Shame: Don’t Kill the Messenger!

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In my work in culture transformation, a key concept is that all people are greatly impacted by inferiority complex, a concept from Alfred Adler’s psychology, and the basis in much of our work. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to inferiority complex as shame. Shame is unprocessed pain for which we wrongly conclude there’s something flawed and unworthy about us.

“Each and every time the grace of devastation enters our reality, we have an equal opportunity to either cement the falsehood of limiting beliefs or to allow limiting beliefs to melt away by walking through the fire of our most epic disaster.”

Matt Kahn, Author of Everything Is Here to Help You: A Loving Guide to Your Soul’s Evolution

Shame is the root cause of all struggles, internal and external because without awareness, we often conclude and confer upon ourselves limiting beliefs; then cement false and negative interpretations we make about ourselves.  Internally, we then struggle with addictions, stress, disengagement, obesity, anxiety, depression, or more (you get my drift). Similarly, shame is also the basis of all external struggles. Just watch the news or look at social media for five minutes and you’ll see how much righteousness, win/lose, war, crime, corruption, coercion, isms, and every other kind of misbehavior. When we realize shame underlies ALL struggles, it might be tempting to be ashamed of shame itself. That would be a terrible mistake. That would be shooting the messenger shame; a very valuable messenger at that.

Shame begins in us when others lay on us criticism, blame, punishment, persecution, neglect, cruelty, rejection, harm, abandonment and much more. Without proper processing, we carry shame in our bodies, hence the reason, “The Body Keeps the Score,” a book on trauma, has been a best-seller for months. Some of us carry more shame than others because pain we felt (often for decades) was not processed at all, or in a healthy, complete way. This buried shame, in the dark, is why we’re often “triggered” by what someone else says or does, that deep down inside, even to us, our reaction can seem crazy, out-of-proportion.

Our triggers cause us to avoid our feelings, and rush into blame, exaggerating the faults of others and puffing up our own virtues in hopes no one can see how much things are throwing us. Shame is why so many take anti-anxiety and anti-depression medications and repeat trauma patterns. Today’s smartest business leaders realize the gravity, cost, and breadth of unprocessed feelings and the crucial need for psychological safety and trauma-informed operations in the workplace.

Understanding that shame is the root underlying all struggles is just the beginning and is much less formidable to each of us when we befriend shame. That’s right – befriend it! Shame may seem like an annoying paper-cut that won’t let up, but if you could see it for the value it provides, you’d gratefully fall in with the many ways it leads you to recognize and process your pain, so it no longer rules you or is avoided, but rather leads to resolution. Then you can help others process their pain and it’s coasting for everyone from there. If we only saw shame as the advocate it’s trying to be, we’d respect it like a check-engine light in our car.

Shame does not mean we did anything wrong. Shame is just showing us our pain, so we process it instead of trying to bury it, turn it on ourselves, and turn it on each other. When we do that shame gets stuck in loops, causing people to end up in self-fulfilling negative patterns that appear hopeless to change or heal in and between people.

What if shame were thanked and relaxed into when it rears up? What if when we felt it, we were to think, “You make sense. I know you’re here because either some past or present toxic condition is hurting me or the group and is now ready to be let go of, processed, healed, and/or changed. Thanks for cluing me in. I notice when I pay attention to you, and I follow your lead, feeling what I’m feeling, I get through quickly, easily, and become a happy, productive, and effective person.” Not only should we befriend shame, we should also let go of the attitude that shame is like a bad case of shingles we must get over and never, ever catch again. Sorry, but that’s an attitude likely to cost dearly, any who hold it.

People are often impatient with shame, pain, and emotions in general. We fail to realize that our body takes a bit longer to catch up with our minds once they ‘get’ what’s been going on. Throughout our lives we were (or are) too often told (and now tell ourselves) “Get over it already!” “Didn’t you already work on this?” That’s like a kid coming to you with a second skinned knee and you saying, “You don’t get to have another skinned knee. You’ve already had one of those.” If you’re participating in life correctly, you WILL experience pain and cruelty and less-than-ideal conditions at least periodically, and you can either suffer unnecessarily or recover quickly if you don’t shoot the messenger: shame. When you listen to shame, you become part of a change process that helps you and everyone around you to quickly recover. Did you ever think shame could be such a badass advantage to you and (by nature of this article) to your business!? Yay shame. Light can now flood the dark spaces.

The real trick you want to learn is how to create your workplace culture so that pain is reduced greatly and practices inside your company help people recover their most amazing, healed, creative, and free selves! Then your workplace is where people process pain without adding to trauma and your teams thrive. When you’re ready for that, let me know. We’re great at helping people to create new conditions and conversations where shame is rarely needed but when it is, it’s appreciated!

This article is published in the column The Extraordinary Workplace in St. Louis Small Business Monthly,  October 2022.

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