Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 18, Issue 51;   December 19, 2018: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Creation

Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Creation

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Three feelings are often confused with each other: embarrassment, shame, and guilt. To understand how to cope with these feelings, begin by understanding what different kinds of situations we use when we create these feelings.
Feeling shame

Feelings of embarrassment, shame, and guilt have at least two things in common. One is that they're usually unwelcome. And the second is that experiencing any of these feelings can be so stressful that we suffer diminished control or awareness of our thoughts and actions. And that can lead us to think, do, or say things that lead to yet more embarrassment, shame, or guilt. So these feelings are unwelcome, and they can replicate and amplify themselves. Not good.

Everything is fine, usually, until something happens that we use to create one, some, or all of these feelings. What would be useful to know, then, is how to notice that we've moved into a high-risk emotional state. Once noticed, we might be able to limit the risk by intervening with our own emotions to recover some degree of composure.

In Part I of this exploration, I examine the nature of the incidents that we use to create our feelings of embarrassment, shame, or guilt. In Part II I'll look into how we cope with these feelings.

What can lead to feelings of embarrassment
Feelings of embarrassment can come about when a revelation of some aspect of yourself alters the image you want to project to others. That others actually become aware of the revelation isn't necessary; rather, all that's needed is that you believe that others are aware, or that they might become aware. The revelation itself can be a personally unacceptable act or omission, rather than a moral violation. It can be a violation of a social norm, but it need not be. It can be a "negative" kind of act or omission, but it need not be. What matters most is that you believe that it can create unwelcome changes in the image of yourself that you project.
Examples: forgetting Feelings of embarrassment, shame,
or guilt are usually unwelcome.
And they can lead us to make
choices that lead to yet more feelings
of embarrassment, shame, or guilt.
the name of someone you know well; not wanting to hug someone who's already stepped in your direction for a hug; "correcting" someone's correct definition of an acronym — incorrectly.
What can lead to feelings of shame
What the shame-inducing incident reveals is that some aspect of your character is compromised relative to a moral standard. The revelation might not involve others; it can be a self-revelation. So, for example, you can feel shame about having thought something that you would never even express to anyone else. Unlike embarrassment, the violated standard is a moral standard, not merely a social norm, as is possible with embarrassment. What matters is that you recognize that some element of your character is in conflict with the moral stature of the image you want to project to others and yourself. The conflict reveals that you might be — indeed are — morally compromised relative to some internalized moral standard. We can't feel shame unless we have internalized the moral standard.
Examples: displaying anger by nearly screaming at someone in a face-to-face meeting; clicking "Send" on an email message, only to realize, too late, that the message contains your own bitterly disparaging comments about someone who's also in the CC list.
What can lead to feelings of guilt
What we use to create feelings of guilt as opposed to shame is the realization that we're responsible for a thought or act — committed or omitted — that violates moral standards that we believe we always uphold. These standards can be universally held in your corner of society, but they need not be universal, and they need not be societal at all. All that's required is that you believe you willfully violated a moral standard that you personally accept. Unlike shame, which arises from a revelation about yourself, guilt is a feeling that arises relative to an act or thought.
Examples: requiring a subordinate to submit to a performance improvement plan, without investigating what later turned out to be her rival's fabricated charges that she, the subordinate, had neglected her duties; submitting false claims on an expense report to compensate for a claim on a previous expense report that was legitimate but which was nevertheless denied.

I've been careful above to note that we make our own feelings; that events or other people don't make us feel this or that. Keeping ownership of feelings is an essential first step to learning to cope with feelings. And coping is our topic for next time.  Next in this series Go to top Top  Next issue: Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Coping  Next Issue

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