We all feel shame some time. Usually we feel this powerful emotion when we do something that doesn’t quite match up with our personal values.
As a child, we might have felt shameful if we told a lie to our parents or were mean to a friend. As a teenager, we might have felt the shame of shoplifting, cheating on a test or doing drugs.
As adults, there’s all kinds of shame we might feel in not living up to our own expectations.
However, one of the most powerful shames is that of business failure.
In my early 30s, I thought I was on the top of the world. I’d recently been married to a beautiful woman, the love of my life, and had a child on the way. I had a good income and was able to support her to go back to university and complete her master’s degree. We had money in the bank and we were building a new house. I was a partner in an expanding business that was successful and profitable. I was recognized locally and sat on the board of a national association.
What happened next was like watching a train wreck in slow motion. We decided to expand the business and I made some poor decisions. As a result, the business lost money – hundreds of thousands of dollars over the next three years.
I went from feeling I was on top of the world to being in a pit of despair. I felt like I’d let everyone around me down. Our family income dropped by 70 per cent. I had trouble paying the bills and my wife had to take a job. We had to sell our new house and move to something older and much smaller.
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I felt like I’d failed my partners and lost their money and their confidence.
Our customers and community might have thought the business was successful because it seemed like it was going well and I managed to put on a brave face every day. But I felt like a fraud.
I didn’t want to talk to our suppliers when they called and I avoided our bankers at all costs. While I gave direction to my staff, often I felt like those directions were futile because I’d lost my vision. On the days after payroll, I kept a low profile just in case one of the paycheques bounced.
I was intensely aware of my failings and felt the shame of that failure.
So how do we deal with those intense feelings of shame?
We might see people dealing with shame by blaming others and raging with anger. When my business was failing, I wanted to blame a contractor who had large cost overruns. It took me years to get over that anger.
Sometimes we want to escape our shame by trying to block it out. We see this in the use of drugs or alcohol.
In business, we often want to cut and run. I recently talked with an owner of a struggling business who said that the best thing might be for them to shut the doors, take all their equipment and leave the community.
I get it. I remember when I thought it would be easier to disappear and start over somewhere else, leaving all my problems behind.
But imagine the shame that could cause.
The truth is that problems like money and banks tend to follow you with bankruptcy proceedings, no matter where you are. You might run but you can’t hide for long.
Sharing our struggles with staff, admitting our weakness to family and explaining our financial situation to suppliers is not only humbling, but it relieves the weight of our shame. It’s amazing what happens when the people around you start to look at you as a human rather than the super figure you’ve built yourself up to be.
Admitting failure can be deeply healing. One of the best suggestions my partners made after our business failure was asking me to write down what went wrong and share it with them. It’s easy to blame ourselves for all the failure but there are often contributing factors we need to acknowledge.
Forgiving ourselves is often the hardest part of dealing with shame. Despite what others say or how they might forget our failings, shame lives on in our memories if we don’t let go. One of the key factors is to realize that the sum of who we are is much larger than our entrepreneurial ventures.
To be the person our families and communities need us to be, we must be gentle on ourselves, learn from our mistakes and have hope in a future that’s bright with possibilities.
Dave Fuller, MBA, is an award-winning business coach and a partner with Pivotleader Inc. For interview requests, click here.
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