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Amy Cuddy headshot
September 13, 2021

Pandemic Flux Syndrome

with Amy Cuddy

On this episode of Dare to Lead

This week I’m talking to Dr. Amy Cuddy, social psychologist, best-selling author, award-winning Harvard lecturer, and expert on the behavioral science of power, presence, and prejudice. We discuss her recently published Washington Post article,Why This Stage of the Pandemic Makes Us So Anxious,” and how working through this collective, constant pandemic flux affects us as individuals and as leaders. We also talk about developing a flux mindset and how important it is to facilitate a sense of agency as we make decisions about how we return to work.

Transcript

Brené Brown: Hi everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Dare to Lead. I am so excited to be back to the podcast, I missed y’all while I was out writing Atlas of The Heart, I miss the conversations, I missed reading your comments and feedback on social.  Thank you for letting me take that pause and get hella writing done. God, that book was hard. It kicked my ass, but I’m proud of it and I can’t wait to share it with you. We’re coming back to Dare to Lead with a conversation with Amy Cuddy about her recently published Washington Post article, “Why This Stage Of The Pandemic Makes Us So Anxious.” I thought, you know what, we went out with the truth, let’s just come right back in with the truth. Like, oh my God, raise your hand if you’re like ready for predictability and some certainty and less volatility between people in our houses, in our work places, in our communities, Jesus, it’s exhausting.

BB: Amy is a social psychologist, she’s a best-selling author, a Harvard lecturer, and she’s an expert on behavioral science, a power presence in prejudice. And I’ve known her for years. And when I read this Washington Post article, I thought, oh no, I need her to talk about this with us because there’s something weird going on right now with how we all feel.  It’s a different kind of anxiety, so we’re going to dig in and we’re going to talk about it.  And I am so grateful to be back and I’m grateful for y’all.

[music]

BB: All right, before we jump into our conversation with Amy, I want to tell you a little bit about her. So we started our conversation with me asking about her story, and so you’ll learn a lot about her, and it’s such an important story about tenacity and grit, and falling and getting back up. It is everything that I really love about Amy. But let me give you a little overview. Again, she’s an expert on focusing on the power of prejudice and stereotyping, non-verbal behavior, and the ways in which people can affect their own thoughts, feelings and performance and well-being. She studies, writes, and speaks about how we can become more present, more influential, compassionate and satisfied in our lives, both professional and personal. You will learn that she earned her PhD from Princeton. She was a professor at Harvard Business School from 2008 to 2017. She was at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management from 2006 to 2008 and at Rutgers from 2005 to 2006.  She continues to teach at Harvard Business School in their executive education program. I don’t know if you’ve seen her book, if not, it’s so good. I immediately bought a copy for me and my kids. Her book is called Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges. It is just incredible, and we talk about this in the conversation, but if you’re a Ted Lasso fan, you’ll see that Rebecca, owner of the Richmond team, is a presence practitioner. It’s a great scene in Ted Lasso.  You may have seen Amy’s TED talk, “Your Body Language May Shape Who You Are,” just… I think it’s got 60 million, 60 million views, maybe even more. And we’ll also learn that Amy is a Deadhead and a lover of live music, an avid skier and roller skater. She’s got one son, Jonah, who’s a guitar player and songwriter at the Berklee College of Music, and her husband Paul is an adventuring Australian lover of life. Let’s jump in.

[music]

BB: Let me just start by saying, it is so wonderful to see your face. It’s on Zoom, but I’m so happy to see it.

Amy Cuddy: Me too, it’s been a long time.

BB: It’s been a really… How long has it been since we’ve been together in person?

AC: It was one of your book launches, and Amanda and I were there, Amanda Palmer and I, and we sang on stage.

BB: Oh my God, it was Braving The Wilderness in New York and you, me and Amanda sang Townes Van Zandt.

AC: Exactly, exactly. That was so beautiful at 92Y.

BB: At the 92Y.

AC: Yeah.

BB: Yeah. I’m ready to sing with you again at the 92Y.

AC: I’m going to try to kidnap you and take you to a Dead show in a month, so it might be earlier than that, but we’ll see.

BB: Okay. Well, we’re going to definitely talk about The Grateful Dead because…

AC: We’ll come back to that.

BB: Yeah, we’ll have to come back to that. So let me say that when I saw your article, I saw your article in the Washington Post in mid-August before you even texted me about it, and I think I held my breath the entire time I was reading it. So I’m so excited to talk to you about it.  I think it’s incredibly helpful and accurate in terms of what we’re all feeling, but before we get started on the article, I want to start with the question we start all podcasts with, which is, will you tell us your story?

AC: Well, my story… Well, it was circuitous, and it’s funny because I think one of the biggest misunderstandings about me is that I somehow was planful about ending up where I am, and I was not at all. In fact, I feel like I sort of allowed the path to unfold before me. As long as I was open to things, I made choices, some were good, some were bad, but they came together, and in this strange way, everything that I care about and love in the world are now in harmony with each other. So I know that was a very abstract answer.

AC: The more concrete answer is that I grew up in a really rural part of Pennsylvania, the kind of Amish Mennonite country, not in a place where many people went to college, so only a third of my high school class went to college. I think I was one of the only people to go out of state, and I worked through college mostly as a roller skating waitress at the University Of Colorado, which I now feel like everything should be done on roller skates because it is much more efficient.

But in my second year of college, I was in a really bad car accident. I had a very serious head injury, I was withdrawn from college, I was told I would not finish college, it took me four more years to go back. I kept starting and having to withdraw because I could not process information, and it was a real threat to my identity, because I always felt like no matter what I did, I’d be smart. You know, to have… I never thought that that was mutable. And it is.

AC: So I was thrown out of a car, the car rolled several times and I was thrown out. So your brain is sort of shaking against your skull, and each layer of your brain is a different density, so those layers are shaking at different speeds and tearing axons all over your brain. They call that a diffuse axonal injury, and what that really means is that you’re just different in every way. There’s no one targeted part of the brain that’s affected, where they can say, “Well, it’s your motor area or your speech area,” it’s your personality, it’s your ability to think, it’s like what you think about. It might be the way you move, it’s kind of everything, and at the same time, because it’s not a focused injury, like being shot or a stroke, you look okay to people so they feel like, “Well, you look great. You should be normal.”

