Shame: A Candid Treatment. Part II

How feelings of grandiosity show up in your leadership

Last week, we introduced the concept – and reality – of shame. How it is about what you want to show, what you want to hide, and what you want to protect. How it is deeply connected to the sense of who we are, and the value that we and others attribute to that.

Sex addiction, substance abuse, overworking… anything in excess can be a flag for the presence of shame. Other, perhaps less obvious, manifestations of shame include ghosting on someone, perfectionistic behaviours, and feeling envy.

We explore some of the internal responses to shame, as a lens through which you might explore your own personal relationship with shame. This week, we focus on feelings of grandiosity as a compensating factor for the disempowerment of shaming. In future weeks, we’ll consider a further four internal responses: fantasies of destruction, perfectionism, hiding, and envy. Each, in their own way, can influence how you show up as a professional and leader. Some tendencies and habits will be obvious to you, while others may prompt responses and choices that are quite subconscious. Becoming more aware of your particular internal responses to shame equips you to develop your effectiveness as a leader, and to make better career choices.

Fantasies – as they relate to shame – come in one of two varieties: grandiosity and destruction. Let us first define how we use the term ‘fantasy’: it is about ideas and experiences that we entertain in our mind’s eye. Forget the sexual connotations, and those related to fairy tales or any other mythical imaginings: here, fantasy simply refers to where we let our minds wander, and the pastures that allow our mind to graze.

Being shamed is a disempowering experience. Fantasies of grandiosity are one form of psychological defence we may use to cope with this. Here, a ‘building-up’ mechanism compensates for the breaking-down of our self-worth that we experience in shaming. We may find ourselves feeling or thinking things like: ’no one understands what I’m really capable of’ or ‘no one knows how great I am’. The inflating effect of these fantasies may, over time and with overuse, become entirely imperceptible to us: thus it becomes difficult to distinguish between who ‘I’ really am, the mask I wear, my persona. Where one tries to assume a persona that does not fit or, equally, identifies too strongly with the persona, one risks substantial personal and professional sacrifices. Here, one may attempt to ‘keep up some kind of posture which one does not possess the personal wherewithal to sustain. Then an already shaky sense of security is made shakier. Having put all the best things in the window, one fears customers may enter the shop and find nothing but the shoddiest of goods.’ (Anthony Stevens, On Jung, 1992, p.42)

Commonly in this case, we may oversell our capabilities. Where this occurs in the process of a job search, we may waste our own and others’ time when we put ourselves forward for roles and mandates that we cannot deliver against. Should we achieve the role in question, we struggle to bridge the gap, and may only do so at cost to the organisation, our teams, and ourselves. Here ‘over-promising and under-delivering’ may damage our reputation or network equity. We may come to rely too much on our team, who ‘cover’ for us and fill our gaps somehow. This may undermine our ability to effectively lead and manage our team, or the work streams we share with our coworkers.

Perverse incentives may creep into our decision-making and influence our behaviours. We may inadvertently reward individuals who reinforce the self-identity we prefer. Likewise, we can develop unconscious biases against individuals who we suspect question our competence or tenure, more regularly finding fault in their work and/or neglecting to develop opportunities for their career progression. Oftentimes, at great personal cost to ourselves, we will take the entire load of fulfilling the role’s requirements, which are beyond our current level of ability and experience.

We would be remiss if we didn’t flag the razor thin lines between issues for women around confidence, assertiveness, and proving their mettle ‘in a man’s world’. Clearly, when issues around shame are added for consideration, we come to appreciate the full complexity of the matter. This holds particularly true for women, whose worth was perhaps not fully recognised or taken as given growing up – a challenge that may still persist albeit in a different guise. Navigating career and leadership challenges can become a veritable minefield in a rinse-and-repeat chain of vaguely iterative events, where you are both the foot soldier, general, cheerleader, and medic. Moreover, women who experienced invalidation growing up often overcompensate precisely in the gladiatorial arena that is the world of work. This metaphor sheds further colour on what this can mean symbolically for women.

Shame and our internal psychological responses to it can impact us, our lives, and our careers in myriad ways. This week, we introduced feelings of grandiosity as a primary internal response to dealing with the disempowering experience of shame. Next week, we turn to the ominously labelled ‘fantasies of destruction’ and consider how this response to shame may show up in your career and leadership.