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Is guilt or shame better for your career? (Wise Wednesdays series)

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Let’s start with some definitions: Although used interchangeably, they are not the same. Guilt is the feeling we experience when we’ve violated one of our rules – it is adaptive and helps us make sure we are in integrity with ourselves and with others. It's the answer to the question: "Is it OK to do X, Y, or Z?". Shame is the feeling that there is something inherently wrong with us – it is maladaptive as it usually leads to dysfunctional behaviour. It's the answer to the question: "Is it OK to be me?". In psychological terms, with shame we experience a breach in the self-concept - i.e. the construct that makes you “you” - as if “you” were fundamentally flawed. With guilt on the other hand, you are aware that you have breached one of your rules but you know that the rule does not make the whole of you. Why do we feel guilt and shame? Guilt and, possibly, shame in very extreme circumstances in a very distant evolutionary past (e.g. a child with a murderous gene) are useful impulse control mechanisms that ensure we can: 1) learn and be consistent with what we learn; 2) live in groups. Erik Erikson talks about the stages of psychosocial development and maturation. At each stage, a child experiences a tension between their own will and that of others.

(Photo: Eve covering in shame in the Sculpture Eve after the Fall by Rodin. Her self-concept was radically modified...) If this tension is resolved, a healthy personality develops and qualities such as a balanced sense of will and purpose develop. If not, shame and guilt develop. However, shame emerges at an earlier stage of childhood and is more fundamental to the evolution of the personality. This is because it is the experience that “it is not OK to be me”. Guilt on the other hand comes from the experience that “it is not OK for me to do X, Y or Z (but I’m OK)”. Consequences of shame Brene Brown, a researcher on shame and vulnerability, believes that shame makes us dangerous! ­She thinks that shame makes us unable to return to ourselves and feel good alone, so we desperately seek an external source of good feelings – resulting in a high risk of addiction and of unhealthy behaviours including workaholism and overachievement. Where in your life might you be out of control? Do you feel guilty about it? If you look deeply into it, can you detect a sense of shame? So which one is best for a career? On a superficial level, both can propel us up career hierarchies – guilt helps us stay in line and do the work; shame can serve an organisation or leader if it turns us into unquestioning automatons consumed by work. Even as leaders, we will be held hostage through shame to whatever authority we identify with including old (subconscious) parental expectations, and do this to our own detriment. Therefore, shame needs to be addressed to restore healthy functioning. This can be done by clearing the psychological trauma (however minor) at the root of it Dealing with guilt and shame The good news is that guilt is useful for self-examination. If it becomes a habit, it is a call to the re-examining of our rules for work; or improving our integrity with what we truly believe to be the right thing to do. Guilt can be examined cognitively (i.e. through language and intellect) to uncover which course is best. Shame requires deeper work and delving into basic and possibly preverbal experiences (i.e. memories that were laid down before we learned to speak) which means they are more difficult to get to through language and intellect. Creative expression and deep emotional healing may be needed, alongside cognitive approaches. What are your thoughts? Until next week. Amina p.s. If you'd like to join a small group of extraordinary people exploring how to design a fulfilling career and life, sign up for Wise Wednesdays and receive more coaching support straight to your inbox + special announcements and additional resources.