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The Opposite of Shame

Many of our clients feel shame about their organizing problems. This is true even if there is a great deal of success in their lives. We understand and empathize with this shame, but it is part of our job to overcome the shame, every bit as much as it is to resolve the problem. This is because shame is debilitating - it subtracts from the energy a person has to work on a solution.

The natural tendency is to believe that the opposite of shame is pride. People feel that when their problem is resolved, their shame will naturally be replaced by satisfaction. In some ways, this is perfectly true. Certainly, pride is a more pleasant feeling than shame, and success is preferable to failure! However, there is a way to think of pride and shame as more similar than opposite. Both of them tangle your feelings of worth and value with your level of success at some goal or set of goals. By tangling feelings with ideas, both shame and pride get in the way of planning and implementing plans to achieve your goals!

In problem-solving, shame is simply a form of pride. The opposite of both pride and shame is detachment.

How Shame Gets in the Way

You have probably known people who are very wise and perceptive about others while being foolish and confused about their own lives. Perhaps you are such a person yourself! How can this be? A person knows more about herself or himself than about anyone else, and usually cares at least as much about herself or himself than about anyone else. Why on earth should we be smarter about others than about ourselves? Clearly it isn't lack of knowledge or concern.

The answer to this paradox must be that something gets in the way when people try to think about themselves. Emotions in general, and especially feelings of shame, affect our ability to solve problems. The unpleasant feelings associated with shame discourage dwelling on the matters that we most want to change, and make it difficult to think constructively about them. The sadness that comes with shame depletes energy and confidence, making it harder to summon the energy needed to overcome difficulties. Also, when we are stressed we revert to the most familiar behaviors. Often the very things that shame us also give us some feeling comfort and familiarity.

If shame is so counterproductive, why is it so nearly universal? Of course, shame is important in the socialization of young children, but why does it persist into adulthood when it does us so little good?

We speculate that, like many of the patterns that stymie us in modern life, shame served a function in human societies that were afflicted by scarcity, and is inappropriate in our contemporary world. When small societies were faced with limited resources, the function of shame and pride is to create a hierarchy of the most valued members of the community. The shamed person demands less and expects less. The leadership of the community, and ultimately the best chances of survival, was largely decided on the basis of shame and pride.

If this speculation makes sense, then the purpose of shame was never helpful to the individual feeling shame. It was a mechanism for the tribe or village to allocate resources to those with the best chance of survival. The function was primarily social. Shame never benefits the individual, beyond the initial indication that something needs to be changed.

The euphoria associated with pride also has its pitfalls, though they are not so immediately unpleasant. It's easy to see that pride tends to promote successful behavior. But things change so quickly nowadays that pride can blind us to change. Examples abound in the business world of blind-sided businesses. The local bookseller is overwhelmed by the giant book chains, which in turn are ambushed by; US auto manufacturers were astonished by sudden popularity of well-built Japanese imports; and so on back to the proverbial buggy whip.

Ancient traditions have often spoken of the sin of pride, though they are more ambiguous on the question of shame. From our point of view, when solving problems shame is little more than a form of pride. Shame makes us feel we will never be good enough. Pride makes us feel we are already good enough. Nothing about the modern world needs the slowness and stinginess that come from these feelings, so even their social function is lost.


Every successful computer programmer makes many mistakes in a day. Progress consists less in avoiding mistakes than in vigilantly watching for them, identifying and correcting them as soon as possible, and finding ways to avoid comparable mistakes in the future. The culture that has arisen among the most dedicated programmers has to be extremely tolerant of error, because if it is not, if errors are hidden or swept under a rug rather than addressed, the work will not get done properly and a terrible product will be released. The way the culture deals with this is with a humorous form of detachment. That is, one of the most respected characteristics in the computing world is an ability not just to laugh at one's mistakes, but to develop ways to describe them with good humor so that others can learn from them as well. Programmers realize that today's world is too complex to avoid error, and too full of opportunity to allow any extra room for error to be repeated. The jargon refers to this style of learning as "egoless" programming.

Being detached in this way is not about being disinterested. Quite the contrary, it is a fascinated detachment that seems to us to be best at solving problems. It is not always easy to be amused at one's own predicament and how that fits into the human pageant. Still, it always pays to leave room for that vantage point. To the extent that you can look at your problems as if they were someone else's problems, you can be as smart when you think about yourself as you are when you think about others!

A Hindu proverb captures the essence of egoless problem solving.

"There is no nobility in being better than another. Nobility lies in being better than one's former self."

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Ducks-in-a-Row ® Efficiency Consultants can help you gain a fresh perspective on the issues and problems you face in daily life. Please get in touch with us. We promise to maintain compassion and respect while finding success in helping you to overcome stubborn problems.

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