By Tammy Blackard Cook, LCSW, CDWF
Y’all, this is hard. None of us have been through anything like this before. For me, Brené Brown’s words and wisdom have always been a balm, so I was grateful to hear her new podcast “Unlocking Us.”
Full disclosure: This post distills the first episode of “Unlocking Us” and channels Brené directly. I have followed Brené Brown from the beginning and was lucky enough to train in person with her way back in 2013.
For 20 years, Brené Brown has researched vulnerability, collecting more than 400,000 pieces of data to support her findings. So, this isn’t just someone’s opinion about how we get through this pandemic emotionally. I hope that helps you feel better about what I’m about to tell you.
First, this might be the most vulnerable we’ve ever been collectively as a nation and a world. This pandemic has put a hard stop on society as we know it and brought us all to our knees. Sure, we are vulnerable physically to COVID-19, but what I mean by vulnerability is the risk of uncertainty and emotional exposure. It’s something new, which by definition is vulnerable.
Brené has a strategy for dealing with new things called FFT. For cursing aficionados, FFT stands for Fucking First Time, but the PG version is Terrible First Time. Right now, we are ALL smack dab in the middle of a FFT.
FFTs leave us feeling vulnerable, scared, unsure of ourselves, anxious, uncertain, and lost. FFTs can be really small everyday things, like a new task at work, but this one is a massive, worldwide FFT. How do we get through it?
Let’s start by naming it: The COVID-19 pandemic is a super massive FFT. Knowing that is key to helping us understand it—and we are a meaning making species. It’s scary and hard and we don’t know what’s going to happen. So, let’s acknowledge that.
As Brené and 20 years of working as a therapist have taught me, sometimes people are afraid to name or acknowledge feelings because we think naming them gives them power. We think that if we pretend it’s not happening, things will get better. Let’s not talk about that, just ignore it, eventually it’ll go away.
When we name and own hard feelings, it does not give them power. It gives us power, which Brené defines as the ability to affect change and achieve purpose (taken from MLK). Naming it doesn’t necessarily make the situation easier because new things are not comfortable or easy, but we can learn how to tolerate it. To get through it. To know we have the strength to get through it.
Once we name the FFT, we can take the next three steps:
- Normalize it.
- Put it in perspective.
- Reality check expectations.
This is how new is supposed to feel. It’s uncomfortable as hell because brave is uncomfortable. We don’t know how to do any of these things:
- Social distancing and maintaining our sanity
- Staying socially connected while far apart
- Explaining this to our kids
None of us know exactly what we are doing or how long we will be going it. We are anxious, uncertain, and some of us are afraid. And it’s OK to feel all those things.
How do you hold that fear and offer your kids a sense of safety? If you’re a parent, you can give your kids a sense of safety while also modeling and teaching what not knowing and uncertainty looks and feels like. Believe it or not, helping your kids feel safe and secure and modeling uncertainty are not mutually exclusive. You can hold both things. To have the strength to hold both those things is “how we measure human intelligence and emotional intelligence,” according to Brené.
This is what I teach every day in my office and hopefully to my children: You can hold two different feelings. Both can be true.
This teaching goes against our Western love of certainty: We want to make everything certain, especially for our kids. We think that helping our kids feel certain makes them feel safe, but what happens is this: When they are away from us and they feel uncertain, they think that automatically means they are unsafe. Making everything feel certain for our kids does not serve them. It’s not the truth.
We don’t know what’s happening right now, and we’re doing the best we can. Both those things are true. And it’s scary. It’s OK to feel overwhelmed right now. It won’t last forever.
Help your family and friends name and normalize it: If you’re social distancing, have a check in, name something you are grateful for with others, then allow each other to name how they’re feeling. Allow those feelings to just be.
Put it in perspective
We don’t know when this will end, but we do know it won’t be forever. Just as these feelings are not permanent, they won’t last forever either. We are not going to crush this right away.
Our best path forward is one day at a time and believing that other people are doing the best they can. Just as we are.
Reality check expectations
Examine your expectations around this crisis: This is going to suck for a while and it’s hard for everybody. Brené reminds us that some wise person once said that expectations are just resentments waiting to happen.
Given that, can we be more patient with each other? Can you listen with the same passion you have with wanting to be heard? And don’t forget to ask for what you need so that expectations are clear for all. Don’t expect others to want and need the same things you do. That’s not how it works. Find out what others need, tell them what you need. Be that person for them and for yourself.
Human beings find vulnerability terrifying. And during times like this, we need to reality check ourselves when we begin listening to others who are offering us certainty during this uncertain time. We want that, yes, but we can’t have it.
“Leaders” and “experts” will pop up and try to gain our trust by selling certainty to us. Anyone telling you right now with certainty that this isn’t a big deal, when it will end, etc. needs to be reality checked. And know that it is normal to want certainty and almost impossible to get it.
All in all, we will need to embrace the suck and be kind to each other. Don’t pretend everything is OK when it’s not. And also know that you are strong, wise, and will find a way through. There is a way of holding both.
We are all in this together. Peace to you.
(Honestly, now you should go listen to the full episode Brené on FFTs from Brené Brown’s new podcast, Unlocking Us.)