AC: But I had this experience for the first couple of years of really, really dear friends saying, “You’re not the same person,” but I couldn’t quite remember who I was. And so trying to hold on to that identity is like holding on to a wet ball of sand and as it dries and slips through your fingers and you’re just grabbing it, and eventually you have to break up with your old self. It is like… So if you’re in a sort of okay relationship, but it’s not great, you know you’re not going to marry this person, sometimes you have to leave it without knowing what else is out there for you, and that’s sort of what I had to do, I had to leave that old relationship with myself and trust that there would be a new me that I would love more. So it took me four extra years to finish college, and it was tough. I had to re-learn to learn.

BB: Wow! I don’t think we understand what it’s like to not be tethered to who we are.

AC: Yes. And that’s such a theme  in sort of what I do now, and you know, the ability to let go of that. The way we see transition even from oneself to another is like we’re in oneself, but we see a better self and we jump to it, but sometimes it’s not that, sometimes we have to be floating around at sea and hoping that we find a new port, and we don’t know what that port is, or where it is, or what it’s going to be like, or what the people will be like, or what we’ll be doing.

BB: And the worst part is, or not the worst, but the most beautiful and challenging part is, the new port, we look for it externally, but it’s an internal thing.

AC: That’s exactly right. That is exactly right.

BB: The anchor is internal. Yeah. And so, I remember when I got a really severe concussion right before Braving The Wilderness, I think we talked about it, and I couldn’t read, I couldn’t watch TV, I just couldn’t do anything. And I finally saw a psychologist that deals with concussions a lot who works with a football team, the Texans here, and she said, “You’re in a place where I don’t know where the concussion ends and the anxiety and depression begins because you don’t know who you are without your ability to think and be smart and connect the seemingly unconnectable.” And she said, “But the harder you’re pushing, the more likely it is that you’re really wearing your brain out right now with this fear,” and I was like, “Oh my God. Can you just wake me up when it’s over?” And she goes, “It just didn’t work like that.”

AC: Exactly. The thing with that kind of head injury is that there is no clear prognosis or treatment, it’s so idiosyncratic to each person, they can’t say when it will end and maybe it never ends, and maybe that’s not bad. Maybe it is bad. But it is not like many other diagnoses in the physical health world.

BB: That’s right.

AC: And some of your close people don’t know how to deal with that, because you may seem different. So it’s not only you and your identity, but it’s also how others saw you and you wanting to meet their expectations of who you are.

BB: Yeah, and then there’s the whole conversation about the value attached to it, or the value people think you bring to the relationship because of who you were or who they need you to be.

AC: Absolutely.

BB: What happens when you finish college?

AC: So, I went back twice and had to withdraw. The final time I went back, I decided to study psychology. I worked in a lab to study brain injury for a year, and I’m glad I did that, but I realized that was not for me and somebody said, “I think you’ll like Social Psychology.” So I focused on that, and then I moved immediately from Colorado to UMass Amherst and started studying with my advisor Susan Fisk, and focusing on stereotyping and prejudice and things that I really cared about and really understanding how do they work, how do we speak to people about these things from a place of understanding the brain and our human instincts and tendencies. So I did that, I was there for two years at UMass, she moved to Princeton, so I reapplied, started there. So I basically spent seven years in grad school, but when I got to Princeton, as the small town kid who had gone to State schools, I remember I got to the stoplight in the middle of town, and I looked around and I remember crying, I was like, “I’m never going to fit in here.”

AC: So I really felt that I had to work the combination of not feeling that I had a fancy pedigree and the head injury. I felt like I had to just sort of study circles around people to stay on level with them, I mean to be at least doing as well as they were doing. I feel like I did that for five years at Princeton, never feeling like I totally fit in and working really hard.

BB: I don’t think there’s a person listening that doesn’t know that feeling of, I don’t belong here.

AC: Exactly.

BB: And what kind of proving mode am I going to have to be in and for how long because it’s exhausting.

AC: Yes.

BB: Yeah.

AC: You know, feeling that you’re going to be tapped on the shoulder and told, “I’m sorry, Ms. Cuddy, we made an admissions mistake, you’re not supposed to be here.”  That is an actual fear, that that will happen. So keeping my head down and studying and writing papers was one thing, but speaking, presenting my research was a totally different thing because that felt like a real vulnerable moment, it felt like at any moment, any of those professors in the audience could come up and say, “Sorry, we were wrong. You need to leave… ”

BB: Yeah, you don’t have what it takes.

AC: It was another Amy, right?

BB: Yeah.

AC: Yeah, exactly.

BB: Oh God. So from Princeton, where did you go?

AC: So then my first job was at, I took a tenure-track job at Rutgers in psychology. I was there for a year, and I also had my son in my second year of grad school, which was really not following the prescription for what you are supposed to do at Princeton as a grad student, and so my nickname in grad school was Mama Cuddy, it felt like everybody… I would take him to class when I was TA and people would come to my office and ask for mom advice. So then I left, I taught at Rutgers, and then I got this call to come give a talk at Kellogg at the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern, and I didn’t understand that I was not savvy enough to know that that’s a sort of job interview, even though it was unspoken.

AC: And so I went out there and gave a talk and they offered me a job and I was like, “I’m not teaching at a business school,” but it ended up being a great experience. I was there for two years. And then the same thing happened with Harvard Business School, where they were like, “Would you come and give a talk?” And this time I was sort of like, “Hmmm, is this a talk talk or is this an interview?” And they then offered me a job, and so I spent nine years there on the tenure track, and the level of teaching was higher than I’ve seen anywhere, like you do not miss a day. You are absolutely there for your students, but you’re also in the Harvard tenure track and that’s pretty stressful. I then became the target of a pretty large-scale bullying campaign in academia, which is actually extremely common, academic bullying is very common. I’ll just say now that I did not feel unsupported by Harvard, it was a more general thing that was happening in my field, and I was also writing and had released Presence and that was doing well, and I loved speaking and I love…

BB: Big TED talk.

