Talk about Your Shame


Many years ago, I was fired from “my good government job”. Ironically, the day before I was fired, I told God that I wanted more time to focus on the things that were important to me. Shortly after being terminated, I told God, “You’re supposed to be God; you should’ve known that wasn’t what I meant”. I was shocked, devastated, and humiliated. 


As I began emerging from the daze of dismissal, I googled myself and saw that someone had blogged about my termination. Mind you, this person was a friend and thought he was coming to my defense. IMMEDIATELY, I asked him to take down the post: “Bruh, take that down RIGHT NOW!!!!” I was terrified that potential employers would find it. I was hoping to forget this experience and completely dodge it in an interview. 


After that rough patch, I moved on with my life and had the opportunity to actually grow the business that I’d founded BEFORE I was fired; however, I still felt like being fired was the worst thing in the world. You see, in my family, anybody who’d ever been fired was treated as if the situation was 100% their fault. It was like the person was a total screw up and squanderer of opportunity. It took me years to actually believe that both terminations and resignations are rarely black and white. Anyway, I’d moved on with my life, right? 


Welp, check this out: I began working as a subcontractor and two interesting things happened. First, I could see that the clients that I was asked to work with could really benefit from my experience, if I could talk about it honestly and freely. I could see that owning that story would give me legitimacy with the audience. Second, and by happenstance, the client actually assigned me to do a workshop for the employer that had fired me! I nearly shit my pants when I saw that assignment! Up until that point, I wasn’t sure if my client knew about my termination because they certainly had access to the information. By the same token, when my client asked if I was available on a particular date, I had said yes without asking details; thus, I couldn’t go back and decline without an explanation. So, I had to ask myself whether I was going to disclose that information to my client or show up at my old stomping ground like nothing had happened. Yup, I chose the latter…shame will make you do some risky and stupid stuff!


Luck would have it that the client chose to have the training off-site (can’t you just see me going through security?). As usual, I arrived before the team and began setting up for the day. In the words of my grandmother, when they arrived and laid eyes on me, it got quiet enough to hear a rat piss on cotton. The only person on the team who didn’t know me was the new executive director. As everyone came in and took their seats, the energy was the epitome of awkwardness. Normally, I’m pretty talkative to set everyone at ease, but I was on mute that day. 


I don’t know if we even made it a full 30 minutes into the day before I called uncle. I knew I had to address the elephant in the room because my history was becoming the focal point. Whether it was the focal point in my mind, theirs or both of ours, I will never know. I just knew it was taunting me. So, I went for broke and said, “It is a pleasure to be back. Since we both know that I know a bit about the culture here, I’m looking forward to working with you over the next few weeks.” The sigh of relief was palpable. I even got some smiles as I offered to dish with them about it during lunch to let them know that I was truly over it. They were relieved that the easy-to-talk to person that they’d known for years was still in there, so to speak. What I didn’t realize was how necessary my little spill was for the group. It gave them the freedom to talk about the problems that the team was having in very flat and painful terms. Despite having been fired, they had confidence that I understood their culture and could speak to them with credibility. I worked with that team four full days over the course of a month, and my baggage never came up again. 


That experience affirmed what Aunt Toni said: “You have to give up the shit that weighs you down, if you want to fly.” I learned that it’s the narrative that we create around our experiences that makes a world of difference. Our narrative enables us to take flight or holds us down. It is your point of view that gives you confidence or kills the spirit. It determines everything from how you speak, how you carry yourself, and even what you aspire to. 


I gave up something else that day: playing the victim. Victimhood demands full powerlessness. If EVERYTHING happens to you, that means you have no responsibility for anything, including the good stuff. So, you can’t own that one great thing if you can’t own the lessons that got you there. Success and improvement are incremental and presuppose failure. 


Moreover, I learned that it is important to own our contributions to failed experiences, but only our part. Shame encourages us to paint entire experiences with broad indiscriminate strokes. I mean, who really wants to look at the pieces? The folly in this “lets get past it” approach is that it tempts you to take more ownership than you should which yields self-condemnation and an increased likelihood that you’ll make the same mistakes again. After I owned my piece (and only my piece) in what got me fired, I was able to look at the whole experience and effectively critique the organization. But the true beauty of really looking at the situation is that I am no longer fearful of somebody bringing it up. Indeed, I’ve used that experience to teach entire workshops. Who would have thought that the thing that I was once ashamed of would translate into a check?


What experiences have you been holding close to your chest out of shame? What would it take to get you to confront it? What are you missing out on because you won’t look at “the thing”?


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