Well Said Podcast | Jan. 12

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[music]

Heather Reisman:
Hi, I’m Heather Reisman, and this is Well Said, a podcast on the art and science of living well. This podcast is brought to you by Indigo.

For a lot of people, letting the world see your truest self—the tender, vulnerable part—is really hard, even scary hard. Our guest today is the renowned researcher, author, and TED Talk superstar Brené Brown. And she is here to say doing that scary-hard thing can actually change your life in hugely positive and transformative ways.

Brené has spent more than two decades studying the emotions and qualities that define us as humans: emotions like courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy. You may already know her from her wildly popular TED Talks, or her Spotify podcasts, or her five New York Times bestselling books. Her work has literally inspired millions.

This past December, Brené published a new book, now a Heather’s Pick, called Atlas of The Heart. And we’re here to talk about this book and her work in general. I’m delighted to welcome Brené Brown to Well Said.

Hello, Brené.

Brené Brown:
Hello!

Heather Reisman:
It is such a joy to welcome you to our podcast. You are a beloved author at Indigo—with our customers and our employees. And now, I just learned last night—with my granddaughter, who is in the first year of her Masters in Psychology, who literally went berserk…

Brené Brown:
(laughs)

Heather Reisman:
… and, I think, held me in high regard—really high regard for the first time because of you. So you are really held in such high esteem.

Brené Brown:
Thank you.

Heather Reisman:
So I’m grateful. I know that your schedule is crazy packed. So thank you.

Brené Brown:
I’m grateful to be here. And thank you for inviting me.

Heather Reisman:
Before getting into the new book, Atlas of The Heart, I’m really curious to know how are you? How have you been, and how are you processing this pandemic, this two-year-long cataclysmic intervention into our lives as we knew them?

Brené Brown:
I’ll be just really, you know, honest and vulnerable with you. I think [pause] I’m [pause] still too in it to have any kind of wise reflection. I think that, like everyone, my surge capacity is completed deleted. I am worn out. I think it was some of the greatest parenting challenges of my life—just, you know, with a calculus that’s kind of always changing about what’s safe and what’s not, and what is the risk of exposure for my kids versus the social and emotional toll that isolation takes. Hardest season in my marriage of 30 years, hands down. My husband is a physician. So it’s just I’m unsure. I’m getting ready to go into four and a half weeks off, completely off the grid. And I’m thinking maybe I’ll reflect on it then, or maybe I’ll just play a lot of pickleball and watch a shit ton of British mysteries and not worry about it and I’ll—I’ll reflect sometime when we’re far enough away from it that I can look back safely.

Heather Reisman:
Speaking of British TV, are you by chance, like me, a BritBox fan? It is so my go-to when I’m really feeling that Covid burnout thing.

Brené Brown:
Oh, BritBox? Oh, my God, it’s my … If I got a tattoo, it would say either “Acorn” or “BritBox.” Are you kidding?

Heather Reisman:
I have to say I love this phrase of “my surge capacity is depleted.” I think that’s how we all feel. Our surge capacity is gone. We have nothing left.

Brené Brown:
That’s from the work of a researcher at the University of Minnesota. But she studies kind of war, crisis, natural disasters. And, you know, she writes a lot about how we have a surge capacity but our wiring and our adrenaline is really there for short bursts of crisis, and this has been a crisis that’s been unravelling. Not only has it been a crisis unravelling for the last two years, it has held captive crises within the crisis: addiction crises, depression, domestic violence, everyone that had to stay at home didn’t have a safe place to stay at home. You know? And so I think, to be honest with you, I’m really leaning heavy into Carl Jung right now, who said that for every great progression we’ll experience a devastating regression.

Heather Reisman:
Um-hmm.

Brené Brown:
And so I’m thinking, Jesus, I hope this is the devastating regression, because that’s what it feels like. Politically, socially, economically, climate, environmentally, I feel like we’re in a great regression.

Heather Reisman:
I wonder whether the pandemic will end up accelerating a regression we were already in and pushing it so into foreground that something positive will come out of it, or whether it will deepen the regression to a point that will take us a long time to deal with.

Brené Brown:
To climb out, yeah. What an important question.

Heather Reisman:
So one of the ideas in your book I found hugely powerful is this notion that when we feel pain, sometimes instead of identifying it as pain and dealing with it, trying to untangle it, we get angry, we deflect it.

Brené Brown:
Mm.

Heather Reisman:
We push it outwards. And it does come out as anger toward others. Maybe it’s even collective pain pushed outwards that’s causing some of the rancor and dangerous divisions we’re seeing in the U.S. Can you share more about this whole idea of internal pain pushed outward?

