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 Top Next Issue
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More articles on Emotions at Work:
- Working Out on Your Dreadmill
- Many of us are experts in risk analysis and risk management. Even the non-specialists among us have
developed considerable skill in anticipating troubles and preparing plans for dealing with them. When
these habits of thought leak into our personal lives, we pay a high price.
- The Fundamental Attribution Error
- When we try to understand the behavior of others, we often make a particularly human mistake. We tend
to attribute too much to character and disposition and too little to situation and context. When we
seek a better balance, we can adopt a more accepting view of events around us.
- Responding to Threats: II
- When an exchange between individuals, or between an individual and a group, goes wrong, threats often
are either the cause or part of the results. If we know how to deal with threats — and how to
avoid and prevent them — we can help keep communications creative and constructive.
- Coping with Layoff Survival
- Your company has just done another round of layoffs, and you survived yet again. This time was the most
difficult, because your best pal was laid off, and you're even more fearful for your own job security.
How can you cope with survival?
- Scope Creep, Hot Hands, and the Illusion of Control
- Despite our awareness of scope creep's dangerous effects on projects and other efforts, we seem unable
to prevent it. Two cognitive biases — the "hot hand fallacy" and "the illusion
of control" — might provide explanations.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming May 29: Newtonian Blind Alleys: II
- Some of our decisions don't turn out well. The nature of our errors does vary, but a common class of errors is due to applying concepts from physics originated by Isaac Newton. One of these is the concept of spectrum. Available here and by RSS on May 29.
- And on June 5: I Could Be Wrong About That
- Before we make joint decisions at work, we usually debate the options. We come together to share views, and then a debate ensues. Some of these debates turn out well, but too many do not. Allowing for the fact that "I could be wrong" improves outcomes. Available here and by RSS on June 5.
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- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
- Many people who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.