Shame: A Candid Treatment. Part X

How to start addressing the impact of shame in your life. (Or: Getting a view on the Bogeyman)

Shame can alienate allies and corrode valuable relationships. Shame makes us question ourselves and leaves a space for others to question our ability and expertise. This often happens where a glance at our CVs would indicate that doubting our ability is both unnecessary and perhaps even inappropriate. Shame leaves a space for harassment and discrimination to flourish, and for those who engage in it to get away with it because we are too ashamed to say something, or we’re afraid of what will happen if we do. Worse still, we may not realise the severity of what’s occurred because we may carry too much shame. (Incidentally, this can explain the years of silence that some victims of abuse keep: they have become conditioned to such a high level of ‘wrong’ that they don’t register ‘lesser’ abuses.) Facing our shames has the capacity to help us discover new reserves of energy, confidence, and purpose. In our final exploration of shame, we introduce you to a technique for how to start addressing the impact of shame in your life.

Over the past nine episodes we have explored shame, and the many ways it can impact your career and leadership. We called it a candid treatment because we wanted to expose it for what it is. We wanted to be clear about how it impacts people – inside – and what it can do to our behaviours at work and in our personal lives. We then drew connecting lines between shame and the realisation of key career objectives, among them personal career purpose and effective leadership. There is no doubt at all that shame’s hand is to drive a wedge between our ‘true self’ and our experience of happiness and fulfilment. It’s M. O. is to dim our light, make us question ourselves, and plant a seed of fear in us. Invariably, this shows up in what we dare to dream of achieving, and in how effective we are as leaders.

As an organisation, at Arieli & Company we seek powerful realisations and tangible outcomes for our clients’ leadership and career experiences. We use a complex adaptive systems approach to ensure this happens (this video describes complex adaptive systems very well.) So while we hope that the preceding exploration of shame has created some aha moments, we would consider ourselves remiss if we did not provide some practical guidance. To this end, we now provide some initial advice if you think shame might be impacting how you show up at work. Please note: if you are currently in therapy or any medical care, please consult your practitioner before using any of these techniques. Your wellbeing is paramount to any leadership development or career management work.

The number one rule when it comes to shames is to get a view on them. If you can understand the nature and scope of your shames, you have won half the battle. Daring to look at what we are afraid is wrong with us, or at how we fear we aren’t good enough, is a deeply challenging and courageous thing to do. Many do not venture this far out into the badlands, and certainly not unless forced to do so by difficult life events like the death of a loved one, a career derailment, or another important change that challenges your self-identity.

The reward of going this far out into the inhospitable and seemingly barren landscape of our shames is that, more often than not, we return with an emboldened sense of self. We better know what we can and can’t, and somewhere in the ambiguous space between the limits this places on us, and the possibilities it opens up, we discover something that ignites a part of ourselves. This part of us often holds the seed for the next chapter of our career or personal life, and offers us the potential to discover and realise something of great value to us: be it being the kind of mother we want to be; building the kind of organisation we always dreamed of; changing the lives of many through initiatives we implement; going on an inner journey that helps us reconcile fragments of ourselves and past; or something else.

The above is the raw stuff of crafting a leadership legacy, of being the kind of leader that walks into a room and changes the entire tone, of finding what you are passionate about and establishing its presence in your life.

How then can you develop a clearer view of your shames? By observation. We invite you to keep a special log over the next 7 days. In it, we want you to make a note every time you have any of the physical responses to shame. We guide you through the step-by-step process:

Step 1: From the list below, choose the top 3 physical responses that resonate for you when you feel shame.
  • You lower your head or eyes;
  • You look away to avoid meeting eyes with someone;
  • You suddenly slump or slacken your posture;
  • You blush;
  • You feel awkward and like you are heating up;
  • You feel momentarily confused;
  • You feel like you have to get away or out;
  • You suddenly stop talking with someone via email or in person; or
  • You withdraw emotionally and feel cold towards those around you.
Step 2: Every time you notice you have one of your top physical reactions, make a note of when it happened, who was involved, and what happened.
Step 3: At the end of the 7 day period, look at your list. What stands out for you? What kinds of people did you feel most ashamed around? What kinds of situations led you to feeling shame the most? How you think you dealt with your shame? What was the cost of your feeling shame when you did?
After this exercise, themes in your experience of shame will start to emerge. You can carry on the exercise for a few weeks to gain deeper insight into the nature and scope of your experience of shame. Key will be: what is the cost for you and what matters to you? After you have been able to articulate the answer to this, and identified key themes in your experience of shame, ask yourself: What would it take for me to transcend this feeling of shame once and for all? It’s a big question, and definitely beyond the remit of this article, but it’s worth asking nevertheless.
Before we close this series on shame, we want to denude shame itself and to give it a face. We give it the persona of the Bogeyman. We draw on the entry on the Bogeyman given by Wikipedia because it is so relevant here. (The italics are our own.)
[The Bogeyman] is a common allusion to a mythical creature in many cultures used by adults to frighten children into good behaviour. This monster has no specific appearance, and conceptions about it can vary drastically from household to household within the same community; in many cases, it has no set appearance in the mind of an adult or child, but is simply a non-specific embodiment of terror. Parents may tell their children that if they misbehave, the bogeyman will get them. Bogeymen may target a specific mischief—for instance, a bogeyman that punishes children who suck their thumbs—or general misbehaviour, depending on what purpose needs serving.
The roots of our shames often lie in our childhood. We hide what we learned was not acceptable, not good enough, or to be hidden from (certain) others. We do this to be, or to appear to be, good or better. Shame, like the Bogeyman monster, “has no specific appearance, and conceptions about it can vary drastically from household to household”. Here ‘the household’ speaks to the original family unit we grew up in and also to our various social groupings (whether or not we actively participate in them, for example being a member of a profession or a particular race). Shames, like the Bogeyman, “may target a specific mischief” or “general misbehaviour”. So too, we may be ashamed of ourselves when we dress shabbily for a particular meeting, or we may generally be ashamed about how we look. We may be ashamed for stuttering during a certain speech, or we may generally feel ashamed about how ineloquent or inarticulate we are.
As previously mentioned, half the battle is won when you can face your own shame. Coming face-to-face with your shames, and being able to stomach them is one of the hardest parts of this. It is that moment of dread and anxiety when you know some bad news is coming, but it hasn’t yet landed. Or when it’s dark, and you sense something move in the shadows, and you’re terrified that your worst fears are about to be confirmed. Psychologically speaking, looking at our shames involves looking at our shadow, which contains parts of ourselves we do not want to own and may vehemently resist. For instance, when everyone else can see that we are actually very similar to the boss or parent whose kurt and hurtful manner we rail against.
What is the antidote to fearing what moves in the shadows, looms behind us, or lies deep within the terriority of our blindspots? Shining some light into the darkness. Only once we see what is there, can we work out what to do about it.