On Emotional Freedom

After I posted “Leadership and Shame” on August 14th, I noticed other related articles appeared. Samatha S. Hall posted “Co-dependency and Relationships,” regarding the way shame translates into problematic coping mechanisms. Kate Nasser published “Leading & Inspiring Through Shame?” about avoiding the temptation to shame others as a motivational technique. And Vincent Nix shared some vulnerable personal stories about the upside and complexity of shame in “In Praise of Shame.” So perhaps this is a topic whose time has come! The lessons from these posts seem to be:

• Some shame is healthy. To notice and own a mistake openly and with a sense of personal responsibility and compunction is a learning event — not a bad thing.

• Our defenses against shame are highly individualized around our conditioning. To explore shame organizationally, we must also examine it personally.

• Shame easily can be misused as a tool to undermine and erode people — we need to avoid rationalizing or ignoring this behavior — it’s simply not motivational or ethical.

• We often cope with shame either through developing co-dependency or through aggressive blaming of others.

For me, the most important work we need to do with the dominating, toxic aspects of shame is to consider how deeply they are built into our organizational systems and cultures. Structurally, there are voids that shame and shaming fill. These are often unconscious, almost invisible applications. We see fear, anxiety, unassertiveness, lack of confidence and self-esteem. But what we don’t notice is the role shame may play in all of it behind the scenes.


Looking back over thirty years of organizational experience, when I use this lens I see things a little differently, particularly the conflicts between leaders and their teams. For instance, I worked with a new supervisor extensively who despite his soft demeanor became feared and deeply disliked by those reporting to him. As I reflect today, the supervisor wasn’t someone to be afraid of, particularly (although people complained about that), but he did shame people in a variety of ways and this caused intense, debilitating anxiety. Mostly, despite the “niceness,” he communicated that people should do what he said because he was smarter, more experienced, knew the “right way.” Soft-spoken and friendly, but always a notch above others and therefore resistant to advice and feedback and real understanding, he always had an explanation.

Or I think of another manager who felt she had been deeply wronged by her team, and — almost as a crusade — set out to critique every one of her employees for incompetence and “poor attitudes,” running them all off “her” team — though hers was the poorest attitude of all.

Or another case: a CEO who when frustrated with circumstance would call a colleague to his office to be berated and humiliated; the CEO then so exhausted from the exchange he needed to lie down on his office couch for a nap.

I think of the manager who felt shamed by an aggressive staff member trying to defend her job and so gave her a searing, but non-specific evaluation that seemed to communicate only one central message: “you are stupid.”

And finally, as one last example, the C-Suite executive whose failure to follow through on promises came with a well-known undertone: “I own you anyway, no matter what I do.” Indeed, this last shaming message is the most subtle and most penetrating of all. By saying nothing about the broken promise, he might as well have said, “I disrespect you and your expectation that I can be held to any agreement to treat you well or let you actually influence my thinking.” He was a not-so-subtle terrorist who held each of his reports captive, or, if they didn’t go along, was known to cut them loose with effusive (but derogatory) praise.

As I look back, increasingly I see a dimension from mild embarrassment to dread in peoples’ behaviors. And I see how the focus of understanding has been on the anxiety associated with the behaviors — the fear leading to a cyclic, never-ending assumption that people simply ought to have more self-esteem, outright confidence, deliberate courage. But I wonder now if that is really so. The systemics point again and again to organizations where shaming is a convenient method of control, justified as a business or managerial or executive privilege (and maybe obligation) — in essence, part of the culture. The need for courage is true in a sense, but I wonder if it’s really the right kind, ready to actually address the true dynamics of organizational shaming rather than being viewed as solely “a personal issue.”

Our organizations, suddenly lit up with this light, look less like sweat shops than shame-and-control shops, places where those who get ahead are exactly the people who are immune, meaning they are either genuinely enlightened or just mildly sociopathic, having learned to dismiss healthy, human shame as an unnecessary personal hindrance and maybe a sign of weakness.

I struggle to understand this world. Maybe I’m becoming one bubble off, lost in a negative fantasy. I look into myself and I can see how shame also operates for me as a consultant, how I get trapped when someone contradicts my direction or knowledge or advice, how easy it is for me to suddenly feel quite vulnerable and therefore not quite sure enough to stand up in the way I aspire to. Aren’t I like those very leaders? Indeed! Such challenge! Others count on me to help change the nature of their organization! And can I do it? Can I?

