It was 2016 and I was enrolled at Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business, finishing up the first year of a two-year program. In top business schools, the summer in between program years is known as “internship summer.” First-years are known for stressing out about their placements, and competition runs fierce. I was lucky — I landed my dream internship at an impact investment firm in Boston. And even though my interviewer made it clear that I was third fiddle (“We just have to see if Person A from Harvard Business School, and Person B from Stanford Graduate School of Business say no, and then we can offer you the role”), I was still thrilled to have the offer.
I worked hard that summer, but I struggled with the elitist office culture. By summer’s end, I was ready to return to school, expecting a full-time offer in hand. (A full-time offer would be proof that I had exceeded expectations; my hard work had been noticed!).
I reflect often on the shame I felt in light of that rejection, and I see it all too frequently with my own clients in their jobs.
Greats like Brene Brown have pioneered the discussion on shame. As a leadership coach, I see shame show up often in professional settings. So how do we recognize shame at work and overcome it?
First, let’s make the critical distinction between guilt and shame. Brene Brown makes the distinction as follows: “Shame is a focus on self and guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.”
In other words, we feel guilty when we think we did something wrong, and that’s not a bad thing. Guilt can be a powerful motivator: it encourages us to feel remorse, to make change, apologize, take action and pivot. Human beings need guilt because it would be impossible to change without it.
Shame, however, is insidious and harmful. It’s when you feel you did something bad, but then consider that to be an indictment of who you are as a person. It’s dangerous for your sense of self-worth and your productivity.
Again according to Brown, shame needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment.
So, the ways to overcome shame are to reverse that formula. Whether you made a managerial mistake, accidentally “replied all” with a snide remark, didn’t get a promotion, or anything in between, this approach will lessen your shame response, and enable you to move on more quickly.
Talk to colleagues, friends or family. Even though talking about your feelings of shame might be the last thing you want to do, remember that when you’re silent and secretive, this will only make shame worse. Shame loves secrecy, and it will fester. It’s critical to get other peoples’ perspectives. Open yourself up to hearing someone else’s take on the situation.
Pay attention to the voice you’re using to talk to yourself. Are you tying this event to your worth as a person? Intercept that thought and reframe it from an “I am” statement to an “I did/I feel/I experienced” statement. (Example: “I am bad and unworthy” becomes “I did something that wasn’t the best representation of my values, and I know I will do better in the future.” Think of your shame event as a “growth moment,” and not a static representation of who you are.
Think about the professional things you have done well and the accomplishments you’re proud of. Write those down. When we’re feeling shame, we tend to block out all the good and focus only on the bad. Writing down some wins can help bring you back to reality: you’re not bad, you’re simply human.
I’ve since come away from that 2016 job rejection with the gift of hindsight: that office culture was absolutely wrong for me, and I wasn’t invigorated by the work. If I had gotten an offer, I might have felt pressure to accept it, and I would have been miserable. It worked out for the best. But — the thing that got me through my shame was working through these three steps. Give it a go and let’s move past shame at work, together.