The Culture

How the Pandemic Turned Brené Brown Into America’s Therapist

But for heaven’s sake, the best-selling author, unapologetic cusser, and fifth-generation Texan would rather not be called that.

brene brown

The week we lost the world we knew, Brené Brown held church. Wearing a floral blouse and hoop earrings, she settled into her home office, in Houston, in front of a bookcase with spines arranged by color: cerulean blue and daffodil yellow and blush pink. She livestreamed a fifteen-minute service, Brené Brown–style: There was a prayer, yes, but also a Beatles sing-along. There was God talk but also cussing. And there was a sermon about offering grace to anyone you might like to punch in the face.

This was March 15, the first Sunday after churches across the country had closed their doors over fears of the coronavirus. The past few days had been rough on Brown. She and her husband, Steve, had busted her mom and stepdad out of an assisted-living facility and moved them into their home. Their twenty-year-old daughter, Ellen, had also taken up residence there after her college campus shuttered, and their fourteen-year-old son, Charlie, was reckoning with the prospect of finishing his middle school years online. It was a full house. On her newly launched podcast, Unlocking Us, Brown would say she felt like she’d climbed into the mouth of a tuba and hid there while someone kicked her down a hill and into a lake.

Brown longed for a kind of communion, and she knew she wasn’t alone. As someone who studies human connection, she understood the steep psychic cost of isolation. She’d spent two decades away from organized religion, but in recent years she’d started attending Episcopalian services. She liked singing, passing the peace, standing alongside those whose politics she might detest. She likes to paraphrase the philosopher Martin Buber: “God is the energy that flows through us when we’re in authentic connection.”

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And so she decided to hold church. “Social distancing doesn’t have to mean social disconnection,” she wrote to her 2.5 million Instagram followers and 1.7 million Facebook followers, announcing plans for the service.

“Is there space for an agnostic among you?” asked one commenter.

“Always!” Brown responded, adding a red heart emoji.

Thousands of others chimed in, making it known that Buddhists, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, nonbelievers, and a whole lot of fangirls planned to come too. “The church of Brene,” one of her followers cooed.

At 54 years old, Brown is a perennially best-selling author, a sought-after speaker, a vulnerability researcher (an area of expertise made famous by Brown herself). But she is not a pastor. Nor is she a tech person.

The livestream was a lo-fi affair. There were bandwidth issues, sound problems. Her setup was a total DIY job. She piled hardbacks on her desk to build a platform for the camera, which she propped between the legs of a stuffed Longhorn (Bevo, the mascot of her alma mater, the University of Texas). At one point, Brown raced to the kitchen to grab a laptop so she could play Willie Nelson’s rendition of “Amazing Grace.” She was alone in her office, which seemed prudent, until it got . . . weird. When she reached the call-and-response portion of the service—“Lord, hear our prayer”—the only voice was her own. The rest of the room was just . . . silent.

The feedback on the screen, however, was antic, a swiftly moving scroll of heart-eyed emojis and prayer hands and messages with exclamation points burbling up from the depths of the screen. Most churches are known for solemnity, but the scroll was an endless river of love and ache and need. Every once in a while, an explosion of hearts left tracers on the right side, giving the scene a video-game feel.

“I haven’t been to church in almost 20 years,” read one comment. “I cried the entire 15 min.”

Just ten years ago, Brown was living the busy but contained life of an academic. She worked as a research professor in the University of Houston’s social work department. She wrote a blog. She’d self-published a book about women and shame that was later picked up by Penguin, a Cinderella story for any writer, but the ball was short-lived. Brown remembers the wave of shame that passed over her when, six months after its release, the publisher called to say the book was being remaindered, unsold copies pulped into oblivion.

Then, in 2010, she stepped onto a stage at the University of Houston for a TEDx talk, and everything changed. She argued that being vulnerable, long perceived as weakness, was actually an act of courage and the true path to connection, which her research identified as our deepest human need. The speech pointed in the opposite direction of a technology age that granted us an unprecedented arsenal of tools to keep our messy sides hidden: the cleverly cropped selfies, the control of block-mute-unfriend, the boom-roasted certitude of a perfect tweet. Our likes and followers accumulated while our souls wandered the dark.

Brown barely mentioned social media. She used slightly cringey words like “worthiness” and “belonging,” but her barn burner of a lecture made a compelling case that cringey words might save us. Like many TED talks, it was a sermon for a secular age, a twenty-minute homily offering moral guidance. “To let ourselves be seen, deeply seen, vulnerably seen,” she said, was the only way we could connect.