Brené Brown:
I mean, emotional pain is no joke. We know, from research, that the same centres that light up in my brain when I feel physical pain are the centres that light up when I feel social pain or emotional pain. I mean, there are some studies that show pain from social isolation is improved by ibuprofen. I mean, emotional pain is real. We are a social species. We know that loneliness is a very strong predictor of early death.

I think if you go back, Heather, to the very first myth, the very first place where we take the wrong trail, it’s the belief that we are rational cognitive beings who, on occasion, inconveniently experience emotion, and that our job is to dismiss emotion and get back to our rational logic thinking. Where that is not the case. That is not supported by any research at all—especially in the last 10 years when we’ve got PET imaging. And, I mean, we are emotional beings, first and foremost, who on occasion think rationally. But when emotion is driving, cognition and thought are not even like sitting next to us in the front seat, they’re like tied up in the back of the trunk.

And so, I think, when we talk about pain, if my thinking is, “Hey, look. I’m supposed to be a logical, rational, cognitive being. This pain is killing me. It’s weak for me to even feel it.” And that is why it so much easier for us to cause pain than to experience and feel pain. We just literally deflect it.

And, again I’ve split my time between Austin and Houston, and I was on the lake in Austin and I saw this big kind of decorated boat that had a bunch of Trump stuff. And it had like a 20-foot flag. And this flag was like six feet by six feet. And it said, “Fuck your feelings.” And—which was kind of a hallmark of that campaign.

Heather Reisman:
Um-hmm.

Brené Brown:
What it’s saying is that feelings are weakness and should be disregarded, they make you weak, they make you vulnerable, vulnerability is weakness—when in all reality that is the most emotional emotive flag you could ever have. That is a rage flag. That is a contempt flag. That is a flag of emotion about emotion. It’s like an irony flag.

But I think when you ask the question did the pandemic just highlight fault lines of a regression that we were already in and that way we can move to progression faster, or did they deepen those fault lines so tremendously that we’re—we’re going to have a hard time clawing our way out, I think the answer is “yes, and.”

I think the fault lines have been magnified. I see so many White friends of mine saying, “Oh, my God, the system’s broken.” And I see so many Black friends, and Indigenous friends, and Latina/Latino friends saying, “Yes, it is broken. But it was designed that way. And it was broken before you felt it. Because we were in the first ripple of it.” And so inequity in health care, police brutality, I mean, just all of the veneers.

I mean, I live in Houston. It’s December, it’s 85 degrees here.

Heather Reisman:
Right.

Brené Brown:
I never in my life thought that I would live through a storm, which we lived through, you know, six months ago, where Houstonians froze to death—children.

Heather Reisman:
Um-hmm.

Brené Brown:
Because our politicians decided not to winterize our power grids. And we decided not even to be part of the national power grid, for greed. Like every system. I never thought. I mean, if you wanted to say, “Who is the least likely in high school to end up being a prepper?” it would be me. Like I trust the infrastructure, I trust government, I trust science. And now I’m like, “Fuck.”

Heather Reisman:
Right.

Brené Brown:
Like Detroit’s drinking water, the Texas power grid. It is a great regression.

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Heather Reisman:
So let’s dive a bit further into some of the emotions you expand on in Atlas of The Heart. You have put vulnerability at the very heart of our understanding ourselves. How do you define personal vulnerability? And why have you come to understand how important it is for us to embrace it and then to leverage it to make our lives richer?

Brené Brown:
You know, as a fifth-generation Texan, I can tell you that I was definitely raised to believe that vulnerability is weakness. And I think most of us were raised to believe that being vulnerable is being weak. It just, again, does not bear out.

So the definition of vulnerability that emerged from the data, for us, is it’s the emotion we feel when we’re uncertain, at risk, and emotionally exposed. So we asked people for examples: “the first date after my divorce,” “trying to get pregnant after my second miscarriage,” “sitting with my wife, who has Stage 4 breast cancer, and talking about plans for our toddlers,” “it is saying ‘I love you first.’” One of my favourite parenting ones was “sending your child to school knowing how excited he is to make orchestra First Chair and being fairly confident he will not make the orchestra at all.” Vulnerability is really just full of “I’m uncertain, there’s a risk here, and I’m emotionally exposed here. Like, I could get hurt.”

And so I spent a lot of time trying to convince people that vulnerability is not weakness, it’s actually the only path to courage. And I got real clarity on it, one day, when I was on a military base here in Houston, working with Special Forces troops. And I asked the troops. I said, “Give me an example of courage in your life or in someone else’s life that you’ve observed—give me a single example of courage that did not require uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” And there was just kind of this really penetrating silence. And heads fell into hands. And finally, one young man stood up and said, “Three tours, ma’am. There is no courage without vulnerability.”

Heather Reisman:
Um-hmm.

