Shame is about identity and how you are seen. It is about who you are and who you aren’t. Where guilt is about the action and what you have or haven’t done, shame is specifically about you, the subject. Are you good enough? What parts can be seen without you fearing rejection? What aspects of yourself or your life need to be hidden, or protected, from ‘the look’ of others?
When something we do not want to be seen is drawn out into the open, it can feel like a violation, a disempowerment, a threat, or an attack on the very essence of who we are and how we exist. In this sense, it feels like a judgement upon ‘me’ or ‘I’, the individual. That being said, we may also feel ashamed on behalf of a group with whom we are associated, for example our family, a peer group, or fellow citizens. It’s also possible to anticipate shame, or to feel that another person should feel shame (i.e.: ’shame on you’ or ‘they should be ashamed of themselves’). Thus, shame is very particularly about the worthiness of the subject, and their intrinsic value (or lack thereof).
The physical experience of shame may include us blushing, feeling momentarily confused, slumping or slackening our posture, and lowering our head or eyes. Above all, we seek to avoid eye contact with others, and wish to remove ourselves from company – ideally, as quickly as possible.
The feeling of shame can be acute enough that it momentarily pulverises our self-esteem. We lose a sense of worth, we feel both ‘wrong’ as a person and deeply misunderstood by others. This in turn may lead to a fleeting sense of hopelessness or despair.
In some respects, shame performs valuable existential heavy-lifting. We are exhorted by a deeply challenging feeling-state to protect (i) that which we do not want to be criticised prematurely, (ii) that which could be destroyed if it were to be seen too early, and (iii) that which is private and precious.
Thus, shame is about what you want to show, what you want to hide, and what you want to protect. But, what about when this healthy existential function is, or becomes, something that impacts your confidence and judgement? Here, the impact of shame on someone’s experience of life, career, and leadership cannot be underestimated.
Shame may make the difference between challenges we approach with confidence, and those we shy away from, overlook, or too readily dismiss. From pivotal career choices to alliances and initiatives we develop, shame can exert a decisive influence on our trajectory. It mediates the capacities on which we draw as professionals and leaders. It also affects how we relate to others, and the success with which we negotiate buy-in, build our teams, and develop relationships and boundaries that support us at work and home.
Over the next few issues of Front Line Woman we explore the manifestations of shame, where it can show up in your career and leadership, and what you can do to effectively address it.