AC: Right, that was the beginning of the too much attention on me thing, because that did so much better than I expected it to, and just like you, I remember watching your talk and you’re talking about how you think like, “Oh, maybe 1,000 people will see this or something,” I felt the same way. And now we’re at 62 million people. It’s terrifying, and I wanted to hide under my bed, you know, after it came out. I didn’t know how to feel responsible for that many people, because so many people felt like I was speaking to them, just as they do with you. I’m sure you get so many messages from people saying, “I feel like you were telling my story or you were speaking to me,” and that’s a pretty big sense of responsibility.

BB: For sure.

AC: And I didn’t know how to deal with that, but I still wanted to stay in academia, but I really ultimately wanted to reach people, like the people that I grew up with. I wanted to reach people outside of the ivory tower. And I was really struggling with this pain of academia, the kind of nastiness that it can be, and what I really wanted to spend my time doing, and I will just briefly tell this story. I called you, and I remember this moment, it’s a flashbulb memory for me, I was in a parking lot, my son was playing soccer and I was waiting to pick him up and we talked on the phone, and I was sort of saying, “Do I want to go up for tenure or not?” It’s stressful to go up for tenure, you’ve got 20 people outside evaluating you and it brings more attention to you.

AC: And you finally said something like, “I don’t think the question is, ‘Are you going to get tenure or not,’ that’s not the question you should be asking. You should be asking whether you want it.” The way you said it is, it’s not whether you’ll get to the top of the ladder, it’s whether your ladder is up against the right building. And that moment changed my life. That was it. I knew at that moment, that was it. I was like, “I don’t want to go up for tenure, I want to leave. And it is my choice.” So thank you for that. I think about that moment many, many, many times.

BB: That’s a moment that I passed along from a lot of other wise people who have shared that with me, so we’ll just keep paying that forward.

AC: Good.

BB: Yeah, to the droves of people who are… Unfortunately, the bullying stuff was so serious and so gendered. And it’s the Henry Kissinger quote, “The politics and the academy are so vicious precisely because the stakes are so small.”

AC: Exactly.

BB: And I really saw over COVID droves of female scholars leaving universities.

AC: Yes.

BB: And it’s hard because I know before I left my tenure track position, I got pulled into a kind of like, you’re going to dean school. And so, in addition to going up for tenure, you’re going to go into the kind of the dean preparation track.

AC: Okay.

BB: And I was like, “No, can you see me in a suit with the university lapel pin?” Like, “No, that can’t be my thing. I just can’t do that.” And I remember someone telling me, “But how is it going to change?” And I said, “I don’t know, but I can’t martyr myself and my family.” And there are so many good leaders in higher education, but there is still so much bullshit.

AC: I know. I think people on the outside look in and say, “But aren’t you supposed to be the quote, unquote, smartest people?” Like, well, not so much.

BB: Yeah, there’s intellect, but there’s also with it, on equal footing, massive fragility around ego.

AC: Absolutely. You, I’m sure have also heard this, “But you’re a psychologist, how do these things happen among psychologists?” [laughter] And you’re like, “Oh, my gosh. Maybe they happen because… ” You probably know the term me search, they always say that psychologists don’t do research, they do me search. [laughter] They study the things that are wrong with them. I mean, I’m kind of joking around, but I certainly don’t think psychologists are less likely to behave badly in academia.

BB: No. I think there is ample empirical evidence that they can be as problematic as the rest of us.

AC: Completely agree.

BB: Okay, so I have to just stop and pause and say, you’re doing your thing now, you look as lit from within as I’ve ever seen. But how much of that is coming off the Grateful Dead tour?

[chuckle]

AC: A lot. [laughter]

BB: Tell us about you. Tell us about the love.

AC: It’s… Gosh, it’s my community, it’s my home, and it’s a traveling home. The music is so meaningful to me. It started for me in 1988, that’s when I got on the bus, sort of as people say.

BB: Yeah.

AC: And I never really got off, but Jerry Garcia died in ’95, and so, there was a long period of time when a lot of Deadheads my age were not doing much, but although, I always joke that we spent that time, we’re like, “Oh, I guess I have to go to grad school or something and make something of myself.” [laughter] Now we’re back, we’re like lawyers and doctors. It’s very funny to me like those Deadheads then what they’re doing now…

BB: Yeah.

AC: But still came back to it. It is this, I call it bounteous presence. So, stories that are timeless, that will be passed on and the living members of the Grateful Dead, they want those stories to be passed on, that’s their greatest wish is for the music to not die when they die. These are stories of the struggles and joys of life and death, and they speak to people, they’re just not all simple love stories. One of the most beautiful things I think about the Grateful Dead is that their lyricists, they’re considered to be part of the band. So, Robert Hunter and John Barlow were poets and they wrote lyrics and worked with Jerry Garcia and Bob Weir to write the music, and they were part of the band, and those lyrics are just… I mean, you could listen to them a thousand times and have a different interpretation each time. And Robert Hunter, who was just a mensch and died two years ago, whenever somebody said, “Well, what does it mean?” He always said, “It means what it means to you, because I’m writing it from my knowledge, from the books that I’ve read, from the experiences that I’ve had, but I would be taking something from you if I told you what it meant, because what it means to you is just as right as what it means to me.”

BB: It’s beautiful.

AC: By talking about in many ways the sort of mundane…

BB: Oh, yeah, the ordinary moments of our lives. Yeah.

AC: Moments. Exactly. And the beauty and fragility in those moments. The power of those moments. To call our attention to those also calls our attention to each other. And so, one of the things about the Grateful Dead is that they’ve never played the same set of songs twice at a live show. So, they’ve now played close to 3,000 shows, if you include the new iteration of the Dead, which is Dead and Company, and they’ve never played the same set list twice. There are hundreds of songs in their catalog, and so, when you go, you are always getting an experience that has never happened before and that will never happen again. I feel like people who are like, they listen to a recording they’re like, “Oh, they don’t sound so good.” I say, “You’ve got to go see them. You have to feel this and the jams in between.” Because they are so present with each other, the audience is present with each other, and the band is present with the audience, and so that’s what I call bounteous presence.

