Failure, shame, pain, growth
Failure, pain, shame and growth
Falling down is embarrassing, or worse. Our mistakes often lead to shame,
so understanding the emotional consequences of shame is an important first step in recovering from a fall.
Start by watching my introductory video below (click on the bar under the video to read the full text).
Then spend some time on self reflection and further reading.
Rising from a fall
HELLO, its Jeremy here and welcome to this month’s topic which is about the related issues of failure, pain, shame and growth.
This is a somewhat longer video than usual, and it is based around my own very personal story of failure, not the one I describe in the video on my public website but a much more difficult story that I don’t recount that often. However, I believe it has valuable lessons for me and you and I am sharing the story and the lessons exclusively with the Living Money community in recognition of your commitment to the cause.
Here’s the thing: we all screw up from time to time. We all make mistakes. Whether in work or relationships, family or a social situation, you have probably at some point fallen flat on your face in the dirt, been humiliated and shamed.
I INVITE YOU now to pause the video and take a few moments to think about one or two occasions in your life when this has happened. Then, ask yourself how your reacted to these occasions. Did you try and sweep them under the carpet, or did you reconcile yourself to what had happened? Here is an important question: does it still hurt, or can you talk about it openly and honestly? And another question: did you learn from it, did you grow?
Mistakes, shame, failure all cause pain. And we try to avoid pain, whether it be the physical pain of accidentally touching a hot stove or the emotional pain of being thrown over. Pain serves a purpose; it acts as a warning bell of danger or, in the words of George Kinder, the bell of awakening, because pain wakes us up, makes us immediately aware of our surroundings and environment, of what we are doing.
Pain, especially emotional pain, is inevitable. If you are going to find fulfilment and peace in your life it is important to deal with pain for two very good reasons.
FIRST, PAIN CAN quickly lead to suffering. Pain and suffering are different, though related. Pain is your defence mechanism against danger. Generally it is sharp and short-lived.
Suffering, on the other hand, is not inevitable and it is generally not short-lived. Suffering happens, mentally, when you link pain to a belief or thought or story as a way of explaining and living with the pain. Pain becomes suffering when you get trapped in the habitual cycle of story, pain, story, pain and so on.
Worse, the beliefs, thoughts and stories you associate with the pain are often false, adapted from the original to ease the pain. But because the story is false it doesn’t ameliorate the pain. As we will see shortly, telling yourself the true story is an important step to closing down suffering.
Money is a key trigger for suffering. It is a measurable commodity and you tend to measure both your money and yourself against it. The false belief is that your personal worth depends on your net worth. Suffering around money is inevitable as long as you retain that false belief.
Second, pain is often caused by your mistakes. YOUR MISTAKES ARE your greatest asset, but only as long as you deal with the resulting pain in the right way. When you do your mistakes become your route to personal growth and integrity. As such they are an invaluable asset. Whilst money can increase your net worth your mistakes, paradoxically, can add to your personal worth.
So whilst money is a key trigger for suffering, it is also your greatest spiritual teacher and bringer of wisdom. Contemporary attitudes to money and its role as proxy for your ego inevitably means it will frequently cause you pain. However, it can also teach you how to avoid turning that pain into habitual suffering.
Such are the SOCIAL PRESSURES on you today that when you fall down, fail, make a mistake your initial reaction may well be to cover it up, hide it and move on as fast as possible. Admitting your mistakes in public is usually way off base.
At this point I want to bring in a profound and ineluctable principle: I believe that you, I and everyone on the planet are all doing the best we can. It may not seem that way in some people. However, to deny this statement is, in my view, to deny humanity. Sure, you fall down from time to time. A wise friend of mine talked about these times when we transgress our own moral code as times when we betray our humanity and often the humanity of others. But generally we are doing the best we can, respecting our humanity and the humanity of others.
I emphasis this because in the critical, judgemental social media driven environment in which you live it is worth remembering this principle. When you do you reinforce your humanity, recognise the power of your mistakes to turn the best you can into something even better and rise above the social media froth.
I’ve made many mistakes in my life, two of them being particularly serious with far reaching consequences. Both stories have much to teach us. One of those – which coincidentally concerns money – you might have already heard me talk about in the video on my personal website.
THE OTHER, which was far more serious and painful, happened when I was much younger. I didn’t deal with it well and it left me in limbo, wasting my life for a quarter of a century. I failed to deal with the emotional consequences until ten years ago, preventing me taking up the opportunities to rebuild my life.