And, oh so much pretense in this business! So many pretending we know! Pretending but with unspoken holes within us. Pretending to have some inside knowledge, some technique to change it all. Lord, how I get sick of the marketing and everything it does to us. May I express this outrage as something we have done to ourselves?

I am committed, as I am sure you are, too, to creating an environment, finally, of emotional freedom. To be free of the chains. The goal isn’t some phoney form of organizational optimism and conformity happiness, but working deeply and spiritually from the core, from the truth, without this dross and baggage, this fear or anger, this performance shame. The goal is to stop seeing weakness where there is actually strength, to create a heart and soul in what we do, to fly in the face of being disposable, to overcome the epidemic.

Enough! We owe it to ourselves and all those who follow to get unhooked — permanently.


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  • You may well be right about “shame” reaching it’s time for exploration on the blogo-sphere. I love your question Dan in this post about how and where it is engrained in our corp. cultures.

    KEY Question and well worth exploration to rout it out.

    I also have one respectful disagreement with the opening statement — that some shame is healthy. Perhaps it is in the definition of shame. Quoting you:

    “Some shame is healthy. To notice and own a mistake openly and with a sense of personal responsibility and compunction is a learning event — not a bad thing.”

    Noticing and owning a mistake … I call this awareness and emotional intelligence — not shame.

    Shame to me is almost a synonym for humiliation and the learning can occur without it.

    Many thanks for another great post.
    Respectful regards,

  • Dear Kate~

    Yes, wow, the definition is so tricky. What is healthy? What is not? I picked this up from the posts I cited, but I tend to agree that there are times when a little shame might be a good thing — I keep thinking of Anthony Weiner, cited via Leonard Pitts’ editorial in my last post. I may not quite be saying it right, so appreciate the help and hope others weigh in. You can read Vincent Nix’s article for some additional insight about the “good shame” side of the question.

    I have to say I’m dealing with a visceral reality and some new territory. What’s a blog for? Perfect understanding? Hah! At this point, I can feel more than I can say. I hope that you’ll all understand!

    All the best

  • Dan, this is another beautiful post. To such an extent that I’m feeling rather ’emotional’ about it right now! : )

    I love your own expressions of vulnerability as you reflect on the past 30 years of your life as a consultant. Your own moments of being triggered (perhaps feeling like a fraud for a moment?) If so, I would say to you that the fact that you would even be willing to question your own behavior is a GOOD SIGN that you have an open heart and mind of awareness. After all, perfectionism is another offshoot of the ‘shame game’ and as a human being, life can be about conscious progress as opposed to perfection. We ARE going to be triggered in our day to day lives. We WILL react instead of respond sometimes in certain situations. So it’s not that we can absolutely prevent these things in ourselves or others. Perhaps it has more to do with growing in our ability to ‘own’ our own behavior when it arises. (referring back to a comment I made on your other post about the wolves)

    On the occasions where problems arose and there have been mutual responsibility taken to own our respective reactions, those turn out well. Once it’s ‘out’ and owned. It seems the issue loses it’s charge and no longer leaves a lasting ‘wake’ in the heart and mind. Now, I should be careful to also state that this was much easier to achieve in relatively minor situations that were not linked to major betrayals and/or physical trauma. In those cases, even when the DESIRE is there to move on, there may be a longer lasting residual impact from it all that makes it far less easy to get consciously free of. Takes more time.

    Your last example of the C–suite executive really hit a nerve with me as it so resembles the EXACT attitude and behavior from childhood on where I had been shamed….

    “I own you anyway, no matter what I do.” Indeed, this last shaming message is the most subtle and most penetrating of all. By saying nothing about the broken promise, he might as well have said, “I disrespect you and your expectation that I can be held to any agreement to treat you well or let you actually influence my thinking.”

    It is THIS type of shame that happens most often in families and business organizations. The idea that…you CAN’T leave. I own you. Without me, you won’t be able to survive so I can get away with treating you however I want.

    It hits people on a survival level. It is also the most dangerous.

    I also was intrigued by Kate’s insights on the word ‘shame’ itself. At least here in western society, most (if not all of us) have been so conditioned by the word itself that the lines easily get blurred.

    ‘Shame on you! You ought to be ashamed of yourself!’

