Overcoming Shame at Work When You’ve Made Big Mistakes

“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 sixteen 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.

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 or inaccuracy? Please contact us so we can fix it!