The Shame Associated with Being Out of Work

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When someone is laid off or fired, one of the most persistent emotions they must deal with is shame. Brené Brown is a researcher who has specialized in studying shame for most of her career. Her recent book, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Making the Journey from “What Will People Think?” to “I Am Enough” covers the topic of shame and how to develop resilience.

First, some definitions. We often use the terms: embarrassment, guilt, humiliation and shame interchangeably. But they’re very different concepts.

  • Embarrassment is caused by something that makes you feel foolish in the moment: mispronouncing someone’s name, misspeaking in public, slipping on ice. But the moment passes, and you get over it pretty quickly. It’s a transient emotion because you realize that everybody makes a mistake like this sometimes.
  • Guilt is actually a useful emotion; it’s your conscience telling you that you’ve done something wrong. Your actions were not well-intentioned (or well executed) and you need to make amends. Guilt makes us better people.
  • Humiliation is inflicted upon us by others. It’s the feeling you get when someone calls you out in public, or points out a flaw in front of others for the purpose of making you feel bad. It’s cruel and unnecessary, and it feels unjust. Humiliation makes us feel bad in the moment, but it makes us angry too – you know you don’t deserve that kind of treatment.
  • Shame, on the other hand, is what you feel when you believe you deserve to feel bad. You didn’t just do something stupid; you are stupid. You didn’t just have a bad day; you’re unworthy and wrong. Shame is something you do to yourself, and it makes you feel isolated and miserable. Shame is almost never shared with anyone else, because you feel that no one can absolve you; you believe that they’ll be repelled if they really knew who – or what – you are.

Brené Brown says that our shame triggers come from our early experiences, often within our own family. Did your dad talk often about how “losers” act? Did your mom try to help you by pointing out your flaws or your weight gain? Did your classmates laugh at you for making a mistake in class? All these early imprints can create shame when something happens that reminds you of how you felt in those moments.

Being out of work can trigger all kinds of shame. “I’m a failure; my work wasn’t good enough for the company to keep me on.” “What kind of loser can’t provide for his family and has to depend on his wife’s income?” “This is just one more rejection in a series of rejections; my mom, my boyfriend, and now my boss.” “I knew when I took this job that I couldn’t handle it; now everyone knows how incompetent I am.”

Shame is corrosive; is eats at you until you believe you have no worth. Here are some of the descriptions of shame offered by the people Brown interviewed for the book:

  • You work hard to show the world what it wants to see. Shame happens when your mask is pulled off and the unlikable parts of you are seen. It feels unbearable to be seen.
  • Shame is feeling like an outsider—not belonging.
  • Shame is hating yourself and understanding why other people hate you too.
  • Shame is like a prison. But a prison that you deserve to be in because something’s wrong with you.

If you’ve ever felt shame about being out of work, you’re not alone. In future posts, I’ll talk about how to express empathy when someone is feeling shame and how to help build resilience.

2 thoughts on “The Shame Associated with Being Out of Work

  1. 😉 Just for fun: To bide your time, until the next thrilling Shame Chronicle, may I suggest heading to YouTube. Type in The Motels, then Shame, and enjoy 4 + minutes of Shame. Thanks for reminding me of one of my favorite 1980s era songs. 🙂


  2. […] In a previous post, I write about the shame people feel when they lose their jobs. They feel shame at failing at something important, being unable to provide for their family, and feeling shame associated with debt or having to take menial jobs to survive. The shame and desperation to find the next job can be overwhelming for the job seeker, but also for family members, friends, and others who care about them. […]


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