Brené Brown’s voice, that of a teacher and a Texan, is amicably upbeat and frays a little at the edges. When she speaks, the combination of her mild Southern twang, propulsive intellect and swear-jar cordiality can be hypnotic. Brown, a research professor who holds a doctoral degree in social work, is famous for her viral talks on a range of uncomfortable emotions most people prefer not to think about. In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, and with the help of a new podcast called “Unlocking Us,” she’s teaching an attentive audience to navigate the ones it can’t escape.
“A crisis highlights all of our fault lines,” Brown said, speaking by phone last week from the house in Houston where she’s sheltering with extended family. “We can pretend that we have nothing to learn, or we can take this opportunity to own the truth and make a better future for ourselves and others.”
Brown, 54, is perhaps best known for her TEDx talk “The Power of Vulnerability.” Recorded at an event in Houston in 2010, the talk is one of the five most popular in TED history, with more than 60 million views. It summarizes a decade of Brown’s research on shame, framing her weightiest discoveries in self-deprecating and personal terms. (A central anecdote tells of an emotional breakdown that led to a visit with a therapist, to whom Brown then issued a list of approved discussion topics.)
“The Power of Vulnerability” introduced the world to a new star of social psychology — a working wife and mother who referred reverentially to “the data” while recognizing her own life as a kind of natural experiment. Brown followed it with another TED Talk, “Listening to Shame,” and a book, “Daring Greatly” — both released in 2012 — that earned her an ardent following and the admiration of celebrity self-help connoisseurs like Oprah Winfrey, Gwyneth Paltrow and Marc Maron.
Her growing media empire encompasses multiple best-selling books, speaking engagements at companies like Google and Disney, and a one-hour Netflix special. Last year, Brown appeared as herself in the road-trip comedy “Wine Country,” starring Amy Poehler, Maya Rudolph, Tina Fey and pals. (Among their burning philosophical questions: “How can I be generous in my assumptions of others when I hate most people?”)
Poehler, who directed “Wine Country,” said Brown’s message resonated with her own experience. “The idea of vulnerability being a strength has been a through-line in my life and work,” she said. “A lot of the grown women I know take comfort and wisdom from Brené. She’s smart and obviously very accomplished but doesn’t feel like she has to hide her humanity.”
Brown’s podcast, “Unlocking Us,” premiered on March 20, shortly after much of the country entered lockdown. She’d intended the show, announced in January, to explore a wide range of human experience, anchored by conversations with her famous friends, fellow researchers and inquisitive listeners. A planned launch event at this year’s South by Southwest conference was to feature the #MeToo founder Tarana Burke and the “Queer Eye” star Jonathan Van Ness. But the conference was canceled, and Brown found herself regrouping.
“The social work axiom says you meet people where they are,” she said.
So far, that has meant abandoning pretaped episodes to grapple with the alienation and anxieties of a collective nightmare. Recent topics have included comparative suffering, practicing empathy, regulating emotions and making meaning from grief. In one typically information-rich episode, on responses to anxiety, Brown described the psychologist Harriet Lerner’s concepts of “over-functioning” (“I won’t feel, I do; I don’t need help, I help” and “under-functioning” (“I won’t function, I’ll fall apart; I don’t help, I need help”), contrasting the two modes as “learned behaviors for getting out from underneath fear and uncertainty.”
As a host, Brown frequently leans into poignant subjects with a mix of humanity and profanity, deploying the kinds of confessional stories to which her audience is accustomed. (For example, we learn about her post-fame marital strife and the more mutually supportive relationship it helped foster.) But the show’s most rewarding moments have come from her conversations with guests, including the grief expert David Kessler and the emotional intelligence researcher Marc Brackett. Channeling Oprah, Brown cheers their most potent insights like a scholarly hype woman: “Say that again!”
Audiences have been similarly enthusiastic. “Unlocking Us” averages more than a million downloads per episode, according to a spokesman, and has remained in the top five of Apple Podcasts chart since its debut.
“She’s someone who’s been doing this for a long time and that listeners feel like they can trust,” said Chris Corcoran, the chief content officer of Cadence13, a podcast company that co-produces “Unlocking Us.” “It’s not just what she’s saying, but the tone that she says it in; people are just naturally drawn in.”
Brown has spent the last decade of her career preaching that vulnerability is not only unavoidable but a prerequisite for leading a full life. If we move through the world with our guard up, she argues, we’ll never feel as though we belong.
In normal circumstances, people tend to be good at disavowing the assorted psychological infrastructure — fixation on work, emphasis on appearances, the illusion of control — that allows them to maintain their sense of self. But the inexorable march of the virus is bringing us face to face with our inherent fragility.
Brown wants us to take note of the experience: “Get curious about what you’re feeling and introspective about where that comes from.” But also to be wary of compounding trauma. “We need to allow ourselves some grace and compassion.”
“A lot of us already felt like we were half-assing it with work and half-assing it with the kids — now we’re like quarter-assing it.” she added. “We need empathy around that rather than perfectionism.”
Born in San Antonio, the oldest of four children, she discovered social work relatively late in life. First came a combative childhood and what Brown has described in her books as an internalized need to “perform, perfect, please.” This was followed by a rebellious young adulthood, in which Brown dropped out of college, backpacked through Europe and worked as a bartender. Eventually, she landed back in Texas in a job at AT&T, where she took service calls from the company’s Spanish-speaking customers and worked as a union representative.
Brown fell in love with the idea of “fixing people and systems,” and, at 29, earned her bachelor’s degree in social work. She went on to a master’s degree, also in social work, by which time she had begun to articulate a different goal for her life and work: “leaning into the discomfort of ambiguity and uncertainty.”
She became a researcher just after 9/11, a period when uncertainty and grief consumed the national psyche. That experience shapes her view of what lies ahead. “We are more resilient than we know, and there will be far more trauma than we anticipate,” she said.
To survive it, she thinks we need to do more to acknowledge the variety and scale of that trauma.
“It’s not just what we can see or are personally affected by,” she said. “We need to take a step back and look at the loneliness, and the joblessness, and the racial disparities, so that we can understand how to help different communities that were disproportionately affected.”
For anyone feeling destabilized by fear, she cautioned against lashing out. “We tend to be our worst selves when we’re afraid,” she said. “So we have to be intentional about choosing kindness and generosity.”
And as for those uneasily living with loved ones, she advised an extra dose of self-awareness. “If there was ever a time to avoid working your stuff out on other people, this is it,” she said. In her own house in Houston, Brown said she’d been self-regulating by limiting her intake of coronavirus news. “I start going down this rabbit hole, and then I get frustrated and scared and snap at my husband,” she said.
Brown has noticed that, far from being debilitated by enforced isolation, some have leaned into it obnoxiously, devising performative “quarantine projects” like baking bread and body building as a new means of signifying their worthiness.
She seemed exasperated by this, drawing a distinction between “externally driven pressures” and “internally driven goals.” But then, as if taking her own advice, she decided to choose generosity.
“If baking bread and getting a six pack moves you, or brings you comfort, go ahead and do it,” she said. “And if you can figure out how to do both — DM me.”