Brené Brown’s Advice for When You Feel Like Shutting Down

Acknowledge that this is supposed to suck

II have no idea what the fuck I’m doing right now. I mean, I do in the sense that I know how to wake up, make my bed, brush my teeth, and pour my coffee. But then I look at my planner and see a sea of unfamiliarity: Zoom meetings in lieu of sitting around a table. Online courses rather than classrooms. FaceTime dinner dates instead of shared appetizers at my favorite local restaurants. I’m trying to get used to this new way of existing, but I’ve been struggling to settle in.

The other day, I listened to the first episode of Brené Brown’s new podcast Unlocking Us, and she summed up what I’ve been feeling — what we’re all feeling right now — with a single acronym: FFT. It stands for “Fucking First Time” and refers to anything we do for the first time: start a job at a new company, learn a new skill, or cope with a global pandemic.

An FFT is hard by nature — it’s our fucking first time. Bad feelings are normal whenever we do something we’ve never done before. But we often forget that. As Brown points out, for a lot of us who are at least middle-aged (which she defines as “38 to death”) and have a certain amount of privilege, we’ve organized our lives so that we’re rarely forced to experience FFTs. Unless tragedy strikes or we choose to do something out of our comfort zone, like take a pottery class or skydive, our days are filled with the familiar.

This isn’t because we’re boring or unimaginative, but because routines give our brains a sense of control over our little patch of the universe. As a fantasy novelist, I create new worlds, but I also have a planner to remind me of my very predictable daily schedule. Nowhere does it tell me how to deal with terrifying news reports, or connect with friends and family while social distancing, or keep moving forward when we don’t know what’s next.

Brown explains that we associate “uncomfortable” with “unsafe,” and even the most staid of us are feeling a lot of both right now. But we can begin to shift our perception of discomfort by doing a few things. First, Brown says we should “identify and name” our FFT. Say, “I’m really anxious about going to the store during a pandemic.” Or, “I’ve never homeschooled my kid. What the fuck am I doing?” The goal is not to hide from your feelings or sublimate them, but to label and express them. By being honest with ourselves and our loved ones about how we’re feeling, we can move onto other strategies.

After we’ve named our FFT, we can “normalize discomfort,” Brown says. It’s normal to feel stressed, anxious, and confused right now. This doesn’t mean we should dismiss these feelings — we’re simply embracing the fact that discomfort is a natural and essential part of our existence, as well as our growth. Brown says, “Learning how to stay standing in the midst of feeling unsure and uncertain — that’s the foundation of courage.”

This is the point when we can start to put things into perspective. We’ve all experienced uncomfortable feelings before. No, I’ve never lived through a pandemic and self-isolation, but I have felt anxious, stressed, and afraid many times in my life. In every other circumstance, the feelings eventually went away. Remembering this helps me know that even this historical moment will pass.

Finally, we can use this perspective to reality-check our expectations. As Brown warns, this is going to suck for a while. But knowing this, we can move forward with altered standards. Yes, I get to be disappointed that I can’t see and hug my friends. But I can make do, for the meantime, with FaceTiming. Yes, it sucks that I can’t travel. But I can use that money to help my community. No, I can’t go to the gym. But I can get outside and do other things.

Within this worldwide FFT, you’ll probably face dozens of personal FFTs. Maybe this is the first time you have to give a presentation on Zoom, or share a makeshift home office with your partner, or worry about your food supply. Start naming these things. One of my FFTs is yoga, something I’ve never been able to get comfortable with but want to do more of now that I can’t go to my regular gym.

Fucking First Times are hard and sometimes scary, but the one guarantee is that nothing stays “first” forever. As we work through them, it’s important to be kind to ourselves and others. I’ll be trying to do that as I adjust to this new normal — and in the meantime, maybe I’ll even get comfortable doing a Downward Facing Dog.

Novelist and essayist. Director of the MFA in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University. Find out more at http://nicolepeeler.com.

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