BB: Oh my God, it’s beautiful.

AC: And it is absolutely intoxicating. People think of it as like drugs and sloppiness, and it’s so not that.

BB: No, it reminds me of Emile Durkheim’s construct of collective effervescence.

AC: Yes, very much a related construct.

BB: Yeah.

AC: It is a shared sort of euphoria, but it brings out this incredible generosity. There’s a sort of norm that you never sell a ticket if you can’t go for above face value. You sell it for what you paid, or you give it away. And so, a lot of people will have their finger up, one finger, and that means I need a miracle, and a miracle is a free ticket, because there are plenty of young people there who can’t afford a ticket, so you miracle them. I got miracled many times when I was 17, 18, 19, but now I’m able to miracle people. So, it’s so much not about greed or getting all that you can, it is about sharing what’s there, so it’s very much an abundance mindset and not a scarcity mindset. Yes, I think Deadheads look pretty strange, they’re pretty colorful and a little bit messy looking, and when you first check into a hotel, people are like, “Uh, what are you people going to do?”

BB: Yeah.

AC: But by the end, by the next day, the staff say, “You’re the nicest people. You clean up after yourselves, you look us in the eye and thank us, you’re nice to us.” That’s what it’s about. And I have to say one time I was speaking in Chicago and I was all dressed up in my keynote speaking outfit, and I…

BB: Oh, yeah.

AC: But the Dead was playing their 50th anniversary final show. This was 2015, I know it’s 2021, and now there have been hundreds more, and I was going to that show, so I gave a talk in Chicago, going to the show in Chicago, but checked-in in my fancy dress. And it was a nice hotel, and I’m checking in, and I had stayed there before. And the guy checking me in leans forward, he goes, “I’m sorry about the riff-raff,” because the lobby was filled with Deadheads.

BB: Oh, God.

AC: And I leaned toward him and I whispered: “I am the riff-raff.” [laughter] So, I so want a t-shirt that says I am the riff-raff.

BB: I am the riff-raff. That is the best. [chuckle] Oh my God.

AC: Proudly.

BB: Proudly, yeah. And I can’t wait to get to your five songs, because I was really curious about which song from the Dead you’d pick or if they’d all be Dead songs and so, we’ll get there. Okay, let’s talk about this article. Shit, man.

AC: Yeah.

BB: Yeah, you could have called this article Shit, Man, [laughter] by Amy Cuddy and JillEllyn Riley, but it’s called, “Why This Stage of The Pandemic Makes Us So Anxious?” So let’s start with the good news. The June 14… On June 14th, as vaccinations were becoming widespread, Gallup classified 59.2% of Americans as thriving, based on our responses to a survey that asked them to evaluate our lives, you know? So, this is the highest score on that measure in 13 years. June of this year, optimism was through the roof.

AC: Yes.

BB: Then what happens? Walk us through.

AC: Well, it was through the roof because we felt like we were coming out of it. People were beginning to get vaccinated, summer was coming, and summer last year was a bit better than…

BB: Yeah.

AC: The rest of the last 18 months. People thought we were re-emerging, and so, they were excited about going out to eat with their friends and 4th of July and going to concerts and even reconnecting with clients face-to-face, and then the Delta variant. There were several things that happened. First, I think July 4th came and went and for better or for worse, July 4th in the US sort of, unofficially, marks the beginning of full-fledged summer. You’re now in summer.

BB: Yeah.

AC: Everyone’s out of school, it’s summer time. And I think people thought that would be the turning point, and it wasn’t. They didn’t feel as euphoric as they thought they would. So, that week I started to get texts and emails from friends saying, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me, I’m not… I’m more anxious” or “I’m more depressed.” And they felt they were alone like, “I’m supposed to be happy, right? Because we’re re-emerging.” I felt the same way, over lunch, I remember saying to my husband, like, “I just feel like we need to change something, something dramatic in our lives, like we need to move or get new jobs.” And he said, “I just feel like shutting down for a couple of weeks”. And that was what I was hearing from a lot of people.

BB: I was right there with you and totally around July 4th weekend. I was so ready for like, this demarcation line.

AC: Exactly, and the thing is, we never are going to have that with this, but we still felt that we might. And on top of this, we realized the uncertainty would continue. We’ve been living with uncertainty for more than a year, we had been already at that point, we thought we were getting some certainty and clarity, and we didn’t. And the Delta variant starts to creep up. I’m going to pause on that for a minute, but I think the first thing that was happening was what we call “affective forecasting errors,” in social psychology. This is a Dan Gilbert and Tim Wilson construct, and the evidence is that we’re very poor at predicting our future emotions around significant life events, good or bad. So, how good will you feel when your favorite sports team wins the championships? People think they’ll feel much better for much longer than they actually do.

AC: That’s an affective forecasting error, so you’re mis-forecasting your affect. But on the other side, we think that something bad that happens to us will feel much worse for much longer. So, on both ends, we’re not very good at predicting our emotions. So I think people really thought that they were going to feel euphoric, ecstatic around the 4th of July when they first started reconnecting and they didn’t feel that, and that was really disappointing and confusing. “I’ve been inside for a year plus, am I not supposed to be so happy to be out to be with my friends? Why do I not feel better? Why do I feel so muted or anxious?” The second, I think, was that lack of clarity, it became clearer and clearer that things were less and less clear, right?

BB: Yes.

AC: As the Delta variant emerged and differences in opinion about what the threat was and how to deal with it again became amplified. Workplaces that were saying, “You’re coming back to work,” physically started to reverse policy, at the same time…

BB: Yeah.

AC: Kids are supposed to go back to school, like, it was just so confusing. It was very clear that there was not going to be a victory day, a day when we all celebrated in the streets together and said, “Oh, it’s over.” We’re not going to have that day, and that is really hard for us and understandably, that’s a lot of uncertainty and that’s why we ended up calling it “pandemic flux syndrome,” because this is like constant flux that we’ve been in for now, almost 18 months.

BB: Oh my God, it is like I cannot take it. It is like, literally, just tell me what’s going to happen and stick to it, even if it’s shitty news. I can’t take the ups and downs. It is so… It’s so difficult.