I come from a very military background. Grandfather, father, two elder brothers – you name them, they were in the Forces. I left college in 1973 and in spite of an offer of a place to read Environmental Engineering at Exeter University, I bowed to pressure (both peer and financial) to join the Army although I knew instinctively I was entirely unsuited to a military life. However, I passed through officer school, was commissioned and acquitted myself reasonably well in Germany and Northern Ireland before being sent at age 23 to the regimental recruit depot where I commanded a training platoon consisting of three highly experienced NCOs and around 25 recruits whom we were tasked to train.
There is no doubt improper practices had been going on for some while before I even arrived, which through lack of courage and moral clarity I allowed to continue in my platoon, at one stage even becoming involved in staging a mock execution. These incidents all came to light, as they must, and I faced a court martial at which I pleaded guilty to various charges and was dismissed from the Army. The press and TV, of course, shredded me, vilifying me across every front page and news bulletin, a terrifying and humiliating experience.
I was encouraged to appeal which was accepted and my sentence was reduced to a fine and a severe reprimand.
I then went to University, and from there into the City, which takes me to where I am today, running my own life and financial coaching practice in Helmsley. However, I have never “shone” in my career, for the most part being petrified of coming out to the centre of the room, figuratively speaking, out of a sense of shame and guilt, and a fear of subsequent re-exposure to the press. It is only in the last decade that I have actually started to deal with the issue after meeting some very wise and supportive people as I explored and developed my professional life here and in the US.
I offer my story for the lessons it taught me, which are numerous. However, I feel I was right to “roll-over” and accept responsibility for what had happened, even if legally I had grounds for fighting the charges (the fine line between horseplay and assault). There were serious risks in fighting, but by accepting responsibility and acting with dignity I earned a significant amount of respect in the Army’s higher echelons.
I think, though, the biggest lessons concerned my subsequent inability to deal with the episode and failure to rise from my fall until I began the process 25 years later. This happened when I met George Kinder, regarded as the father of life planning, who subsequently became a good friend and mentor. He provided the secure environment that allowed me to talk openly to him and my group about the affair for the first time since it happened. At the time he recommended counselling as a way of dealing with these emotions. However, I saw this as a bit of an “American” solution so ignored his advice.
Twelve months later, amongst a similar group, I again talked openly about it and formed a plan for dealing with it. On my way back (we were in Tuscany) I had dinner with an old friend in Rome, and he too strongly encouraged me to get counselling. I found a superb counsellor and stayed with her for two very helpful years and I still see her from time to time.
My recovery continues, although it is now substantially complete, I think. What I can say from the experience is that how we deal with our falls and can lead us to – or deny us – an experience of unparalleled personal growth.
I’ll come back to my story and its lessons in a minute. First, I want to bring in BRENE BROWN, one of my most important influences whose teachings were also instrumental in getting me back on track. Then, I’ll go back to my stories, look at what I did wrong and what I could have done better to get me back on track faster and more effectively.
If I were to summarise Brené Brown’s substantial body of work I would say that she has identified a problem, which is shame, and a solution, which is to become vulnerable.
This is a gross oversimplification. At this stage I’ll improve on it only a tiny bit with two of Brown’s quotes. Brown DEFINES SHAME as ‘the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love or belonging – SOMETHING WE’VE experienced, done or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection’. And because, as social human beings we are hard-wired for connection, anything that makes us unworthy of connection will be intensely painful.
VULNERABILITY is the solution to shame because, again in Brown’s words, ‘vulnerability is the willingness to show up and be seen with no control or guarantee of the outcome; it is THE BIRTHPLACE of innovation, creativity and change’.
Shame and vulnerability are closely related. When we step up, show up and risk falling down we accept and embrace our vulnerability. If we do this often enough we will fall down. This is the ‘physics of vulnerability’ in Brown’s words. When we fall down we almost certainly experience the shame of failure. We need to become vulnerable and uncomfortable again by telling the true story of our failure, which in turn gives birth to the creativity and change that will move us out of shame. And there is only one direction in which to move and that is forward. We cannot go back.
Using a research technique called grounded theory methodology describeD in detail in her book RISING STRONG, Brown has identified a three step process for recovering from failure and moving on uninhibited by your past mistakes.
RECKONING WITH YOUR emotions is the first step. Rather than shut down or gloss over those painful emotions surrounding your fall, take time to actually explore, recognise and describe the emotions you are feeling. Work out why you are feeling like that. It is easy to say, painful and difficult to do, requiring your vulnerability. Its important because this investigation of your emotions is a powerful source of creative solutions to your problem.
The second stage is to RUMBLE THE FALSEHOODS in the story you are telling yourself about your fall. We are always creating stories. They are a way of communicating, understanding and reconciling a situation. So when you fall you immediately create a story.