“The Power of Vulnerability” went viral, becoming one of the top ten most watched TED talks ever. Today it has more than 60 million views. In the decade that followed, Brown released seven books, five of which hit number one on the New York Times best-seller list. With titles like Daring Greatly and Rising Strong and Braving the Wilderness, they sound simultaneously like corporate seminars and scented candles from Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle brand Goop.

On the HBO show Ballers, one character seemed to speak for the entire country when he told Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, “Brené Brown’s vulnerability stuff is the real f—ing deal.”

Brown often quotes the famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung, who said paradox is the best way to capture “the fullness of life.” It’s certainly true of Brown. She’s a cross between Oprah and Malcolm Gladwell, harnessing the compassion and brave-warrior language of the former and the social science and data-backed wisdom of the latter. (Unlike Gladwell, Brown does her own scientific research.) This unique hybrid has granted her a high perch in the culture. Her fans include massively successful Silicon Valley CEOs, fellow soccer moms, military leaders, and young progressive activists. She talks about being an introvert, but she crisscrosses the country speaking to stadiums so enormous it takes a couple seconds for laughter from the back to hit her ears.

More recently, she’s become a full-blown pop culture phenomenon. Last year, she got her own Netflix special. She made a cameo appearance in the Amy Poehler–directed comedy Wine Country. On the HBO show Ballers, one character seemed to speak for the entire country when he told Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, “Brené Brown’s vulnerability stuff is the real f—ing deal.”

Brené Brown Times Square

Brown underneath an ad for her Netflix special in Times Square in New York in 2019.

Courtesy of Brené Brown

And in the midst of the coronavirus, more people seem to be turning to her than ever before. As shelter-in-place orders were issued across the country, her podcast shot to the top of the charts. Unlocking Us is mostly an interview show, but in the early days of the pandemic, Brown took the microphone alone to speak directly to her audience, a sort of fireside chat for a society grasping to comprehend how the world could pause its rotation mid-spin.

I wanted to know why her message was resounding with so many. There was, of course, the obvious answer: the quarantine heightened the demand for her wisdom on human connection. But I sensed she was speaking to something deeper, to unseen and powerful forces coursing beneath the surface.

In late March, I caught up with Brown on Zoom, her face appearing on my laptop as she hustled to complete some off-screen task. She had on the same floral blouse and hoop earrings she’d worn for the livestreamed sermon. At one point, she forgot what day it was, so she began rummaging around her desk for a sticky note where she’d jotted this information down.

When I suggested that she was becoming something of a grief therapist for a country in shock, she looked uncomfortable. She fiddled with one of her earrings. There’s a reason she chose the research end of her profession, not clinical practice, she explained. Although she is fabled for her empathy, she can be guarded, even prickly at times. “I am not the person you would want to sit across from and do your own personal deep grief work,” she said.

I asked what it felt like to have so many people looking to her right now.

She got quiet for a moment. “I think we’re looking for each other.”

On the debut episode of her podcast, released March 20, Brown talked about fear and uncertainty. “Many of us are trying to make our kids feel reassured when we don’t feel sure about anything,” she said. What had started as a riff on her entry into podcasting became a timely lesson on the patience required to learn and make mistakes.“I’m a grown-ass person, but I do not know what I’m doing.”

Brown often uses struggles from her life to help people manage conflict in their own. This is how to talk to your spouse. This is how to talk to your staff. But the podcast had acquired an added layer of urgency. This is how you survive a pandemic.

A few episodes later, Brown brought on the author David Kessler for a lesson in grief. Brown is big on naming emotions—identifying the culprit diminishes its power, she believes—and she admitted to being “grief-afraid.”

Kessler cowrote two books with the famous psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, who coined the five stages of grief. And he is intimately familiar with the subject. His mother died when he was 13, and four years ago, his son died at the age of 21.

“We are all dealing with the collective loss of the world we knew,” he told Brown, who only whispered in return, “Oh, God.”

“The world we all knew is now gone forever,” he continued.

“I just want to burst into tears,” Brown finally said. “I just want to have normal back.”

The pandemic, for most of us, has been catastrophic and mundane at once. We’ve tracked the escalating death counts, but our days are an accumulation of microsadnesses: the eighth grade graduation canceled, the morning coffee run halted, the long-awaited vacation delayed. Brown had noticed how many were hesitant to grieve the small things because others had it so much worse.Kessler cautioned against comparing our losses. He could win many a grief contest, but what would be the point? “The worst loss is always yours,” he said.

“Oh my gosh, stop. Stop. Say that again,” Brown said.

