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Why do we shame ourselves and others?




Hanging on my office wall is the picture “Yes I’ve made mistakes, Life didn’t come with instructions!” This picture is a constant reminder for me that making mistakes is all about the ‘learning’ that comes from them and less about the pain of feeling ‘shame’ that, in the past, tightened my airways and stiffened the muscles around my shoulders until my body was screaming for relief!


Before truly understanding the gifts each mistake I make gives me I was overcome with feelings of shame and regret and my inner critic, with its mean and nasty tone, would remind me that I should not have made a mistake and that I should be perfect all of the time and…..if I was not perfect all of the time…..then I was not a worthy human being…..that I was indeed less than other human beings.


My strong relationship with shame began early on in my life. I was an over-sensitive, clumsy, chubby, impractical kid who lived in a non-linear, energetic realm rather than a practical, linear one and I was shamed for it. Shamed for losing books, for missing buses, for not paying attention in class and so on and so on; yet after such a close relationship with it I could not make friends with shame.


Nevertheless, it followed me, like the shadow that it was, most of my life and well into my 30’s. On the one hand it was crippling my confidence and on the other hand it was driving me to achieve the inner critic’s pursuit of perfection! Ten years part time study as a mature age student, distinction average in my Masters, achieving a successful career in human resources and then founding my own corporate education company. Ah, hah! I’ve silenced my inner critic….Right?


Wrong! Shame still followed me wherever I went, preferring to focus on what I was doing wrong and not on what I was doing right and those who surrounded me, who hadn’t made friends with their own shame, seemed to enjoy it when I was over-apologetic after a mistake which reinforced my need to punish myself even more for them. I was not good enough!


Here’s the actual truth about making mistakes. Everybody makes mistakes. Mistake-making improves our ability to be creative, to learn and to enjoy our work and personal lives more than if we were not making mistakes. If we spend our lives trying not to make mistakes then we are not going to be our best selves. We are not going to explore our beautiful world outside of our traditional belief systems.


Every mistake brings a learning opportunity with it. Yes, absolutely every mistake does, no matter what the circumstances. After making a mistake we all have choices. We can;


  1. Punish ourselves for it, feeding our inner critic (draining);
  2. Defend, justify and blame others for it, deflecting it away from ourselves (even more draining); or
  3. Own it, learn from it and let the negative emotion attached to it go (goodbye).


By choosing the third option (and it’s a choice when you are conscious of your choices, which you are now) can lead to you being more authentic, lighter, happier and more compassionate to others who make mistakes.


Each week, myself and my team educate leaders on how to Lead with Emotional Intelligence and the topic of compassion for self and others, when making mistakes, is incredibly enlightening. Self-aware leaders who learn from their mistakes, rather than hiding them, encourage their team members to learn from their mistakes which creates a continuous learning environment that is authentic, happy and focused on achieving goals.


I still have my L Plates on when it comes to mistake-making, but I’m getting better and better at it. This article was inspired from a mistake I made in my last post https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/article/20141107055922-11475682-if-your-not-having-fun-then-your-not-at-your-best?trk=prof-post


In this post “If you’re not having fun then you’re not at you’re best” I made a number of spelling mistakes in the title and throughout the post. I was ‘shamed’ by a few people for my mistakes and liberated by a few people too! One critic wrote;


“your two grammatical errors—in your title!—reflect poorly on you and diminish the value of your post, in my opinion. My apologies, but the truth hurts sometimes.”


I did feel shame in the first few seconds which quickly transformed into a learning opportunity about how I could improve my next post (this one). I feel grateful for this experience and my hope is that you will feel more compassion towards yourselves the next time you and others make a mistake…and you will make a mistake! (I hope)