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On this episode of Unlocking Us

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned over the past, maybe, 50 years, but specifically, research-wise, over the past 25, it’s that every time we think we’re completely alone in struggle, that is exactly when we need to remember that the human experience is never a singular experience. I’m sharing this reflection in the hopes that it resonates with some and to remind myself that I’m not alone. I’m glad you’re here.

About the guest

Brené Brown

Dr. Brené Brown is a research professor at the University of Houston, where she holds the Huffington Foundation Endowed Chair at the Graduate College of Social Work. She also holds the position of visiting professor in management at the University of Texas at Austin McCombs School of Business.

Brené has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. She is the author of six #1 New York Times bestsellers and is the host of two award-winning podcasts, Unlocking Us and Dare to Lead.

Brené’s books have been translated into more than 30 languages, and her titles include Atlas of the HeartDare to Lead, Braving the Wilderness, Rising Strong, Daring Greatly, and The Gifts of Imperfection. With Tarana Burke, she co-edited the bestselling anthology You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience.

Brené’s TED talk on the Power of Vulnerability is one of the top five most-viewed TED talks in the world, with over 60 million views. Brené is the first researcher to have a filmed lecture on Netflix, and in March 2022, she launched a new show on HBO Max that focuses on her latest book, Atlas of the Heart.

Brené spends most of her time working in organizations around the world, helping develop braver leaders and more courageous cultures.

She lives in Houston, Texas, with her husband, Steve. They have two children, Ellen and Charlie, and a weird Bichon named Lucy.

Show notes

Brené on FFTspodcast episode on Unlocking Us

You Are Your Best Thing: Vulnerability, Shame Resilience, and the Black Experience, by Tarana Burke and Brené Brown

Atlas of the Heart: Mapping Meaningful Connection and the Language of Human Experience, by Brené Brown

“Between stimulus and response lies a space. In that space lie our freedom and power to choose a response. In our response lies our growth and our happiness.” —Viktor Frankl

Martin Seligman

Martin Seligman’s Concepts of Permanence, Pervasiveness, and Personalization (download)


Brené Brown: Hi everyone, I’m Brené Brown, and this is Unlocking Us. Whew, this is the first podcast back from my sabbatical, and I’ve got a lot to share with you. I’m going to keep it very honest and real, and tell you what the process has been for me. One thing that I’ve learned over the last, I don’t know, maybe 50 years, but specifically research-wise, over the last 25, is that every time we think we’re completely alone and we’re in a struggle and we’re the only person things are happening to, is exactly when we need to remember that the human experience is never a singular experience, and so, I’m going to share with you in hopes that it resonates with some and that I remind myself that I’m not alone, and it’s a reminder for y’all that you’re not alone either. I will tell you that my two-word check-in for the sabbatical is grief and renewal, and I’m glad you’re here.

BB: Alright, so I’ll tell you a story first and then, that’ll set us up… You know me. One thing that has not changed, I am a fan of the metaphor, I am a fan of the analogy. That should be my epitaph, maybe “She lived and died by the metaphor”. I was playing pickle ball, of course, here’s the good news from this sabbatical, I played 150-something hours of pickle ball over the summer, and it was not just fun, it was really important for me and good and joyful, but I was playing pickle ball with a friend of mine, John, and for some reason, the topic of vertigo came up, and he said, “Yeah, I’ve never had vertigo. I don’t… I do heights fine.” And he said, “Well, there was one weird exception.” He said, “One time when I was in Ireland, I went to go see these famous cliffs, and when I got there, it was like, ‘What the hell?’ There’s no tourist area. Don’t go beyond here. There was no railing. There were just these sheer, beautiful cliffs, and if you got close enough to the edge, you knew very quickly that if for some reason you stepped over or you got pushed over or you fell over, you would die. They were just sheer, gorgeous, stunning cliffs.”

