I have been reflecting on shame for a couple of months now, how it sneaks up on you, robs you of your vitality, robs you of your voice. How it feels almost impossible to reveal but liberating even just when you can begin to understand that it is at work.
Most of us, if not all of us, have experienced shame at some point in our lives. The work of shame is so powerful that it can shut you down, deplete you of your energy, make you want to hide. It works in partnership with the voice of your internal judge so the whole experience is amplified. Sometimes it feels as though there is an antennae on your head, sending out signals that you are a person who has failed, that here is someone who wasn’t smart enough to figure out something, someone who misjudged a situation, someone who totally bombed. It is particularly bad when the situation you misjudged, misinterpreted, misread, mismanaged is something you generally do quite well and may, in fact, earn your living by it.
This happened to me awhile ago now, in a public way with a client. That’s when I drafted this post and it has taken me this long to finish it and post it. It was the client’s end of the year employee appreciation day and dinner. They wanted to build on some of the past work and amazing speakers they have brought in. After a few conversations and meetings with the leadership team, that were full of promise, we decided to do something different for them – an appreciative inquiry to engage their large group in conversation with each other and in discovery of what they already do well to apply in other ways.
Aside from the wireless mic dropping on the floor and breaking open, it all seemed to be going well. People seemed engaged and in conversation with each other. We did a rapid fire harvest. I ended with a lovely poem and added in Rule 6a and 6b – don’t take yourself so fucking seriously, don’t take other people so fucking seriously. The CEO was speechless at the end but, in the moment, I didn’t understand why.
A bit later, someone else on the leadership team shared with me how severely the organization looks down on the use of profanity, even though it was meant in a lighthearted way, and I immediately felt bad. And not just bad. The voice of my internal judge was activated and it gave me a very hard time – I should have known better, this is what I do – hold space for other people, sense into the dynamics of a group – how could I possibly have so misjudged the client dynamic – a new client that had started off with such a high degree of possibility.
Although I apologized to the client instantly, I became aware I could not find it within myself to talk about what happened – to anyone, not even my closest friends, not even my partner who is incredibly supportive of me in work and life. That’s when I realized I was ashamed. Deeply ashamed. Shame shut me down and made me miserable – for days, weeks, even months. It was reinforced and amplified when I got the feedback from the group, forewarned it was a “mixed bag”. While that was true, it was easily the harshest feedback I have ever received from a group in all the years I have been in this work. So, it was doubly, triply hard because I really should have known better.
All the little and larger things in my awareness that have not gone right or have not flowed over the last months and maybe even years were activated and then compounded upon themselves. Until I finally, finally found the words to share my experience, my shame, my personal self-disappointment, first with my partner, who just listened, who supported me, who did not try to downplay my own responses (whether they were out of proportion or not), did not try to make it better or to dismiss it and did not judge me; and then with other friends who are also colleagues in my business field.
It still feels bad when I think of that moment, when I cannot understand how I so clearly misjudged the moment, but the shame of it is no longer defining me, shutting me down or playing itself out larger than life, compounded by building on any other unresolved incidences of shame that might exist in my history – known and unknown, aware and unaware. The most important thing is that it illuminated the power of shame to close me off and I know I am not alone – which is why I chose to write about shame.
I realize this shame is minor compared to the shame some other people assume or carry, unwarranted shame where they blame themselves for someone else’s actions like in cases of abuse, sexual assault, abandonment or other issues. Shame that keeps people in relationships that are not healthy, do not function well; shame that keeps people from reaching out for help because they are ashamed at finding themselves in the situation to begin with, because they blame themselves so completely they shut out sources of support. Shame that buries our stories until they become deep dark secrets instead of stories that naturally shape our lives and help us know who we are.
Brene Brown offers some powerful research on shame, its origins and its impact, sharing her own personal stories of shame and vulnerability, paving the way for so many others of us to share our own stories of shame and vulnerability so we can embrace all aspects of the stranger within, for each of us in our journey to openheartedness.
Who do you know who you might be willing to share a shame story with, or where might you seek professional support to do so, to release the hold of secrets and shame and shift the shape of how you show up in the world, to claim greater resiliency, your power and your path?