Kessler’s voice was gentle. “The worst loss is always your loss,” he repeated. Brown made a noise like she was letting the air out of her tires.

The “Say that again” moment has become a signature of the podcast. Brown does it in real life too, whenever she hears a “truth bomb.” It’s like she’s placing her guests on rewind. The habit has a performative aspect, but it also seems to be an earnest attempt to pin down greater insights. Brown suspects one of the reasons her work resonates is that she’s transparent about her limitations and struggles. (“Brené Brown, heal thyself,” she said at one point during the Kessler interview.) When Brown edits something she’s written, she changes phrases like “you need” to “we need.” She places herself alongside the reader. It’s why the podcast isn’t called Unlocking You or Unlocking Me. It’s called Unlocking Us. As she told me, “Sometimes, the most healing thing you can say to someone is ‘This is all of us.’ ”

Brené Brown with Jacob Sciba Arlyn Studios

Brené Brown with Jacob Sciba, chief engineer at Arlyn Studios, in Austin, recording her podcast.

Courtesy of Brené Brown

Brown is an estrogen blast compared to the testosterone shot of Joe Rogan, the reigning king of podcasting. But some of her interviews are so fawning I find them hard to take. (“Get a room!” I muttered halfway through the Alicia Keys episode.) I wanted her to be more rigorous; perhaps not coincidentally, it’s a note I often give myself. The show could be surprisingly moving, though, especially the Kessler episode, which I’ve often thought back on. Brown asked how we grieve if everyone is grieving at the same time. Kessler said the only answer is to grieve together. He shared a parable attributed to a Lithuanian rabbi: A man walks into a packed dining hall that is filled with delicious food, but everyone is miserable and starving. The spoons they’re required to use are so long they can’t bring the food to their mouths. This is hell, the man is told. He is then ushered to another dining room, where the same setup awaits him, but this time the people are happy and smiling. They are feeding one another. This is heaven.

“So the difference between heaven and hell is taking care of each other?” Brown asked. But she already knew the answer to that.

Brené Brown was born in San Antonio in 1965, a fifth-generation Texan and the oldest of four children. Her mother was a card-carrying ACLU member fond of swearing. Her dad was a lawyer and a conservative fond of cowboy hats. Their differences led to tension and fighting, and Brown would sequester her siblings in her room during the worst of the dustups. Growing up in a chaotic household made her “a serious over-functioner,” she has said, which is therapy jargon for “control freak.”

Brown’s dad took a job with an oil and gas company in Houston when she was ten, and the family settled into an affluent suburb where neighbors’ living rooms looked like fancy hotel lobbies. Brown was plagued by the feeling she didn’t belong—not at school, not with her family, not in Texas. She yearned to be one of those sophisticated Annie Hall–type New Yorkers, though she jokes she was more Annie Oakley. She learned to shoot skeet, and she was so good she wondered if it might earn her a scholarship. But she also wanted to be a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader—because it was the seventies, and because Texas girls don’t necessarily see a contradiction between performing as a boob-shaking, rump-wriggling mascot for America’s Team and blasting a clay pigeon as it crosses the horizon.

By fifteen, rebellion had taken hold. Brown liked smoking Benson & Hedges cigarettes with the car windows down, the stereo blasting Boston’s “Don’t Look Back” or Kansas’s “Carry On Wayward Son.” She tried out various personas: clove-smoking poet, angry activist, party girl. In her 2012 book Daring Greatly, she called them “suits of armor that kept me from becoming too engaged and too vulnerable. Each strategy was built on the same premise: Keep everyone at a safe distance, and always have an exit strategy.” She graduated high school early, at seventeen, and hitchhiked across Europe for six months. She’d always believed her name was French. Then she got to France and learned it was country.

In 1984 she enrolled at St. Mary’s University, in San Antonio. During her freshman year, her parents called her dorm to tell her they were getting divorced. She stayed up all night crying, listening to the Crosby, Stills, and Nash song “Delta” on repeat.

The following years were rocky. She dropped out of St. Mary’s and took odd jobs to pay the bills. During a stint as a lifeguard, she met a nice guy named Steve and began an on-again, off-again relationship. For a few years, she worked full-time at the AT&T call center. She badly wanted to go to the University of Texas at Austin, but she didn’t have the grades, so she enrolled at Austin Community College for three semesters. After the second rejection from UT, she called her mom from a phone booth, sobbing. But she was finally accepted, in 1993, at age 27. (Brown was tapped to give UT’s 2020 commencement address, which for now has been relegated to a virtual ceremony in May.)