BB: And he said, “It was the first time that I really felt kind of vertigo and dizzy and a lack of control because it was so windy and I kept thinking, ‘Man, if the wind hits me just right, I’m going over.” And so, I love this story because I think the story leading up to the sabbatical is a story of getting right to the edge, feeling very shaky and unsure, and a little dizzy, and then a very unexpected wind pushing me over and a really hard, long fall and an even harder crash. And so, let’s work with that metaphor. So, let me tell you how I got to the edge of the cliff. And those steps were universal steps for a lot of us, so in November of 2019, things were going pretty well. I was really looking forward to a bucket list trip that I had with Ellen. I’m a sucker for all things UK, I don’t know why, but British mysteries… It is kind of weird that I like both seeing people meet with terrible ends and British mysteries, and then my favorite DI is solving them and like the Christmas lights of London. I really wanted to do this trip with Ellen, where we would go to London for a week and do the Christmas carol sing along.

BB: Is there anything better than that? I don’t think so. So, on December 1st, my mom got really sick, and the kind of really sick that re-organizes your life and our family’s lives, and she went into the hospital for what was supposed to be a couple of days, it ended up being six or seven weeks, plus a week at Tier, which is a rehab facility here, which is amazing, and she never went home. And she went into assisted living, and it was really shocking because maybe five or six months prior to this, she was an accountant and working full-time and great. And things were kind of changing a little bit, but we weren’t sure why, and then the physical illness revealed a lot of other diagnoses that were… I guess in a word, heartbreaking, I think heartbreaking is probably the word. So that really up-ended our lives and our family, and my sisters and I have a lot of skills, a lot of… Thousands of hours of therapy collectively, so we were able to lean into that and do a lot of the “I hate you and I hate everybody, and I can’t talk to you, no, I hate you more,” as we worked our way through this.

BB: And so, as we’re working through this, I have an event at UT Austin that’s really fun. I do some work with NASA in February, I think, of that year. Maybe early March, I can’t remember the timeline, but two of my colleagues get really sick and we don’t know what’s happening, and then we do know what’s happening, and it’s COVID, and my mom is in her first week of assisted living when COVID hits and it’s ravaging nursing homes on the East Coast, you know how that kind of move through the wave, and so we get her out and we make a camp, we’re all together, and that’s beautiful and frickin’ homicidal. And we lose 75% of our revenue for our company in four days because we were just at a cycle in our organization where we were coming off a book and we were heavily around speaking, and so that gets super scary for me because I’m thinking…

BB: Everybody is going to keep their jobs. I’m not going to let this happen because you know, it’s insurance and your kids and people’s kids are our insurance. And so luckily I’d been doing work with a company in a Texas company. That’s like one of my favorite companies in the world, which I can’t name, but they have this amazing kind of forecasting futuring strategic planning arm within the company. And they had had their eyes on Wuhan for months, because for them it’s a supply chain, life or death issue to understand what’s happening. And I had heard about it from them and understood. So, I had teed up in January. I wonder if we’re two events focused. I wonder if we should think about podcasting. It’s been on our mind for years, but it’s never been the right time. I want to contribute something meaningful. I just don’t want to contribute more noise.

BB: Maybe this is the right time we diversify our revenue streams. And so we had secured a podcast deal and it was going to launch at South by Southwest in March, but it launched instead in Charlie’s Closet and it was hard and y’all were with me and it was beautiful and it was real. And it was like, shit, here we are, and fucking first times, and FFTs was the first podcast. And we just talked about life and we talked about life together in community. And I’m talking about y’all, through the pandemic, through George Floyd’s murder, through the beginning of a racial reckoning that I hope stays strong and is staying strong, but tons of work to do. So on podcasting from the closet, we’re still trying to understand how to care give for my mom and my dad gets really sick. And my parents are divorced and that is another different type, but another very, very heartbreaking, rearranging kind of just devastation really for my family.

