Shame: The price of being different

Updated: Sep 13

Being different is often met with punishment or rejection as a subconscious attempt to maintain social cohesion. Enough exposure to such experiences can easily lead to the belief that the qualities that make us unique are “bad”, an evaluation about the self that can lead to a general sense of shame. Shame is a complex emotion with many facets attached to it. The purpose of this post is to discuss shame and how it relates to being different.

Shame is usually experienced in situations where there is a real or perceived threat to the social self. The function of shame has mainly been theorized as the emotion that motivates to maintain social cohesion. As such, shame may be more prevalent among those who often feel different from those in their social environment. It is closely related to the social concept of diversity which I like to define as any physical, psychological, demographical and social differences within and between groups. Considering how broadly diversity can be defined, anyone can be susceptible to feeling different at some point. Although, not everyone may experience shame the same way and with the same intensity.

Shame at work

Those with a history of being the victim of racism and discrimination are more susceptible to experiencing intense shame (Johnson, 2020). This can drastically impact the self by increasing the frequency of experiencing negative emotions such as anger. Hypervigilance and avoidance are also common responses as a result of real or perceived social threats targeted at the self. All of which can have negative implications on mental wellbeing. Subsequently, this can lead to lower performance because poorer wellbeing can lead to difficulties concentrating on tasks. Thus the lack of skill may not necessarily be the reason for poor performance, especially if the individual is diverse or is in the minority.

Being different is particularly met with discrimination at different organizational levels. This may be experienced as difficulties gaining relevant work opportunities or a general sense that one cannot be their true self. This increases the likelihood of experiencing physical and mental illnesses at work. Including the likes of depression and anxiety that can lead to counter-productive work behaviours such as absenteeism and presenteeism. A study by Mercer reported that mental illness and presenteeism continue to rise costing UK businesses alone 91.9bn in productivity in 2019, an increase of over 10bn from the previous year.

In contrast, organizations that can create an environment that facilitates differences of all forms can benefit from an increase in creativity and productivity. For example, JPMorgan Chase Autism at Work internal report revealed that neurodiverse employees were 48 per cent faster and as much as 92 per cent more productive compared to peers. Thus, failing to facilitate differences in the workplace may expose employees to shame and mental health concerns which directly affects the business bottom line

Not sure my organization care, what can I do?

The strategies are intended as thought exercises to assist you in your journey of becoming more self-aware and accepting of what makes you different.

Becoming aware

Shame is a complex emotion that is difficult to capture with a single perspective. However, becoming aware of how and when you mostly experience this emotion gives you the option to engage with it differently. For example, think of one thing that you dislike about yourself that is unknown to many. Imagine your colleagues finding all about it the next day at work. How do you imagine them to react? How does this make you react to yourself?

Social support

Surrounding yourself with those that are patient, understanding and appreciative of your differences is crucial. It provides us with the psychological safety of becoming more accepting of ourselves. An increase in self-awareness also means becoming more socially aware of the type of environment needed for optimal functioning. Following on from the previous example. When and where do you feel like you can fully open up to share matters that you keep close to your heart?

Embracing shame

Shame is mainly associated with its negative connotations. However, it is an adaptive emotion that carries vital information about the self within the social environment. It can be seen as an emotion that tells us when we are moving away from the group consensus. This means that any behaviour capable of challenging the norm can potentially trigger shame. Activism, entrepreneurship, the search for authenticity etc. In other words, shame can positively influence important and meaningful experiences such as growth, passion and social change.

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