She planned to major in history but was drawn to social work instead. She’d always had what you might call an overweening sense of justice. (She organized a babysitters union in fifth grade to press for higher hourly rates.) Social work was a chance to right the world.

In 1994, the year before she graduated college, Brown married Steve while wearing a white dress with a vampy popped collar inspired by the glamorous actress Loretta Young. (She’d drawn the design on a cocktail napkin in a bar before taking it to a tailor on Wurzbach Street, in San Antonio.) In 1996 they headed to Houston, where Steve began a pediatric medical residency and she started on a master’s in social work at the University of Houston. If it sounds idyllic, it wasn’t. She and Steve were both children of divorce; they had no models for this. Early on, Brown told a therapist her marriage might not make it, and the therapist agreed. “[Steve] likes you a lot more than you like you,” the woman said.

Brown continued on in the department’s PhD program, where she intended to study the anatomy of human connection. But she became fascinated by the subject of shame, which she defines as “the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, something about who we are or where we come from, has made us unlovable and unworthy of connection.” Back in 1971, the psychotherapist Helen Block Lewis had identified the far-reaching impact of shame in a book called Shame and Guilt in Neurosis. But in the quarter century since, few academics had followed in her footsteps. In the stacks of the library one day, Brown came across this sentence: “The decision to study shame has been the death of many academic careers.”

Brene Brown UT graduation

Brown at her University of Texas at Austin graduation, in 1995.

Courtesy of Brené Brown

Brené Brown Wedding

Brown and her husband Steve on their wedding day, in 1994.

Courtesy of Brené Brown

Left:

Brown at her University of Texas at Austin graduation, in 1995.

Courtesy of Brené Brown

Right:

Brown and her husband Steve on their wedding day, in 1994.

Courtesy of Brené Brown

People didn’t want to talk about shame. Even the word itself was . . . shameful. (She once told a seatmate on a noisy plane about her budding area of expertise, and the woman nodded enthusiastically when she heard that Brown studied “women and chains.” “No, women and shame,” Brown corrected, and the woman recoiled.) Brown plowed ahead anyway, using a method of qualitative research known as grounded theory. Founded in the sixties by sociologists Anselm Strauss and Barney Glaser (the latter served on her dissertation committee), grounded theory requires that researchers dispense with hypotheses altogether and instead develop concepts using data gained from exhaustive interviews, searching the transcripts for patterns and themes. As part of her research on shame, Brown interviewed more than a hundred women. She would eventually identify twelve categories in which women struggled the most, including motherhood, sex, aging, surviving trauma, money, and work. Body image and weight were the most common. The categories sounded like verticals for the soon-to-emerge female blogosphere.

After earning her PhD, in 2002, Brown took a job as a research professor at UH. She collected her findings in a book, using interview snippets to tell relatable stories: A woman disgusted by her own reflection. A mother screaming at her helpless children. When she interviewed these women, most told her what they wanted to hear more than anything was “You’re not the only one.” The book was 246 pages of evidence.

She sent query letters to forty publishers and agents, but no one showed interest. Brown finally self-published it in 2004 with the straightforward title Women & Shame. Her original title, based on her own experiences, was “Hairy Toes and Sexy Rice,” but she scrapped it after a publishing bigwig quoted Nietzsche and lectured her: “There’s nothing funny about shame.” (The history of comedy suggests otherwise.) “Hairy Toes and Sexy Rice” is an odd title, but when Brown relayed this story, I got it right away. As a young girl, I studied other women’s feet at the pool to see whether the blond wisps growing on my toes were common or if they made me grotesque and hobbitlike, as I feared. Naturally, this was lost on the dude in publishing.

Women & Shame became a word-of-mouth hit, and Penguin scooped it up and rereleased it as I Thought It Was Just Me. The book didn’t sell many copies, but its title foreshadowed an era when women’s private suffering would emerge from the shadows. (Another way one could say “I thought it was just me” would be the also-comforting phrase “Me too.”)

The big epiphany in Brown’s career came in 2006, a moment she now refers to in books as a “Breakdown Spiritual Awakening.” She’d just given birth to her second kid, and she was about to turn 41. Brown has described midlife not as a crisis but as an “unraveling,” in which the defense mechanisms we have long relied on no longer serve us. One day, while searching her data for themes and patterns, she decided to group subjects into categories of dos and don’ts. The former was a group that displayed a more joyful way of living she called “wholehearted.”