BB: And I don’t have to paint the picture for most of y’all because it’s what you were living through. My kids were struggling. I had a daughter who… Ellen was a senior, no classes. Charlie was starting high school. They’re both isolated. All the norms are gone, difficult, difficult season in my marriage because of just the stressors. And every conversation becomes, what’s safe for the kids to do and what’s the balance between physical health exposure and mental health needs. And we disagree and somehow that gets elevated to, I don’t even understand why we’re married because we clearly have completely different values [chuckle] It’s just, everything is hard. And I’m barely holding on. And work wise, I’m working 60, 70 hours a week. In that period of time, we launched both podcasts. I’m an open-source podcast and it’s getting very difficult for me to read ads because our inclusion exclusion list for what ads will do [laughter] is as long as my arm, because that’s my upbringing.

BB: As a social worker, you can’t even do grand rounds or something with other professionals without signing non-disclosure media releases. It’s just one of those things. I don’t know who to back and who not. I can’t take on water for other companies just to be honest with you because I don’t know. And in the open podcasting distribution world at that time, podcasters had to read their own ads. And so, I make a move to Spotify because it’s an exclusive platform. There’s an opportunity for producer-read ads, which feels better for me. So, we make that move. Now we have two podcasts and Tarana and I decided to do You Are Your Best Thing, the anthology on shame and vulnerability and the black experience, emotional hard book, we’re both working on other books, because I’m still under deadline for Atlas of the Heart. She’s under deadline for her memoir.

BB: And that’s taking a toll and then I’m doing the HBO special, which is how do we reach out to a different audience and how do we meet people where they are, which is not in gathering anymore. And I really missed people. I missed y’all, I missed being in front of an audience because I’m a teacher. I’m working on Atlas of the Heart. It’s just, it’s busy. And it’s hard and it’s personally… I don’t like to use the word devastating and heartbroken. I know I sound quivery, but it’s just, it was hard. And I was struggling to do it all and felt an enormous amount of pressure. And I was up against… I was on the edge of the cliff, and it was scary and it was beautiful because I was connecting with y’all in a lot of different ways.

BB: And then I decided to pause the podcast because I had concerns about the platform’s responsibility around misinformation. I wanted to understand it better. I thought a pause was a responsible way to do it because it wasn’t a, I’m pulling everything because I didn’t understand everything. And then one of the things that we talk about this community in our work is, shit man, you have got to pause and learn more. You know, it’s back to that… There is a space between stimulus and response and in that space is choice and in choice is power and freedom. And my recovery is about that space. And so I just push pause. And when I push pause, all hell broke loose. And as I tried to navigate what decisions I was going to make and what decisions I was allowed to make, because there were legal contractual things, you know, I just… I had limits.

BB: There was, you know, Cancel Brené Brown was trending for a couple of days on Twitter, and we reached out to people and said, what’s going on? And they’re like some of this is real but you have fallen inside of the sights of the robots too, like you’re under attack. And I had friends who are therapists call and say, “Jesus, we’re worried. Are you reading the comments? You can’t read the comments. What you’re doing seems smart and thoughtful, but you are on the receiving end of an enormous amount of hate and cruelty.” But yet, I’m reading them, and I’m having to do things like pull the people whose job it is to moderate comments off, because they’re coming to their managers and saying, “I’m traumatized, I can’t take anymore.” It was just hard. And I keep using the word hard and I’m trying to think of a better word. It was painful. It was… I was in deep shame, because it’s not the critic who counts, it’s… I’m the person who don’t care what other people think. But I’m also human.

BB: And it’s hard because in order for me to be good at my work I walk through the world with all my receptors open. And I understand there were a lot of really cruel, horrible people in the comments, and when you have 12 or 13 million people across social media following you, you forget that your community is in there. And I know that y’all were in there, and I know that my community, this community, our community of awkward, brave and kind people never has been an easy community. It has been a community that calls me out on things, that holds me accountable things, that says, Hey, blind spot-on privilege. It’s been a community that says, You forgot the literature review here, I think you’re making a leap. But it’s been a community that I’ve trusted and that I care deeply for, and have relied on, because you have shaped the work. You can’t read a book by me and not see where I reference this community. I say, Hey, I need sad movies, what do think? I say, Hey, I got called out by a community member on this and they were right. And so, it’s not a… When I say it’s a community that I trust and care about and there’s a mutuality of respect, I don’t mean it’s a Yes community, I mean, it’s a community of people who take responsibility for being at the table.