AC: It is a lot, and that takes us to the third thing that’s happening, which is that our nervous systems are depleted.

BB: Surge capacity.

AC: Exactly. Talk about surge capacity, which is this sort of network of psychological and physiological systems that help us get through really acute crises. But they’re not meant to last 18 months. They get depleted. We can only stay in that state for so long. There’s a psychologist in Denmark named Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg, who studies this in a slightly different way, she says that crises have three phases, the emergency phase, and I’ll talk about what each of these is, the regression phase, and the rebuilding phase. The emergency phase is the surge capacity phase, that’s when the threat is acute.

BB: Yeah.

AC: We have shared goals, we’re on the same page. Our adrenaline is kicked in. We are going to fight this thing, we’re going to get through it, and many people in the first couple of months, actually felt that they were more productive and creative and energetic in a strange way, but that was surge capacity getting us through.

BB: And I think one of those variables that you just mentioned around surge capacity that I think deserves a pause, is that in the emergency phase, the nature of the immediacy of the crisis demands transcending difference, political difference, ideological difference.

AC: Yes.

BB: And as a Houstonian, it’s already… We’re in hurricane season, so our neighbors unfortunately are really struggling, because they got hit with Ida, but when we got hit with Harvey or Ike, there were Louisiana fishermen with MAGA hats, brought their boats from Louisiana and were rescuing neighbors with the liberals.  People, you know, hugging, crying together, there was a transcendent moment, because it was a short emergency adrenaline-driven, time constraint moment.

AC: That’s exactly right. And this felt different already, although to some extent, people did sort of at least acknowledge that there was a threat.

BB: Yes. Yes.

AC: And, I don’t think that we were able to totally transcend differences then, but there was a super ordinate goal.

BB: Yes.

AC: And quickly that kind of fell apart. We no longer had that shared sense of what we were fighting. I mean, it’s interesting, a lot of that work comes from research studies of combat soldiers, and in that first battle of a war, they’re in that emergency phase, they’re on surge capacity, they are a team, they are working together. They have a shared goal. Teams function really well in those moments. Good leaders operate really well. After the battle, the war continues, and then you’re in the in-between phase, where everything is uncertain, you don’t know what you’re supposed to do, you become withdrawn, you’re tired, you’re agitated, you’re tired of Zoom meetings, you know?

BB: For sure.

AC: In the beginning, people were having Zoom, and then by the third month, we’re like, “Aah, I can’t do that anymore.” So, that’s what happens in war time for combat soldiers as well, and then teams start to fall apart. So, it’s sort of surprising, maybe kind of counter-intuitive that when there’s less to do, teams fall apart.

BB: Yes.

AC: But that’s what began to happen with us in addition to just that nervousness and depletion. So then people… The regression phase is called that, because from a developmental psychology perspective, we are regressing toward things that make us feel more comfortable and safe. We’re kind of shutting down. We also feel powerless. In the beginning, we thought, maybe we have some control here, maybe we have some agency, maybe we can do something, and it quickly became clear that we weren’t sure what we could do, and we were at home and we lost a lot of power, personally, and we lost our sense of personal power on top of that, if that makes sense.

BB: Mm-hmm, it totally does.

AC: So, we had less choice, and then on top of that, we just started to feel less powerful, less vital, less able to be our best selves. That’s what happens, and it’s inevitable that we’re going to go into that regression phase, not everyone at the same time…

BB: Right.

AC: But societies at the aggregate level will go through that, and most people will experience it.

BB: Right.

AC: Now, eventually you want to get into rebuilding, and that doesn’t happen without effort. Now, I think we were moving toward rebuilding in June, and that’s where you see this 59.2% of people say that they’re optimistic about the present and the near future. That was that Gallup poll. And then by mid-July, a month later, when the Delta variant is creeping up, 62% of people said they were worried about the Delta variant, but 52% still said they felt optimistic. So you’ve got this weird ambivalence happening now, you know, are we moving toward rebuilding or are we not moving toward rebuilding?

BB: I remember that feeling. I remember asking my husband, because I just lay so much at his feet, because he’s a physician, so I was like, “Is it going to be over or is it going to be… Are the vaccines going to be good? I mean, we’re done, right? This is good, we’re going to be good for September, back to school?” I just… It was like, I was like a train chugging toward rebuilding right out of regression.

AC: Yes.

BB: Like, chugga, chugga, chugga. And then all of a sudden the tracks are broken, I don’t understand what’s happening, I can’t decide which way to go, and then I really started personally vacillating between… It’s about probably about the time your article came out, vacillating between anxiety and depression, like just coming out of my skin, but then also just wanting to go to sleep.

AC: That’s and I too vacillated, because I experienced both of those things, talking to other clinical psychologists and psychotherapists, I started to hear that people who tended toward anxiety were feeling more anxious in July than they were months earlier, and people who tended toward depression were feeling more depressed. But along with that came a desire to escape. So for anxious people or people experiencing anxiety they wanted to drastically change something about their lives, like, we have to move, we have to… Like, my co-author, JillEllyn Riley said she was going to become a doula. She was like, I’m not a writer, I’m going to be a doula and swaddle babies for the rest of my life. Meanwhile, I sort of wanted to get under a weighted blanket and listen to Grateful Dead bootlegs endlessly and just sort of shut down. So the interesting thing is both of those instincts are about escape from a threat that we feel we can’t control. So changing something about our lives that’s getting away from the threat, shutting down is getting away from the threat. So they’re actually very, very similar responses that make perfect sense.

BB: It’s so funny because I just read an article, I don’t know if it was in the New York Times or on Fox that said the need for tattoo artists are at an all-time high, that the lines and the reservations just to get tattoos right now, like you can’t buy a mobile home right now. People are tapping out, we’re in serious regression slash reinvention mode, like escaping.

AC: And you see people picking up and moving across the country and being like, “I’m going to be a professional mountain bicyclist now.” Just like you also can’t get a bike, by the way, a bicycle.

BB: You cannot get a bike.

AC: It is another one of these weird things that you can’t get. And also there’s this mass… What are they calling it? The great resignation. What are they calling…

BB: Oh, yes.

AC: Or what are they calling that? Something like that.

