What I’m Reading: Atlas of the Heart

I should actually call this post “what I’m re-reading and still trying to wrap my head around”—Brené Brown’s Atlas of the Heart isn’t a one-time quick read. It’s like a big beautiful coffee table book, filled with deep insights that make you go away and come back to it later. It’s been visually designed for that, with quotations highlighted and featured like they should be up on your wall or mirror as a daily reminder (apparently her house and office are full of post its with words of wisdom on them).

The theme of my life in recent years–unmet expectations. I’ve been feeling a lot of bitterness about unmet expectations.

-My generation was told that we had to get a good education to get a good job—and we are now the most educated and lowest paid.

-I was told that I was gifted and I expected that to translate into a successful career. It hasn’t.

-I expected to be able to establish my career within the first 5 years after finishing my PhD. Now I’m nearly 8 years post-PhD and haven’t even managed to keep my foot in the door.

-I expected to have a lovely maternity leave with Paul, meeting up with other mom friends over coffee while George was in school. Instead, we were stuck at home, juggling distance learning and baby care and pandemic survival.

Everybody’s had a terrible time over the past couple of years, of course, and it makes me feel like I shouldn’t complain–my close friends and family have all survived, I have a roof over my head and food to eat, etc. At the same time, how can you not complain when you’re trying to process all of…this? The politics, the climate crisis, the pandemic, the gun violence, the racial reckoning, Brexit, Ukraine, the cost of living, wage stagnation, food banks…Comparative suffering doesn’t help anybody, but it’s hard not to go down that route.

The main point of Atlas of the Heart is to develop our language around emotions. Using more precise language can help us better understand our emotions, and those of others, too. I really liked the disambiguation pages, where she explains how different terms relate to each other. On p. 54, she explains how feeling discouraged is about losing confidence and enthusiasm, whereas if you feel resigned, you’ve already lost your confidence and enthusiasm. It’s a step further down that path.

As long as I apply to jobs and get rejected, I’m discouraged, but once I fully give up and stop applying, then I’m resigned. At the moment, I still have academic job applications pending, so I’m not quite at the point of feeling resigned, no matter how discouraged and frustrated I might feel.

Knowing these definitions and understanding that distinction between different shades of disappointment, discouragement and resignation actually does help to make sense of it all.

What I’m Reading: The Rise by Sarah Lewis

Another brilliant read from another Brené Brown podcast guest! These podcasts really have been responsible for most of my to-be-read pile over the past couple of years. Just like other books I’ve heard featured on the podcasts and read, like The Body is Not an Apology or Burnout, The Rise was thought-provoking and inspiring.

It’s also not a book I would have picked out otherwise–Dr. Lewis is a professor of art history and there’s an emphasis on aesthetics and creativity that isn’t something I would ordinarily seek out. I don’t think of myself as creative. In school, I always loved writing but I needed a prompt–I could rock a book report or an AP history document based question, but I struggled to come up with ideas for fiction or poetry assignments. I took a couple of art history classes in undergrad, but I thought it was just for fun. I didn’t see much value in the discipline–I saw majoring in art history as something for rich white kids who don’t need to study vocational subjects because they don’t need to worry about getting a job after graduating (case in point: the Duchess of Cambridge was an art history major).

Sarah Lewis changed my mind about that. In one of her examples of the power of images, she talked about how the diagram of the Brookes slave ship contributed to the abolitionist movement because it vividly showed the inhumanity of the slave trade. That was the kind of real-life, tangible impact that convinced me something more was going on than just memorising names and dates, artists and titles of paintings, etc.

My favourite chapter was on the Deliberate Amateur, which talked about the value of having an outsider’s perspective, and the importance of play in creativity. It’s something that Brené Brown talks about in The Gifts of Imperfection, and it’s even part of Ted Lasso. Part of the show’s whole premise is that he doesn’t know anything about soccer, but he knows how to coach and inspire people to believe. He brings an outsider’s perspective and creativity, like when he used trick plays to create chaos and throw off Man City.

The section on Samuel B. Morse was also fascinating. I had no idea he was a failed painter! His legacy has been completely associated with telegraphy and Morse code, it’s incredible to think that he had a completely different ambition, and struggled with his lack of success in his painting career. Such an unexpected story! It reminded me of Maya Angelou’s advice to Oprah about her legacy–that you have no idea what your legacy will be. Your legacy is every life that you’ve touched. For Morse, it was the changes wrought by his innovations in telegraphy–this short National Geographic article did a lovely job of summarising it–rather than the legacy he wanted and expected, that of being a great painter.

In my low moments, when I’m despairing of my failed academic career, I look at 2 things to remind myself of the partial legacy I’ve already created. Firstly, I look at comments my students have made about me in their dissertations’ acknowledgement sections, where they thanked me for my support, my kindness, my patience, etc. Things I thought were just normal were actually unusual amongst the staff, and they appreciated it. Secondly, I google my name and see the works that I’ve been cited in. My research has been referenced in other people’s research. It’s not many, but it’s some, and it’s proof enough that people have read my work and used it for its intended purpose. It’s been useful. Maybe it’s all the episodes of Thomas the Tank Engine I’ve been watching over the past few years, but I appreciate being useful.

Vulnerability, Perfectionism, and the Job Search

I’m currently reading Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, and even though I know what it’s all about from following her TED talks and podcasts and Super Soul Conversations with Oprah, reading it is still mind-blowing.

