Perfectly Imperfect: Overcoming Shame at Work

“When there is no enemy within, the enemies outside cannot hurt you.” ~ African proverb

Hitchen’s Kitchen. It sounds like a diner straight out of a romance novel. But there I was standing in yes, the kitchen, getting my first dressing down at my first paying job.

At 16, I had screwed up waiting tables. I got the special of the day, swiss steak, mixed up with sirloin. And so I kept putting in tickets ordering sirloins and the cook kept on grilling them.

And then it struck. The customers were happily eating sirloin while paying the “special of the day” prices. The owner’s profits were tanking.

By the end of the revelation, the only thing that was sizzling louder than the sirloins was Mr. Hitchen, the owner of the diner.

And he was scolding me—loudly. Harshly.

I stood there absorbing his tirade. I was shocked and silent while that warm wash came over my torso. My stomach felt sick. Then came the hollowness in my chest, up to my neck where the lump in my throat sat.

How could I shrink away? How could I get away from this feeling? I’m drowning, I’m drowning. Save me, someone. I want to disappear.


The Kingpin of Destructive Emotions

Anger. Resentment. Hurt. Fear. Sadness. None of them feels good in our body. None of them are we racing to replicate.

However, shame is worse. It is debilitating. Immobilizing. It makes us viscerally sick. It feels like we are wearing a cloak of badness. And it shakes our soul’s foundation.

Shame doesn’t deliver just once either. The assault is made and the shame rushes in. For me, I replay searing scenes of shame in my mind and all the sensations come acutely pouring back into my body.

As if the first showing wasn’t enough. No, we get the sequel of shame, too. 

Uncertainty of the Workplace

I wish that it was only Mr. Hitchen that evoked my shame in the workplace but it wasn’t. I’ve felt it in other jobs and places since then.

I’ve made wrong managerial decisions that my supervisors have reamed me for. I’ve “blind copied” emails only to have the blind recipient hit “reply all” and blow my cover of perceived transparency.  I’ve been punished for not agreeing with a boss.

On each of these occasions, the shroud of shame has descended upon me, while simultaneously growing from my insides out. 

Enter the Working Wounded 

After a “shameful” situation in the workplace, I feel like the working wounded. Walking around with the lurking hollow sense of self, licking my wounds, trying to figure out what came down, and sorting through confused thoughts and emotions.

And of course, trying to soothe myself.

“Gee, if Mr. Hitchen could just lighten up and not make such a big deal out of it.” “Why didn’t he ask me earlier before he cooked seven sirloins?” “How was I to know? I don’t even eat meat.” “He’s such a bad communicator.” “Who would want to work with that tyrant?”

Shame and blame—have you ever participated in this workplace package?

Shame vs. Guilt

Until recently, I didn’t know how different guilt and shame were. To me, they felt muddled and blended into one negative, twisty, dismal feeling.

However, they are very distinct.

Brené Brown, a researcher of shame resilience explains it this way: When we feel shame, it goes to our core of worthiness. We feel defective, that we are not whole. Our inner message is “I am bad.”

When we feel guilt, we have the sense that our behavior was wrong. Then, we hear from our inner voice “Uh-oh, I did something bad.”

Brené describes it simply “Shame is about who we are and guilt is about our behaviors.” In that frame, guilt seems doable. Shame, however, feels destructive. 

The Myth of Unworthiness

Each of us begins life whole, a beautiful inner essence, and completely pure.

And as we go through childhood, our human wholeness gets chipped away at. We may not feel so good about ourselves, our true selves. We sometimes question our self-worth, our inner value. I’ve struggled with this a good portion of my life.

In other words, we feel ashamed about our selves. When we live and go to the workplace feeling unworthy, we feel disconnected from our inner being, from others, and our work . . . when by human nature, we just want to belong, to be affirmed, and to be accepted.

Perhaps you’ve asked yourself hundreds of times, “Am I good enough?” In your head, you know the right answer. But sometimes it’s more difficult to convince the rest of you—the heart and the body.