    Which is basically more shaming. haha

    Perhaps it would help if we created a new words that didn’t have such a negative charge/connotation to it to illustrate the ‘healthy’ feeling that arises when we have hurt someone. The empathic/compassionate response that leads us to not want to do it again. etc.

    Right now, I’m happy that we are simply discussing the subject out in the open. We are exploring shame. Pulling the lid off of it. We may not have a magical cure for any of it yet we are raising awareness together on a subject that has been the source of much violence and hurt in the world.

    Thanks again for your openness, honesty, vulnerability, and insights.


  • Dear Samantha~

    Thank you so much for this. You have covered so many of the points I’ve tried to make. While vulnerability isn’t necessarily new for me around my work — I do try to model openness — it’s always good to have a friend to also model and mirror the messages that show up in its midst. As I mentioned to Kate, at the moment I can feel farther than I can intellectually say.

    The point about fraud is an interesting one. At a personal level, I’m less influenced by that in a way that some around me are. But I tend to deeply feel it around the industry of organizational improvement of which I am a part. Coaches, consultants, trainers — we nudge and advocate but actually take few risks to change anyone’s paradigms. We stand for stuff, but in the background.

    Like you, the C-Suite executive is the one who bothers me the most. Because the moves are subtle and profoundly invasive.

    Samantha, I enjoy so much the lovely and sensitive way you enter this topic and space. It’s not an easy one to engage, but you engage it as a historian of your own freedom, and as an artist, freeing up obscure emotions for others and offering a guided tour. Thank you so much for your partnership in this enterprise of exploring shame and helping us all befriend the places we fear to enter.

    All the best to you

  • Dan,

    I am reading this and feeling quite a few emotions.

    One, I am grateful that you got something from my post.

    Two, I am thankful that there are men in the world that recognize the powerful leadership and development effect of being vulnerable by expressing that we can feel. It took me a long time to reach this point, and seeing someone as well-known as you are doing what I have *at last* begin to be *okay* with is empowering, to say the least.

    Third, I agree with Samantha; the fact that we are discussing this openly, and “baring our souls” as it were, makes me really happy.

    Fourth, and I am a bit hesitant to write this, but hey, we are being honest and open, right? I am feeling a bit misunderstood. I never originally intended to re-define shame as a “positive” emotion in my post. I LIKE how it has been viewed that way; I cannot deny that. 🙂

    I think my post was as much a “reclamation” event in my personal development as anything. My early life was indeed ruled by shame and the way I was bludgeoned by its use. Again, I’m not disagreeing that ANY emotion can be positive.

    This isn’t easy to explain in a short response, so please bear with me. I’m a white male, and generally experience the privilege that Peggy McIntosh called the “invisible knapsack/backpack.” However, there are times in which I have experienced discrimination.

    For example, I have a Southern dialect. Until I finally earned a doctorate, equals and subordinates alike treated me as a lesser being, because I sounded “uneducated.” Superiors have asked me to try and speak “less Southern” at official functions.

    I had to hide the accent to avoid feeling shamed. I practiced late nights in order to be able to “speak educated” at meetings.

    Finally, after earning a doctorate, I felt that I could sit at a table and “reclaim” my Southern heritage in the form of my natural dialect. I thought: “So what? I am your equal on paper now.” I won’t let you shame me anymore.

    My post (for me) was an expression of liberation. What I meant was that by taking OWNERSHIP of the shame, we may be able to REVERSE the negative effects and use it to our advantage.

    Yes, in that sense, it becomes positive, but not without work.

    I’m not a counselor. Emotions are not my domain professionally. I’m just beginning to be able to deal with them on a personal level.

    I do not disagree with any of you that shame can be positive. In my case, I choose to make the shame no more than a “mistake” which we can probably all agree on as learning and development professionals, is an opportunity to learn and grow.

    The BIG difference is that in most cases, shame is rooted in PERCEPTION of others about my actions. More often than not, a “traditional mistake” is in fact, due to my mis-perception and/or misbehavior.

    Does any of that make sense?

    Peace & love,

  • Dear Vince~

    I must say I loved your post — especially the point you’ve mentioned in your comment — about ownership. The deal, to me, is that sometimes we own too much of the shame and sometimes we own too little. Will we get this right? The only way is to be conscious and aware — as you are — deciding where that line might be for this or that circumstance and getting help and the mirroring effects of good counsel and friendship to calibrate what’s right.