BB: That they quit, yeah.

AC: People are leaving their jobs without another job lined up. They’re just like, “I’m going to do something different.” And how do we deal with that? That’s another thing that’s happening right now on the depressive side, the desire to shut down, it’s not that people are feeling that they want to be gone forever, they just would like to turn off for a while. Like, wake me up when it’s over.

BB: Yeah, just turn off the world for a little bit.

AC: Exactly.

[music]

BB: Let me ask you two questions, because I thought this was really interesting because I’ve experienced both of these to certain degrees, but I’ve had friends that have really experienced one or the other. What about the struggle that some people are feeling because they feel some guilt and shame about COVID really working for them. Not COVID, but the quarantining really working for them. And then the other question is people feeling kind of guilt and shame around getting back together after a year or 18 months with people that they’ve missed, and it being a real let down.

AC: Let me add to that last one, guilt and shame about getting together and now, should we get together? Even if we’re vaccinated and we’re following all the right rules, are we supposed to, are we not supposed to? But that’s such an important part of it. So I spoke a lot with Lori Gottlieb, who wrote Maybe You Should Talk To Someone, which I see on your shelf there.

BB: Yeah, it’s a great book.

AC: Who’s wonderful, a great psychotherapist and a friend. And I said, what’s happening with your clients? And she said, a lot of them feel guilty because routines they developed, like taking walks in the middle of the day, spending more time with their kids, just having less social stimulation worked for them. So they had really become attached to some routines that they now realized they were going to have to let go of. And they simultaneously felt sad that that was happening and guilty because things were getting better and fewer people were dying, so they feel bad that they’re sad to be through this when people are doing better physically.

AC: So there’s this sort of guilt and shame around that, and then this confusion around not feeling what we think we should feel when we do socialize, like guilt about that. But I complained for a year about not seeing people and now I’m seeing people and I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to, and I feel kind of awkward or should I even be doing these things? I’m not sure what I should be doing. There’s a lot of guilt and shame. And I say both guilt and shame, because I think there’s a lot of survivor’s guilt as well, those things are preventing people from talking about how they feel, and so we’re all quiet about this. There’s not a lot of discussion. People who write to me say they feel like they’re the only one feeling this, but they’re not.

BB: Yeah. Same.

AC: And so that lack of discussion is really unfortunate because if we’re not talking about it, we’re not able to help each other and ourselves.

BB: And not yeah, we’re not normalizing it. And I think we also get into something I write about a lot, which is comparative suffering, this idea that…

AC: Yes.

BB: My daughter who’s starting graduate school this semester, or my son who’s in high school saying we don’t want to feel bad that we’re disappointed and kind of grieving the loss of things that we were looking forward to, because people are actually dying. And I’m like, you know what? You get to own that grief and that disappointment. And you not owning how you’re feeling just makes you less capable for compassion, empathy towards people who have things that are really difficult too that are going on. So compassion, empathy, not finite things. Not pizzas, right?

AC: Absolutely.

BB: We don’t have eight slices that we have to delegate appropriately based on ranking suffering. We can pull that out for everyone. What do you recommend right now, besides going… Like, I may join you on the road with the Grateful Dead.

AC: You should do that for sure, but…

BB: Yeah. But…

AC: And everyone should, I’m inviting everyone, but other than that, I think first for people just to hear, this seems simple, but you’re not alone, right? I promise you, you are not alone. Other people are experiencing that, it may not look exactly the same way, like the manifestation of it might be slightly different, but others are feeling this. And it’s okay for you to talk about it. Second, it is normal, it’s a normal human response, we’re exhausted, we’ve gone through this bizarre global shared experience that’s also very idiosyncratic to individuals, to different groups of people in different places, but it’s still a shared humanitarian crisis at a global scale that many of us never lived through something like that. So Merete Wedell-Wedellsborg who studies these phases of crises says, you have to accept that this is normal for you to feel this way and that’s okay. So stop judging yourself. It’s not the anxiety, it’s the anxiety about the anxiety.

BB: Oh, the meta anxiety, yes.

AC: It’s not the depression… Exactly. It’s the depression about the depression, right?

BB: For sure.

AC: So allow yourself to feel it. Channeling Susan David, negative emotions aren’t necessarily negative emotions, there’s a subjectivity to it. Yes, it’s hard, but it’s also informative and it’s normal. I think that’s really important. I think, on a hopeful note, we have to remember that we are still psychologically pretty resilient. So there’s a paper, an Atlantic article by Lara Aknin, Jamil Zaki and Liz Dunn from June, so this is before Delta variant but still, they have looked at many sets of data around the world and saw that people were actually doing pretty well. So we have these psychological immune systems that have gotten us through in the past and will get us through now. So yes, it’s going to be difficult, but we are very likely to re-emerge and adapt and be basically okay.

AC: I want to say, I don’t want to neglect the reality that this experience is very different for different people based on their income, based on what’s available to them. If you have the luxury to leave a job and be okay financially, that’s not the experience that many other frontline workers are experiencing, people who are immigrants and working jobs that they can’t leave even for an hour without fearing losing. There are many people who are in powerless positions. And for them, the experience is different and that psychological immune system for them is really being tested, and I think we need to be aware of that. So looking at sort of average data is a little bit dangerous because people are having very different experiences.

AC: So I think those are three things to keep in mind that we will adapt. Also, there’s this concept of adapting to the reality of flux. So there’s a new book called Flux by a friend and writer named April Rinne, and she talks about how we actually need to adapt to flux as a kind of constant state, that things are going to be unpredictable. And rather than seeing it as a bug in the system, we see it as reality. So what do we do with that, what do we do with the reality that we’re going to be in flux for a long time? I think that’s an important thing to consider, and I don’t have all the answers there, but to develop a kind of flux mindset. And then back to that “affect of forecasting” piece, I said we’re really poor at predicting how good we’ll feel after a positive event, but we’re also really poor at predicting how bad we’ll feel after a negative event. So the same thing that’s not allowing us to feel as happy as we think we should feel is also causing us to think we’re going to feel worse for longer than we probably will.

BB: Yeah. Boosting the anticipatory anxiety.