I’m starting to realize why the job search is so hard and uncomfortable: it’s all about vulnerability.

Applying for a job is literally putting yourself up for judgment.

On a recent Unlocking Us podcast episode (linked below), Dr. Yaba Blay said she had found academia “the least affirming space” for her, and I felt that in my soul. Looking for a job in academia is incredibly painful and soul-destroying–every job posting is for a niche topic and requires relocating and demands an extensive track record of excellent, world-changing research, etc. I can scroll through pages and pages of academic job postings without finding a single thing that I can apply for–and I come away thinking it’s because I’m not good enough. I haven’t had enough publications or research experience or funding awards. As Brene Brown terms it, I operate from a place of scarcity.

The job search is all about scarcity (lacking qualifications/experience/money) and perfectionism (fear of judgment and rejection, trying to please and impress at the interview), and it requires you to be vulnerable. Nightmare.

This is especially true if, like me, you associate your self-worth with your accomplishments. Your CV/resume is a list of your accomplishments, so if you put it out there and it gets rejected, you feel worthless. Even worse, if you get shortlisted and get your hopes up and go to an interview, you can get rejected by people who actually met you and talked with you. How do you go through that without feeling worthless?

Brené Brown’s answer is that you don’t attach your self-worth to your accomplishments, to a job, to a relationship, etc. You just stand in the knowledge that you are enough. Right now, as is. If you can separate those things and know that whatever happens, you are enough, then you can withstand disappointments.

I’ve had the hardest time wrapping my head around that concept. If you don’t prove yourself with achievements, then how do you? It made no sense to me. Growing up, I only understood my worth in terms of achievement, specifically academic achievement. I was motivated by it, and now Brené Brown’s telling me I didn’t actually have to get a PhD to be worthy? That the overweight, crooked-toothed, frizzy-haired 13-year-old in a baggy t-shirt in my 8th grade school picture was good enough just as she was? Believing that requires a wholesale rejection of everything society has taught me all my life.

And that’s just it. You don’t prove yourself–you can’t and you don’t have to. You are just inherently worthy of love and belonging because you are human. It’s completely at odds with the world around us, with advertising and tv and movies, etc. But there’s also something very obvious about it. Of course everyone has value.

I struggle to accept this lesson for myself and my own self-worth, but one day I realised that I already do accept that people have inherent worth–when it comes to other people. When I was doom-scrolling job sites, it occurred to me that I don’t know what careers our old friends at church had before they retired, but I still think they’re wonderful people. They’re friendly, kind, funny, generous, community-minded. I see them as “contributing members of society,” a designation I won’t give myself until I have a “proper” job.

I’m still trying to wrap my head around vulnerability and trying to muster up the courage to put myself out there (blogging is part of it), but I think it’s all part of the need for self-compassion. Acknowledging that this is hard, recognising that nobody gets it right all the time, and standing firm in the knowledge that you are already enough, just as you are.

Brown, B. (Host). (2021, March 3). Brené with Dr. Yaba Blay on One Drop: Shifting the Lens on Race. [Audio podcast episode]. In Unlocking Uswith Brené Brown. Parcast Network. https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-dr-yaba-blay-on-one-drop-shifting-the-lens-on-race/

What I’m Reading: Self-Compassion by Dr. Kristin Neff

I’m not even finished reading this book, but I’ve found it really helpful and wanted to share it now because I know it’s such a difficult time of year for so many people.

I found Kristin Neff’s work through another favourite author, Brené Brown. In The Gifts of Imperfection, which could be the topic of at least 10 blog posts (maybe a project for next year?), Brown directs her readers to Kristin Neff’s website for a Self-Compassion Test. I took it when I was reading Brown’s book, and my results were so low and sad, I immediately ordered Neff’s book.

Self-compassion is basically treating yourself with the same kind of compassion that you would treat other people. One of the early practical exercises in the book is to write a letter to yourself as if you were talking to a friend. Objectively, I can recognise that I would never be as critical or judgmental towards a friend as I am towards myself, but the letter exercise really did shift something in my perspective. I beat myself up so much about my career failures–my self-talk goes something like this: “I’m 35 and I’ve never had a full-time job. I apply to jobs and don’t even get shortlisted. My CV is apparently not marketable and nobody wants to hire me. Nobody thinks I have anything to contribute. I’ve wasted my entire adult life in grad school accumulating massive debts that I can never repay because I don’t have any marketable skills or experience.”

Now, if a friend came to me with news about getting yet another job rejection e-mail, I would not even think any of these things–much less say them out loud! I would say comforting things, tell them I’m sorry to hear it, remind them how lousy the job market is right now, buy them a coffee, remind them of all of the good things they have going on in their life, etc. I would be compassionate.

Before reading The Gifts of Imperfection, I wouldn’t have considered myself a perfectionist, but I actually am–it’s less about being “Type A” and more about fearing judgment and linking self-worth to accomplishments, which I 100% do. This past year of being unemployed has forced me to work through my perfectionism, because being unemployed is the most imperfect thing in my view. I would be more compassionate towards people with drug addiction, failed relationships, etc. than I would to myself and my situation. Getting a PhD and failing to get a job feels shameful. And I’m sharing this because as Brené Brown tells us, shame cannot survive being spoken.

Still working through things and trying to be more self-compassionate, but it feels good to have Neff’s tools as we go into the new year.