BB: And I lost y’all. And I started to just see the mean-fulness and the hateful-ness. And I think about Martin Seligman’s work, he’s a psychologist who has studied how people deal with setbacks and failures and hard times, and he talks about the three Ps, personalizing, pervasiveness and permanence. And I think one of the things that happened to me, that wind for me going off the cliff, metaphorically, what feeling broken at the bottom is, are these three Ps. The personalization. This comment section is not a reflection of the divisive work you’re paying out on other people world. This is about me. Like, I’m not good. I’m not a good person. My work’s not good. It’s personalized. Pervasiveness: this is not a social media problem, this is every facet of my life. I don’t trust anyone. Everyone’s gone that I can lean into. And then also permanence; this is not a reflection of the shit world that we’re in right now, this is a permanent thing. And so, to me being broken at the bottom meant really feeling the personalization of everything. And the attacks sometimes, doing my own work about it. Number one enneagram, Be a good ethical person. You have no idea how big that is for me. Like I always am trying…

BB: I don’t do the right thing all the time, but I’m always trying to do the right thing. So when the comments are, You’re a liar and a cheater, and you just care about the money from Spotify, that penetrates my heart. And not in a Poor Me way, but in a, Boy, I’ve got work to do around that. I need to know that I’m doing the right thing, I don’t need to tell the world I think I’m doing the right thing. And that’s the lesson for all of us. That’s the lesson for all of us. Making moral and ethical decisions in what feels like an immoral and unethical world sometimes, and not getting credit for them, but doing them because that’s who you are. That’s a big learning for me in this. And, again, I don’t do the right thing all the time. Everybody’s ethics are different, but I have to live up to my own. And so that, You’ve disappointed me; those kind of comments… I just… They were the wind that pushed me over the cliff into that personalization, pervasiveness and permanence.


BB: So, when I went into the sabbatical, I went out. I didn’t walk back from the edge of the cliff and say, I’m going to go sabbatical and take some time. I was crumpled up on the bottom. And I think my expectations were unrealistic. I thought it was going to be like when I normally take a few days off and I get rest and I feel good, and I’ve got a million creative ideas. I think I’ve spent the first, I don’t know, nine or 10 weeks worried if I’d ever want to come back to work again, if I loved my work, if I cared about my work, if I could ever do my work again and feel safe. It was hard. The only thing that it felt kind of similar to it was the concussion. When I got the concussion before Braving the Wilderness, I got scared and had to go see a specialist, a psychologist that works in concussion, ‘because I got scared. Like, what if I can never think again, and that’s what I do for a living. So I kind of felt like that. Then I had this call with someone that I really love and trust, and he said…

BB: “Yeah, I thought it would be like this for you.” And I said, “What the… What the hell? Why didn’t you tell me?” And he goes, “It wouldn’t have been helpful.” And he said… Speaking from experience of 90 days of recovery, for his own recovery work, he said, “At the end of 90 days, I thought, new lease on life, new path, clear vision. Let’s go. But really, I looked back at the end of 90 days and thought, A, I’m going to need some more help in time. And B, I’ve spent 90 days shaking the shit out of trees, and the success for me at the end of 90 days is I’m in a field and all the shit’s out of the trees now and I can see it.” And I was like, “Wow, that’s a shit ass way to spend 90 days, shaking shit out of trees.” But that’s exactly what happened. Every time I try to work, I said, “No, your work is not to work.” And I was just bumping into trees. And the recovery metaphor was super helpful for me, because… It’s what I know.

