Brené Brown On Scammers, Astrology & Influencer Culture

Photo: Courtesy of Netflix.
Listening to Brené Brown, PhD, LCSW, speak is kind of like going to church — and that's one reason why her iconic TED talk about vulnerability has been viewed more than 38 million times. Back in 2010, when Dr. Brown's initial speech went viral, the themes of courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy struck a chord with audiences. Now nine years later, people still quote her talk like gospel, although the world is a much different place.
On April 19, even more audiences will get to experience this wisdom through her Netflix Special, The Call To Courage. "I had this longstanding two-decade old goal of starting a global conversation about vulnerability, shame, courage," Dr. Brown tells Refinery29. "[The Netflix special] seemed like an amazing opportunity to do that, and I'm a fan, so it seemed like the right partner, and an opportunity that was just indescribably good." The Netflix Special covers the key concepts that Dr. Brown is known for, as well as connection, gratitude, and joy, all infused with the charisma and Texan humor that people love her for.
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Ahead, Dr. Brown told Refinery29 what she thinks of astrology and our cultural obsession with scammers, plus gives advice about how you can answer the "call to courage" when the world is a shit show.
At Refinery29, we talk a lot about astrology. Our readers seem to like it for a few reasons: it gives us answers about our increasingly confusing world, and it feels more welcoming than most mainstream religions. Are you into astrology, or do you see it as something that tries to "make the uncertain certain"?
"It's funny that you ask that, because I recently did my enneagram. I've never really understood the allure of astrology, to be honest with you, but after I did the enneagram. I was like, I want this to explain everything. I want this to give me answers, I want this to give me insight, I want this to give me parameters about how to make choices. I think there is something very powerful, especially when the culture around us feels like a shit show so often, there's something so seductive about any system that can make sense of that for us.
"To not be interested in that is unheard of. People do this in different ways: people use theology, astrology, enneagrams, science — we all use something. We have to have a scaffolding, like a taxonomy, a place to file things to make sense. Astrology is just one of those things, and I don't ever really doubt that there are kernels of truth or grains of wisdom in a lot of these things. There are probably kernels and grains across those things, just explained with different metaphors. I think people want to give some order to things, I just think you have to be super careful."
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The more we feel a loss of control in our environment and culture, the more we want to understand the drivers for thinking and behaving in emotion. In chaos, we want order; we want to understand how it all works.

How do we heed the call to courage when culture feels so polarizing and bad all of the time?
"We have to stay grounded. This is the way I think about it: There are 350 million things that need to change for us to take care of the Earth, and take care of each other — but that doesn’t mean I'm responsible for 350 million of them. That means, I have to show up in my life in a way everyday, and make choices that back up my beliefs. Even when it’s uncomfortable, even when it’s hard, even when it’s easier to pretend that my small choice doesn’t matter, I have to be responsible for maybe 100 of those out of the 350 million. What happens is that we get overwhelmed by what needs to change, so we say, screw it, and don't change anything. What we need is a collective, critical, group of people showing up in different ways every day that will change the world.
"I think our personal goal should not be to change the world. It can be changed the way I show up in the world, and change everything that I do that's within what I can do. We have to be joyful, we have to practice gratitude, we need to lean into joy, we need to lean into love. Those are the things a lot of us who are activists are fighting for ourselves, and that's important part of activism, too. It keeps us from burning out."
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On that same note, it seems like everyone is obsessed with stories about scammers right now — whether it's Elizabeth Holmes, the college admissions scandal, Fyre Festival, or the president. Given your research on shame, do you have any clue where this comes from?
"I find myself reading them, too. I think it shines a light on a lot of things. We just probably feel better about ourselves when we see the lengths to which other people will go to be famous, or liked, or revered. In some ways, it sort of puts our own craziness in perspective. It's so helpful to see behaviors on a continuum. While I'm not way out here pretending to be somebody that I'm not, and forging, and being an imposter, I have on occasion not been myself to whatever people I think are important to me. I'm not so sure that we don't see a part of ourselves in it, and say, That's so extreme, but at least I'm better than that.
"The more we feel a loss of control in our environment and culture, the more we want to understand the drivers for thinking and behaving in emotion. In chaos, we want order; we want to understand how it all works. It's weird, our obsession with this crime stuff, and imposter stuff, and the darkness."

My advice to everyone who’s dating, or with friends, or colleagues is: You share your story with people who earn the right to hear it.

I think a lot of people conflate vulnerability with social media use. What do you think about the ethics of influencer culture?
"We have a new medium for it, which is Instagram and social media, but I think as long as there's been aspirational culture — the aspiration for wealth and fame — influencers have always been a thing. Social media is a new [medium for them].
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"I really feel convinced that it’s like fire. It’s like, you can use fire and warmth to save your life, and you can use it to burn down the whole thing. You can’t blame fire, because without it we wouldn’t have food, warmth, and the industrial revolution. It's about usage, and about the intention behind the usage. What people don't do on social media — influencers, me, everybody — is, we don't examine our intention behind our posts. We don't say to ourselves, What am I trying to do here? What do I need from this? If your answer is, I don't need a damn thing from this, then you're ready to post. But if you need something from it, it’s super dangerous, because basic psychology is, don't set a goal for yourself where you can’t control the outcome.
"I always say, you're ready to share something when the response back makes no difference to your healing or self-worth. If your self-worth and healing, especially if you're sharing something vulnerable, is dependent on the likes, the comments, and the shares, you are without question sharing for the wrong reason."
What about with online dating? So many people use apps to meet people, but then struggle to dig deep and get vulnerable with a random person who could ghost them.
"Here’s the thing: These are not connection tools, these are communication tools. Communication tools can be great, but connection doesn’t happen until we are together — that's the first distinction. The second is, the thing about vulnerability and trust is that people always want to know, what comes first? I don't want to be vulnerable until I trust you, but can I really trust you if I'm not vulnerable with you? It's a slow stacking over time that builds.
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I always say, you're ready to share something when the response back makes no difference to your healing or self-worth.

"Basically, trust is, I share something with you that's vulnerable to me, and you protect it. My advice to everyone who’s dating, or with friends, or colleagues is: You share your story with people who earn the right to hear it. Share your story in relationships that can bear the weight of the story. If the story is light, then most relationships can bear it. If the story is heavy, who deserves to hear it?
"We talk about the metaphor as, trust is a marble jar, and people earn marbles by trust-earning behaviors: you call me back, you pick up the phone, I tell you something, and you answer empathically and reserving judgment. We share heavy, hard things with marble jar friends, we don't share heavy, hard things with friends who have no marbles in the jar. So, we build marbles in the jar, and once it's full it's a heavier, fuller jar, and it can bear bigger stories. But in online dating, the connection happens in-person, and that's where you build trust and start the slow stacking of trust and vulnerability."
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