Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 18, Issue 52;   December 26, 2018:

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.
Inside the space station flight control room (FCR-1) in the Johnson Space Center's Mission Control Center

Inside the space station flight control room (FCR-1) in the Johnson Space Center's Mission Control Center, October 2013. Early in my career, I had the role of narrator for a demonstration of my employer's software to an audience of about 80 engineers at NASA's Johnson Space Center. I had the microphone, while two of my fellow engineers operated the software. Or at least, they tried. It didn't work. While they kept trying, repeatedly, I tried to buy them some time by describing to the audience what they would see when my compatriots eventually resolved the problem. At one point, an audience member made a joke at our expense, and I responded, "I know what you're really laughing at. Every one of you knows what it feels like to be in the position we're in right now," and that got even more laughs. We never did get the demonstration working, but everyone learned a little bit about coping with embarrassment.

Photo courtesy NASA.

Dictionaries define coping as dealing with problems or overcoming obstacles. Because embarrassment, shame, or guilt can be problematic, it's useful to wonder about how to cope with them. I've written about eight patterns of coping, based on the work of Virginia Satir, extended slightly, but we don't need that level of granularity for this discussion. Two kinds of coping will suffice. Congruent coping takes into account the world as it is, with balanced regard for oneself, for others, and for the world at large. Incongruent coping is unbalanced. In incongruent coping we have too much or too little concern for ourselves, or for others, or for the world. Let me illustrate by comparing incongruent and congruent coping patterns for dealing with feelings of embarrassment, shame, and guilt.

Coping incongruently with embarrassment can involve concealment or denial. Lying about feeling embarrassed is an example. Explaining away your own behavior by blaming your faux pas on someone else is another example. Even simpler: pretend it just didn't happen, and hope you aren't blushing visibly. Some people who frequently cope incongruently with embarrassment can become quite skilled. They develop artful techniques for concealing their missteps, detectible only to the practiced eye or ear.
Coping congruently with embarrassment might start with the realization that everyone experiences embarrassment now and then. Just now, it was your turn. Search for humor in the situation. Lean into it. Exaggerate it and see if you can elicit laughter from the people who have witnessed your misfortune. Use the incident as a basis for deepening the connection between your witnesses and yourself.
Some of the more popular approaches to coping incongruently with feelings of shame are rejecting the feeling itself, or rejecting the incident that might have led to the feelings, or reflexively rejecting the moral standard that had been violated, or rejecting all responsibility for the outcome of the incident. These strategies don't lead to much learning beyond how to deploy these strategies more effectively. That's why these strategies are unlikely to help develop the ability to prevent or avoid further shame-inducing incidents.
Coping Because embarrassment, shame,
or guilt can be problematic, it's
useful to wonder about
how to cope with them
congruently with feelings of shame requires taking ownership of the action that violated the moral standard in question. Learn about the harm your action induced, to others or to yourself. Examine whether the internalized moral standard is truly worthy of internalization, or is perhaps in need of amendment or even rejection. Learn what led to the violation with a view to avoiding repetitions. Consider the possibility that you might have had better alternatives that you rejected, or that you didn't consider in the moment, or that you've never known about.
Incongruent coping with feelings of guilt involves denying the action you took, or any responsibility for the action. Or you might repress the entire incident, driving it out of your awareness. Whenever the incident does come into your awareness or recollection, you can congratulate yourself for having driven it out of your mind for however long a period that was. Feeling good about forgetting your transgression is a way of rewarding yourself for denying it. You can adopt the (mistaken) view that forgetting the transgression, or being unaware of it for a time, is the same as "getting over it," even though it clearly is not. If there was a victim, you can blame him or her, claiming by whatever contorted argument you can devise that the victim caused you to do (or not do) whatever you did (or didn't) do. If all else fails, you can try a trading strategy. In trading, you assuage your feelings of guilt by punishing yourself for your infraction. For example, you might deprive yourself of something you enjoy, especially something that you gained or kept because of the action (or inaction) about which you now feel guilt.
Coping congruently with feelings of guilt entails acknowledging the feelings, accepting that you've done (or didn't do) whatever it was you did (or didn't do), checking for any possibilities of making amends, and looking to the future to see what you can learn. To do these things requires understanding the standard that has been supposedly violated. Verify that the standard is truly yours, and that you aren't applying someone else's standard. Verify that the feelings you're experiencing are proportional — that they are commensurate with the infraction. Ask yourself, "Am I making too much of this?"
Accept that you can't revise the past. What you can do is make better choices in the future. Use your energy to consider what you can do differently to avoid making the same bad choice again. You'll find lots of advice on the Internet to the effect of "move on." Moving on can be more easily said than done, but it can be a bit easier if you recognize that moving on is the only path that leads to opportunities to practice dealing better with this particular situation, or with guilt in general.

These examples of coping emphasize embarrassment, shame, and guilt. But humans must cope with other problems, too. Compared to congruent coping, incongruent coping comes more easily in this moment, but it usually makes for difficulty in the next. First in this series  Go to top Top  Next issue: Issues-Only Team Meetings  Next Issue

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