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Letting Go of Career Shame to Embrace Success

In a world where “What’s your name and what do you do?” go together at the start of a conversation, it’s easy to shrink if you feel you aren’t living up to expectations. Shame is the feeling that comes up when you hear the message, “you’re not good enough. You’re not smart enough, pretty enough, talented enough…”

It’s probably rare to hear those words directly from a co-worker or family member, but in today’s competitive work-world, the message often rises from within. Shame creeps in when you get rejected from a job, receive negative feedback on a project, or don’t get that promised raise.

Of course, those experiences are disappointing in their own right. But shame is a darker, heavier feeling because its message is that you’re not worthy of getting that new job, or you don’t worth enough to be getting paid more money. These thoughts can hold you back from going for what you really want and embracing new possibilities.

As a career coach and licensed counselor I work with a lot of Millennial and Gen-Z clients who feel stuck because of past failures or weaknesses. I hear a lot of people compare themselves to others they see on LinkedIn or Instagram: “Everyone else has jobs that they love, and I don’t measure up.” For the record, not true! Or, “I should have started a masters’ program earlier. I’ve wasted so much time.” Ouch!

Comparing yourself to others and feeling less-than can be anxiety inducing and depressing. And even more important, it robs you of the joy that awaits in career progress just around the bend. It may sound easy: “Just believe you are worth a great job.” But our minds replay the past looking for proof to fuel self-doubt.

Self-doubt is protective. It may feel safer to say you’re not enough because if you really believed you were worth that next big title, you might have to take a risk. What do you envision would be possible in your life if you believed you were enough? You might then be vulnerable to your career dreams. There’s a beautiful cartoon entitled: “To Love At All,” that I love, which illustrates a poignant observation by C.S. Lewis about love and vulnerability. It shows a vulnerable heart and what happens when it’s broken. The girl illustrated falls in love. That trust is destroyed, and to protect herself she encases her heart in other things. Then she feels “safe” to go find love again . . . and maybe something even better. But she doesn’t actually find true love until she lets her heart, wounds and all, come out of the case.

Let’s pretend for a moment that the man in the cartoon represents a career choice, or a dream job, or a project you get to take on. After experiencing a professional setback, it may feel safer to hold yourself back from reaching for a bigger success in a project or applying for another job to protect against the feeling of disappointment and shame. And yet, our shame is like that case the brokenhearted girl puts around her heart. It clouds out new possibilities, stifling our self-worth and confidence for new professional growth.

I’m always cheering my clients on to believe that something wonderful is just ahead. What would the world be like if J.K. Rowling had not believed in herself and kept going after twelve rejection letters from publishers? We may not have known Harry Potter! Or if Oprah Winfrey had stopped reaching for her career goals after getting fired from her first news co-anchor job in Baltimore? I would most definitely miss Soul Saturdays.

So how do you hold onto self-worth when you face a challenge or you’re experiencing imposter syndrome? Shame researcher, Brene Brown said, “the very best thing to do in the midst of a shame attack is totally counterintuitive: Practice courage and reach out!”

In those moments of career set-back, reach out for support and let others know how you are really doing. Brene continues to say, “If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” By letting go of shame and replacing it with self-love and compassion, a belief that you are capable of change wins out.

So the next time you meet someone new and the second question out of their mouth is, “What do you do?” pay attention to what message comes up from within. If it’s shame, notice it and internally re-write the narrative. It takes real emotional intelligence to be aware of internal self-talk. Talk with a trusted friend. Name the shame and rid yourself of it.

Career shame only grows as big as you let it. Remember to talk to and treat yourself the way you would a friend and be compassionate. The career development journey is a process, and you are so deserving of success.

Originally published on Verily Magazine

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