Brené Brown:
Then the next week, I’m in Seattle with the Seattle Seahawks, that’s the football team. Asked the players the same question. After they had said, “Look. We’re professional football players, we don’t do vulnerability.” And I said, “Just, OK great. Give me an example of courage, on the field or off, that doesn’t require uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” And they went into a huddle for a minute, of course. And they came back and they said, “Ma’am, there is no courage without vulnerability.”

I use this Teddy Roosevelt quote as the epigraph of the book on vulnerability. You know: It’s not the critic who counts….

Heather Reisman:
Ah, but the one who does actually strive to do the deeds.

Brené Brown:
Yeah!

Heather Reisman:
The man in the ring with the dust.

Brené Brown:
That’s it! And I just was told, and then saw something where Lebron—the basketball player—writes that on the soles of his shoes before every game.

And so I think where we get lost is we get confused about what vulnerability is and isn’t. Vulnerability minus boundaries is not vulnerability. Vulnerability is not oversharing.

Heather Reisman:
Yeah.

Brené Brown:
I spend 90 per cent of my time working in organizations with leaders. And I’ll have leaders say, “Listen. I believe what you’re saying. How much should I cry? How much should I disclose?” And I’m like, “Oh, Jesus. You—you don’t understand what I’m saying.”

Look. This was the big learning from the leadership research, for us. The biggest barrier to courage is not fear; it’s armour.

Heather Reisman:
Um-hmm.

Brené Brown:
It’s how, in moments when we’re afraid, do we armour up to self-protect our ego. Do we become the knower instead of the learner? Do we become perfectionistic? Do we become cynical? What is the armour that we use to self-protect against vulnerability?

And so it’s not about crying. It’s not about disclosure. It’s not about oversharing. It’s about not tapping out of our values, not tapping out of hard conversations when shit gets hard.

Heather Reisman:
So in Atlas of The Heart, you take the reader on a kind of journey through 87 different emotions and experiences. How did this particular book come about? And how did you get to 87?

Brené Brown:
So, I taught a class, a course online over the course of a year. And it had a component on emotional literacy. And we saw people really struggling. So 70,000+ people took this course. After we ended the last session of it, we de-identified all the comments—there were about 550,000 of them—submitted to Human Subjects Approval, and then did our analysis of the secondary data on what emotions do people really struggle to name and that when they finally can name them it helps them regulate, manage, heal, process, and move on, or in the case of positive emotion helps them invite more of that into their lives.

We ended up with 150. We took the 150 and we invited a focus group of clinicians—counsellors, therapists—who worked with a very diverse group of patients and clients to come in and help us look at the 150 and say, “What’s necessary? What can go?” And that’s how we ended up with the 87. So then we’re like, “Let’s make it an alphabetical, short-form dictionary in the centre of the book.”

And then we had college interns that were with us that summer. And they said, “We hate this idea.” And I said, “Why?” And they said, “Because we’ve spent the summer learning these. And the only way we can learn them is comparatively. So what helps us understand shame is how it’s different from guilt, humiliation, and embarrassment.” And so then we decided, “OK. So rather than doing it alpha, we were using the map metaphor already so we’ll group them by kind of where they live together and how they work together.”

And then as we started writing, what I realized was, ah, “I have two choices: make it quick and digestible, which is like all the rage; or make it real and nuanced, which actually reflects the human experience of the emotion.” And so it has to be the intersection of data and research but also story, so that people can see themselves in it and go, “Oh.” “Ah.”

Heather Reisman:
Yeah.

Brené Brown:
So I can give you a three-line definition of vulnerability. But when I say, “Oh, trying to get pregnant after your second miscarriage,” then people are like, “Oh, shit. I know that.”

Heather Reisman:
Let me actually dive into one you just mentioned that I found so relevant and instructive. And that is: the difference between the emotion of shame—and how debilitating it can be and how it can so derail us in a profound way—and guilt over something. Help us understand that difference. It’s a wonderful distinction.

Brené Brown:
Yeah. And I think guilt gets a really bad rap and it’s very socially adapted. So the best way to understand the distinction between shame and guilt is: shame, “I am bad;” guilt, “I’ve done something bad.” And the predictor of our proneness—whether we have a tendency to be more shame-prone or guilt-prone—is really in self-talk.

And so if I get back my paper. And I’m looking at it. And I have a D minus. And my self-talk is “God. I’m so stupid. I’m such an idiot.” that's shame. If my self-talk is just, “God. It was so stupid to go out last night and not study for this thing.” That's the difference between shame and guilt.

And what we see, from the research, is that shame is debilitating. Shame is not a compass for value-driven behaviour. When we shame other people, or when we feel shame, what we normally do, actually, is blame, rationalize, and double down.

Heather Reisman:
I love that.