“The Do column was brimming with words like worthiness, rest, play, trust, faith, intuition, hope, authenticity, love, belonging,” she writes in The Gifts of Imperfection. “The Don’t column was dripping with words like perfection, numbing, certainty, exhaustion, self-sufficiency, being cool, fitting in, judgment, and scarcity.”

She thunked down into a red chair at her breakfast table and stared at the lists for a long time, her hand covering her mouth. Her whole life, she realized, was the Don’t column. That’s when it struck her: She could no longer simply research wholeheartedness. She would have to start learning it.

The Gifts of Imperfection, published in 2010, marks the emergence of the Brené Brown we now see on Netflix and hear on the podcast. In her first book, she was in the background, the dutiful researcher. But in The Gifts of Imperfection, Brown became the protagonist. The book traces her transformation from an uptight researcher to a, well, slightly less uptight researcher trying to reprogram her own broken habits born of female socialization, family dynamics, and a consumer and media environment that feeds on feelings of inadequacy. Combining her shame research with anecdotes that are personal but not too personal (a nasty email she typed and never sent, hours spent combing through Facebook), she shepherds readers through the hobgoblins of perfectionism and people-pleasing and lacerating self-diminishment to reach the terra firma of “I am enough.” The book entered an America torqued by Photoshop and hashtags, where attention was confused with value and everyone was keeping up with the Kardashians. It would go on to sell two million copies and become a self-help classic, despite the fact that Brown abhors the term “self-help.” She doesn’t think help is something we do on our own.

One passage in The Gifts of Imperfection hints at what was to come. Brown often gave speeches to educators and companies as part of her academic career, and she was prepping a talk for a TED-like event when she called her friend Jen Lemen, who told her, “Put your measuring stick away, Brené. . . . I know you. You’re already thinking about how to make your twenty-minute talk super ‘researchy’ and complicated. . . . But your best work isn’t from the head; it’s talking from the heart.”

It was a pivot that would make Brown a star.

Brene Brown at Ted Talks

Brown at the 2012 TED Conference.

TED

Brown had no idea that the June 2010 TED speech would be the turning point in her career. She wore an untucked black button-down and little makeup. She appeared at ease, very much the professor in a large lecture hall. I’ve watched the video more than a dozen times, and what strikes me is the casualness of its profundity, the gentle plunk of its wisdom.

She opens by addressing her unusual identity as a storyteller and researcher, how she worried the two conflicted until she realized, “Maybe stories are just data with a soul.” She seamlessly pivots from personal detail to cultural revelation. One moment she’s telling the audience she wants to take the messiness of life and “clean it up, organize it, and put it into a bento box.” The next she’s pointing a laser at life’s central purpose: “Connection is why we’re here.” Brown underscores that with science. “Neurobiologically, that’s how we’re wired.”

Brown’s academic bona fides are what elevate this from mere sentiment. Six years of research, hundreds of interviews, thousands of data points. This woman isn’t just ladling up chicken soup for the soul; she’s building an Excel spreadsheet with the broth.

Shame and fear keep us sick and estranged. But her research has identified a more evolved species. Their secret? “People who have a strong sense of love and belonging believe they are worthy of love and belonging.”

Then she does something subtle but radical. In what might at first seem like a digression, she explains that the word courage comes from the Latin root word “cor,” meaning “heart,” and that “the original definition [of courage] was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.”

And there it is—she has reframed a concept associated with macho feats of derring-do into the intimate act of opening up. A word flashes on the screen behind her: Vulnerability.

We’ve arrived at the cor of Brown’s message. Vulnerability is the path to connection. Brown herself was a reluctant convert to this notion. She tells the story of how, when she finally went to a therapist after her midlife unraveling, she told the poor woman, “No family stuff, no childhood shit.” The crowd bursts into laughter.

The last five minutes of the speech are an indictment of much of the way we live. “We are the most in debt, obese, addicted, and medicated adult cohort in U.S. history,” Brown says. Consumerism, excessive drinking, binge eating, plastic surgery, the pursuit of celebrity and status—these are all attempts to outrun vulnerability. It is only by allowing ourselves to be seen and known, to be truly vulnerable, that we find our way back to one another.

“That’s all I have,” Brown says at the end, a girlish smile spreading across her face.

Of course, she was just beginning.

In The Call to Courage, her 2019 Netflix special, she relays the story of driving home from that event. “I had the worst vulnerability hangover that you can imagine,” she says. She told herself it wasn’t so bad. At least it was only five hundred people. Then her video was selected for the TED home page. After it went live, she watched as the views spiked from thousands to millions to—could this be right?—tens of millions.

