Brené Brown’s podcast Unlocking Us arrived two weeks into my family’s COVID-19 isolation, as I tended to two increasingly feral children, forced my ER doctor husband to perform an elaborate de-virusing ritual each time he came home, and cried nearly every day.
Brown has dedicated her career to researching and speaking about vulnerability and courage, and if ever there was a time for the voice of someone who’s done her homework on these subjects, it is now. The author of five bestselling books, Brown is also an expert on shame, resilience, and wholehearted living. She is likely best known for her TED talk “The Power of Vulnerability,” where she admits to experiencing a breakdown amidst her own research, and which has been viewed over 45 million times.
Already, Unlocking Us has gotten me through a few of my hardest days in the last month with its balance of humor, hope, and hard conversations. The show alternates between solo episodes and those that feature interviews with high-profile guests. In the first episode, on FFTs, short for “F*cking First Times,” Brown does a kind of meta-analysis of her own fears surrounding the podcast, from her initial discomfort with advertising to her nervousness about the uncharted territory of launching during a pandemic. She pivots from her own project but stays on the overall theme, thinking out loud about how living through this is an FFT for the whole world. Of course we’re scared. Unless you were born before 1918, you’ve never done this before.
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In another episode, “Anxiety, Calm, and Over and Under-Functioning,” Brown tells a deeply personal story to show how our long-embedded, learned behaviors influence our response to crisis, but also shows how these defaults don’t have to dictate our every move once we’ve named them.
I like the formula Brown follows for these solo episodes. She infuses her own research and summarizes others’ influential work in social science with her Texas warmth, owns her own imperfections and mistakes, and makes the perspective she’s earned by deep, thorough research feel personal and relatable. You don’t have to dive into her other work to connect with the podcast. There is a general assumption, though, that you’ve heard her talk about her family, her own history, and her big themes before. It won’t necessarily detract from your connection with the show if you don’t have this background, but I think you’d get more out of Unlocking Us if you did.
The most moving of Brown’s first interviews is with grief expert David Kessler, whose recent work focuses on a sixth stage of the grief process: making meaning out of the losses we are never supposed to actually get over. Understanding the nebulous ache of the last month through the lens of grief and hearing Brown’s awe and compassion for Kessler’s own journey through the unimaginable didn’t make me feel any less terrible when the elementary school bell rang that day for no one. But naming that feeling and promising something beyond it one day helped.
The other early Unlocking Us interview episodes, with Alicia Keys, Glennon Doyle, and Tarana Burke, are full of stop-and-say-that-again takeaways. Brown incorporates her expertise on vulnerability and courage organically, in a way that’s always tethered to those themes but also allows space for the subjects’ stories to unfold. These are conversations in the key of COVID, but they also segue naturally into revelations on love affairs and transformations, patriarchy and parenting.
What I need from everything else I’m watching, reading, and listening to has changed since our last days or normalcy. I’m looking elsewhere for distraction, but from the intimate medium of podcasts, I want acknowledgment of the strange sadness we’re all sharing. I want someone who can do two things at once, making meaning out of uncertainty and crisis while also moving just far enough away from that sometimes. I call this particular lane I want to be in right now “COVID-adjacent,” and it’s a comfort and a joy to follow along as Unlocking Us navigates this complicated, necessary project in real time.
Katie Runde (@khrunde) writes about podcasts for Bello Collective and for her blog, thepodcastmom.com. She lives in Iowa City.