    Brené Brown is quite clear about this — that we need each other to help us get our bearings and develop our “shame resilience.” Shame, by its very nature, separates us from one another, and then deeply scares and scars us with that separation, so to bring this forward vulnerably as a community of two or three or thousands is what we can do, and need to do to address the great pain. And heal.

    Vince, it’s great to share in this exploration with you. It is not easy, yet your openness makes it look so. Let’s stand just here to see who else will feel invited to join this circle near the fire.

    All the best

  • Dan,

    Yes. I often owned shame (both extremes too little and too much) without any benefit. Maybe you’ve hit onto something else that is as critical: shared ownership.

    The processing power that is possible–when we openly respond to any type of shame by sharing it–may be just what we need to begin to reclaim our (organizational and personal) development potential.

    The flames are illuminating indeed.

    All the best, ritebakatcha!

  • Vince~

    Shame and grief are linked in this way: that we suffer too much alone. We can bear the shame in community, as we can bear grief with friends. We must not hold the illusion we are supposed to process and handle these tough emotions singularly. Our individualist culture doesn’t help much with that — and is due for change! Thanks again, Vince!


  • Hoda Maalouf (@MaaHoda) wrote:

    Dear Dan,
    You have tackled in your last 2 posts a very important but sensitive topic.
    I was tempted to reply to your previous post but then decided not to do so. You see I come from a background where talking about shame is almost impossible. I sense the Western world may be a better place to live in when it comes to this issue.
    I can give a short list and don’t be surprised of what in it. Around here, it’s shameful to:
    Have sex before marriage, to be homosexual, to live with someone without marriage, to have kids without being married, etc…..
    We have been brain washed by these ideas, especially women, and from an early age. And I’m a Christian. The situation is much much worse for Muslim girls and women.

    Anyway, in addition to societal pressure, we have family ones. Strong Family ties have their blessings and downfalls especially when your loved ones always expect the best from you.

    For instance, in my case, there is no room for mistakes! They got used to the idea that I always do the right thing, and do it quite well so no way they would accept me to fail in anything. And when I failed to conceive a child and had several miscarriages. The feedback was: It is definitely her “problem”.
    Luckily, after my 7th IVF (very few women would agree to do so many trials) I had my twins and had people off my back!

    Thanks Dan for being so honest and for showing your vulnerability! I highly admire you for that!


  • Dear Hoda~

    Thank you for adding your own special take on this topic, especially highlighting the cultural differences that are all around us, Hoda. Your story about failure to conceive and what that means will resonate with many, I’m sure. We hide, hide, hide — and the felt opprobrium just hurts. It’s an unreal state of affairs, dictated by the past.

    It’s time to help things change.

    Thank you again and all the best!


  • Thought provoking and insightful.
    The way managers create toxic environments and the impact this can have on peoples lives…is worthy of further exploration.

  • Dear norman~

    Thanks for stopping by — and yes, absolutely. We need to understand how toxic environments form, whether created through fear or shame or some combination, whether generated intentionally or unintentionally, and what we can do to change all that!

    All the best to you

  • Great post Dan.

    Shame healthy?

    It is a interesting statement you make Dan.. not sure I agree.

    I would rather heal the shame within me -than call it healthy.

    Shame in particular is a feeling that is alive within us and it affects us in more ways then we care to admit.

    For many who bury their feeling, especially shame, and who feel it is a necessity to do so, will come to understand that you cannot hide from shame it will manifest in one way or another.

    It does not hide for long, it makes itself be known. Even if we are not aware of it. It has a way of acting out, it may act out as anger, hate, fear, suffering, hurt, sickness, resentment, loneliness, depression, jealously, failure, misery, prejudice, or even guilt.

    I feel shame is part of us, and its crying to liberated from the untold years of suppression and denial.

    the cry is about seeking relief from pain and suffering.

    You see shame wants for us to:

    open our eyes so that we can see.

    open our heart so we can feel.

    open our mind so we can think.

    to see, feel, and think of the truth and light of who we are.

    Lead From within

  • Dear Lolly~

    Honestly, discussion of healthy shame/toxic shame distinctions feels like a distraction from the purpose of this post, which is predominantly about the way toxic shame, like a poison can spread through the arteries of organizational life. I’m probably to blame for this distraction by mentioning healthy shame at the front-end of the post, instead of just exploring more of the dimensionality of shame, from under-owned to over-owned forms.

