📚Atlas of the Heart, Part 2: Shame Resilience

Last Sunday I returned from a 4-day gathering with extended family in Colorado to mark my brother’s milestone birthday. I had looked forward to this weekend for months as I rarely get several days with my siblings and cousins without kids in tow, and I love the outdoors. All ingredients for a fun getaway, except for the getting sick part.

I have always struggled with altitude. Despite my preparations for the steep slopes and high peaks of Colorado, by the second day there I was exhausted. I knew I was no match for my more athletic cousins on the slopes, so I tried to keep up with the banter among family in our rental home, but just struggled. It wasn’t until I was back in the Chicago suburbs Sunday evening when my cough and exhaustion could no longer be chalked up to altitude that I had to face that it could be something else: COVID-19.

My suspicions were confirmed with a positive test on Monday, and I was filled with so many emotions I struggled to sort them out. More than anything, I felt like my illness had let so many people down. This had been the first opportunity for my significant other to meet my extended family and I had not been able to fully engage and enjoy the weekend with him and others. Returning home with COVID also meant I couldn’t see my boys for several days, and I risked dropping the ball on the many work responsibilities waiting for me after a few days off.

“Where perfectionism exists, shame is always lurking.”

Bréne Brown

Some people embrace the opportunity to focus on rest and recovery when ill, but others are like me and can relate to Bréne Brown’s tendency to ‘hustle for approval.’ Seeking approval from family and friends and equating that with love and belonging has been a lifelong struggle for me. My default belief is that “I am only as good as my last accomplishment,” and I hate to let others down. I also hate to say “no,” so you can imagine that it’s not uncommon that my desire to please leads to disappointment for me and others in my life.

Fortunately, I had Brown’s new book, Atlas of the Heart, to help me work through and articulate what I was feeling. As Sara described in last week’s post, this guide to understanding and naming the myriad of emotions one can experience at any given time can be helpful. First, I was able to recognize the mix of guilt and shame at the root of my struggles with my positive COVID diagnosis. Was it selfish of me to take this trip when the risk could be exposing myself and others to illness? Had I unknowingly brought the dreaded virus with me to Colorado? After I’ve told countless others that there is to be no “COVID shaming” when they share their own, or their child’s diagnosis, I couldn’t get there myself. The hardest thing I had to do on Monday was text my fellow travels to let them know of my diagnosis.

The immediate outpouring of support and well wishes was amazing. Not one drop of judgement in the messages I received, just love and concern. As Brown writes in Atlas, “The antidote to shame is empathy.” I had felt isolated and feared judgement from others because I was judging myself so harshly. It is ironic that our own self-talk can be so much harsher than anything we would ever say to friends or loved ones, or that they would say to us. In Atlas, research cited by Kristin Neff’s Center for Mindful Self-Compassion shares lessons for shame resilience, including practicing self-kindness and mindfulness.

“Compassion is fueled by understanding and accepting that we’re all made of strength and struggles.”

Bréne Brown

I was interested to learn recently that practicing mindfulness and self-compassion are also effective tools for combatting loneliness. A National Academy of Sciences 2019 research article and recent Harvard research cited in a December Psychology Today article supports that people who reported being loneliest were least likely to reframe a situation and give it positive meaning. I have used mindfulness techniques throughout my adult life to navigate stressful experiences and practice “acceptance” of what I am unable to change. The idea that some negative experiences could be reframed has helped me build resiliency and a stronger perception of myself.

In Atlas as well as her other books, Brown is very open with her own struggles, from shame to self-compassion to setting boundaries. She writes about ‘Four Elements of Shame Resilience,’ which include reaching out to others. She asks, “Are you owning and sharing your story? We can’t experience empathy if we’re not connecting.”

So, while the weekend wasn’t the experience I had built up in my mind, I am starting to see it through a different lens. And thanks to Atlas I am reminded to judge myself a little less and be more open to compassion, from myself and from others.

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