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Brené Brown and Dolly Parton discuss vulnerability, leadership and love

Researcher and author Brené Brown interviews kindred spirit Dolly Parton, as they compare notes on vulnerability, leadership and love...

by Psychologies

brene brown interviews Dolly Parton

Brené Brown says of music icon Dolly Parton: ‘From her songs, “Coat Of Many Colors” to working “9 To 5”, no dream is too big and no mountain too high for the country girl who turned the world into her stage, and me into… I don’t know! She changed my life, she really did.’ Brown’s admiration of her idol shows no sign of abating. ‘I woke up this morning and had a coffee in a cup that reads “A cup of ambition” [a “9 To 5” lyric] and I’m looking across the room at a 5ft 4in framed photo [of Dolly, naturally].’ We love and respect both these incredible women at Psychologies, so we were thrilled when they agreed to us sharing this interview, which appears on Brown’s Spotify Original ‘Unlocking Us’ podcast

Q BB: Your new book  Songteller: My Life In Lyrics – oh God, this book! Here’s something you write in there: ‘As a songwriter and as a person, I have to leave myself wide open. I suffer a lot because I am open so much. I hurt a lot and, when I hurt, I hurt all over because I cannot harden my heart to protect myself. I always say that I strengthen the muscles around my heart, but I can’t harden it.’

A DP: Well, that’s exactly how I feel as a human being and as a writer. I feel I have to feel for everybody, and I’m sure you’re the same way. You have to allow yourself to be open and you can’t just shut those doors because you want to – and maybe you would prefer to – but that’s not how you’re going to become a good-quality human being who’s going to be able to serve humanity in the best ways you can.

Q BB: Has there been a price to keeping your heart open? 

A DP: Oh, yeah. When you hurt, you hurt all over. I’m just the kind of person who, rather than lashing out at something that hurts me, I usually cry about it and pray about it. I don’t often lose my temper, but I often have to use it, being protective of my business or my family or whatever is important to me. I know how to speak up. I know how to stand  sturdy. That doesn’t mean I’m hardening my heart or that I’m a bitch of any kind.  Sometimes people would say that I am [but] you have to just speak your truth, you have to say what you need to say to get things done, especially if you’re the boss of a major operation.

I prefer never to have to call anybody down for any reason. I would prefer that people do what they say they will do, and that they’re qualified to do it. When they take my kindness or my sensitivity for weakness, that’s a big mistake, because I’ll go with you a long way, but then I’ll call you on it. I’ll just say, ‘Hey, no, no, no, that’s not how this works here.’

Q BB: As a leader, what is something that really pisses you off? 

A DP: People not being on time – that is the thing that gets me the most. Even if I’m being picked up by somebody and they’re not on time, that ruins my whole day because they made me late, and I am such a responsible person. I believe that everybody’s time is important, and I don’t think you ever need to be so big that you believe that your time is all that matters. And people who don’t do what I know they’re qualified to do, what I hired them to do, and what they said they could do. And they just get lackadaisical as if, ‘Well, you’re the one getting the big money.’ Yeah, but you are getting paid to do this job, and if you want a better one, go somewhere else, but you’ve got to really take your work seriously, no matter what that job is.

Q BB: How do you help people understand that it’s OK to turn towards pain? You’ve spent your whole life looking it right in the eye and singing to us about it.

A DP: I don’t know how to teach anybody how to deal with pain. I just go to people who are suffering, and if I can’t do anything physically, I can write about it or donate something to the cause or whatever. But I don’t ignore it. I can’t just turn my back on life and suffering and people.

We’ll all be in pain one day, and you want to treat people the way you want to be treated. You don’t have to believe in anything [religious] to be good to people. Just know you should be a good human being. There’s a golden rule.  If you are a religious person, you should know better anyway. But it doesn’t matter if you don’t have any faith, have some faith in yourself as a human being. And believe in a higher wisdom, something bigger than you. If you don’t believe in something bigger than you, then you become your own god and then you’re really in just a big mess.

Q BB: You speak truth to shame; in saying we’re not defined by these things [that have happened to us]. It’s so powerful…

A DP: Well, we’re not [defined by bad things that we have experienced]. So many people tell me horrible things that happened to them in childhood, maybe by an abusive parent, or some horrible sex crimes committed against them. And they think it’s their fault and they live in shame. It’s not their fault. But also they don’t have to be defined by that if they can find a light and a way to brighten up their life, and try to forgive, if they can, the darkness that was in that person who did that to them. It’s not their shame.  They can be brought into the light with enough love, and if you throw enough light on that situation to say, ‘Honey, it’s not your fault, you didn’t do anything wrong. Let us try to make it right with you.’ Try to have them love themselves enough to come out of it, and see that they still have a life ahead.

Q BB: You do an incredible job. I love the way you frame that: shining a light in dark places so people can find love. That’s so much about what your work is…

A DP: Well, that’s what you do too. You help people try to shine a light on the darkness out there and in the dark spots of their own lives. It’s hard to shine a light into those dark places. You don’t want to relive it. You don’t want to remember. You think you’re going to forget it, but you never are – so it’s best to just get it out, tell somebody with a good heart and a good mind and enough love to say, ‘Hey, let’s just work this out. I’ll help you with that.’

*Extract from the ‘Unlocking Us’ podcast

Let's work out magic

Kindness unites us and makes life better. In ‘The kindness conversation’, we hope to inspire more compassion in the world. For more, listen to ‘Unlocking Us’ with Brené Brown for free exclusively on Spotify and read ‘Songteller’ by Dolly Parton.

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