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:
- The Slippery Slope That Isn't
- "If we promote you, we'll have to promote all of them, too." This "slippery-slope"
tactic for winning debates works by exploiting our fears. Another in a series about rhetorical tricks
that push our buttons.
- Stay in Your Own Hula Hoop
- Do you tend to commit to too many tasks? Are you one who spends too much energy meeting the needs of
others — so much that your own needs go unmet? Here's how a hula-hoop can help.
- Hurtful Clichés: II
- Much of our day-to-day conversation consists of harmless clichés: "How goes it?" or
"Nice to meet you." Some other clichés aren't harmless, but they're so common that
we use them without thinking. Here's Part II of a series exploring some of these clichés.
- Solving the Problem of Solving Problems
- Problem solving is sometimes difficult when our biases interfere with generating candidate solutions,
or with evaluating candidates we already have. Here are some suggestions for dealing with these biases.
- Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Coping
- Coping effectively with feelings of embarrassment, shame, or guilt is the path to recovering a sense
of balance that's the foundation of clear thinking. And thinking clearly at work is important if you
want to avoid feeling embarrassment, shame, or guilt.
See also Emotions at Work and Workplace Politics for more related articles.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming March 29: Time Slot Recycling: The Risks
- When we can't begin a meeting because some people haven't arrived, we sometimes cancel the meeting and hold a different one, with the people who are in attendance. It might seem like a good way to avoid wasting time, but there are risks. Available here and by RSS on March 29.
- And on April 5: The Fallacy of Division
- Errors of reasoning are pervasive in everyday thought in most organizations. One of the more common errors is called the Fallacy of Division, in which we assume that attributes of a class apply to all members of that class. It leads to ridiculous results. Available here and by RSS on April 5.
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