Amazingly, our self-worth has nothing to do with what we’ve accomplished, where we work, what our talents are, where we live or travel, what we’re wearing, how much education we received, who we are with, or how much money we have in our pocket. And it has everything to do with us embracing ourselves.

Accepting your inherent, pure worth. Your beautiful inner being. The essence of your goodness.

Untangling Guilt and Shame

A few years back I made a poor management decision, which my boss bristled about. When he and I sat down to discuss it, it was clear. I screwed up.

We hashed through it. I took responsibility for my misjudgment and apologized for it, as I regretted how it represented the team and organization. (Nothing wrong with a little healthy guilt in the workplace now and then.)

But before I could leave, my boss took a conversational leap. He announced that due to my mistake, he didn’t think I could be trusted for other decisions.

For a moment, my head spun. “Really?” my inner voice chirped. As an applied researcher, I immediately queried in my head, “You’re making a decision on this data alone?”

As you might imagine, I was surprised and confused. Being told I was not trustworthy laced on being told I was not worthy of trust. (Emphasis on worthy.)

This exchange could have taken an ugly turn had I flooded with shame about my self-worth as I once did in Mr. Hitchen’s kitchen. But I wasn’t 16 any more. I now knew in every part of me—my head, my heart, and my body—that I was trustworthy and worthy.

And though my boss had questioned my trustworthiness, a part of my personhood, I wasn’t buying it. The punishment didn’t fit the mistake.

In a calm voice, I was able to share with my boss that although I had made this mistake, I was highly trustworthy. But if he thought I wouldn’t make another mistake in the workplace that would indeed be his mistake.

Because I was human. Worthy. Yet not perfect.

Each of Us Is Worthy

We may err in the workplace and need to take responsibility for cleaning up our messes. That’s just guilt and it can pass rather quickly when we own it and move on.

However, we don’t need to apologize for our own inner being, our innate humanness, our wholeness as a person.

A tagline that always brings calm and goodwill to me is the one for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. “All lives have equal value.” What a wonderful reminder of each person’s worthiness and wholeness on this planet.

When you step through your workplace door today, remember you possesses a worthy, authentic essence—just the way you are. In fact, you are perfectly imperfect.

Photo by procsila

About Susie Amundson

Susie Amundson helps people authentically connect with themselves, with others, and their work while striving to do the same in her life. She writes at Wise At Work in the quest for connecting human wholeness and the workplace. Living in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska, Susie is a strategic organizational consultant, cherishes her family and friends, and loves the wilderness.

See a typo, an inaccuracy, or something offensive? Please contact us so we can fix it!
  • Jen

    Thank you for this.  I am a big fan of Brene Brown. 🙂  I have been sitting (well standing) here all morning feeling terrible because my boss let slip that due to my health issues and subsequent absences, I am on the top of the list to be laid off when the company I work for is finished being bought out. After reading this, I realized I’m feeling shame about this decision and not merely worry for my future.  I now have a place to start from in order to deal with what I’m feeling and hopefully a way to say “This is not a fair decision.  I have broken no policies on my absences.”

  • Sally

    What a wonderful message and a very timely one for me. I always find something on Tiny Buddha to motivate me. I’ve been having a hard time at work lately. There are a lot of changes going on and what amounts to a couple of control freaks in managementwreaking havoc on the work lives of those who work for them. I decided that as long as I put in my best effort and do an honest days work, what’s done, said, or implmented around me, isn’t going to affect how I feel about the job that I have always loved. I do it well and have decided again that it not about what happens so much as is about how I react to what happens. Thanks for your wise words.

  • Pingback: Perfectly Imperfect | Wise At Work()

  • Wow, I have so much to say about this related to my personal experience, but I can’t as this is a public page.  I will just say that this is a great piece and I especially appreciate the thought you shared at the end, “all lives have equal value”.  If only more people took that idea to heart, we would be a much more compassionate planet.