AC: Exactly. And so I think it’s very important to remember that even if the future looks very different, we will probably return mostly to a kind of baseline level of subjective well-being. That said, I think people feel very powerless still, they feel kind of loss of autonomy, a loss of agency. And this is just, I feel it’s important to say to employers, to leaders, to people who are making decisions about how we return to work, to remember that people really need the restoration of that sense of power and agency and to as much as possible give people some flexibility, to make choices about how they return to work, because this has also been a time of self-reflection.

BB: Mm-hmm.

AC: No one should feel guilty about that. We’ve learned about ourselves, we’ve learned what works for us and what doesn’t work for us. And so I want people who are making decisions about how we return to work, to allow people to take what they’ve learned about themselves and apply it, because what we know is that people work better when they’re working in ways that work for them as individuals. So people who want to go back to work physically, feel like you can’t possibly do good work from home, but the evidence just doesn’t support that. Some people do great work from home, some people do great work when they’re together. So we’re going to have to find a way that is accommodating to what people have learned about themselves through this experience.

BB: Yeah, we let our team decide how we’re going to come back.

AC: I love that.

BB: Yeah, it was really great. We did some surveys, we polled, we had conversations. So when we come back, we’re going to come back only partially, so we’re going to do a hybrid model that they actually was really intentional. It wasn’t just a, “Oh shit, I don’t know what to do, let me pick the hybrid model.” It was really intentional, they talked about what days they wanted to be in, what days they didn’t, what we would do if it was different, and then we’re reassessing in six months. So I think it’s that sense of agency and embedding what they’ve learned in a meaningful way is so huge. All right, let’s get to the hardest part of this whole thing, this has been so helpful and normalizing. I’m really grateful, Amy, thank you.

AC: Thank you.

BB: You ready for the rapid fire?

AC: Okay.

BB: Fill in the blank for me. Vulnerability is…

AC: Misunderstood.

BB: You’re called to be very brave but your fear is real, you can feel it in the back of your throat, what is the very first thing you do?

AC: I think about how I want people to describe me after I’ve died, I know it’s…

BB: I love that. No, it’s amazing. What is something people often get wrong about you?

AC: They think that I’ve sort of planned this life where I end up at Harvard and I’m fancy, and I’m actually just like a farm girl, working class kid who’s a hippie on roller skates.

[chuckle]

BB: I can vouch for all of that. Okay, last TV show that you binged and loved.

AC: Ted Lasso.

BB: Okay, wait. Let’s just stop here for a second. Did you see your shout out?

AC: Yes. Oh God, I cried, I cried, and the… I make myself big, I could not believe… I love that show so much and I know how much you love it too, and I’ve listened to your interview with those guys. The first time I watched Ted Lasso, I was crying at the end. And I turned to my husband and I said, I love Ted Lasso. And he turns to me, and he goes, that’s because you are Ted Lasso. And I loved that. And I was like, “Oh my God, I am Ted Lasso.” My husband’s Australian. So he’s like, that is the American that you are. So of course, you love him, he said, so that means you’ve good self-esteem, which I thought was great, but…

BB: That’s awesome.

AC: Yes, yes, I saw the episode and then Nate doing it in the bathroom and I just… My heart was tickled.

BB: I love it.

AC: It was just beautiful.

BB: I love it. My husband said you love Ted Lasso because you’re Roy Kent. I was like, [laughter] “That’s true.”

AC: That’s funny because I thought you were Ted Lasso too, but I do love Roy.

BB: No, I’m here, I’m there, I’m fucking everywhere, Brené Brown, yeah.

AC: Oh, I love it. I love it.

BB: Yeah, no, if I had to be one of the characters, I would definitely be Roy Kent. Okay, that’s something people often get wrong about me. All right, favorite movie? I know there’s a lot, but if one.

AC: This was easy. Almost Famous. I have watched it, I don’t know, 200 times, we own it, my son and I can just go through the entire script together, we have so many Almost Famous lines that we share with each other, I just… I don’t know, it captures to me the experience of following the Dead so perfectly.

BB: Yeah, “the only true currency in this bankrupt world is what you say to someone when you’re being uncool.”

AC: When you’re uncool, yeah, exactly.

BB: Yes, it’s one of my favorites too. Okay.

AC: That’s a great line.

BB: It’s just my favorite line. There’s so many from that movie though. Okay, favorite… Oh no, no, no, a concert that you’ll never forget.

AC: Oh jeez, okay, so I know that you asked this, and so I decided to… Because I’ve seen the Dead 150 times, I probably see 50 live shows a year. Other bands as well. So I’m going to choose a moment, a Dead moment that was recent, I had waited… For me emerging from the pandemic was going to be seeing them live again, right? And so I’ve seen them seven times in the last week and a half, but at one of the shows in Philadelphia last weekend, and it was raining, there was rain, but it was just like an incredibly beautiful night, and they started playing one of my favorite songs, and a year ago when things got shut down and I knew it was going to be a long time before I saw them again, I knew that it wasn’t just seeing them again, it was when they started this song that I would allow myself to sort of open up and be liberated, and they started playing this song, “Brokedown Palace” and I just… My jaw dropped. It’s funny, my friend was with me and I didn’t even realize she was taking a video of me, and I’m like, jaw on the floor, crying, just holding my hands over my heart. So right now, that’s the one, and that was only a week ago, and it was just, it was magical.

BB: I wish everyone that moment.

AC: Me too.

BB: Yeah, wherever you need to find that moment, find that moment, put your hands over your heart.

AC: Absolutely.

BB: Cry a little bit, lean in.

AC: Exactly.

BB: Yeah. Okay, favorite meal.

AC: Oh, cheese fries. That’s an easy one. Like I mean, Velveeta cheese fries and double fried, like the fries that got left in the tray and went down three times in the oil, and then with the Velveeta on top, that’s it.

BB: God dang, that sounds good. Okay, what’s on your nightstand?

AC: Too much stuff, books, knicks knacks, speaker, little family pictures, just things that I need to look at before I go to bed and when I wake up in the morning that remind me of who I am.

BB: A snapshot of an ordinary moment in your life that gives you real joy.