Brené Brown:
Which is why a lot of the new research today that says shaming people around not vaccinating is completely ineffective. And it’s interesting because shame is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, eating disorders. And guilt is inversely correlated with these outcomes. Meaning the more guilt-prone we are, the better we fare around those outcomes.

So for a long time, we weren’t sure that humiliation was as dangerous as shame. Because the only variable—it’s a tiny variable—that really predicts the difference between whether we experience something as shame and humiliation is deserving. So if you look at me and you’re like, “Brené, you’re an idiot. And you’re stupid. And your books suck.” And you do that in front of 100 people at an event, probably I’m going to feel shame or humiliation. Shame is: I believe that too about myself. And humiliation was: Man, I did not deserve that.

And so the variable that predicts the difference between shame and humiliation is deserving. It goes counter to what I’ve said in every book until now. Every book I’ve written, I’ve said that shame is more debilitating and more dangerous than humiliation. Now what we know is research has found a very strong correlation between humiliation and violence.

Heather Reisman:
One of your ideas is that curiosity can be our superpower.

Brené Brown:
Oh!!

Heather Reisman:
When I saw that I just jumped for joy, because you highlighted something I so believe. And it’s also something—our curiosity, it’s something we can all access and develop. So how did you come to this insight? And help us understand what “being curious” means. What does it look like when we’re being curious?

Brené Brown:
It’s just what emerged from the data when we were trying to figure out “Man, there’s a group of people here, I don’t know what to call them,” but we came up with the term “grounded competence.” Not a competence that’s blustery or posturing but really just grounded, tethered competence. But then we were like, “Shit. These people, when people talk about them in the research, they’re like, ‘They’ll drive you crazy. They have 100 questions about everything.’” They don’t want to know just what they need to know to do their jobs; they want to know how that’s connected to a larger strategy. They want to know “How did they figure that out?” They want assignments to take on work that they’re not sure that they’re going to be good at doing.

Heather Reisman:
They’ll risk failing.

Brené Brown:
They’ll risk failing and they’re not afraid to ask for help. They’re not afraid to say, “Listen. I took on this assignment. This is what I’ve learned so far, but I think I’m over my skis. I’m going to need some support here. Can I ask? I have 32 questions, and I may need somebody to walk me through some stuff.”

And what was funny and ironic for us is it’s exactly what we hire for. Like, we are not interested in hiring anyone, no matter the expertise, if all they want to do is stuff they’re already good at doing.

Heather Reisman:
Thinking about relationships that are filled with all kinds of emotion, I was really taken with the advice that you shared with your daughter as she was thinking about what courses she might take at school. I found there was a real wisdom in your guidance. And I’d love to cover a bit of that today. Because in a way it seems connected to this idea of curiosity and the superpower of curiosity.

Brené Brown:
Yes. Yeah. I just said, “Listen. You can’t know right now. I need you to just major in curiosity. And if you already know exactly what you want to be, at 18, I don’t think I want to pay for college right now. I think you need to explore your life until you’re unsure of what you want to be, and then we’ll pay for college.” And, you know, she was like, “This is the most cringy advice I’ve ever received.”

And then she got to school, and she said, “OK. I’m convinced. I’m going to major in curiosity.” And—and she did. And, you know, the first semester she took, you know, Black Power theory, German philosophy, you know, short for graduate school probably. And then her last semester, she would get increasingly anxious. “Everyone knows, Mom. Everyone knows what they’re doing. And I’m just taking classes I love. And I’m in this build-your-own-major major.”

And then her last year, she said, “Oh, my God,” she called me, “I found a thread.”

Heather Reisman:
Ahh.

Brené Brown:
And I said … Yeah. And I said, “Tell me about the thread.” And she said, “I’m interested in the intersection of new media storytelling and emotion.”

Heather Reisman:
(inaudible exclamation)

Brené Brown:
And I said, “Great!” The family business next-gen. Next-gen 3.0, yeah.

Heather Reisman:
Yeah. Listen. Brené, honestly I was just gob smacked as I explored your work, how profound it is and how right it is for each of us personally and then collectively for society. I would go so far out on a limb as to say if we don’t heed your encouragement to embrace our understanding of emotion as who we are, it will be very hard to get out of some of the challenges we’re facing.

So I am so grateful for this time but more so for your work. Thank you. Thank you so much.

Brené Brown:
God, thank you so much. What an amazing conversation. It made my day!

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Heather Reisman:
Thank you for tuning in to our conversation with Brené Brown. For more ideas to help you live well, including the book featured in this episode, visit indigo.ca/podcast.

If you enjoyed this episode, please leave us a rating on Apple podcasts or Spotify, and share with your friends. You can follow us wherever you listen.

Well Said was produced for Indigo Inc. by Vocal Fry Studios and is hosted by me, Heather Reisman.

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