I am what I am

One of the most difficult emotions to experience is shame.

When one experiences shame, one feels worthless and powerless. It is an emotion born out of inadequacy; that one is simply not good enough.

Shame is different to guilt (which we will cover in a subsequent newsletter). Guilt is an emotion pertaining to something we might have done. Shame focuses more on what we believe we are or, perhaps more importantly, what we are not.

Quite reasonably this is an emotion we might want to run from, yet it is incredibly important in driving self-awareness and ultimately self-improvement.

Levels of shame

As with fear, it can help to understand shame on a sliding scale from one to ten. Levels one to three are experienced as embarrassment. The physical manifestation is hollowness in the chest, while blood rushes to the skin causing one to blush. Between four and six the feeling moves from mere embarrassment to true shame. One feels ‘less than’ one should be or ‘less than’ the other people around us. Typically the feeling of shame arises from being bullied where the victim is unable to protect themselves. Shame arises from being physically overpowered since one feels too weak to prevent oneself from being hurt. Shame also manifests when one is mentally overpowered; a person might feel ‘less than’ because they cannot stop the domineering boss or overbearing relative from humiliating them in front of the family at the dinner table, or their colleagues in the meeting.

Levels seven to nine move to more acute feelings of self-disgust. Physically the skin becomes hot, it may even itch. In the work environment this might arise after failing at an important task that loses a client. Sufferers might believe that they are not capable of doing their job, or that they have been proven an imposter and that they should be replaced.

At level ten the feeling escalates to self-loathing. Sufferers may even scratch their skin until they bleed in an effort to physically remove the feelings of shame.


This kind of ‘toxic shame’ is destructive. The feelings here are not driving one to change for the better or feel empowered, rather they are reinforcing feelings of inadequacy. In order to better process shame and use it to one’s advantage, one needs to feel healthy shame.

This is where shame is a force for good, it allows one to recognise where one might need to improve. To accept that one is not excellent at everything and that it is time to improve or seek support.

Ultimately healthy shame feeds into one of the most important human qualities: humility.

Strong leaders and influential role models demonstrate humility. That is, they appreciate where they have strengths, and recognise where they are weaker. At the same time they do not pretend to be weak where they are strong – false modesty – nor do they use their strengths to belittle others.

For example, an accomplished body builder who can lift extraordinarily heavy weights should not pretend to others that they are weak. There is nothing to be gained from playing down one’s strengths disingenuously. At the same time, they should not see themselves as superior simply because they are physically stronger.

Humility is about using accomplishments to feel more capable and to help drive others. Simultaneously it is about accepting where we have weaknesses and wanting to improve.


As we explored with fear, if one is able to sit with one’s shame one can use it to drive positive behaviour.

Like with any other ‘negative’ emotions, sitting with shame is uncomfortable. Clearly it is not pleasant to feel ‘less than’ yet this is a short term discomfort that will lead to longer term rewards.

CEOs will face an enormous array of situations. These range from the straightforward to the very complex, and dealing with each one requires multiple skillsets.

The very best business leaders are aware of which of these requisite skills they possess and the ones in which they are lacking. Only the truly self-aware will be make the best decisions because they will have recognised their weaknesses and taken steps to compensate. For example, hiring managers with the right skills to plug the CEO’s own knowledge gaps.

By sitting with one’s shame, one can identify where one needs to improve. It might feel uncomfortable to acknowledge that one is not the best manager, time keeper or even weight lifter. Yet it is an important step towards rectifying any inadequacies that are holding one back from achieving at work or personally.

Shame initially feels disempowering but it can be hugely motivating. Once one learns to sit with one’s shame, acknowledge that it is a message to better oneself and to be ‘more than’ rather than ‘less than’, one can become a truly great leader.


There are two types of shame: toxic and healthy. The former is destructive and is a feeling that one must learn to control. If one can focus on healthy shame, one can use this emotion to become more self-aware. Healthy shame shows us where we need to improve. It reminds us that we are not the best at everything, nor do we need to be. By sitting with one’s shame we can learn humility; that is where we are strong without showing superiority and where we can improve without feeling inferiority.

Find out more about managing emotions in business.

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