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Nature and the cultivation of shame resilience

Shame has been a difficult topic of discussion. But over the last couple of years, a few people have managed to bring the subject to the forefront of public discourse. One of these people is Brene Brown, a sociologist and researcher who’s extensive work on the subject is presented in her book Daring Greatly and her celebrated TED talk. She exposes the mechanisms of shame, and its psychological and cultural consequences.

Shame is a fundamental belief that I am bad, and has many expressions: I am not strong enough, not good enough, etc. This is categorically different from guilt, which says I did something bad. Shame is a pathology of identity. The treatment for shame, she argues, is the development of shame resilience. This involves:

  1. Recognizing Shame and Its Triggers: we tend to first feel shame physically before our minds realize what it is.
  2. Practicing Critical Awareness: reflect on the implications of cultural and community expectations, and how they affect your identity and self-image.

Illness and shame feed off each other

Illness is a source of deep shame for many, as illness commonly experienced as a failure of the body or some part of its processes. It seems to surface most when illness interferes with socially defined goals of health and ability. People struggling with mobility impairments, fertility, and sexuality might experience shame and vulnerabilities around certain physical (and social) expectations.

Ironically, shame around illness can worsen illness. This is a vicious cycle, a positive feedback loop. Lissa Rankin illustrates the consequences of mindset on health in her brilliant book Mind Over Medicine. Our mental state impacts our physical processes through a number of mechanisms, but most notably through adrenal hormones (i.e. cortisol). Neurotransmitter responses impact hormones, which can affect immunity, blood pressure, and myriad physiological processes. Rankin’s book is complete with evidence from the literature, and cases that illustrate the impact of the mind on the body (including spontaneous remission and nocebo). Feelings of shame, despair, and negative self-worth can place an additional load on the body.

There is little clinical (or even academic) attention given to the impact of illness on identity, and the consequences of shame. This topic is discussed in regards to mental illness (sometimes), but rarely in other specialties. This is something that I’ve been pondering for a few years, and we have tools to work through it. Particularly in narrative medicine.

Nature connection: healing the narrative

This is where I see herbal medicine and connection to nature as particularly helpful. Shame is a pathological narrative. When I was ill with Lyme disease, my self worth flatlined. As someone who valued health and her connection to nature so greatly, I was devastated with my lack of progress and side effects of treatment. I was working with practitioners who reinforced hurtful perspectives (you got dealt a terrible hand, I’m sorry….you chose this path of treatment and these are the consequences…Lyme is incurable….).
When I began peeling back layers of my physiology and biochemistry, the insights only seemed to confirm my fundamental brokenness. SNPs, low thyroid, low cortisol. I felt like I didn’t work right, and this crushed me. Climbing out of my depression seemed impossible. I just wanted to feel normal, to feel OK. I had well-meaning friends who preached the importance of positive thinking, which was not helpful at the time. I recall a friend who looked at me sideways when I told him that I needed help to normalize this experience. As a counselor he urged a drive to overcome illness, and affirmed that it’s not normal; it’s normal for you to be well. Though I comprehended his perspective, I just needed help in normalizing the emotional experience of illness. I needed to feel whole again, and affirmation that this is normal, and that I can get well again. That I wasn’t “disqualified” from truly living.

Fortunately I eventually found a medical doctor who perserved through the same constellation of ills and overcame them. Upon hearing my total distress on an array of new diagnoses, he asked what was so troubling. I told him that I hear that people never recover from these things, that they are lifelong ailments. I couldn’t bear the thought that my life was squandered, destroyed before it could ever meaningfully begin. With a gentle smile he told me that people overcame these conditions everyday, that he did, and that I can too.

And I did.

The hero’s journey and shame resilience

The healing process is inevitably a trial of vulnerability, out of which comes enormous strength. It’s the hero’s journey. At first, however, it’s constrictive. The world feels smaller. You can’t do things you used to do. There are new limits. So many of us turn inward and curdle feelings of failure and shame. But there’s another side to this. And this is where our connection to Nature comes into the picture.

Night doesn’t last forever. The season of Winter is finite. The morning comes, always. Spring is certain. And so it goes with the turning of the seasons; the wheel of life. Our connection to Nature situates us in this ecological and even cosmic truth. Though we may feel dark, lifeless, hopeless, these seasons in us will not persist. We may feel limited in our physical bodies, but this is not eternal. These truths break the spell of shame. They de-personalize the experience. And this lightens the emotional load, making it easier to envision healing and engage in radical self care.

This is where I think herbalists can be the most effective, by helping reconnect our fellow humans to the natural world, and all the rich lessons and narrative healing it has to offer.

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