I’ve been working my way through a shame attack the last few days.
Shame is a universal experience. So many of us experience shame about so many different things, for so many different reasons.
Shame is defined by Brene Brown 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.
To me, a shame attack is about something specific. It gets triggered by a specific event. Saying something I didn’t mean. Forgetting to do an important, time-sensitive task. A discrete event that I play back over and over again in my mind. Wishing that I had done something different.
The trigger for me this week: I screwed up at work.
I had a networking/prospecting meeting. I do consulting, mostly for biotech startups. I had a meeting planned with a young company. I have done these meetings many, many times.
In the background, I am pulled in a lot of different directions right now. With my kids going back to school and a few other things.
So, I did the bare minimum to prepare for the meeting.
When I got to the meeting, there were multiple company management teams in the room. The company is in a biotech incubator. So, they invited a bunch of people that are in the same office.
Which meant that multiple companies were present. As well as a few scientists who are thinking of starting companies.
This was a different meeting than I was expecting. Still, I thought it would be fine.
The companies represented some very diverse areas of science. I wasn’t wholly familiar with each one and their stage of development.
It was obvious that I was not prepared.
At the end, no one came up to me to chat or ask to connect later. Other than the company that had invited me, everyone left with a tight lipped smile and moved on with their day.
I left that room with a weight on my chest and a hot flush of shame. And I have been working my way through it ever since.
I believe we should not be paralyzed by the anticipation of failure. We should not be afraid to fail before we take action.
But what about when we take action and then we do, actually, screw up? How do we get out from under the heavy rock of shame, dust ourselves off, and get back out there?
Here’s what I am doing.
Seek out examples of others who have had missteps and went on to succeed
This has been the most reassuring step over the past few days. And it falls in line with the common guidance that we should share our shame with other people. People we love and trust. That sharing the experience helps us move through it.
Everyone stumbles at one time or another. So for me, I found that a great way to feel less shame about my own is to seek out that experience in other people. I found two recent examples. These people full on failed at something. And then succeeded. And that made a difference for me.
The first I found on Instagram.
Jim Lee was recently named the Chief Creative Officer of DC Entertainment (the comic book/superhero powerhouse). In his Instagram feed, he posted six letters that he received at the start of his career. Rejecting him and his work from DC Comics, Marvel Comics, and Metagaming.
The second was in a New York Times article on failure this weekend, by Oset Babur. (The article itself was also great, but I can’t link it here due to their paywall.)
The article pointed me toward Dr. Johannes Haushofer. This guy sounds very impressive. He is an Assistant Professor of Psychology & Public Affairs at Princeton. With 2 PhD’s — one in Neurobiology from Harvard, and one in Economics from the University of Zurich.
He has put together a full CV of all his failures. And posted it online. A list of all the positions, grants, and awards that he did not get.
Seeking out the stories of failure by others is a reminder that we are not alone. A reminder that we all mess up. We all experience failure. That failure does not need to bring shame along with it.
Other people do stumble, in the midst of what seems like epic success. Seeing this can help bring our own shame attack out of the darkness into the light.
Recite to myself: I did the best I could with the information that I had at the time
This is a thought that gives me a lot of comfort.
The fact is, I didn’t know I’d be presenting to multiple, diverse companies.
That feels like an excuse, but its true.
When you struggle with perfectionism like I do, you believe that you should be able to respond perfectly to every situation. That you should have prepared enough get it all right, no matter what. And when something does not go perfectly, you feel horrible.
But that isn’t the truth.
The truth is, none of us are perfect. And no one else is expecting me to be perfect all the time. Only me.
Sometimes I fall. But as long as I did the best I could with the information I had, I have to accept that as good enough. I can’t change the past. No matter how much I obsess about it.
Follow up instead of hide
I know I didn’t do my best work. But that doesn’t mean I have to run away and hide my head in shame. Because my shame will only get worse if I let it fester in the dark.
When I say something cruel or inappropriate, I can apologize.
In this situation, I am going to send follow up emails.
I am going to take a little time and craft an email to each person that asked me a question. With a more thoughtful response.
I might not get a single reply.
But the outcome is not in my control anyway.
I will follow up for myself. So that I know I gave my best effort. I will do what feels right. And show up in the best way that I know how.
And I have to accept that my best effort is enough.
Shame attacks can be paralyzing. But I am trying to remember that they are not useful.
I will not get more clients when I am stuck in shame.
I will not give my best effort when all I can feel is shame.
So I am using the steps above to work my way through this shame attack. And most of all, I am trying to be kind to myself. As Brene Brown says,
Shame is that warm feeling that washes over us, making us feel small, flawed, and never good enough…(but) part of the process of cultivating worthiness is through self-compassion — treating ourselves the way we treat other people we love and respect.