Why we can’t shame ourselves into changing - HR and Leadership Blog | The Mindful Leader

Becoming a transformational leader requires that we transform ourselves. So how do we do that fundamentally and sustainably? 

Unfortunately, every leader I’ve ever worked with uses self-shame as the most common tool for self-improvement. But this actually does more harm than good. The starting point of all personal development is not shame, but self-awareness.  

A self-aware person can view their thoughts, emotions, conditioned patterns and reactions objectively. Through the development of self-awareness, we become present, compassionate, honest, curious, committed and transformational. The greater our self-awareness, the greater our capacity to align our behaviour with our noblest intentions and values.  

When we shame ourselves, we very quickly lose two of the most important self-awareness tools: curiosity and compassion.  

There can be no learning or new insight without curiosity. As the great depth psychologist A. H. Almaas said in a lecture I attended, ‘Without the emotional safety compassion provides us, we very quickly lose interest in uncovering difficult truths we need to deal with. It’s too painful to look at, so instead we shut down and go back to familiar coping mechanisms such as blaming others, denying and numbing.’  

This is why we must encourage self-compassion and curiosity around the behaviours we wish to change in ourselves. Self-compassion gives us a space of inner psychological safety, which enables our natural curiosity and intelligence to come to the fore. This compassion and curiosity also enables us to boldly try new behaviours, to stumble, to take chances and experiment, to learn and grow without that harsh inner critic beating us up over the inevitable mistakes we make.  

Margaret Dean, at Novartis Oncology, shared with me how easy it is for her to shame herself when she sees herself falling into the same old controlling, image management patterns with her team members. Mindfulness has taught her to interrupt this pattern in the moment. She said, ‘I always compound my behaviour by beating myself up, which only makes things worse. For me it feels like a shameful feeling, like I need to take a shower. My brain asks over and over, Why did you just do that? Why didn’t I see that in the moment? But I’m learning to tell myself, That’s part of being human. It’s okay. Everyone screws up once in a while. And I can hold it more lightly and more easily look at my behaviour with curiosity and interest instead of judgement and shame.’  

Psychological safety is also vital for growth, innovation and trust in a team setting. Leaders who learn to cultivate self-compassion for themselves then become more caring and compassionate with their teams.  

Leaders who embrace the self-awareness journey become a beacon of growth and psychological safety for those around them. Instead of denying their mistakes, they are honest with themselves and others. They are interested, even excited, by seeing behaviours in themselves that are not working and they are courageous enough to admit it. Instead of justifying, ignoring and denying actions that hold them back from deeper insight and wiser choices, they want to understand where, how and why they’re falling short on their values and aspirations. And by doing so they give others the safety and permission to do the same.