I’m sitting reflecting on a question which has stayed with me from my Human Resources career days: What is the difference between some high performers that reach far beyond their imagined capabilities and what holds others captive, thriving yet suffering in silence either close to burn out or emotional overwhelm and rarely able to reach beyond a glass ceiling.
So when things are going well, you feel good about yourself. The small or large imperfections you notice about yourself feel less important. When you see something that needs doing you feel motivated to start and complete the task. When your boss or partner gets you involved in a tricky project you feel determined to make it work, overcoming obstacles, dealing with tricky relationships. Your feet sit on steady ground. You have a foundation of feeling you have earnt your place in the world. You feel valued and able to continue contributing to add value either to work, family situations or simply interactions with other.
But the other extreme is this overwhelming feeling of shame. Some report feeling like a fraud, like someone is going to find me out and see I cannot cope with life like everyone else. Subtle thoughts start racing round your head like, why did I do that, I should have done it this way, if only I was like others. It is like a heavy cloak of shame descends on our back, lined with lies that only we can read and leaves us feeling very heavy and unable to lift our head high. Sometimes it feels possible to retrieve the situation at this point but other times it is like we make a declaration that the lies sitting in our cloak of shame are true and we are left with a belief that we are just bad to the core. As if that is not bad enough the parts of us which were very much silenced in our moments of success start to rear their heads with judgement. Somehow the cloak is like an open invitation for our internal critic to condemn us for our perceived failings. All the imperfections, small and large, we notice about ourselves become so big they are impossible to ignore from one hour to the next. Work becomes this hourly struggle to pick up the phone and speak to key stakeholders or colleagues and we hide behind the laptop, work grinding to a halt. Silently hoping nobody notices we have slipped behind with tasks. We work hard to catch up but we dread the invitation to share progress on projects, knowing we could have worked harder, made more progress and feeling the judgement of 'this should be better than it is'. At home when it is safer to be angry we are irritable and snappish to anyone who reminds us we have not done something right or are not as capable as expected. We stop putting ourselves in situations where friends, family or even outsiders can interact with us and we hide in a cave of depression safe from further condemnation. Maybe for a few days, maybe for a few weeks or maybe we did not spot it was shame and it keeps us captive and silenced for much longer, unable to lift our heads and take in new information to undo the lies we declared were true. At this point we can experience feelings of guilt for being in this situation and this allows more lies to be sown into our cloak of shame and the cycle continues another circuit. We declare the new lies are true, judge ourselves for being bad, feel guilty for being bad and more lies are added to those we tell ourselves.
What happens if this cycle continues. Of course there is only so much we can take of this until we have to find a way out. The human mind is ingenious at trying to protect ourselves and one of the most common exits I see to this cycle is the introduction of the belief that we do not deserve the good things in life. When we believe we do not deserve it hurts less when we are not valued or receive good things. But this keeps us stuck or trapped. Maybe we have withdrawn from friends when the cloak descended but over time we notice they did not contact us and so we believe we are not worthy of fruitful friendships and this protects us from feeling hurt if we are left out. Unfortunately we never dare to get in touch and share the truth so we never get any new information in that undoes the lies and at this point we now have evidence that not only supports the lies but keeps us trapped in not deserving.
So what sort of things happen which invite the cloak of shame to descend. I think it is different for everyone and I believe it depends on where our sources of self worth come from. So sometimes it is a big thing that sets this cycle off or if our pot of self worth is feeling low with only a few external sources filling it up sometimes it can feel like quite small incident and therefore easy miss the trigger. What I do tend to notice is there seems to be a glass ceiling that individuals have which says: I can cope with this many things and do them well but one more thing will be too much and I will not be able to exceed expectations. When I can't exceed expectation it is like my pot of self worth gets dropped and cracked.
The pot of self worth is things which make us feel good about ourselves. Sometimes the source which fill our pot of self worth is external. So examples of these might be things like: hoping our partner notices we have done something for them, hoping our boss gives us the pay rise we deserve, hoping it is noticed how clean and tidy the house is, hoping we are noticed for exceeding expectation. These all drive a work horse mentality, which does not allow us time out to rest but instead it drives a need to achieve good at something else. The hoping is the key here, because these are all subtle thoughts which are not voiced. So we are silently willing for something to happen without telling anyone how important it is to us. Often this comes from there being limited sources filling our pot. So for some this might be being noticed for doing a good job at work, for others it might be doing well at a sport, dieting hard so it is the scales that become the source of self worth. In the early stages of mother hood when the mother has given up a job which might have been a source of praise and is suddenly not able to clean the house, cook meals and certainly is not feeling in good physical shape after pregnancy and emotions are running wild with the hormones changes; the pot of self worth can easily be lacking input especially if the baby is constantly unsettled. In early dating situations some will relate to the ups and downs felt as you receive a text from new partner and the dips when there is a rupture and there is a lack of sign off kisses.
Other sources of self worth are those we generate ourselves. So the ones which come from places like: choosing to help a friend but not depending on their thank you, helping a charity, being kind and loving towards our kids but knowing they will not acknowledge the hard work involved in parenting, choosing to own the parts of our life stories which make us who we are. All sources of self worth which are almost impossible to engage with if we are stuck in the shame cycle and hence the downward spiral.
What is helpful is to understand what your cycle looks like. To identify your sources of self worth and know which ones are self generating and when you are silently relying on others to feed your self worth. These sources often become our triggers for the shame cloak. So we feel good when the source delivers but on goes the shame cloak when the source doesn't deliver. We also need to understand our capabilities and how to ask for help when we are close to our glass ceiling. Asking for help when you are feeling shame is almost impossible, so it needs a degree of pre-planning to prevent the cloak dragging you down the shame cycle. Ironically is you are reading this, it is possible that you will be hesitate in asking a counsellor for help for the risk of the shame cloak becoming heavier and this can prevent people from breaking the cycle early on. What I will say is counselling is exactly the place to bring this situation and expose it. Shame can not stick if you expose it by telling someone you can trust to hear it. In counselling it is like you take your heart and show it to your counsellor who will hold it with great care, stroke your heart soothingly to feel and notice all the grazes, scratches and brusing and gently hand it back to you, still beating. In the outside world when we show our heart to a friend sometimes they do this and sometimes it is like they chuck it to a mutual friend to be seen and they lob it over to someone else who might drop it, therefore making the experience feel very scary. Counsellors are trained to hold your sharing with great care.
So my tip is find someone who therapeutically loves you enough for you to unpack some of your luggage so it does not weigh you down from bouncing and shattering your glass ceilings. Because you do deserve!
If this is something that troubles you it really matters and if it is important to you then it really matters to me... and you do not need suffer in silence or to go alone on this journey.
I'm truly hoping for you to get in touch, share your thoughts, I'm just a message away... and I do reply promptly!