top of page

Brene Brown on Filling the Gap

Updated: Jan 20, 2023

You may have heard of Dr. Brené Brown from her popular science book The Gifts of Imperfection, or from her 2010 Ted Talk “The Power of Vulnerability.” Today we wanted to direct your attention towards the wisdom of her recent podcast episode (which can be found for free on Spotify). In this podcast she gives some great advice on how to cope with the ongoing pandemic. She details the pitfalls of comparative suffering, highlights the benefits of a “family gap plan,” and analogizes sustainable coping strategies with “settling the ball” in soccer in a useful way. We adapted her advice into three simple steps that you can follow below.

Step 1: Stop Thinking in Term of “Comparative Suffering”

When you hear people say “your feelings are valid,” they are doing so to correct the misconception of comparative suffering. Comparative suffering is when you either try to deny or permit your feelings on the basis of how you judge your own suffering compared to others.

You will see a lot of this well-intentioned, though misguided, thinking right now in response to the highly publicized coronavirus pandemic. This is because it’s very easy to conjure a mental image of an exhausted ICU doctor, a family who has just lost a loved one, or someone who was fired from their work because their stories are all over the news right now. When these people are brought to mind, our mundane complaints can seem insensitive, but the matter of fact is that emotions can’t simply be snuffed out on this basis.

So while we should aim to be sensitive to the suffering of others, we must allow ourselves to feel what we feel, if we are going to constructively process those emotions. Because if we make ourselves feel ashamed of our emotions, we turn our attention inward and actually close ourselves off from feeling empathy (an “other-focused” emotion) for others, at a time when empathy is critical, as it promotes the kind of prosocial behaviors that are making all the difference right now.

For example, all of the people who are obeying quarantine laws and practicing good hygiene despite the fact that they personally are low-risk, or unaffected, are doing so because they can empathize with the people who don’t have the option of staying home because they are an essential worker, or whose loved ones are at risk.

Empathy is also the emotion behind all of the altruistic behavior you are seeing right now, in terms of people donating time and resources to help others. All of this to say, it’s very important that you not engage in comparative suffering right now because the world needs you.

Step 2: Create and Implement a “Gap Plan”

Many of us feel like we are running on empty right now. We are emotionally, physically, and/or financially drained. If we conceptualize this scenario in terms of numbers, think of your relationship (or family unit) as being fully functional when it’s running at 100% capacity. In an egalitarian relationship this would mean each party is responsible for contributing 50% towards that goal. But in this scenario, the finite amount of energy you usually reserve for your relationship has had to be diverted to childcare, for example, because schools are closed. under normal circumstances, this wouldn’t be a problem because your partner can compensate for you by investing more than their share, so that as a unit you’re still fully functional. Things might not be perfectly egalitarian, but it speaks more to the strength of your relationship and its component parts that your partner is willing and able to support you when you are down, and vice versa.

What happens when both parties are unable to give their 50% towards the functioning of the relationship though? Well you’ll probably start getting into unconstructive, hurtful, or damaging arguments if you don’t have a system in place for those hard times. Brené’s family’s strategy, when there’s a gap between what level they are functioning at and being fully functional, is called the “Family Gap Plan.” We adapted her plan into 6 Rules that can be applied to any relationship.

Rule 1: Check in with each other regularly, and be honest about where you’re at (e.g. if you the quality of attention you pay each other is highest at dinner time, that’s when you should be asking how the other is doing)

Rule 2: Take your “MEDS” aka Medication/Meditation, Exercise, Diet, and Sleep. (Check out our blog on building and breaking habits if you are struggling to reintegrate these aspects of self-care back into your daily life.)

Rule 3: Don’t be mean

Rule 4: Don’t say kind words with “harsh faces” (i.e. be genuine and your expressions will match your words -- prevent mixed messages*)

Rule 5: When someone apologizes accept the apology with “thank you” and not “it’s ok” because it’s not ok, but they’ve acknowledged that they hurt you which is important

Rule 6: Try to maintain a 5 to 1 ratio of positive to negative interactions (according to John Gottman) in your relationship**

*Rule 4 is especially important if there are children in your family unit. If you tell your child not to be scared, but you are wide-eyed & thin-lipped, not only will they feel scared, they will also sense that you are lying to them and can’t be trusted. This is why the first step in our guide to talking to your children about coronavirus is: make sure you have a clear understanding of what’s going on. Sometimes concern is a reasonable reaction, it just needs to be conveyed in an age appropriate way, calm, and clear way.

**When things are stressful at home, double-down on laughter, and compliments, quality time, gifts, favors, or touch (depending on your Love Language) to the best of your ability while still practicing social distancing.

While these are always good rules to live by, these rules are essential during periods of prolonged crisis, such as the current pandemic. In the early days of the quarantine, we gave advice such as “go ahead and let your kid use the iPad, eat some comfort food, treat yourself to some fancy hand lotion.” That is because you were grieving the loss of normality. At the same time though, we reiterated the importance of maintaining some semblance of a routine, because you need to begin transitioning to a new and sustainable normal. Which brings us to...

Step 3: Settle The Ball

“Settling the ball” is a soccer analogy for coping effectively with prolonged crises. In soccer, this is when a player places their foot on top of a bouncing ball thereby “settling” it on the ground. This move allows players to regain maximal control over a ball that was just in the air. Most importantly though, this strategy prevents exhaustion because while a player can kick a ball that is in the air, it requires much more effort and skill. (Can you tell I’m not a soccer player from my description?) In life, settling the ball is about diffusing stressful situations by shifting to a more sustainable strategy as a solution to the same problem. It’s not clear at this point in time how long quarantine is going to last. So while adrenaline might have gotten us through the first few hours, days, or even weeks, you are probably starting to see the effects of an overactive stress-response right now (e.g. fatigue, headaches, inability to concentrate).

This looks like, aforementioned, cutting back on unsustainable coping mechanisms, such as eating, shopping, binge watching Netflix, and especially drinking alcohol. Replace those coping strategies with healthy ones, such as exercise, journaling, and engaging hobbies as best you can. We understand that it’s often not convenient or easy to do these things, even when there isn’t quarantine going on, but your mental health is hugely important to your physical health, and I think we’ll find when this is all over that the people who fared the best through all of this weren’t necessarily the young or the wealthy, but the people who prioritize self-care. We hope you have found this advice helpful. Be well, and don’t hesitate to reach out if you need additional support right now. All of the information presented in this blog was derived from Brené Brown’s podcast mentioned at the beginning of this blog. Please Note: Transparency is important to us here at Smart Talk, which is why we want to clarify that all of the links used in this blog are Amazon Affiliate links -- which means that we receive a small portion of the proceeds of any purchases made using the links.

Written by Sophie Wright

Originally published on 04/10/2020

20 views0 comments


bottom of page