    Thank you for sharing your wisdom!

  • Amazing post Susie! Shame at work feels sooooo ugly. And you cannot even get over it quickly. It will torment you for quite a long time after the incident.

    So, I am wondering, what happened when you told your boss that he was wrong to see you as not trustworthy? What did he say?

  • Sally, it sounds like you are adopting a well-matched approach for your workplace — to work with integrity, be emotionally grounded, and focus on what you are able to control. When the workplace spins around us, it’s so important to stay connected to our own spiritual and emotional anchor and really decide who we want to be in the midst of the havoc.

    You are well on your way. Oh yes, and of course we must carry a whopping sense of humor there too.

    Many blessings to you, Sally.

  • Maria, exactly!  There really is no feeling that compares to shame in my book and how we can viscerally feel it in later months usually means we aren’t completely healed.

    As for my boss, I’ve found (with many of them) if I come from a calm, non-judgmental, and tactful place, ears perk up and the room gets quiet after clear statements. LOL. Of course, I didn’t tell him he was wrong — just that he would be making a mistake :^).

    Best wishes to you in the workplace, Maria.

  • Jen, just reading your work story today makes my stomach flip. It’s never good to have information like this slip haphazardly. This is delicate information that needs to be shared discreetly and directly with empathy.

    The more you can move shame away from this, the clearer you will be able to think. When you feel grounded and composed, it would be a good time to get more clarity about this decision.

    This is a hard situation, Jen. May you be connected to your best self in the workplace.

  • Alannah, I couldn’t agree more. If we carried the belief that “all lives have equal value” each and every day, contentment, peace, and justice would reign.

    Blessings, Alannah.

  • Jen,

    A Tiny Buddha reader wrote me and though she didn’t want to write on the blog, she was concerned about your work situation. She has experienced serious health issues that have influenced her work and she recommended getting clear on your workplace policies. How wonderful of this reader to offer her support.

    For example, an option for you might be the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) or if you have a chronic condition, you might want to gather information about the Americans for Disability Act (ADA) rights and practices. Your Human Resources Department should be able to assist you with these.

    Whenever you discuss these options (if they are appropriate), be sure that you are grounded emotionally so you can think clearly and make really good decisions for yourself in this situation.


  • Kathy

    This is so timely for me!  For me, the dressing down hasn’t typically come from an employer, but from myself.  A very positive evaluation of 97% which had a suggestion or two for improvement could leave me replaying possible mistakes and faults endlessly.  I took guilt over minor issues and turned it into life-draining shame.  I felt like the world’s biggest loser.  This has been a life pattern for me in other areas as well.  I have recently experienced some challenges in new employment and the old anxiety has crept in and told me I’m once again a loser.  Your post reminds me that this isn’t true.  This is only shame speaking and it’s not reality. I can never be perfect; in fact, I don’t even want to be perfect.  It’s great to be average!  I don’t want to seek external validation either, but have internal faith in myself.   I will continue to make mistakes because I’m human and that’s what humans do.  Thanks so much for this post…I sooo needed it! 

  • Jen

    Thank you, and tell her thanks as well!  I am very grateful for the support and information. 🙂

    When I first heard the news, the only thing I wanted to do was curl up and hide.  I didn’t want to talk to HR or even my doctor.  The unfortunate side is that I do not yet have a diagnosis as to what’s wrong with me, so I think that makes it a little murky.  But I do feel there is no harm in looking for information or speaking to HR.  I will definately do these things and even if I do end up without a job, it’s not the end of the world and it by no means devalues me.

  • Kathy, it truly is an amazing (and destructive) experience when we listen and buy-in to our anxiety and shame. You are so adept at realizing it is surfacing for you — and self-awareness is  crucial in quieting our Inner Critic.
    I just wrote a post about the Inner Critic last week about “Facing Your Inner Critic.”

