Shame and Public Failures

It is not uncommon in coaching to work through big decisions: Should I get a divorce? Should I change firms? Should I quit being a lawyer? One of the reasons some decisions seem so impossible is because there are some choices in life that feel like they put us on a stage for public shaming and ridicule. So how do we navigate the court of public opinion and make decisions when it feels terrifying?

Over the years, I’ve published countless articles on decision making and the process for making decisions. Stated simplistically, the only way to make a decision is to ask yourself why would I do The Thing or why would I not do The Thing. That analysis will provide us with two lists of justifications and rationales. From there, we only have to examine those lists and identify which list resonates most closely with who we are and who we want to be and execute. (Obviously, lots of work to be done on that bit but you get the gist of it).

Recently, I have discovered that some of us struggle to get to the list of justifications and rationales because the decision itself is fraught with so much judgment. Some decisions simply cannot be hidden from the world — job changes, career changes, divorce, podcasts(!) — and because of that, they expose us to the judgment of others. For that reason, we sometimes feel like we can’t move forward at all because we treat one avenue (e.g., divorce, leaving your firm) as an admission of “failure.”

As a result we feel utterly STUCK.

When making those types of decisions it is often difficult for us to get to the part of the process where we weigh our justifications because we are stuck in fear at the possibility that one decision will expose us to some public shame and potentially be judged as a failure (and part of us agrees with that judgment which is a whole other discussion!). In those types of scenarios, it’s difficult for us to connect with any of the justifications because the decision feels so monumental and potentially leaves us exposed and therefore, it doesn’t really seem like a decision at all, it feels like social/career suicide.

For example, consider a decision to leave your current position. You may have a lot of great reasons to stay and various reasons to go. In coaching we would work through all of those reasons (hello, free coaching consult, anyone?) and identify those that are most in alignment with your core values and goals. But consider a situation where the idea of leaving your firm and switching to another is raw with the fear of public judgment and all of the attendant shame. For some of us, we are unable to even explore our personal justifications for staying or going because, in our minds, we make only one decision viable and we equate the alternative decision with failure and public shaming.

It’s nearly impossible to dig into our options available to us when emotionally we firmly believe that one option is an admission of failure and will subject us to shame and ridicule by those around us.

It’s not unusual for the women that I encounter in my practice to feel that very way. They feel like there are no options available to them and that the only choice they have is to stay where they are regardless of their reasons for ever considering an exit. They believe that to leave is a failure and that everyone around them will also see it in the same light. That if they were to leave, even for reasons that made sense to them, they would be judged and found wanting:

They couldn’t hack it…they gave up…they weren’t cut out for it anyway…they didn’t have what it takes…

Some decisions like leaving a job or getting a divorce cannot be hidden from the outside world for long. Because of that, many of us refrain from making any changes to those aspects of our lives because we see the decision itself as an admission of failure. Even when a divorce or leaving a job may be the best decision for us and the path most in alignment with who we want to be, we are hesitant to take the leap because we believe that leaving a job or getting a divorce is a shameful public failure. That in making those decisions we will become outsiders disconnected from the rest of our circle.

Admittedly, I felt the same way each time I have dramatically adjusted my career or my life. Leaving one firm for another, going in-house, starting my own firm, getting a divorce…every time, I could hear the judgments of others echoing through my mind. None of those decisions were of the kind that I could hide from everyone else around me including those who would happily judge me. There are just certain decisions that will always be part of your lifetime highlight reel.

Getting a divorce, changing jobs, changing careers are some of those decisions. But for that reason, I believe that it is those very types of decisions that forge us into the people we are meant to be.

Those are the types of decisions that, because they cannot be hidden, we will be open and available for public scrutiny and judgment. And we often allow that potential judgment of others to bring us shame and create fear and paralysis around the decision. We can allow that potential for judgment to keep us from doing the things that we know are right for ourselves.

Or, we can use the knowledge that others may judge the decision to make us stronger. To recognize that as humans, judging others and judging our surroundings, is simply part of what we do. To acknowledge that others’ judgments are beyond our control and simply a part of life that cannot dictate our path. There is something incredibly empowering about making these huge momentous decisions knowing that everybody around you is going to see them and likely judge them but forging ahead anyway.

It is these types of decisions that really call us to stand in our truth to be vulnerable and to commit to being wholly and truly ourselves.

These decisions provide us an opportunity to develop self-confidence in the face of others’ judgment and in the face of our own personal self-doubt. It is that very kind of vulnerability that brings us closer to our people. When we allow fear and shame to set our course it actually divides us from everyone around us because we commit to living inauthentically and never letting anyone see our real desires.

But rather, when we invest in our truth, make those momentous decisions and be vulnerable, it actually brings us closer to the people in our lives because we invite them to really SEE us.

It’s not about making decisions that are free from judgment by others. It’s about making decisions knowing that not everybody’s going to agree with them but doing it anyway because they are the right decisions for you and you are willing to choose yourself and your path over the thoughts and criticisms of others.

If you find yourself paralyzed and unable to take action on a decision, consider whether you are making the decision itself an admission of a failure or whether you are afraid to expose yourself to judgment. Why would you allow yourself to see your true path as a failure? Instead, consider whether embracing this public “failure” and all the potential judgment that goes with it, might be your greatest and most beautiful evolution opportunity.

The biggest and scariest decisions I have ever made in my life were the kinds that opened me up to public ridicule and judgment. Those decisions have also been my greatest accomplishments.


Photo by Andres Ayrton

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