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Shame: The Emotion Nobody Wants to Feel.
Can We Turn It from Dreadful Into Developmental?
The very word feels loaded. It often seems to me like it’s emotional kryptonite - we can’t stand feeling it, thinking about it and, least of all, talking about it. Yet, it’s incredibly present in our lives - at home and at work - and most of the time completely unacknowledged and buried deep under layers of other, more ‘acceptable’ emotions. When unseen, unnamed and unexamined it tends to fester, giving rise to all sorts of toxic behaviours that embitter people and poison culture.
Brené Brown, the researcher who most informed my understanding of shame, defines it as:
“the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging - something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.
“I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”
I grew up in a culture of shame. Shame was used as a parenting tool. “You should be ashamed of yourself!” - was standard feedback for even minor childhood mistakes. Women in my grandmother’s, mother’s and to a lesser, yet significant, extent in my own generation have been immersed in oceans of shame around their bodies, their sexuality, their decisions on who to marry or when/if to have kids or their career aspirations. Shame is the by-product of trauma and the destroyer of self-esteem. A lot of the healing focus of therapy processes is placed on closing the wounds caused by shame.
Much less talked about, shame is ever present in the workplace. I hear about it in coaching all the time. People are ashamed of their mistakes, ever worried of being judged.
Leaders are ashamed of not-knowing, of not having it all together, of feeling overwhelmed or of not being perfect all the time. Many who are excelling at work are ashamed of their perceived failures as spouses or parents.
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For a very long time I took for granted that nothing good can ever come out of shame. This, I believed, was one emotion that poisoned us whenever we experienced it and deeply hurt others when we used it as a weapon. I believed it was an emotion we needed to eradicate.
But then, throughout my PhD research, I discovered something very surprising. Painful emotions make fertile ground for transformative growth.
I’ve written about it here:
The gist of the finding is this: we only seem to open up to new paradigms of thinking / feeling / being, growing towards more wisdom and maturity when we are able to acknowledge, fully feel and process the profoundly painful “edge emotions” that arise when our previous world stops making sense to us. ‘Edge emotions’ signal we’ve reached a threshold - that our old Self has become too small and a new Self is about to be born. But that new Self comes forth through the pains of birth. And there’s no way we can avoid being BORN, with all the turmoil that entails.
Just like young children feel pains in their limbs as their bodies are growing, so do we, grown-ups, feel pains in our minds and hearts as we ‘grow-up’ on the inside.
My research participants who developed vertically through a 6-month learning program (unlike their peers who did not develop) did something very counter-intuitive when they encountered these ‘edge emotions’. Instead of rejecting them as unpleasant or even dangerous, or believing these negative emotions need to be relieved immediately, they chose to see them as ‘growth pains’ and become curious about them instead.
There is something really magical about curiosity. This so called “epistemic emotion” has been shown to be a mediator of critical thinking. Adding nuance to that, a very specific type of curiosity - called ‘general interest curiosity’ seems to be most effective at fostering new learning. When people in my study were intrigued by their own reactions and emotions and chose to ‘pour curiosity’ over a negative ‘edge emotion’, it made the discomfort more bearable. They were more likely to withstand the emotional pain and find their way ‘through’ to the other side - all while gaining a whole new perspective and inner growth in the process. This dance between emotions and reflection seems to be at the heart of vertical development.
So what does this have to do with Shame, you might ask?
My research brought home to me the value of our most painful emotions. As I’ve started to integrate the findings into my work, I’ve supported coaching clients to explore and process anger, sadness, grief, confusion, anxiety as they arose in their lives and, whenever appropriate, see them as ‘edge emotions’ to be curious about, useful (albeit unpleasant) reminders that inner growth was afoot. And in that process I unavoidably stumbled upon shame.
Could Shame be an ‘Edge Emotion’?
The first time I consciously asked myself that question was when a coaching client mentioned a pivotal moment in his developmental growth when he had made a professional mistake that he had felt ashamed about. He mentioned it as a growth moment, as he got to reflect on that mistake and, instead of hiding from the pain of shame or trying to blame somebody else for his predicament, he had chosen to own the mistake, feel his shame and turn it into a reckoning moment which helped him grow into a wiser man. It made me wonder why I had ever considered shame an exception from the ‘edge emotions’ rule - might this dreaded emotion it be useful after all?
I then started to pay more attention to emotions arising in other clients’ stories and started seeing shame pop up everywhere, often disguised under other, more ‘acceptable’ emotions.
Recently, another client, let’s call her ‘Sophie’, was sharing a challenging situation, where she felt compelled to solve a problem that was impacting her team and found herself unable to find a solution. She spoke of her struggle, of deep anxiety, of a sense of helplessness and the fear of letting her team down. When I probed further, she realised that behind all anxiety and fear was hidden her shame of not being good enough as a leader. The prospect of letting the team down was shameful to her.
Sophie shared with me how she had seen herself forced to admit to the team that she had no solution and had reluctantly asked for their input. And she had been surprised at their willingness to contribute and the brilliant ideas they had come up with, which helped her find a way out of that challenge. Yet, despite the good outcome, she was not at peace and that was the focus of our exploration together. She still told herself this situation was an anomaly and that, as a leader, she should have had the answer. She was committed to avoid being in that situation again and, yet, at the same time, she was aware of how much the team had gained by being involved. She wanted to invite them into decisions and empower them more going forward. But doing that was frightening, as it felt like a threat to her identity as a ‘solver’.
Could she both let go of solving everything herself AND feel good about the value she was adding as a leader?
As we started to unpack this dilemma together, we worked our way through an exercise called the Contrasting Emotions Process™ - which is essentially a somatic and cognitive process of consciously identifying the ‘edge emotions’ and then adding curiosity on top. Sophie reported experiencing her shame like a terrible weight in her body, that got lighter as she was able to allow herself to feel it and add curiosity to the mix. As she did that, she was able to hold space for her shame and investigate the possibilities it opened up.
She realised that at the root of her shame was a limiting definition of a ‘good leader’ which she had created years before: “A leader is only as good as what they know”. This unconscious belief fuelled her fear every time she felt she didn’t quite know what to do, and with that came the shame.
At the same time, she also believed that ‘a good leader supports their people to grow’. And in saying that, she realised how energising this thought was for her - how much joy she was actually getting from seeing her team evolve and develop. This then led her to the insight that admitting she was stuck, not able to solve the problem on her own, and enlisting the team’s help in solving that challenge, had actually been a moment of also supporting them to grow. In admitting her limitations she HAD BEEN a good leader. Perhaps there was more to the definition of a good leader than she had acknowledged!
The very idea that you can be curious about your shame and that this dreaded emotion has something to teach you felt profoundly insightful to Sophie. It did to me too.
I came out of that coaching session with renewed curiosity about shame. I still believe it can be a terribly destructive force. I still am painfully aware of the damaging effects of chronic shame. I would not go out looking for it. At the same time, I also believe shame is unavoidable. And I wonder what might happen if we start normalising the many instances of day-to-day micro-experiences of shame most (perhaps all) of us have?
Could shame, when we shed light on it in a safe, compassionate space, become developmental?
Might we see shame as one of many edge emotions (albeit a more challenging one)? Might the fear of failure or the ever-present imposter syndrome so many leaders speak about in confidence hide the deeper emotion of shame? And if yes, what might happen if we name it? What might happen if we allow ourselves to pour curiosity on top of it? Could we replace avoiding it with facing it head-on and harnessing its potential in service of our growth?
All of these are questions I’m sitting with and questions I’m inviting you to to reflect on (and comment on as you read this article).