Her life was transformed. It brought appearances on the Today show and CNN, speaking gigs at Disney and Pixar. Eventually, Oprah came calling.

But the experience was marked with agony. The online comments were gutting. “Less research, more Botox,” read one. “She should wait and talk about worthiness when she loses fifteen pounds,” read another. In the decade since the video went online, she says, she has never been able to bring herself to watch it, not once.

Late at night, while despairing about the online comments, she stumbled across a famous passage from a speech by Teddy Roosevelt in 1910, a year after he left the White House. “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly . . . who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly.”

It gave her a measure of peace. And the title of her next book.

Brené Brown and Oprah

Brown with Oprah on SuperSoul Sunday in 2013.

Courtesy of Brené Brown

Hold on, y’all. Is that better?” Brown asked her invisible congregation on Instagram Live.

It was the second Sunday of the quarantine, and Brown was holding another church service. A user had complained that the endless river of comments obscured her face.

She adjusted the phone nestled between the plush legs of Bevo. “I’m going to assume the multitude of hearts means it’s better,” she said, and then she launched into another message about extending grace to people you might like to punch in the face.

There were fewer technology hiccups this time. She played prerecorded cameos, including one from her former neighbor, the rabbi Amy Weiss, who sang the Shabbat hymn “Hinei Mah Tov” (roughly translated, “How Good and How Pleasant It Is for People to Dwell Together”). An Instagram follower named Calvin Nowell sang the Loretta Lynn version of “How Great Thou Art.” Brown brought her children into the room with her. They were tucked away on the other side of the screen, so there were voices joining hers as she said, “Lord, hear our prayer.”

She was learning. The livestream was moving yet messy, joyfully imperfect, a project in constant development. In other words, it was like much of Brown’s work.

Two years after Brown’s TED talk made her an overnight sensation, she released Daring Greatly. The book is largely an expansion of that speech, its insights applied to parenting, creativity, leadership, and education. Several chapters rehash earlier research, something I’d noticed in her other books. The repetition bothered me at first, though I came to appreciate its instructional value. (There’s a reason that songs repeat the chorus and sermons circle back to a central message.) Each book echoed previous concepts but refined and expanded them, new insights added like a bangle bracelet that made the collection sparklier and more complete.

I’ll confess to having an allergy to Brown phraseology like “hustle for worthiness” and “rumbling with vulnerability.” The Gifts of Imperfection, for example, raised my hackles with its opening line: “Owning our story and loving ourselves through that process is the bravest thing we will ever do.” It sounded like someone had sent the famous Joan Didion line “We tell ourselves stories in order to live” on a shopping spree to Restoration Hardware. But my sarcasm was soon disarmed by stories that spoke to my deepest fears of being unlovable, much as Daring Greatly spoke to the twitchy beast inside me that was convinced that whatever I write next will ruin my career.

If her books have a dash of touchy-feely, their success might suggest how many of us, from national security advisers to harried moms, want permission to touch and feel. Daring Greatly sold nearly a million copies. Over the next four years, Brown lobbed three more number one best-sellers into the zeitgeist: Rising Strong, about tolerating failure; Braving the Wilderness, about belonging and belief in a hyperpartisan era; and Dare to Lead, which positions vulnerability as key to twenty-first-century leadership.

Brown’s knack for reaching across the aisle—her political identity as a “radical moderate” who can shoot a gun but supports gun control, the way her emotional vocabulary resonates with women while her sports metaphors reel in men—has made her a coveted speaker. She commands as much as $200,000 for a speech (though she says she does half her appearances pro bono). She started an LLC that now employs 21 staffers, who help manage her appearances, facilitate training for educators and leaders, feed her blog and social media, and produce the podcast. Meanwhile, she’s remained on staff at the University of Houston. The Huffington Foundation gave $2 million in 2016 to honor her with an endowed chair, and this year, she accepted a visiting professorship at the University of Texas’s McCombs School of Business, where she will teach leadership. In a country where nobody can agree on much, we seem to agree on Brené Brown.

All this success has left the queen of vulnerability surrounded by very high walls. It took me months to get an interview with her. Brown makes no secret of her distaste for profiles; it sets her on edge to be inspected. I could never figure out which part of this was proper boundary setting and which was an avoidance of the work she encouraged in others. She likes to say that being seen and known is one of our deepest needs. But it’s also one of our greatest terrors, because what if you were truly seen—and people didn’t like you anymore? Was it possible to build an empire assuring other people they were enough—and still worry, privately, you were not?

“I’m scared,” Brown said about the profile at one point, in a tone that was part jokey, part dead serious. “I hate this shit.”