The trouble is that first story, which is often highly defensive, is usually full of lies. What is important is to write down what Anne Lamott calls your shitty first draft of SFD. Writing is an important part of the healing process. Just make sure no one else sees your SFD because its entirely yours, a selfish, childlike story in which you can rant and rave and come out with all the lies, excuses and self-denigration.
This SFD is the start point for rumbling those lies and excuses. Its where you challenge those negative statements about yourself you have written down, statements which can evolve from situation specific self-criticism to a foundation belief (or misbelief) about yourself.
For instance, ‘she left me because I am not good enough for her’ evolves into ‘I am undeserving of a loving relationship per se’. Rumble this statement. It must be a lie because you have already agreed that you are doing the best you can.
THE THIRD STAGE is to take the insights from reckoning with your feelings and rumbling the lies in your SFD to revolutionise your life by implementing the positive changes the insights will generate.
Let me return now to my story and draw out the lessons both from my failure to recover from my fall for a quarter of a century and my eventual recovery from my fall, with the help of Brené Brown’s three R’s process, George Kinder’s life planning community, and professional counselling.
That court martial and the excoriating press coverage left me reeling. I was in deep shock and pain. I certainly did not take time to reckon with my feelings. Indeed I am not even sure I knew what an emotion was in this days and my military and family environment was not exactly compassionate.
I rapidly came up with a story which included phrases such as ‘what have I done to deserve this’, ‘I am marked for life and will never be able to show my face in public again’, and ‘ I am obviously worthless and a bad person’. This last was quite surprising because already counter indications were popping up. A couple of outstanding references, many, many letters from friends and strangers wishing me well, even a letter from the South African Defence Forces offering me a job (which I declined), friends who took me in and looked after me, even a retired officer who wrote to the press complimenting me on my dignity and acceptance of responsibility.
But I didn’t see it because I was so wrapped up in my shitty first draft story.
And of course I didn’t bring about my own personal revolution. In fact I locked down, tried to stay under the radar and gravitated to the City and an endless and wasteful cycle of work, pay, drink and sleep. If not going back, I certainly wasn’t going forward.
This changed in 2004. Through George Kinder I discovered the world of compassion and emotions and got to work on sorting out my life. With the help of Vivian, my counsellor, I started to explore my emotions – a long, hard and very vulnerable road but invaluable. Vivian was amazing at challenging and facilitating change in my beliefs about myself.
During sessions with some of my fellow life planners I rewrote my SFD, taking out the lies and excuses and told my true story to my group who were unbelievably supportive. As I let myself become more vulnerable in telling the story I began to see that I was not a bad person, more an immature young man who had done a bad and stupid thing. I began to understand that whilst I had to accept some responsibility I was wrong to bear the entire weight on my shoulders. Under close questioning from the group I began to understand that the culture at the time, lack of support and supervision and family pressure were important factors that I could not ignore.
Interestingly this was confirmed to me only recently when, after many years I meet one of my old commanding officers who was deeply sympathetic and implied he and many at the top of the services at the time took the same view.
Finally, I brought about MY OWN PERSONAL REVOLUTION. I at last understood that MY MISTAKES were my greatest asset and that I could use the lessons I had learnt to teach and help others, which brings me to where I am today.
I’ve understood that OPENNESS AND VULNERABILITY, whilst painful and scary, offer a more creative route to a meaningful life than walls and barriers. I now encourage vulnerability in my clients and friends through compassion and deep, non-judgemental listening.
I learned about the power of compassion over selfishness and have made it an integral part of my life. I’ve learnt that a large part of the world is compassionate, generous, non-judgemental and willing to help, and I have, I hope moved there from the self-centred part of the world where I lived for a long while that revels in egotism and greed.
I learned that ASKING FOR HELP is a strength, not a weakness, and now I both ask for help when I need it and I offer help to those who do need it.
‘THE GREATEST TEACHER, failure is.’ says Yoda in The Last Jedi. I discovered the truth in that many years after I should have. I’ve also learnt that whilst failure is a great teacher you have to be willing to learn and that often means becoming vulnerable, experiencing pain and being honest with yourself.
If you don’t you will stay in a dark place; if you do you will gain wisdom and grow.
More from Brené Brown
Brené Brown’s five books are a must read for anyone seeking to sleep at night and live a fulfilled life by day. We’ll be reviewing them shortly and posting here.
Brown has also given two highly acclaimed TED talks (see below). In the first, The Importance of Vulnerability. given at TEDx Houston in 2010, Brown talks about the power of vulnerability and the importance of human connection. She describes her own life journey, expands on her research into shame and vulnerability and in so doing provides deeply interesting insights into humanity.
In her second talk, Listening to Shame, given at TED in 2012, Brown talks about her research into shame and the powerful impact of confronting shame head on.