Shame: A Candid Treatment. Part VI

Hiding – figuratively and literally – in response to feeling shame

As summer draws to its close, and work proper begins again, we return to our discussion about shame. In Parts I-V of Shame: A Candid Treatment, we considered the nature of shame and how it can impact your career and leadership. Here, we review what shame is about, and explore hiding as an internal response to it.

What is shame about and how does it work?

The concept and experience of shame returns repeatedly to the sense of being looked at in a critical way: Does the other person view us as being good enough? Are we deficient in some critical way? Have they seen something about us that we didn’t want them to? In this sense, it’s about self-presentation and appearances, and it involves impression management.

Shame is directly about ‘me’ and what others think about me. To be more precise, it is about what I think others think about me, which in psychological terms makes it a ‘projection’ (for a good introduction to the concept of projection, see here). Thus the process of shame is:

  1. I think someone has seen something about me that I do not want them to;
  2. I think they think something about me which is adverse or critical (on the basis of what they have seen); and
  3. I experience shame, which involves particular somatic responses, internal psychological responses, and external behaviours.

It is crucial to note that it is not that someone has actually seen something about me, nor that they have subsequently formed an adverse or critical view about me because of this. It is about my idea and perception that they have. This is not to deny that someone may in fact have seen something we don’t want them to and that this may lead them to a negative conclusion about us. But it is to say that the reality is often more complex, and often involves further considerations related to the cause of our particular experience of shame.

Our somatic responses to shame may include lowering our eyes or looking away, blushing, having a sinking feeling (within us, or into our chair or the floor), and our motioning to leave company as soon as possible. Internal responses include feelings of grandiosity (see Part II), fantasies of destruction (see Part III), perfectionism (see Part IV), a will to hide, and envy. Meanwhile, external behaviours to shame will show up differently depending on our background, how we tend to experience shame, and the context in which we find ourselves during the shaming occasion in question. Common external behaviours include overworking, overselling our capabilities, and passive aggressive comments.

Hiding as a response to feeling shame

Hiding is a pervasive and multi-faceted response to experiencing shame. We start with some common examples of how it can show up in external behaviours:

  • We may avoid the company of people around whom we anticipate being shamed, dodging them in hallways, keeping a low profile when they pass by, or not participating in projects or activities they’re involved in;
  • We may seek to exclude them, which may be more or less conscious for us, as we genuinely forget to invite them to meetings or omit them in email chains or slack conversations, inadvertently turn our backs to them in group situations, or, quite at unawares, talk over them or interrupt them while they are speaking;
  • We may use humour and make jokes to distract others from looking too hard at the ‘real us’. Here, jokes can operate much like bang snaps, where we throw them around ourselves to make others look elsewhere; and
  • We may talk too much or over-justify ourselves. Here, we’ve assumed that the other person has drawn a negative conclusion about us, and are now attempting to provide them with additional evidence to try to change this.

As suggested by the examples above, we can be more or less aware of what we are doing when we hide in response to shame. All efforts at hiding, whether automatic or more deliberate, are efforts to shield something about us from view. Usually this is about our fear that others see us in a way we do not want to be seen, and which we may have taken pains to cover up, correct for, or even hide from ourselves. As we respond to this fear, we may attempt to hide ourselves physically, or by withdrawing mentally or emotionally.

Automatic versus deliberate hiding

When we experience a sense of shame and it makes us want to hide, we may do so more automatically or more deliberately. It doesn’t happen in a black and white way, and the degree of awareness with which we do it operates along a spectrum. Where we try to hide more automatically, our reaction to the feeling or anticipation of being shamed prompts us to act spontaneously and with little conscious thought or attention. We may suddenly excuse ourselves, walk away, exit a conversation, or stop actively participating in a meeting or activity taking place. Our cessation of active participation is not solely about showing up in a more extraverted way; it’s also about us stopping paying attention, not listening actively, ceasing taking notes or preparing to make a future input.

Our hiding may also be more deliberate. Here, when we sense rising shame within ourselves, we look for ways to shield ourselves from view. We may choose to avoid someone, or stop ‘showing up’ in meetings or conversations that involve them. We may gradually withdraw our contribution, our comments, and our presence from our work with them. We may begin to hide behind emails or text messages, or may prop up the iron wall that is the new favourite: “I’m so sorry, things have just been so busy!” (Little wonder that when people say this, we are more suspicious than we used to be.)

