Shame is that terrible emotion that isolates us in a particularly nasty way. To experience shame is to be condemned and, in part at least, it is we who are doing the condemning. In the end the experience just leaves us to hurt. Brené Brown, the writer, speaker and researcher currently most associated with the topic of shame, calls it:
the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.
She also makes the point that shame is not easily discussed and that it is often a source of fear. I’d say, in deep agreement with her work, that even fear can be a more accessible, less traumatic emotion than shame. We very quickly rationalize, cover over and disguise the shame by transmuting it into the fear of something else. We may say we have “a fear of failure,” for example, but what that actually means is that we feel ashamed when we fail and so we fear that experience.
Exactly how much of a person’s life is controlled by shame varies, of course. Some purported leaders seem to live without it — to their detriment. But for many others, shame is a hidden killer something like high blood pressure. It’s there, and it’s insidious. It takes its toll from the inside out while we pretend to be coping. The social faux-pas in a conversation, the missent email, the imperfect presentation, the bad joke, the weak response to an aggressive colleague, the little hypocrisy you caught me in; whatever the inadequacy, it goes into the darkness of what we don’t want to feel. In return, out comes the reactivity, frustration, “unintended” put-downs of others, or a shut-down of ourselves we really can’t even see. It’s our Shadow exactly — what we are ashamed of; what we can’t accept and have to quickly explain away.
There’s a story about Robert Bly, the poet also known as a leader of the men’s movement. One day years ago at a large gathering, one of the participants decided to take Robert on. The man spontaneously stood before the group and criticized Robert for a variety of failings and inconsistencies. When the man was done, Robert paused and then commented, “I don’t think I’ll let you shame me today.”
That’s a line that is worthy of remembering as a leader, one you can use with yourself. When you hear the awful interior voices and the feeling of sinking into the ground overwhelms you, recall Robert’s words and say back to those voices: “I don’t think I’ll let you shame me today.” For most of us, most of the time, that would be a very constructive thing. It would help lessen the chances of the more narcissistic, arrogant, threatening, shaming or self-sabotaging replies you or I might give outwardly to the world and the people around us — causing even more shame. Instead, by honoring an inner leader who is able to sustain the challenge and tolerate the pain until it naturally recedes, we find ourselves willing to listen more intentionally, consciously. Maybe then we will see in the moment that an apology for our own behavior is in order and we can give it freely. Perhaps there will just be a problem to solve. Maybe we will see that it is time to clarify and maintain a difficult stand where we are truly alone. Maybe it will be a moment of life-changing, awareness-centered rebellion.
The point is, shame and the fear of shame do not do well in the driver’s seat. They tend to run the car into a private ditch or into very public oncoming traffic. When it happens, better to gently steer the car to the side of the road, take out the map, readjust the seatbelt, and after a few moments to recuperate (and maybe call a friend) learn to drive on.
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