AC: I love to make breakfast for my husband and son, I don’t know, I love to make them breakfast and I know this is so strange, eggs on toast, sunny side up, they pick up the toast and eat the egg and bite into it and just that first bite, there’s so much pleasure. There’s like just even seeing the yolk run down the toast, I take pictures of my husband and son eating breakfast, I love making breakfast for them. So that’s a really mundane moment, but that is one of the most beautiful parts of my life.

BB: I love it. Okay, tell me one thing that you’re deeply grateful for right now.

AC: I’m really glad to be talking to you. I’m sorry…

BB: Me too.

AC: That sounds so corny but it…

BB: No, no.

AC: I know that we get each other and this makes me so happy right now. And I’m here right now.

BB: Me too. Yeah. All right, you gave us five songs for your mini mix tape. Before I even read them, let me just tell you that must have been hard as hell for you.

AC: It was like I knew that you ask people that, and so I had started thinking about it just because I thought, “What would I ever say?” And it’s like, a thousand songs like how do I possibly do this? And your people will know that there were a million emails exchanged about this, because what happened is I started writing essays for each one because I thought, “I’ll submit an essay.” And I was like, “When’s the latest that I can submit?” And they’re like, “Well, can you please get them in by, at this time?” And I’m like, “But I’ve only written one essay so far.” Like, “You just need to send the song names.” So that’s how I felt about that. All right, so.

BB: All right, let’s do it. “Carey” by Joni Mitchell. “Brokedown Palace” by the Grateful Dead. “Fvck. I Luv U” by Fall Line. “A Change Is Gonna Come” by Sam Cooke and “Bright As Yellow” by the Innocence Mission. In one sentence, what does this mini mix tape say about you, Amy Cuddy?

AC: Music animates every moment of my life, and I include birth and death and all of the in-between in that, and that’s what this mix does.

BB: I have so enjoyed our time together.

AC: Thank you. Me too, very much. I’m sorry, I’m choked up thinking about all of these songs and all of this, so thank you so much.

BB: Oh, I wanted to ask you a question. I wanted you to do… You know how there’s like on BuzzFeed, they have those which toaster strudel are you, or which character are you? What do you think it says about me that my favorite two songs by The Grateful Dead are “It Must Have Been the Roses” and “Scarlet Begonias?”

AC: Oh well, there’s obviously a flower theme there.

BB: There’s a flower theme for sure, but what does that say?

AC: Well, they’re such different songs.

BB: What is the vibe of those songs at the concert. Do they ever play them?

AC: Oh yeah, “It Must Have Been the Roses” is such a sweet… It’s funny, I picture it sort of like in a field in the country with having a piece of sort of like wheat between your teeth. There’s a real simple, beautiful romance of that song, that’s just pure and almost naïve and beautiful. I mean, “Scarlet Begonias” is so much about just absolutely embracing and celebrating music fully without apology, with abandon. That’s what that song is about.

BB: Yes. Yes, yes. Okay.

AC: So, both of those are about giving in to it. Giving in to it. “It Must Have Been the Roses,” it just like I had to go with it.

BB: Giving in to it. I will also say for the record publicly, for the first time, that one of my favorite songs of all time is “The Weight” by The Band, and The Grateful Dead is the only band that I will allow to cover that song.

AC: So “The Weight” is in my top five, but my husband said, “You can’t say it, because I bet it’s one of hers too, and there will be too many commonalities.” “The Weight” is just one of the greatest songs ever written.

BB: It’s one of the yeah, greatest songs ever written.

AC: It’s just one of the greatest songs ever written. My friend calls it a molasses song. It feels like molasses, like sweet and slowly dripping down, I don’t know, I just, it’s an amazing song and story.

BB: And do you like it better by the Dead or by The Band?

AC: I love the version from The Last Waltz, with so many people coming in.

BB: Okay. Yeah. Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah.

AC: That’s just an amazing version, so I like it better by The Band, but I do love when the Dead cover it as well.

BB: All right, sister, this has been so fun. Thank you so much for spending this time with us, and thank you for normalizing this kind of shit show of emotions. It’s like my shirt is stuck on the barbed wire fence between regression and recovery, and I need to slow down, like the more you tear at it, the worst it gets, I need to slow down and be thoughtful and un-hook myself a little.

AC: Exactly, yeah, I keep kind of running forward and then I get pulled back because the shirt’s still caught, so exactly.

BB: Yes. Yes, yeah, and so I just need to know. This is real. I’m not nuts.

AC: You are absolutely not. And to the rest of you, you are not either.

BB: All right, Roy Kent signing off to Ted Lasso.

AC: Ted Lasso signing off to Roy Kent.

[laughter]

BB: Bye.

AC: Bye.

[music]

BB: I’m so glad y’all got to meet Amy, and I’m so glad you got to get to know who she is, what she’s about, and all the incredible things she has to offer to us around her work. She is a real contributor and, man, this new level of pandemic anxiety, I think this article, and the way Amy breaks it down to several real, evidence-based reasons why things feel so hard and scary right now. You can find Amy’s book Presence wherever you like to buy books, we love our indie booksellers, and watch out for her next book that she’s writing, Bullies, Bystanders and Bravehearts coming out soon. You can find Amy on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook, and you can get all of those links on our episode page on brenebrown.com. Her website is amycuddy.com and we will put a link to the Washington Post article on the episode page. Don’t forget that every episode of Unlocking Us has an episode page on Brené Brown where you can get the resources, downloads and transcripts. We are happy to be back. I really missed y’all, and I will see you here on Spotify for Unlocking Us and for Dare to Lead. Okay y’all, stay awkward, brave and kind. See you next week right here on Spotify.

[music]

BB: The Dare to Lead podcast is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown, produced by Max Cutler, Kristen Acevedo, Carleigh Madden and Tristan McNeil and by Weird Lucy Productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil and the music is by The Suffers.

[music]

© 2021 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Brown, B. (Host). (2021, September 13). Brené with Amy Cuddy on Pandemic Flux Syndrome. [Audio podcast episode]. In Dare to Lead with Brené Brown. Parcast Network. https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-amy-cuddy-on-pandemic-flux-syndrome/