“Oh crap.”Jasper sat stunned. The realisation of what he had done sank from conscious thought to the pit of his stomach, slowly squeezing breath from him like a boa constrictor.

Jasper had screwed up. Royally. He had drinks the week before with friends and had been bragging about his latest project. It was still kind of under wraps but he was amongst friends.

Except that one of the ‘friends’ worked for a major competitor. And now in front of him was a news article outlining the major components of the project. These were trade secrets. And now the competitive edge of the company was blunted. Stock price was in free fall.

Jasper felt sick.

What should he do? Ignore it and pretend it wasn’t him and live with gnawing guilt? Confess to the boss and risk losing his job and reputation? Rock. Hard place.

You may not have revealed trade secrets with devastating effect. I reckon there’s something you’ve likely screwed up. Like me, you may have done something without too much thought of the consequences and inadvertently caused someone harm or embarrassment. Or maybe like me you did something that you thought you could get away with and no one would find out, and then they did. Or maybe like me, you behaved a little recklessly and someone or something was injured or wrecked as a result.

We’ve all done things we regret. It may or may not have been intentional. Living with the consequences is the hardest part.

The emotional tsunami of shame is the first wave of emotion. Knowing we did something that hurt someone, or breached our own sense of ethics, or will damage our reputation can trigger the most devastating feelings.

Shame is ranked one of the lowest, least resourceful emotions. In his book Power vs Force, David Hawkins developed a map of consciousness that places shame at the very bottom of the spectrum. In Australian Aboriginal cultures, the concept of shame extends to deeply held feelings of embarrassment and is broader than the English version of the word.

In any culture, shame is truly debilitating. It is as far from Boundless that you can get! It can feel like a giant pit of endless despair.

If you’ve ever found yourself in the pit of shame, here are some things to consider.

  1. Confront the truth of it. Were you negligent? Thoughtless? Deceitful? Nasty? Own the truth of what happened. This part is not fun. It’s when we come face to face of the worst part of who we are.
  2. Decide then and there to never let it happen again. It’s only a truly horrible mistake if you choose never to learn from it.
  3. Make amends where you can. If you’ve hurt someone, apologise. This may or may not end in forgiveness from the other party. You have no control over that. You do have access to how you show up next. Do the right thing: if you f*&k up, ‘fess up. If you can fix or mitigate the situation, do that.

The only thing for Jasper to do was ‘fess up. Correction: the only leadership thing to do was to confess, even if it meant his job. Far better to admit a mistake and commit to never doing it again than to pretend it never happened and be discovered for not only being reckless, but deceitful.

How long should we punish ourselves?

That’s the real question. The ethical issues are dealt with above. How long we choose to feel miserable is up to us.

Are there some things for which we can never forgive ourselves? What if our negligence caused the death of someone else? Can we ever not feel bad again?

When I was at high school, one of the older boys was driving with his friend and took a wrong turn down a one way street. They had a horrific accident and his friend died, while he survived unscathed. Months later, tormented by guilt, the boy took his own life.

One tragedy turned to two. That is the risk of deeply held shame. Such a waste of a life.

If you think about it, we easily forgive others for the wrongs they have committed to us. When I think of all the times I believe I was badly treated by others, I have long since let it go, forgiven them for not being the best version of themselves, and moved on. I did not want to be anchored in the pain. I had one friend who apologised to me seven years after an incident between us! I was aghast that she had suffered for so long around this as I had well and truly made peace with the situation. What good came from seven years of shame and remorse? None.

Is there an expiry date for shame? How long should we feel bad? Is there a time frame for shame that fits the nature of the incident?

Brene Brown speaks eloquently of shame. She talks about the ‘man in the arena’: daring greatly and risking feeling shame, not feeling good enough, not being worthy, not being lovable. She says, “shame is ‘I am bad’ and guilt is ‘I did something bad’”. Neither feeling is helpful if we let it torment us endlessly.

The true problem is that the carefully cultivated and aspirational image of ourselves does not live up to the flawed reality of who we are.

The sooner we embrace our imperfections, the better, and more human we are. It keeps us humble. It keeps us wanting to do better. It reminds us that others can make mistakes too and there by the grace go I: we are beautifully flawed humans.

We screw up. Sometimes big time. Sometimes because we were not very nice humans at the time.

We don’t become screw ups because we screw up. That’s shame talking: trying to make the essence of us wrong. Every moment we screw up is an opportunity to be more humble, to be more compassionate, to be better.

Shame is a gateway. It’s an awful, sticky and black feeling that we can process and live through. Keep going. We can make something right from our wrongs. It doesn’t make us wrong. Keep going. We can’t heal someone else’s hurt, but we can make something useful from our own. Do that.

What’s your experience of shame? Do you believe there are some things that are unforgivable? How can we live through these experiences?