the deep loss of self-worth

Shame occurs when you haven’t been able to get away with the ‘who’ you want people to think you are.
— Carl Whitaker

Shame is a powerful and destructive feeling because it most often involves a profound loss of self worth. No one–including executives and leaders, is exempt from experiencing shame in his or her lifetime. And while many leaders will not willingly admit to feeling a ‘loss of self-worth’, in fact, the intense and demanding pressures and responsibilities that come with leadership often make them more vulnerable to shame than others.

Although guilt and shame are often closely woven together, there are important distinctions between the two. For guilt, no observers or audiences are required: not a single person need know, for the guilty person is his or her own judge. On the other hand, the demeaning nature of shame requires an audience to reflect the ridicule, judgment and criticism of others. If no one ever knows about a bad decision or poor behavior, there may be guilt, but not shame. Guilt is a personal experience after a bad or inappropriate action, whereas shame reflects the opinions of others and subsequently diminishes the very essence of that person’s self.

An executive may experience guilt when he or she has risked the firm’s image to public exposure and humiliation. When such a major setback for the company has occurred, he or she may experience regret for the damage inflicted on a personal value or commitment. The guilt-ridden executive may say, “I regret my decision on this acquisition, especially when I now see the consequences it has had on our stockholders and firm; I feel sorry for not taking the due diligence process further.” The guilt is personal, certainly painful and is often filled with remorse for the mishandling of responsibilities.

However, with shame, should an executive in a similar situation feel a bad decision or behavior directly violated his or her identity or personal worth, they might feel or say, “I am so embarrassed and humiliated for letting my firm down; what will my peers, my employees, my family, my friends think of me? How can I look these people in the eye?”. Shame is a deep, painful feeling about oneself, one’s very identity, as opposed to guilt’s fracturing of a responsibility or value. With shame, one can become frozen in the failure of the past as well as in fear of the future. In addition, the desire to avoid the humiliation of shame will likely prevent the executive from discussing his or her feelings with others and ultimately these feelings will become more deeply buried in their psyche. To make matters even more challenging, the pervasive nature of shame inevitably forms a strong, unconscious path of secrecy within the executive and between the executive and the firm.

Furthermore, there is an even deeper form of shame, internal shame. With internal shame, the challenge becomes even more personal and complex. As a successful entrepreneur or executive, you are exceedingly aware of your image. Often, the importance of the way you dress and talk and knowing the right people, all influence your business dealings and business relationships each and every day. Woven tightly into the fabric of image are perfectionism and conformity. Living up to the universal image of the successful business person whom others respect, becomes another responsibility unto itself. To deviate from your self-image, as well as from the firm’s, can be a stressful experience. This process takes place over time, unfolds very naturally and actually feels good for awhile – respect, envy and power are yours. All too often this pride, this image becomes your identity. However, when you eventually sense you are failing to meet the perfect image, there is a deep, subtle feeling within, telling you that you are inadequate and unworthy (along with the fear you might lose what you have acquired). The most common reaction is to try harder by using control. Protecting and maintaining our image becomes a rather vicious circle in which we become more rigid in our actions and thinking. Inevitably, stress and depletion of energy abound. We all know current peers and former executives who, when their image was destroyed, their career quickly followed. The more we become our “perfect” image, the more vulnerable we are to experience shame when we fail to live up to this ideal.


“A core element throughout my exploration with VIM, has been for me to take 100% responsibility for my life. I want to share my reflections and what I learned about shame, why it was important to me to try to understand this toxic emotion and how it differs from guilt.

Guilt is generally a response to something I did bad, the focus being on my behavior. There are some positive elements of guilt, such as when I have harmed myself or others and I genuinely feel sorry for having done so, or after I have done something, I hold it up against my values and it does not feel right. Guilt allows me to hopefully grow wiser from my mistakes. As I learned to make amends to myself and others for my ‘wrongs’, the rigorous honesty required for taking responsibility for my behavior actually strengthened my relationships and subsequent changes in my future behaviors.

Shame on the other hand is about humiliation. Shame requires an audience. There is a significant corrosive nature to shame; deep inside it breaks the mechanism of belief in my ability to change - “I am bad.”, “I am less than.”. Further, the toxicity of shame is very pervasive. When a parent, spouse, leader, etc., resorts to shaming another person, two things happen. First, the person who elicits shame has compromised his or her integrity by humiliating another person. Second, the victim can carry the shame (no matter how irrational or unfair) in their heart and mind for a lifetime. Shame’s pervasive toxicity can be seen beyond individuals, in corporate cultures, communities and societies. This has been a powerful, dark force used to advance racism, anti-Semitism, the subjugation of woman, gays, etc.

I am very grateful that my exposure to shame has been minimal. Unfortunately, I have witnessed it countless times. My responsibility as a business leader, parent and citizen is to be aware of my actions as I lead, direct and guide others. This exercise has been a vivid reminder of why I practice daily to be present, to be aware of my feelings and emotions and to consciously hear my thoughts.”

C.A. Advertising Executive

Pride attaches undue importance to the superiority of one’s status in the eyes of others; and shame is fear of humiliation at one’s inferior status in the estimation of others. When one sets his heart on being highly esteemed, and achieves such rating, then he is automatically involved in fear of losing his status.
— Lao Tzu | Chinese Taoist Philosopher


Questions for Self-Exploration

The content, structure and flow of this exercise are designed to guide you in:

  • examining your thoughts and actions for the shame that may exist in your belief system

  • recognizing what actions, behaviors, people or situations tend to provoke shame in your life

  • addressing your use of shame

  • applying this knowledge positively and productively to address and resolve feelings of shame