After many decades around business and marketing ecosystems, I know all that glitters isn’t always gold. Loud hyperbole (online and offline) can also be a diversion from reality to take the heat off the cauldron of shame and fear.
Yet, when just one person dares to share their truth and story behind the glitter, countless others will feel similarly. That person is the voice for many and by virtue encourages them to speak up without fear and judgement. This scenario plays out every day in all aspects of life, business, schools, courts, church and state.
Dr. Brené Brown, the world’s leading researcher on shame, vulnerability, courage and empathy, teaches that shame is highly destructive. She defines the difference between shame and guilt as follows: “I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful — it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort. I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection. Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough. I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behaviour than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.”
This definition really flicks the switch off the heat off shame and fear and broadens self-awareness and understanding. Dr Brown also writes: “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change” and “vulnerability is not weakness but a myth which is profoundly dangerous”.
Having witnessed how denying vulnerability truly harms humans and businesses, these quotes inspire me greatly.
So let’s remove the gloss upfront. Self-employment and small-business ownership is not all great freedom, a deluge of $$$, beers and skittles. It can be, of course, but the truth is it has more ups and downs than a rollercoaster at Luna Park. Financial pressures can swing the culinary gates from lobster and expensive champagne through to baked beans on toast and cheap shiraz.
I have personally swum in pools of great success and self-worth next to pools of disasters and pain. And I still hold season tickets for the rollercoaster.
Self-doubt, mental health, physical stresses and loneliness is well documented in small business. Feeling that we are on top of our game is a tight rope we grapple with as relentless pressures abound.
Most sectors face varying degrees of disruption and competition. We are bombarded with digital media saturation, technical tools and marketing overwhelm. The pressure to be seen to be smashing it, being super popular and nailing incredible success on social media is gruelling.
And there can be the extra layer of family financial demands and time pressures to navigate.
But feelings of inadequacy and not feeling good enough (shame) can sabotage business and personal success and happiness. It will display in many ways with the common thread of not wanting to ask for help and not being willing to be vulnerable. Concealing feelings and the truth of situations is not a fun place to sit. It’s like sitting in a room without air.
There is a long line between the adage of ‘fake it till you make it’ and honest vulnerability. Butterflies in the stomach before a TV interview, nervousness before presenting at a conference is not the same space and kind of sits in the ‘practice makes perfect’ and ‘I am always learning’ seat. That is a positive place compared to shame which is negative and just erodes.
While coaching hundreds of men and women in their careers and businesses over the last 16 years, I have observed several common denominators where shame interplayed with negative consequences.
Men often struggled with asking for any help, preferring to sort things out themselves. Embarrassment about circumstances, when combined with a lack of self-worth, would cause immeasurable harm. Fear of admitting they were suffering and had lost their sense of business direction and truth was common. Shame of letting others down kept them closed off for help often.
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And women often struggled with imposter syndrome (a form of shame, as it’s a belief you are not fundamentally good enough) that saw them struggle to market themselves and ‘put themselves out there’. They felt shame if their work didn’t speak for itself and hence it felt too vulnerable to champion themselves.
How to be vulnerable in business
- Sharing your truth and vulnerability gives others permission to share their own. Honest stories build trust and a calming sense that ‘you are not alone’. When we hear others have also experienced similar issues and feelings, shame is diminished and space for solutions and support emerges.
- Admit when you are seeking new clients or struggling. Of course, you may want to frame it to your style. But admit it. If your wall of glitter on social media is all smashing it, prancing and dancing, people will think you are just not available for them.
- Admit when you need support (in whatever way is relevant) from family, lenders, friends, staff and suppliers. Be truly honest. You might be amazed at the results and ideas.
- Ask for help in understanding new technologies or business tools. Everyone has different learning styles and time frames of absorption. We are all different and it’s okay.
- Don’t be pressured into following what the masses are doing on and off social media if it doesn’t feel authentic. Being vulnerable also means saying no.
- Keep in mind that reality statements are not value judgements.
We are all humans navigating our way through businesses and life. There is no shame in not having all the answers and being vulnerable.