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Shoulda, Woulda, Coulda. How Shame is Holding You Back?

Think about the last time you made a mistake. Just to make it interesting, make it a pretty big mistake. The kind that gives you a sick feeling in your stomach. The kind that costs you a night’s sleep before you have to tell your boss, your team, or your spouse that you screwed up.

The feeling that’s underlying all that anxiety and shame.

Shame is a corrosive feeling that’s at the root of much of humanity’s bad behavior. Shame is deeply embedded in the human psyche. It’s a terrible feeling, one that’s related to guilt, but not interchangeable with it. Guilt is useful; it’s our brain’s way of keeping us from doing things that would push us out of the tribe. When we do something wrong, we feel guilt. We have the opportunity to confess, to make things right, or ask forgiveness.

Shame, on the other hand, is not useful. It takes guilt further from “I did a bad thing” to “I am a bad person.” Shame makes us believe that we’ve been contaminated by the bad thing we did. Sometimes, we have the courage to confess, make it right, and ask for forgiveness. But more often, we direct our energy to hide what we’ve done. We wind up hiding and afraid to open up to others; we’re afraid they will see who we are and be disgusted.

The energy takes to manage shame about what you perceive as your failures or shortcomings is holding you back from achieving your potential. If you can understand that, you have the ability to move on past shame.

Next time you screw up, practice this script, from Danessa Knaupp, author of

"Naked at Work: A Leader's Guide to Fearless Authenticity"

“It will be okay, honey. You shoot for things other people only dream about. It’s what drives and defines you. You do spectacular things. This happens to be a spectacular failure. You will survive this and go on to the next spectacular win.”

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