Shame: A Candid Treatment. Part III

Passive aggressive tendencies at work

We’ve looked at shame and how it is about what you want to show, what you want to hide, and what you want to protect. Shame can induce powerful and damaging mental and emotional responses. Our internal psychological defences can support us against these. However, they can also lead to unintended consequences for our career and how we show up as leaders.

Last week, we considered the disempowering effect of shame and the psychological defence of ‘feelings of grandiosity’. Being shamed can also feel like a threat to what matters to us. It may violate the privacy of something we care about, or endanger that which is vital to our sense of self, and how we are able to cope and get on in the world. The important thing to remember is that it doesn’t matter whether others think that a shaming act should actually make you feel endangered, violated, upset, angered. What matters are the feelings and responses that it gives rise to within you, your intrapsychic reality.

Fantasies of destruction are one such response to this. As before, the term ‘fantasy’ describes where we let our minds wander to. Impulses we may experience include ‘I want to damage what matters to the person who shamed me’, ‘I want to destroy the person who shamed me’, ‘I want to contain the person who shamed me’. Often, these impulses will be subtler and may come in the form of passive aggression or microaggressions: ‘Who does she think she is’ followed by an unflattering remark about that person; or, ‘They just can’t get away with this’ coupled with it slipping your mind to hand an important document on time.

Where do these thoughts and drives come from? In Being and Nothingness, Jean-Paul Sartre refers to ‘the look of the other’ and how we look at ourselves with the fantasised look of others. We cannot avoid the fact that other people look at us. But this is a scandal. You can look at me as you like, and I cannot change this. This is partially why I may try to please you so that you look at me with a ‘friendly eye’. However, the fact that you look at me at all is a form of scandal to me because it disturbs me from my subjectivity. Your look comes in on me from the outside world. It’s a threat to my values and ideals, and it has the power to influence me.

The problem here lies in how you make me feel about myself. It is not about what you truly think, it is about what I project onto your look (often unconsciously). Thus, we may attribute thoughts and feelings to ‘the shamer’ which they don’t actually have about us. Indeed, the shamer may not actually be a shamer. We may fail to see the actual nature of their look and its intentions, and if we do appreciate its real nature, we may misjudge its degree. Where this then prompts feelings of shame and being threatened, our fantasies of destruction may lead to thoughts, feelings, and acts that overcompensate for the actual ‘scandal’ committed.

The above is not to detract from acts that shame us, our responses to them, nor how we then feel and think about the people involved. It is important to acknowledge and honour what comes up, even when it is not palatable. However, where our own ‘fantasies of destruction’ escape us, they may become regular, unintended features of how we show up at work and as leaders. For example, where our being questioned repeatedly about our approach makes us feel ashamed (that perhaps we have got it wrong and aren’t respected by our team), we may respond by nitpicking aspects of team members’ work product. The effect on how your team members perceive you may not be supportive of your leadership effectiveness or reputation.

‘Fantasies of destruction’ are essentially a response, and one that attempts to redress an imbalance and a perceived attack. Suspending moral judgement, we highlight that when it comes to your leadership craft and career management, it pays to make conscious and intentional choices about how you show up and its consequences. Regardless of whether or not a compensatory passive or active aggression is warranted, if it undermines an important leadership goal for you, that then becomes collateral damage for you. Where you cultivate increased awareness about what makes you feel threatened, and your ‘go-to’ responses to this, you can start working out different strategies and techniques that better support you personally and professionally.

Next week we will be looking at perfectionism as a way of dealing with shame.