Phantoms of our past selves
The role of negative emotion in overcoming mistakes
Hello, I’m Suzan. Thank you for reading Suzan’s Fieldnotes — a newsletter exploring leadership, psychology and organizational dynamics through real life stories. I try to make this one of the best emails you get this week. It’s one of my favorite things to write. If you enjoy the content, please like and share it.
The last edition we looked at feedback loops as a mechanism for leader learning. On theme of growth, this week the focus is on the role of shame, guilt and perfectionism.
Lauren Kay founded her Y-Combinator backed startup Dating Ring with high hopes to make a difference. Like most founders, she experienced the roller coaster of raising venture capital, building the product and worrying whether she’d make payroll. After struggling to find a viable financial path for the company, she departed feeling like a failure.
"I was the worst kind of fraud. I had been celebrated as a gifted young founder. But now I was convinced I had never actually been intelligent. I was just hard-working and — up until then — good at faking my way through life. I felt like I had spent the past few years lying to everyone.”
Startups are a difficult kind of beast to wrangle. In the online dating space where most fail, triumph is nearly impossible. Being one of the few female-founded teams at the accelerator certainly added pressure. Despite facing a nearly insurmountable task, Lauren personalized her perceived failure, carrying shame with her for many years. Eventually she shared her story with other founders and learned she wasn’t alone. Many had struggled to find viability, and felt shame that came along with the lack of perceived success. This experience helped her rewrite that shame, see herself through a different lens.
“That shame I had hidden for so long was coming to the surface — and it was being washed away.”
Her story is so revealing about the pressures of leading a company. Read it here. I've never been a founder but I relate with her story. Shame and a whole host of negative emotions can follow high profile roles with loads of responsibility. The burden can feel enormous. I had an experience like that. The company was undergoing massive change, adding inordinate pressure on everyone. The demands multiplied, the environment grew intense. After months of strain, I finally broke down. In a moment of severe stress I got emotional in front of one my team members. I didn't yell or say anything mean but I revealed emotions I wanted to contain to lessen their burden. I felt bad because my actions went against my values of being a net positive for others. I owned up to my actions and worked to mend any unintentional damage I caused. Still, I felt terrible I let my emotions leak out.
As a young adult I battled perfectionism. I hated making mistakes, so I worked hard to be prepared, to be as competent as possible to avoid them. Though I’d mostly recovered from my perfectionist tendencies, this situation brought them back. I judged myself for my inability to handle the chaotic rapids of this phase of organizational life. Like Lauren, I too lived in shame. I carried the ghost of that interaction around like a dirty little secret.
When you're in leadership you learn in public by default. This can be brutal, especially when you’re prone to ruminating on perceived mistakes. I often experienced my role like there was a scorecard running. On good days, my confidence soared. On really bad days, I swam in perfectionism, looking for faults in myself. I bathed in its waters, wrapped it around me like a cloak. These feelings crept up on me, lingering unconsciously underneath the surface. I wasn’t aware of their presence until much later.
When learning publicly with high stakes, it’s tempting to act perfect, to never make mistakes. We try to be “good”, not make mistakes. This is sheer folly. Robust feedback loops can help reduce mistakes but won't eliminate them. There are no mistake-free people. Mistakes are a feature rather than a bug of being a leader. Even if perfection was possible, there will be someone who considers your decision a blunder. It’s easy to use perfectionism as a shield against negative emotions. But you can’t outrun uncomfortable feelings all the time. Eventually they show up in your mind like an unwanted visitor who won’t leave. Count on two things when you jump into a bigger role: you will make mistakes and distressing reactions to those lapses.
Shame and perfectionism are cousins. The two often go hand in hand. When we slip on the altar of perfectionism, shame can slide right in taking up residence. While perfectionism is easier to spot, shame can sneak up on you. It did for me. Perceived mis-steps accumulated until it became a shame snowball which appeared after the “emotional leak” incident. At the time I thought being hard on myself was what I needed to learn the lesson. Now I can see that shame swallowed me whole. When you’re swimming in it, shame is tricky to spot. There's a tendency to globalize shame. We make it about character or worthiness rather than about our actions. Shame is one of the few emotions that can be actively harmful. It’s like having the judge and jury inside us. Shame can eat us alive from the inside out. This is the corrosive effect of shame.
Guilt is often seen as synonymous with shame but they’re quite different. Where shame makes us think, "I'm a bad person", guilt helps us see it in a behavioral light so we evaluate our actions. While guilt might be appropriate or even helpful, shame is just downright corrosive. Feeling guilt can allow you to evaluate your behavior in a more productive way. Knowing the difference between guilt and shame can aid in finding a way to turn mis-steps into openings for growth.
It might seem like leaders don't judge themselves harshly enough. We might want them to feel bad for their mistakes. I get it. When we feel powerless it’s easy to slip into anger or to feel vengeful. There's a difference between judgement and taking responsibility for our actions. The former shuts us down while the latter allows us to grow. Shame and perfectionism can be destructive. Sitting in judgement of yourself decreases your empathy. There’s a link between shame and anger too. People who are hard on themselves often tend to be hard on others. They’re more likely judge or lash out at others. No matter your attempts to hold it in, it leaks out into your interactions. This is destructive to your relationships with yourself and others. Few of us enjoy working in acrimonious conditions. This is devastating for everyone’s well-being and the team’s morale. We don't want leaders to swim in the shame waters.
We all walk around with phantoms of our past. Feeling bad about yourself isn’t necessary to learn a lesson. When leading, negative emotions like perfectionism and shame might arise but are unproductive responses to mistakes. We have to find ways to move on, to transform the negative feeling into a mindset that's constructive. The release valve for negative emotions like shame and perfectionism is embracing your mistakes as part of the process rather than a personal failure. Instead of feeling bad for not being perfect, we need to just see it as information. This is how we learn faster. It’s how we make the process of learning in public less challenging. It makes us better leads too.
Transforming bleak emotions into curiosity creates an opening — this is how you learn without the heaviness of trying to be super human. It’s an essential mindset shift. A nice side effect? You’ll enjoy the ride in the leadership seat much more.
What else to read
The constructive and destructive aspects of shame and guilt.
The scientific underpinnings and impacts of shame.
Perfectionism can also drive workaholic tendencies which can hurt everyone.
Being honest with mis-steps and giving yourself grace is powerful.
Written by Suzan Bond, a leadership coach and former COO. Based in Brooklyn. You can find me elsewhere on Twitter and Medium. Comments or questions about leadership or scaling startups? Send me a note.