BB: I have 26 years, and I know that creating the space between stimulus and response is my recovery work, because I grew up in a house where it was stimulus response, stimulus response, stimulus response. No choice, no power, no freedom. And the response was self-protection. And I think in the sabbatical, I’m still in a place where the shit’s out of the trees, I see it. But what I see is like that view before you go off the cliff, it’s a little scary, but I see the beauty. Like two of my friends that I work with, Thora Mays and Karen Walrond, when I talked about this plan to reconnect with y’all, the core community, which is not always the loud community, and it was not always the one that out numbers in the comments, but the core folks, y’all. When I thought about this plan to reconnect with y’all in a meaningful way and really build and cultivate content that reminds us that we’re together, that teaches, that was central to my work, I thought it was a new idea.

BB: And they both were like, “Oh!” Going back to y’all. Going back in service of you, of this group and doing that, not in a fight energy way, about the people that hurt me, but in a running toward y’all, not away from the hurt and not away from the people that can be really loud and hard, and y’all do a really good job with this, folks in the comments. I mean, y’all still disagree with me all the time, and that’s great. And you disagree with me around hard things, my politics, my beliefs. I believe some big hard issues from reproductive rights to immigration. Like, I’m going to talk about those things. The difference between, I think this community and other people is you disagree, and you hold me accountable for things when something I say or do, rubs up against the work, but when you disagree with me, you’re not cruel.

BB: And sometimes you use the work to say, “I don’t understand your position on this”, and that’s okay. But you… I guess, I don’t know how to say it. Maybe the core difference is, you believe in my right to have an opinion that you disagree with. Just like I believe in your right to have an opinion and be a part of this community that I disagree with. Now, if and when those opinions are dehumanizing of another group, that’s problematic, but I don’t hear from this community, “Just write your books and keep your mouth shut about hard issues”, because that’s counter to my work. This shit is on the field, I see it, it’s like being at the cliff. It is scary right now, I’m backing up to the safe distance from the cliff, and I’m backing up by remembering the Seligman work, which I think is really important, that not everything happens because I did something wrong. That life is hard, and all of us have gone through this. That it’s not pervasive in every corner of my life. I have deep joy and love and connection with my family and my friends and with this community, to be honest with you.

BB: And this community is not everyone that follows me on social. You know who you are. It’s an awkward, brave and kind commitment. And the permanence that, spending time to knock shit out of trees, is important time. And so, I am glad to be back. I am ready to re-commit to myself, to my team, to this community, to remember what we do well, to remember what we hold sacred and what we think is important. And kind of just stand at a safe distance from the cliff, where we can still get the thrill… The sheer magnitude of beauty is scary, it’s like foreboding joy, I guess, or anything else, that exciting and scared at the same time thing. And to do it with y’all, and to do it with my team and start sorting through the shit, that’s on the… [chuckle] That’s on the ground that I’ve knocked out of trees. Not all of its sorted, and there’ll be updates periodically, I think.

BB: But I’m ready to jump in and I’m glad you’re here. And I will say that I really appreciated the notes that said, “We’re excited for you to come back. And we’re glad you took the time.” And maybe not everyone’s work has a sabbatical possibility built into it, but I know some of y’all took time and we were excited to read that some companies… We mandated four weeks paid vacation, this summer on top of vacation schedules and Fridays paid off, and we really said our work this summer is renewal. Thanks for welcoming me back. Thanks for supporting me going away. Stay awkward, brave and kind.

BB: Unlocking Us is a Spotify original from Parcast. It’s hosted by me, Brené Brown. It’s produced by Max Cutler, Christian Acevedo, Karlee Madden and Tristan McNeil, and by Weird Lucy productions. Sound design by Tristan McNeil and music is by the amazing Carrie Rodriguez and the amazing Gina Chavez.

© 2022 Brené Brown Education and Research Group, LLC. All rights reserved.

Brown, B. (Host). (2022, September 21). Reflection From My Summer Sabbatical. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Us with Brené Brown. Parcast Network.

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