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Still employed, but hurting


In the privacy of my office, I’ve heard story after story of the difficult emotional impact of company downsizings. I wasn’t listening to casualties of the downsizings; the people relating their stories were “survivors.” None of them lost a job, but not one of them escaped feelings of loss and helplessness.

We are slowly coming out of the economic downturn. There is some alleviation of the distress, fear and anger experienced by these employees. Yet what is left is the certainty that uncertainty can return at any time. It is an emotional residue that reminds us how powerless we can be. In that reminder is the emotion of shame.

Whenever we feel powerless, helpless or out of control, we can feel shame. In its grip, we can feel an intense sense that we are deficient – we’re flawed, defective, not good enough to do this job or keep that job. Shame is a universal emotion shared across cultures and socio-economic strata. In business, shame can be experienced at any level on the organization chart.

It can be hard to know when we’re feeling shame. We generally know when we’re angry, because we sense our “blood boiling” or we “see red.” When we’re afraid, we feel ourselves shrink; we feel shaky or cold. Shame is more stealthy. Our bodily experience feels like a sudden loss of energy – our shoulders slump, our heads lower and we avert our eyes from the gaze of others. We can feel confused and at a loss for words. It happens in microseconds. What happens next is critical.

Shame is a feeling so painful, a “sickness of the soul,” that we can’t bear it for long. We quickly move to behaviors or “scripts” used to manage difficult emotions like this.

Dr. Donald Nathanson of the Tomkins Institute in Philadelphia identifies four distinct scripts used to manage shame:

• Withdrawal: We grow silent, run away or make ourselves small and scarce.

• Avoidance: We numb ourselves with alcohol or drugs. We might assume a macho stance or put on know-it-all airs.

• Attack Self: We fall into negative talk about ourselves; we blame ourselves when things go wrong. We might tolerate bad behavior from others.

• Attack Other: We spew our shame outwardly through gossip, bullying and aggressive behavior towards others.

These shame management scripts are seen operating in the work place in behaviors such as increased absenteeism (shame withdrawal); gossip, harassment or insubordination (attack other); underperformance or lack of assertiveness (attack self); and problems with drugs and alcohol (shame avoidance).

To alleviate less productive behaviors in the workplace, encourage employees to identify their experience of shame, its sources and better adaptive behaviors for managing it.

Jennifer Lock Oman is a psychotherapist and writer in Des Moines. She can be reached at jlockoman@aol.com.

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