    So many people really beat up on themselves (myself included). I believe our journey is about offering kindness and acceptance to our self like we would do with our best friend, little child, or beloved pet that is struggling. I have to laugh in retrospect because oftentimes I was much more gentle with our dog Yentil than myself!

    Kathy, may you offer yourself kindness and relish in your perfectly imperfect you.

  • LadyTamborine

    Susie & Jen,
    Susie, Thank you so much for reaching out to her. The soil here at TinyBuddha is sooo rich. I love seeing our spiritual brothers and sisters nurish each other.
    Your advice of being grounded to clearly handle situations is GREAT! I know when you’re in pain it’s hard to separate  –  but it’s CRUCIAL.  Sooo many people tend to let their emotions get in the way of facts and I know from experience, that can be disaster when it comes to legal situations.  Get things documented and let them speak for themselves.
    Jen, It sounds like you have a deeper understanding about what’s important in life; this will TRULY get you through difficult times.  I will continue to send positive energy your way.

    By surrounding ourselves with those that nurture our soil…we are bound to bloom in whatever climate.

    Best wishes.

  • Lady Tamborine.

    Thank you for joining in and offering support and your own wisdom to Jen. I am very touched by the community of support at Tiny Buddha and the connection and care for other human beings. Work, play, family, community — those authentic connections are truly the most meaningful.

    May your soil be nurtured as you continue to bloom.

  • Leo the Yardie Chick

    I felt a lot of shame during my first year in my first full-time job. I ran the gamut from feeling unqualified, to alarmed at how much I (perceived I was) screwing up and costing my boss money. After that first year, I had gotten into the swing of things and it became more bearable, but shaking that ‘fish out of water’ feeling was another matter.

  • Leo, sometimes when we jump into a job, we had feel like we are in “over our heads.” Our thoughts of inadequacy can really evoke fear, shame, and guilt. I’m so glad that you were able to shake that “fish” and have more tools for dealing with any that come up again.

    Best wishes, Leo.

  • Uptowngirl66

    I had a horrible day at work and this mide me feel much better! It is something I am learning every day. Thank you!

  • UptownGirl, sometimes those horrible days just crop up for all of us. When we can connect to our best selves, our most worthy places within us — the days amazingly get better even in the midst of work circumstances we can’t control.

    May your day be filled with the goodness of you.

  • gurugule

    What kinda crazy 700 club stuff is this. If you feel unequaled it is different then others call in your equaledness into question. Shame is feeling like you dont make enough when you earn less then a thousand a month. Its true bad. Your 30 and working for Wal-Mart. Not your scolded at the firm….that’s amazing compared.

    Or thinking your weak because you can’t hammer a nail not thinking your weak because your not in.the UFC. V

    SHAME is the times girls reject you because you can’t lie and others can confirm it. And it feels so awful because you can’t debate it so you must always be on guard in conversation or hope your talking to some philanthropic area mofo’s.

  • Luzan Gil

    Thank you so much! right now i’m having a bad time in my work and i’m feelling plenty of shame. Reading this post has helped me alot, I may have mistaken but i’m still trustworthy.

  • Luz

    Thank you so much! right now i’m having a bad time in my work and i’m feelling plenty of shame. Reading this post has helped me alot, I may have mistaken but i’m still trustworthy

  • Sierra

    Thank you for this personal sharing of your experiences.Having had a very difficult day at work and feeling as if I was shamed by previous boss, now a co-worker and peer, I am feeling confused, upset, angry, sad, back to angry. This helped me not feel alone and will hopefully bring my normally strong sense of work pride, back where it should be. Namaste

  • Renee

    No reply, I’m overwhelmed with fear, low self esteem, very low in confidence. I mess up a lot on jobs. I fear going to jobs. I wonder what is wrong with me. It is a burden to me that I am this way.

  • Rony

    thanks for this nice and inspiring article. my boss always humiliate me, leaving me felt unworthy, and gradually I m also believing that I m unworthy, useless. I m trying to get out of this negative hole, but I cant.