I was eager to talk to Brown about sobriety, a stripping-away process that has been central to both our stories. She quit drinking and smoking 24 years ago, at 30, on the same day. She had just completed a genealogy project for her master’s degree that revealed twisted branches on both sides of her family tree. She’d grown up hearing lore about raucous drinking and outlaw swagger among some of her relatives, but the project rendered those heroes’ tales into something more like addiction and mental health problems. She joined Alcoholics Anonymous but left after a year. She found wisdom there but never felt she belonged. She didn’t identify as an alcoholic, more as a woman who would drink and eat and smoke and micromanage her family and do whatever she could to outrun uncomfortable feelings.

“Sobriety taught me how to be vulnerable,” she told me. “It’s the reason I’m still married. It’s the reason I’m proud of being the parent I am. It’s the reason I have success in work.”

The year I quit drinking, I heard a line in an AA meeting: “Women come in with shame; men come in with anger.” The line was so startling I wanted to “Say that again” the person who said it. It was 2010, and there had been no cultural conversation about shame. Not yet, because that happened to be the year of Brown’s TED talk. When I saw “The Power of Vulnerability” a couple years later, I knew the clear-eyed woman giving that speech was sober. Sober people can sniff one another out, same as drunks and stoners, and they occupy an outsized space in formats that lean toward disclosure, not because they’re obsessed with themselves (some are), but because learning to name your demons can keep those suckers from sneaking in the window at night. You can hear the self-awareness and humor familiar to recovery rooms in podcasts by Russell Brand, Marc Maron, and Dax Shepard, and memoirs by Mary Karr, Anne Lamott, and David Sedaris. Brown is one of the many storytellers whose work demonstrates how to live a sober life, even if much of her audience is completely unaware she’s doing that.

The Gifts of Imperfection was published by Hazelden, a recovery press, and the book is Brown’s attempt to find a path through sobriety that works for her. It will be reissued for its tenth anniversary in September, and though Brown has left it mostly untouched, she’s added a journal for readers trying to move toward a greater acceptance of their own imperfections. Of all her books, I found The Gifts most practical, probably because I’ve spent much of my life, even after I quit drinking, whiplashing between people-pleasing and defiance, vicious judgment of myself and others.

When I told Brown I’d have ten years of sobriety in June, her tone warmed. “That’s a big one,” she said. “The ten-year crisis. They told you, right?”

Wait. Told me what?

Brown reminded me that ten years was when she had her midlife unraveling—the one that launched the books, the TED talk, everything. The inciting incident that fuels so much of her work starts in the hole where I happened to be standing when I read it. I’ve spent much of the past years in such a paralysis that I often contemplated another line of work. In 2015 I published a memoir about my own drinking, called Blackout, that became a surprise best-seller. I thought having success would inoculate me from a fear of fraudulence, but the fear only mutated. I worried I’d never write anything better. I worried I’d be exposed, humiliated, or, maybe worst of all, forgotten. I could waste hours stuck on a crappy first line. They all sounded like someone sent a Joan Didion line on a shopping spree in Joan Didion’s dumpster. But it wasn’t just writing. It was everything. The splurges at Sephora, the binge-fests at Pei Wei (of all places), the endless scroll of Hinge matches that were never enough, because no compliment, no validation, was ever enough.

As I read Brown’s books, I could hear her voice coaxing me from hiding. I scribbled down lines on scraps of legal pad and taped them around my home. “Courage over comfort,” read one. Another: “Stop walking through the world looking for confirmation that you don’t belong.” I knew I was the only one who could free myself from my cage of inadequacy. But the books reminded me I didn’t have to do it alone.

“Ten years was huge for me,” Brown said. “I had to investigate how I was numbing that wasn’t involving alcohol.”

“And the armor you kept,” I said.

“That’s it.” She nodded.

Tears pricked my eyes. I didn’t want to be this person, stuck again. I didn’t want to endure the pain of being split open, again.

In that moment, the entire energy of our conversation shifted. We became chatty, more familiar, her telling me about the breakdown to come and my red-rimmed eyes acknowledging that the breakdown might already be here. We became real to each other.

Two sober women, in the struggle together.

Brene Brown

Brown photographed in January.

Randal Ford

On the third Sunday of the quarantine, Brown rested. No more Instagram Live services. She sent a newsletter blast with links to prayers she’d recited in previous weeks. Churches were going online, and she needed to receive for a while.

