This week I spoke at the Air Force Academy. As with all of my speaking engagements, I tell my story and open it up for questions. One of the cadets asked me a hard-hitting question that inspired our topic this week. He said “overcoming shame seems to be something you did organically in your career. How did you do that, and do you have any tips?”
First things first. Overcoming shame has probably been the least organic journey of my life. Overcoming shame is an ongoing battle for me and I do not use the word battle lightly. Working to free myself from the heaviness of the moments in my life that I might regret or feel ashamed of is very difficult and it takes intention and hard work.
Shame is so destructive because it is essentially the living, breathing feeling of inadequacy. Shame reminds us of all the times we were disappointed in ourselves, all the places we felt we didn’t belong and all the times we never felt good enough. Shame creates fear, insecurity and prevents us from feeling joy. At the route of almost everything we feel, there is likely some shame.
In her many works on shame, Brene Brown says
“Self-compassion is key because when we’re able to be gentle with ourselves in the midst of shame, we’re more likely to reach out, connect, and experience empathy.”
The shame I carried with me that was the most destructive to my self-worth was the shame I carried around being a teen mom. Getting pregnant at sixteen and the shame one carries in disappointing everyone that you love and care about is indescribable. I have never felt more ashamed of anything in my life which is a dichotomy that has been very difficult to navigate in my life because being a mother is my favorite job in life. Nothing produces pride for me like my children. It’s interesting how I can be so proud of the man Micai has become and yet I have carried so much shame within myself about becoming his mom so early in life. It’s as if I can burst with pride for him but not for myself for raising him to be who he is.
Read my teen mom shame journey here:
The shame I carried from being a teen mom meant early in my career and life, I made decisions to bury this part of my story. I got married as quickly as I could to create the family life, I wanted the world to know I was capable of having. I became laser focused on achievement and proving everyone wrong about me and for a very long time, shame, mixed with my rebellion drove me to many of the successes I had.
The problem, if we let shame drive us, we will be exhausted with the inauthenticity of our lives. If we aren’t owning our stories, we can’t ever truly show up as ourselves. The shames I was hiding became very apparent when I became a CFO at age 26. Nothing will expose your inauthenticity like leadership and because I was both defensive and private about the pieces of the story that made me who I was, I couldn’t show up in authentic leadership. Trust me, if you want to love leadership or be any good at leadership, showing up in your authenticity and transparency is key.
I was failing so miserably as a leader in the first six months of the job that I decided I was certainly going to get fired and that if I was going to get fired, I was going to go down being myself. I was intentional about going into the office one Monday after a weekend of resolving to my impending unemployment and I told my team “I have been trying to be a leader like other leaders I see, and I am failing miserably. I need to be myself and I need you all to help me do it.” I gave my team permission to hold me accountable to my own authenticity, to call me out when something felt inauthentic or when it seemed like I was trying too hard.
The first step to shedding my shame was to admit that at my tender age of 26, most of my staff was far more experienced than I was. I had to admit that I needed to learn from them and that I couldn’t do it all. Admitting that I needed help because I was young and experienced for me was one of the most difficult admissions because I never, as teen mom wanted to admit that I may have been less prepared for motherhood than others. I had let my age, being the youngest mom in every room, define how I felt about whether or not I was a good mom. I assumed everyone believed I wasn’t a good mom because I was young mom. As with any shame, if we let it live, it’s starts to bleed into everything we do. I carried my teen mom shame into my career where I have also always been the youngest in the room. I was always on the defensive, fighting to be taken seriously because my shame made feel like I lacked credibility.
As a failing CFO, I shared my shame with my team. I told them how scared I had felt since I took the job. I told them that I believed nobody would find me credible. I asked them for help and guess what; they helped me. They supported me. They protected me and they gave me permission to be myself. They helped me fall in love with leadership and they helped me fall in love with myself. They reminded me of the magic of my story. They reminded me of all that I had overcome and in their pride for me as their leader I found pride for myself too.
The truth of our stories, the vulnerability of our fears and the magic of the lessons our mistakes taught us, is the cure for shame. The good news about shame is that as soon as you bring it out of the darkness, it can’t live. The story you hide and the insecurities you are scared to admit out loud are the exact piece of your story if brought into the light, will bring out the strengths of who you are that you have buried with your shame.
Shame hides who we are and prevents us from discovering and sharing our authentic selves. Bringing our shames into the light allows us to settle into who we were meant to be and teaches us what we have to offer. The very piece of your story that you are shamed of is probably the piece of your story that will change the world. Being ourselves is ALWAYS the right way to be and authenticity will NEVER steer us in the wrong direction. Authenticity can’t live in the same space as shame, so you have to choose one.
In your journal, write the SHAME down. Let it breath in the real world even if it’s just in your journal. Commit to share this shame with someone you trust and do it this week. Do not let the time pass. Make sure that you are sharing something you believe is holding you back. You know what it is and if you don’t, go do all the other homework assignments on this website and you will find it.
Remember, shame lives in the darkness and as soon as we begin o share it, it loses its power of us.