    Be that as it may, when you and Kate first mentioned your reactions to the term, healthy shame, I couldn’t at first remember where I’d heard it, as I knew it was not original to me. I was reminded of John Bradford’s late ’80’s classic, Healing the Shame That Binds You. Sure enough, when I took it down from the shelf, there was Bradford’s very lengthy definition of healthy shame, bridging psychological and spiritual aspects. In part, he says:

    “Healthy shame keeps us grounded. It is a yellow light, warning us of our essential limitations. Healthy shame is the basic metaphysical boundary for human beings. It is the emotional energy that signals us that we are not God–that we will make mistakes, that we need help. Healthy shame gives us permission to be human.”

    “Healthy shame is part of every human’s personal power. It allows us to know our limits, and thus to use our energy more effectively. We have better direction when we know our limits. We do not waste ourselves on goals we cannot reach or on things we cannot change. Healthy shame allows our energy to be intergrated rather than diffused.”

    I highly recommend the book if you or other readers want to get into this definition is great detail.

    For me, a good part of the notion of healthy shame has to do with being able to feel and own the shame, as a reinforcement for our humility and constant learning. I say something inadvertently that I later realize was hurtful. I feel badly. I reflect on what happened, how the insensitivity occurred. I’m embarrassed that I’ve made a mistake and I apologize. The point is that a feeling leads to a reflective moment and a correction.

    Perhaps this is more an issue for men. I’ve worked with a number of clients who have great difficulty with the ownership part. Because they can’t own their emotions (on a scale from embarrassment to deep hurt), the shame becomes suppressed. Often these are people who grew up with shaming, perfectionistic care-givers. They were not only expected to be perfect but also perfectly contained, and they were shamed so much they don’t even really experience the feelings as shame or embarrassment anymore. Instead, they just react. The reaction happens instantly and is then justified and rationalized. For example, if I’m an executive responsible for a large organization and you tell me something about me (or my leadership or my team or the company that I’ve built) that I don’t like, I may quickly “kill the messenger” by blaming, dismissing, acting out, shaming the other person, etc. and then deny that I felt any shame at all related to the original message. Or, instead of (or in addition to) hurting someone else I beat myself up for months without being able to learn, resolve, and move ahead. In this, I’m doing exactly what you mention in your post. So I would say healthy shame is the shame I am able to feel and own and through reflection come to terms with, an act of unfolding self-knowledge. But if I can’t really feel it, I certainly cannot heal it. Numb makes me dumb.

    Of course, shame is such a complex emotion that we defend in a myriad of ways, sometimes by acting out in the way I’ve just mentioned, but just as often through all the other emotions you’ve identified, and in self-defeating patterns and dramas. Our defensive systems are amazingly complicated.

    In all this I don’t see our vantage points are terribly far apart. I especially like your concluding lines, which are lovely and, to me, very accurate. When I consult my own Guardian Angels they tell me that while trying to live with shame is unhealthy — we are not meant to do that — not being able to feel it, acknowledge it, and own it is also unhealthy. I agree with Bradford that understanding shame has a role in our spiritual life as we mature. I also agree with Brené Brown who focuses more on shame resilience because we are unlikely to ever transcend it entirely. Personally, I believe that shame is part of our intrinsic humanness, uncomfortable as it is — that metaphysical limit, as Bradford says. Without it, we’d lose something of the nature of grace and the redeeming qualities that come through the profound reconstitution of our natures called healing. It is our capacity to be vulnerable with one another, to feel, and to own ourselves, including tough feelings of shame, that help recover the divine light in which we all participate.

    Thanks so much for bringing your wonderful wisdom, Lolly, and adding so much to this exploration.

    All the best

  • Thanks Dan much to take in and much to learn.

    I will read the book you recommended and I will learn more of myself because of it.

    thank you for taking the time to explore your heart with us.

    Shame is a universal thing, i don’t believe its a mans thing.

    but maybe men are more shameful about their shame – then women? (just a thought)

    Keep this conversation going so we can all keep on growing.


  • Amazing posts everyone. I am learning more and more about myself and about the world after connecting to you all on Twitter. Thank you, thank you!

  • Vince~ I return the thanks to you for your humility, insight and openness. All the best!


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