So, like the millisecond I get finished recording this podcast, I’m going to go back to my massive and I mean massive, Texas-sized photo project where I’m actually scanning and organizing all of our family photos. And by family, I don’t mean just like me, Steve, Ellen and Charlie. I mean generations of family. And maybe I’ll get Steve to change out all the light bulbs and shower heads so he feels good, too. Completely altruistic on my part.
BB: I’ve also actually, since reading this article, talked to Charlie and Ellen about projects like this that would be meaningful for them, and I have to say, they were both like juiced up a little bit about it. They were excited. So this idea: do things that are good, no matter what. Do things that are good, no matter how bat shit crazy things are right now. That feels important and right to me.
BB: Alright, the third thing on my mind. I told y’all, it’s the Wild West up here in my head. But you’ll let me know. You’ll let me know if you like it, if you want an occasional “On My Mind” episode or if you’re like, “Just stick to the facts, ma’am.” Okay, third thing on my mind: a new source of energy. So in my life, I have found that one of the greatest antidotes to despair and depression, and a great source of energy is play. Now, I’m going to do a whole episode on play. I’m going to do a whole episode on play because it was… This whole story is crazy how this came to be, and it’s all in The Gifts of Imperfection. But I actually forgot about play until a couple of months ago it’s probably just six weeks ago, when I was narrating the 10th anniversary edition of The Gifts of Imperfection, the audio book. Because this was the first time – we celebrated the 10th anniversary of The Gifts by giving folks the audio book narrated by me. Before, it was narrated by someone else, and people were like, “We’re used to your voice. Can you do it?” So I was narrating it and obviously reading through it. I came across this quote by Stuart Brown. “The opposite of play is not work. The opposite of play is depression.” So Stuart Brown, MD, play researcher, the most remarkable story.
BB: Again, I’m going to do an episode on play, so Brown explains how respecting our biologically programmed need for play can transform us and renew our sense of excitement in life. So I wrote The Gifts of Imperfection in the midst of my midlife, spiritual breakdown, awakening, and play was a brand new concept for. And again, another long story, but I was like, “What is this strange thing that these wholehearted people do?” One of the ways that Stuart Brown defines play is, “Time spent without purpose.” So back then, and if I’m being honest a little bit today, I call time without purpose an anxiety attack, but I started thinking about time spent without purpose.
BB: So 10 years ago, I really made a commitment to incorporate play into my life, and let me tell you, it changed everything. It changed me and my family and for the better. We even made a family playlist. So what we did is we all picked four or five activities that met Stuart Brown’s definitions of play, “Time spent without purpose.” Activities where you lose track of time. Activities where you feel free to be yourself, like uninhibited and just freedom, liberated. So we wrote down things and obviously we all had different things, but I was looking for kind of the Venn diagram. [chuckle] Okay, I get it. The irony’s not lost on me that I was creating a Venn diagram of play, but whatever. I was looking for the Venn diagram. What do we have, what is play, what play things do we share in common? So Steve, Ellen, Charlie and I were so surprised that we shared a lot in common. Swimming, outdoor time, cards, movies, alone time piddling, unscheduled time, and hiking. Well, let me tell you, up until this experience, we did not plan a single activity that included most of those things.
BB: Like we did other things for vacation and we did other things for time away. And so from that point forward, we started building vacations around these things and it… What a difference it made. We came home from trips, completely restored and not exhausted from having seen every landmark and museum. People… We’d come back from somewhere, and people are like, “Oh my god, did you see the this? Or did you go to this museum?” We’re like, “Ah, no, no. We spent the day hiking, then went to the pool.” “But you can hike and go to the pool anywhere.” I’m like, “Yeah, but we don’t, so we did it there, and it was like amazing.”
BB: So, given that we’re out of adrenaline and our surge capacity is depleted, I thought about turning to play as a new source of energy. I asked myself these questions again, like these three things: time spent without purpose, things I’m doing where I lose track of time, things that make me feel liberated and uninhibited. And just, wow! Let me tell you, my list surprised me. So my photography project, pickle ball, tennis, riding my bicycle, International Films, fun TV, and music. Not hard crying documentaries, but like fun TV, and music. So the family overlap happens to be biking with me and Charlie and Steve. Ellen’s off at school, so we probably take biking out for her, but for all of us, pickle ball, tennis, music and fun TV, and we have had such a blast, and it is again, been very restorative. You know, the energy you get from play is not like sugary as adrenaline, where it like it’s hard core and it spikes; it’s constant and predictable, it’s like less of a donut sugar spike and more like a green smoothie feeling, which I think is good.
BB: So make a playlist for yourself, you and your partner, your family, even a good friend. Play is this incredible source of energy that’s easy to forget about. And let me share something with you that’s really important for me, and we can have different opinions on this, we can… There can be dissent as long as it’s future thinking and playful. Some people might say right now, “This is no time for play. Our democracy is on the line. The world is falling apart. We’ve got work to do.” Hell yes, I agree on all accounts, but… And I wrote about this in Braving the Wilderness, but our hearts are expansive and big, and as the poem goes, contain multitudes. We can’t fight on no energy, we can’t fight for love unless we’re experiencing it, we can’t fight for joy unless we know joy. And so I’m not saying back away from the revolution or the fight, because I don’t plan to do that, but I do need an energy source, not only for the fight, but just to get me through my day and keep me in loving relationship with the people I care about.
BB: So this is the last thing on my mind, and I know I said three things, but really, this is like 3B. Ted Lasso, oh my god. This show, y’all, it’s on Apple and I love it so much, it’s a family show for us and it’s definitely play. Its star is Jason Sudeikis who helped create and produce and write it, and he plays this really goofy American college football coach hired to coach a premium league soccer team in the UK, which is the fish out of water story. But it’s just so funny because he’s hired by this woman who got custody of this premier league team after this bitter divorce – cheating husband story. And she wants to run the team into the ground, so she hires this really just nutty coach from the US. And it’s unapologetically fun, and it’s just earnest in the best ways, and it just… We order dinner and we snuggle up and we laugh, and we watch it, and we made a pact not to watch it without each other, and it’s good. And I just have to say that I’m going to share my favorite quote. And he’s got this twang, so of course it feels like home to me, but he’s like, “I feel like I just fell out of the lucky tree, hit every branch on the way down and ended up in a pool of cash and Sour Patch Kids.” [chuckle] That’s funny, that’s funny.
BB: Okay, friends, these are the things on my mind. I hope y’all have a great week. I hope you find a way to keep contributing, even if it’s an intentional dissent. Make sure if you’re in the United States that you are registered to vote. Let Justice Ginsburg’s name be a blessing and a revolution, get to the polls, cut yourself some slack around your surge capacity, play more, and I personally hope like hell that you find yourself falling out of a lucky tree into a pool of cash and Sour Patch kids, because that would just be the best. Alright, y’all, stay awkward, brave, and kind. I’ll see you next time.
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