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 themcongruently 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 Top Next Issue
Is every other day a tense, anxious, angry misery as you watch people around you, who couldn't even think their way through a game of Jacks, win at workplace politics and steal the credit and glory for just about everyone's best work including yours? Read 303 Secrets of Workplace Politics, filled with tips and techniques for succeeding in workplace politics. More info
Your comments are welcomeWould you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.
About Point Lookout
Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.
Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.
Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.
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.
- Be With the Real
- When the stream of unimportant events and concerns reaches a high enough tempo, we can become so transfixed
that we lose awareness of the real and the important. Here are some suggestions for being with the Real.
- Good Change, Bad Change: II
- When we distinguish good change from bad, we often get it wrong: we favor things that would harm us,
and shun things that would help. When we do get it wrong, we're sometimes misled by social factors.
- Managing Hindsight Bias Risk
- Performance appraisal practices and project retrospectives both rely on evaluating performance after
outcomes are known. Unfortunately, a well-known bias — hindsight bias — can limit the effectiveness
of many organizational processes, including both performance appraisal and project retrospectives.
- Embarrassment, Shame, and Guilt at Work: Creation
- 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.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming November 20: Paid-Time-Off Risks
- Associated with the trend to a single pool of paid time off from separate categories for vacation, sick time, and personal days are what might be called paid-time-off risks. If your team must meet customer expectations or a schedule of deliverables, managing paid-time-off risks can be important. Available here and by RSS on November 20.
- And on November 27: Implicit Interrogations
- Investigations at work can begin with implicit interrogations — implicit because they're unannounced and unacknowledged. The goal is to determine what people did or knew without revealing that an investigation is underway. When asked, those conducting these interrogations often deny they're doing it. What's the nature of implicit interrogations? Available here and by RSS on November 27.
I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.
Get the ebook!
Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info
- The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers
On 14 December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program.
Here's a date for this program:
- Gardner Village, 1100 W 7800 S, West Jordan, UT 84084: November
Quarterly Training Session, sponsored by Northern Utah Chapter of the Project Management Institute.
- Gardner Village, 1100 W 7800 S, West Jordan, UT 84084: November 21, Quarterly Training Session, sponsored by Northern Utah Chapter of the Project Management Institute. Register now.
- 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.