Tag Archives: dealing with shame

The fear factor

When it comes to getting over the emotional hurts of failure, it really doesn’t matter how good or bad your personal history is. The only thing that matters is that you face your fear and get moving.       — John C. Maxwell, author


Too often, the biggest barrier to making a change or taking a positive step in life is that other F-word. FEAR. It doesn’t matter whether you’re starting over after serving time, regrouping after a divorce or simply trying to get a new project (or long-neglected blog) up and running.

I was reminded of this last night as I sat with a group of 8th graders who will be making their confirmation in our local Catholic church this May.  My role as discussion leader was to go around the circle and have each teen share something that scared them.

As you might expect, there was plenty of nervous laughter. I also got a few shrugs and attempts to change the subject.  One girl pecked away at her cellphone as if she might find the answer there. But nobody wanted to volunteer that they were afraid of anything.  God forbid. It was easier to talk around it or challenge the need to even discuss the subject.

Finally, just when I was despairing we’d spend the rest of our time in silence,  a boy I’ll call Andy spoke up.   “Spiders,”  he said.  “They creep me out.”

The other teens laughed and the tension was broken. Suddenly our circle awash with fears. Bugs. Snakes. Heights. One boy even confessed to being terrified of getting run down by a car.  Sure, these weren’t likely their deepest, darkest fears, or the one they would never voice — looking foolish in front of each other. But at least these kids were sharing something and learning they weren’t alone.

Afterwards, the event moderators upped the stakes by asking for volunteers for a series of “Fear Factor” type challenges.  Teens competed to eat bowls of repulsive-looking “mystery” food.  Some ran an obstacle course with dog biscuits or smelly fish in their mouths. Two girls picked live bugs out of jars of candy. By the end of the night, Andy, from my group, was up in front of more than 100 of his peers, racing to finish off a suspicious-looking green goo and whipped cream pie.

This all happened over the course of about twenty minutes with a group of self-conscious 13 and 14 year olds.  That’s what got me thinking about John C. Maxwell’s quote above.  Maxwell, who’s written two dozen books on leadership and  maximizing your potential, has spent years studying the secrets of successful people.  In his bestselling book, Failing Forward: Turning Mistakes into Stepping Stones for Success, he advocates learning from your errors, but leaving them in the past. Too many people become mired in replaying their failures and unable to move forward.  The only way to get over your fear, he says, is to take action.  Even if it’s just one small step towards your objective.

So what one step can you take for your future today?  Is it making a list of employers?  Going to a 12-step meeting? Following up with your friend about that potential part-time job? Researching degree requirements at the local community college?  Taking your sister up on her offer to watch the kids so you can visit your local employment center?

Whatever that step is, try to handle it like my teens eventually did.  Acknowledge your fears, but don’t fret.

Just do it.

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Filed under employment ex-offenders, hope for ex-offenders, inspiration, personal responsibility, second chances, starting over, taking responsibility

The shame of it all

Recently, I was doing a mock job interview with a young man serving a sentence for a drug-related crime.  He was a little nervous but handled even the difficult questions about his criminal background well.  He also  seemed sincere in wanting to turn his life around. At the end, I told him he’d done great and he looked genuinely surprised.  “When you all walked in, I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to go through with it,” he said blushing. “I just felt so much shame. ”

Anyone who’s ever felt shame — and that would be most of us — knows what he means. It’s an awful feeling – a free floating cloak of  embarrassment and humiliation . Shame  makes you feel that you’re bad, guilty and somehow defective, and what’s worse, that you’ve brought it all  on yourself.  It’s certainly not the kind of emotion that has anyone raring to go out and sell himself to an employer, let alone the larger world.

But what I told him, and what I’ve come to believe, is that feeling shame, while uncomfortable, is often good.  In fact, it’s usually a necessary part of the process of rebuilding a life after a felony conviction.  When I  get to the part of the course where we talk about the impact of incarceration on my students, the majority usually admit to  feeling some kind of shame. If they don’t I get a little worried. It’s hard to move on past something if you don’t acknowledge the wrongs you committed and feel the associated pain.

I’m not alone on this either.   While excessive shame is unhealthy,  it can be necessary, says Dr. George Simon, a clinical psychologist who specializes in personality and character disorders. Shame can be a warning that something you did was not appropriate.  There’s a danger in not feeling anything, he notes.  That could be the sign of a disordered personality.   People who accept responsibility and feel remorse, often feel shame.  But hopefully this will lead to forgiveness and change.

So how do you move past shame and get on with your life?  You start by recognizing that guilt and  shame are signals, not something to get lost in.  If you wallow in these thoughts too long, they  become self-destructive and counterproductive, or what ex-offender Leighton Bates  calls “having a pity party for yourself. ”   In his very thought-provoking essay here, Bates also notes:

If we focus on the guilty feelings and shameful thoughts, we are focused on the self, and we are not dealing with the problem in a straightforward manner. So we have guilt reminding us of all the wrong we have done, and shame telling us we are bad. These two emotions keep us in a cycle of thoughts and feelings that keeps us acting out on others and ourselves in a totally negative way…

Bates talks about his own feelings of shame and how guilt comes crashing down in prison, where you can’t use alcohol and drugs to dull your senses.  But he also shows that you can get beyond it, by letting go of these emotions and directing your energies outside of yourself to others. Like a bruise, shame is there to remind you of a mistake, but it will also heal and go away if you let it.

Readers, how have you dealt with shame?

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Filed under ex-offender psychology, starting over, taking responsibility