Shame: A Candid Treatment. Part VII

The impact of shame on personal career purpose

What’s the impact of shame on our career development? We’ve explored several ways shame can impact our professional lives. This week we focus on the specific impact that hiding can have on our career choices and personal career purpose.

As mentioned in the previous episode on shame (Part VI), our relationship to our own shames has a central bearing on how we relate to others. Crucially, this includes how we relate to ourselves. It matters for our capacity to realise effective leadership, authentic leadership, and personal career purpose.

There are two key ways in which hiding can impact you:

    1. The nature of what you hide. What are you hiding, and by implication, what aspects of yourself are ‘off the table’? This has far-reaching implications for personal career purpose, career choices, career development, and authentic leadership.
    2. The manner in which you hide it. How do you hide it? What does this communicate about you? Here this is about impression management, about leadership style and about personal presence. It can impact all aspects of effective leadership, including team work and stakeholder management.

To cope with shame, we hide aspects of ourselves that, at one point, were deemed unacceptable, unpalatable, or ‘not okay’. We may hide these aspects from work colleagues, from friends, from those close to us, and even from ourselves. Getting to the heart of what makes us ashamed is like peeling an onion. As we peel back the layers we have built for self-protection and -survival (making ourselves lovable and acceptable as we grow up – to our parents, peers, and other social groups), it’s an unpleasant experience that can make us cry. It’s hard to see aspects of ourselves we don’t like, to confront things we are afraid are wrong with us, and to look at areas where we feel we fall short.

It is hiding things from ourselves that can cause the greatest damage to our career development.

Shame, hiding, and career purpose

In line with others’ expectations of us, we may hide who we really feel we are: our authentic selves. We may feel that it is not okay to share that with others (or the world), and that whatever that ‘authentic us’ is, it’s best kept secret. We build a more acceptable persona – the ‘version’ of us that represents what others expect us to be, and which we often internalise as who we think we should be.

How can this play out when it comes to career choice? Our ‘better self’ makes choices about what it’s smart for us to study at university, about what job offer we’d be stupid not to accept, about what leadership role we should strive for. Our better self even chooses our ‘extra-curricular’ activities, friends, and our romantic partners, and this is based on its idea of who we should be with and what’s really best for us.

The consequences become apparent when we start to feel disengaged, uninspired, or like we don’t really know what we want. A chasm has opened up between our authentic selves and the self-we-were-taught-is-acceptable. It’s almost as if we then live in that chasm with everything that that implies: we feel adrift, like we’re not really understood, and that something is missing (but we don’t know what).

An unplaceable poignancy can develop in our hearts or around a particular part of our lives. Here, a quote suffices to communicate what can be lost: “There is nothing more sad than the songbird that dies with all his song within him.” (Source: unknown). The Guardian newspaper (UK) wrote a piece over two years’ ago on a secretive, and illegal, subculture of trapping and keeping songbirds. This heartbreaking story is about birds who are captured in the wild, and then kept in cages to fulfil their owners’ existential yearnings. It carries much meaning for those of us hiding ourselves out of shame. Among the questions raised are: Who are we captured by? What do they represent to us? And in what senses have we internalised the captor such that we now capture ourselves?

Where we hide aspects of ourselves from ourselves, and where we do not let our song be heard, a melancholy develops that is oft times felt – at best – as a sort of numbness, disconnect, emptiness, or loneliness.

Does this mean that we should ‘let our song be heard at through our work’? No, not necessarily. But it is important that we find some place where we can safely explore who we are, and how we can give expression to that. Where we don’t, we may never really find a career-cum-life situation we are content with.