Think about the last time you made a mistake. Just to make it interesting, make it a pretty big mistake. The kind that gives you a sick feeling in your stomach. The kind that costs you a night’s sleep before you have to tell your boss, or your team, or your spouse that you screwed up.
The feeling that’s underlying all that anxiety? Shame.
Shame is a corrosive feeling that’s at the root of much of humanity’s bad behavior. The kid who feels shame at the way his father belittles him bullies another kid at school. The man who’s ashamed of his lack of success starts an affair with a younger woman who makes him feel like a big man. The woman who’s afraid of losing the election makes decisions she could never justify. Her shame about those decisions drives her to cover up what she’s done.
Shame is deeply embedded in the human psyche. It’s a terrible feeling, one that’s related to guilt, but not interchangeable with it. Guilt is useful; it’s our brain’s way of keeping us from doing things that would push us out of the tribe. When we do something wrong, we feel guilt. We have the opportunity to confess, to make things right, or to ask forgiveness.
Shame, on the other hand, is not useful. It takes guilt further from “I did a bad thing” to “I am a bad person.” Shame makes us believe that we’ve been contaminated by the bad thing we did. Sometimes, we have the courage to confess, make it right, and ask for forgiveness. But more often, we direct our energy to hiding what we’ve done. We wind up hiding ourselves, as well, afraid to open up to others; we’re afraid they will see who we are and be disgusted.
Shame should be reserved for big things – sins against humanity, crimes, moral transgressions. But shame has become commonplace. We feel shame for small things and things we can’t help. We’re ashamed to admit we binged Girl Scout cookies last night. Or had another glass of wine. We’re ashamed that our skinny jeans don’t fit anymore. Because we missed a deadline at work. Or because we didn’t call our mom last week like we promised.
Shame has crept into everyday life. And when we feel shame, we spend energy trying to hide ourselves or what we did, rather than admit it and bring it out into the open where we can make amends or ask forgiveness. Brené Brown, who has written several books on shame, says, “”Shame loves secrecy. The most dangerous thing to do after a shaming experience is hide or bury our story. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes. “If you put shame in a petri dish, it needs three ingredients to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgement. If you put the same amount of shame in the petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive.”
The energy it takes to manage shame about what you perceive as your failures or shortcomings is holding you back from achieving your potential. If you can understand that, you have the ability to move on past shame. Brené Brown again: “”Perfect and bulletproof are seductive, but they don’t exist in the human experience.”
Next time you screw up, practice this script, from Danessa Knaupp, author of Naked at Work: A Leader’s Guide to Fearless Authenticity. It’s something her mother said to her when Knaupp realized her business would fail. “It will be okay, honey. You shoot for things other people only dream about. It’s what drives and defines you. You do spectacular things. This happens to be a spectacular failure. You will survive this and go on to the next spectacular win.”
Knaupp writes that most of our shame is caused by the story we’re telling ourselves. “If we carefully consider what we believe to be true about ourselves, our history, or our work, we find that most of that information is our own set of assessments. Very little of what we believe to be true is objectively provable.” I’ve written about this before. We have the power to change the story we’re telling ourselves right now. By changing the story from “I’m a terrible person” to “I’m a good person who has made a mistake,” we can drag our shame into the light and begin to make things right again.