At all points along the automatic-to-deliberate spectrum: when we think that something has been seen that we didn’t want to be, we attempt to hide it again in the most effective manner: by removing ourselves or a part of ourselves. Here, it helps to use an analogy: that of a shop window. Let’s say that what you want to hide is represented by a small, ornately-decorated plate. You may choose to take just this plate out of the shop window. You may decide to take all plates out of the shop window but to leave the other homewares there. You may go all out and to pull everything out of the shop window, leaving it empty. (From our teenage years, we may recall another hiding favourite: taking everything out of the shop window and then replacing it all with wares from another style or fad!) Our shop dressing changes may persist for a specific or indefinite amount of time. And just as the manner and nature of how we make the change can take on any number of different permutations, so too will the length of time we feel is appropriate for the change to persist for. (Many a relationship, professional and personal, is ‘permanently closed for business’ after an incident in which we or the other person passes their ‘shame tolerance threshold’. Here, we may stay in touch with the individual, but the relationship is never again what it was and certainly the quality of the connection feels less rich.)

After we have made our shop window changes, we may not care about what passersby think or feel, or we may be more the variety of owner who cautiously peeks over the counter at the back to see whether the ‘offending customer’ happens to saunter by. Where we spot said offending customer we may feel irritated, unnerved, worried, or even angry. Worse still, our reaction may cause us further discomfort or pain, and we may lament how sensitive we are to them or experience rageful fantasies because we detest how they can make us feel. How does the passersby analogy translate into the work context? It’s when you get an email or call from the offending person, bump into them, or see one of their posts or updates. Essentially, being reminded of them or what they represent to us (being articulate, being attractive, having a higher position in the organisation, having more money, having more influence, etc.) can trigger unwelcome memories of the shameful experience and lead us to re-experience aspects of it.

The unintentional messages we send out when we hide

Whether automatic or deliberate, our external behaviours can send out signals to others. Involuntary facial expressions and gestures, plus more obvious avoidance or exclusion, will be picked up by others. Where this occurs, somewhat ironically and tragically, it may be your own attempts to hide your shame that may point other people directly towards the conclusions you don’t want them to draw about you. For example, ashamed at being passed over for an opportunity you thought was well within your reach, you may talk down or ridicule its assessment procedure. In so doing, you may highlight your lack of the requisite maturity or self-awareness required to succeed in that very opportunity.

An additional and much underestimated aspect of hiding behaviours is the antagonism they can create. Walking into a meeting where we expect colleagues to underestimate the value of our contribution, we may adopt a more assertive tone and argue down counterpoints more energetically. How can that come across? As argumentative and bulldozing. Entering a conference of peers where we’re worried the value of our work won’t really be understood, or where we feel others will judge us, we may hang back, avoiding eye contact unless there’s a speaker we really want to speak to. How can that come across? As aloof, as snubbing our peers, and, perhaps, as self-important also. There are countless other examples. But essentially, as we ‘armour’ ourselves (a) to prevent others seeing our more vulnerable sides, and (b) in defence of the unfair or damning criticism we fear is to come, we adopt an antagonistic attitude.

Our ‘armouring up’ indicates preparation for hostility. How do we expect that will make the other person feel? And this particularly when shame is a projection, which means it is about my idea and perception of what you have seen about me and think about me. It is notably not about what they have actually seen or what they actually think about me.

How projection shows up in hiding

Consider three key options for what happens when we feel shamed:

  1. We are right both that the other person has seen what we fear they have, and that they then judge us in the specific negative way we’re afraid they will;
  2. We are right that the other person has seen what we fear they have, but we’re wrong about how they then judge us. Instead they may maintain their current view of us* or they may alter their view of us in some way (*about which we may be more-or-less right, although of course it is notoriously difficult to develop an accurate view of what others think about us); and
  3. We are wrong and the other person did not see what we thought they did. Here, they may or may not form the opinion we fear they might. In fact, our own experience of shame, internal responses, and external behaviours may be fundamental in leading them to think what we fear they will.

The question – and it’s a critical one – becomes: what option plays out for us in the shaming experience in question? Most times option one is the least likely of all three. To be right about people seeing a particular thing in us and drawing a specific conclusion based on it speaks to the other person having not only a very rare level of perceptiveness, but also an uncanny likeness of mind to our own (or the ability to reason and act from such a space). Our inner shames, much as they may be front and centre for us, are perhaps not as visible as we feel they are, and, even if they were, it’s unlikely people will draw the specific conclusions we’re afraid of.

With the above being the case, an important space for our own agency opens up. Our relationship to our own shames gains an central bearing on how we relate to others (including ourselves), and on our capacity to realise effective leadership, authenticity, and personal career purpose. We consider the specific impact of hiding on leadership and career outcomes in Part VI.