Is Shame the Secret of Success?

Is Shame the Secret of Success? August 21, 2015


This post explores the connections between shame and the pursuit of success in our work. A follow up post will explore the difference that the third voice of faith can make to the equation.


The Shame Factor

Dr. Brene Brown has a great TED talk on Shame: She says: “Shame is the most powerful master emotion. It is the fear that we are not good enough.” [1] (  We are not smart enough, skinny enough, strong good enough, etc.  Shame is doubt about our value as persons.  Shame is the deduction that we do not matter.  Shame is the conclusion that we are incompetent at life.

Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt says “I did something bad.” Shame says “I am a bad person.” Brown suggests that the greatest barriers to our effectiveness in life, work, and love come from our allergy to vulnerability, an allergy that is sustained by our sense of shame.

Shame hits most of us at some point in our childhood. Even if we have reasonably functional families and supportive homes (which is not a given), shame is there. Teen dating and romance feed it. Competitive sports and academics exacerbate it. Those of us who win at these games, feel superior yet quietly know that our superiority is tenuous (we are just a breakup, injury, or loss away from ordinariness). Those of us who lose at the schoolyard contest, can conclude we are solidly second class.


Work is a Shame!

Most of us enter the adult world of work with doubts about our inherent worth and sufficiency for life. With this backstory, work offers us the chance to finally win: to publicly and finally silence our self-doubts and the doubts of our detractors. My workplace efforts create measurable outcomes and if there’s enough of them with enough recognizable quality, shame will speak no more.

I’m beginning to entertain an ambition shattering idea: the drive behind much of my over-achieving is to silence shame. If I succeed I will put a definitive, once-for-all stake in the ground that I have worth and competence. Success in this definition has 3 building blocks. The foundation is real achievement. The second is recognition from others(respect, admiration, even envy) for the achievement. The third level, the peak, is the power that success brings.  Success brings with it the ability to shape your world to your liking.

Success Pyramid


Success At Any Price?

Success like this is worth almost any price;  working excessive hours, blowing up relationships, skirting ethical boundaries, neglecting ones family or health.  Pay the price for success because success is the shame silencer.  This siren call appeals to all sorts of workers. Even the most benevolently crafted careers can be filled by those who are attempting to fill the void left by shame.  Most who have signed up to do social work, therapy, religious work, or nonprofit work do so to help people.   Yet in many in those helping fields,  there is also a subtle way to win at the shame game, to prove in some quiet sense that their lives matter even more than investment bankers, sales people, and entertainers who are out for fame and fortune.  (I know, I worked in these domains all my life.)

There is a place for a results focus, a quest for quality, and the value of excellence. But somewhere the pursuit of those things crosses a line and becomes a religion, a religion of success to cage the voices of shame.


What Do you Think?

What do you think? How are shame, success, and your motivation (or lack of motivation) for work connected?



Watch for my next post, as we dive into the faith answer to shame.



Picture: Tinou Bao,


Modification: cropped/line art added (part 2)






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