The news had been grim. Unemployment was skyrocketing. The economy was a black hole. And then there was the dangling question of who we’d be on the other side. Some were speculating the pandemic might mark an end to rituals such as handshaking and hugging among friends, but Brown doubted that. “I don’t know that we can override the human need for physical connection and touch,” she said. But she wasn’t sure. Nobody was sure of anything anymore.

When I met Brown for the second time on Zoom, in early April, she was wearing the same floral blouse and hoop earrings she’d worn during our first interview and during the first church sermon. She had on little makeup, and her face looked pale and pretty. All around me, I’d seen women ditching beauty regimens they once referred to as “self-care.” They were embracing something more like—I’ll just go ahead and say it—their authentic selves.

Brown has called the coronavirus a lesson in collective vulnerability. Mother Nature has laid us bare. We’ve been quarantined in our homes with our broken habits for weeks on end, and it has revealed our lives and our country and our planet to be more troubled than we’d imagined. The illusion of safety and happiness had been easier once. But that was just a story we were telling ourselves. The virus has narrative control now.

Maybe that’s why so many people are turning to Brown. Her career has been an attempt to crack the code on vulnerability, but the code has proven uncrackable. Instead, all her data points in the same direction—that we must embrace the struggle. Yes, the struggle is scary and ugly and painful. But the good news is that the struggle might be where we find one another again, see ourselves in the eyes of others, start building the kinds of lives that don’t require hiding. The definition of spirituality that emerged from Brown’s research is that we are inextricably linked by something greater than us. As she says, “Some of us call it God. Some of us call it the human spirit. And some of us call it fishing.”

I asked Brown what she planned to do when the world opened up again. “It’s such an overwhelming thought,” she said as she stared out the window of her office. She would be excited to see her kids reunited with friends. She wanted to see her husband, who was a doctor, get some relief. Then her eyes softened. It was hard to tell on Zoom, but I swear she got a bit teary.

“I can’t wait to see my dad,” she said. Her voice deepened, tinged with resolve. In the stories she told about her father, the two sounded at once very different and very much alike. She’d dedicated Braving the Wilderness to him, a man who insisted she speak up, even when he passionately disagreed with her. He lived in San Antonio now. “I could walk there down I-10, the day that happens,” she began, but she never finished. I could imagine her beside the yellow dotted line of that freeway, walking the long road back to him.

At one point, I asked Brown what she had struggled with over the past weeks, and she thought for a while. “I think I can be scary when I’m scared,” she finally said. “I’m better at being pissed off than being afraid. . . . I think I’ve been too tough on people.”

She paused again, looked away, and found me through the laptop camera. “It’s easier for me to give people permission to be human when things are hard than it is for me to give it to myself.”

She sounded like every woman in my life. She sounded a lot like me.

Sarah Hepola lives in Dallas. She is the author of Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget.

This article originally appeared in the June 2020 issue of Texas Monthly with the headline “The Gospel of Brené.” Subscribe today.

This article has been updated to correct the number of women Brown interviewed to identify 12 categories of shame.

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Tags: Houston, Longreads, Society, Brene Brown

Comments

  • TexasJoe1949

    Over the years, I can think of numerous Brene Browns coming and going. If people derive benefit from what she has to offer, more power to her and them. Being a cynic, I get tired of hearing that so and so is America’s whatever. Oh well. Some things never change. As a country I think we are are prone to jump on what is currently in vogue. I wish her the best. Being anointed by Oprah and with a series on Netflix surely is the peak of the mountain.

    • Lottie Wyatt

      So much of me agrees with you. Except Ms. Brown’s early work was pretty unique. She said something no one else would say. If it means a few more people get to move forward from a life where they were trained to shame, so be it. Sounds like that wasn’t you. You are the lucky one!

  • Sjanna Leighton

    Such a heartfelt, well-done and balanced article. Don’t know if you’ll remember me, but you were the editor of my article for Salon. Nice to catch up with you. We are back in Texas as well.
    Sjanna Leighton

  • Janna Zepp

    Sarah, I love the way you tell a story. And this one about one of my favorite fellow Texans wins. Major applause, my fellow writer. Brava.

  • Stephen Shore

    OK…I absolutely don’t get the popularity or the celebrity status of this woman. Never heard of her and wasted 10 minutes reading this article.

    But I wish her the best. Sounds like she has tapped into a good gig. Gotta love America!

  • A W

    Loved the article. Where can I find her March 15 and 22 “church”? I’ve scoured the internet and can’t find it. Thanks!

  • Lottie Wyatt

    I’ve read Ms. Brown for years. I have even read your book, which was amazing.

    This is exactly what America needs to read now. Thank you so much for your work here.

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