Your Voice

5 ways to be shameless in 2021

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James Gray Robinson.

Negative self-judgment is a career killer. When we believe that we are fundamentally flawed, it is like swimming upstream 24 hours per day, seven days per week. We aren’t born that way, but we learn that we are unworthy from an early age. The problem for lawyers arises when our careers do not go as planned.

Perhaps the business of practicing law is harder and more competitive than we realized. We experience criticism and insults and take them personally. We suffer losses or the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. In other words, we experience suffering and shame.

In my business of coaching lawyers in burnout, I often hear that they are mentally, physically and emotionally exhausted. In many ways, they are often suffering from the overwhelming emotion of shame: Shame that they aren’t as successful as they wanted to be or they couldn’t help their clients as much as they wanted, or ashamed that they believed they were failures.

As a boomer, I was often disciplined by the familiar refrain “You should be ashamed of yourself.” If those authority figures had any idea of the curse they were placing on my shoulders, they would have never said it.

I also would hear “You have no shame,” which perhaps was supposed to motivate me to behave differently. When hearing that phrase, I mistakenly assumed that shame was a good thing.

Shame can be a powerful motivator or a powerful deterrent. Being branded as “shameless,” I thought I had to overachieve to prove I wasn’t ashamed. As a result, I graduated near the top of my law school class with numerous honors and awards. I also won awards as a trial lawyer.

But shame also branded my psyche with the mantra that there was something wrong with me. Unfortunately, the belief that I was somehow shameful was eating away at the foundation of my soul. Shame is the belief that I was fundamentally flawed and irredeemably worthless. When I felt shame, I felt that I was incompetent and stupid. Shame is caused by an innate sense of being inherently defective.

Shame also feeds into a fear of rejection, so we disconnect from people and isolate ourselves. For lawyers, we can feel shame for lack of income, clients or success. As a result, we withdraw and experience stress and depression. For me, I burned out and quit. I did not know that shame is an unhealthy belief caused by a lack of self-worth.

Since that time, I have discovered that there are steps we can take to reduce our feelings of shame and worthlessness.

1. Realize that shame is not the same as regret

Regret is a natural human response to having committed an action that is contrary to our values or hurts another. It is the feeling we experience when an action has harmful or unintended results. As lawyers, we can make strategic decisions that don’t go as planned and regret it. However, shame is the belief that we are defective. Regret concerns the action; shame destroys the actor. Regret is healthy; shame is destructive.

2. Monitor your inner dialogue

Shame usually causes harsh, self-critical self-talk. Inner statements such as “I am stupid,” “I never get it right” or “I am terrible at this” are common. When we talk to ourselves or think of ourselves in those tones, we immerse ourselves in negative thinking, leading to anxiety, stress, depression and burnout. More appropriate thoughts are “Now that I know that, I will …” or “I will never do that again.” Negative self-criticism is actually a defense mechanism intended to stop us from experiencing the pain of shame. However, if it is not controlled, it will consume us.

3. Don’t overreact

When we do things we later regret or make decisions we later learn are counterproductive, we can respond appropriately or overreact. People who struggle with shame usually overreact and “throw the baby out with the bath water.” Ideally, if we don’t make as much money or have as many clients as we want, we make adjustments to our practices to bring in more clients and money; we don’t just quit out of frustration and fear, which is a shame-based reaction. Life is what happens when we planned something else, and we need to understand that we aren’t going to get all we want all of the time.

4. Disconnect from the emotion

When you are feeling shame, anger, anxiety or stress, there is a useful exercise you can use to break the negative thinking. Sit silently and comfortably. Close your eyes and imagine you are floating a few feet above your body, looking down at yourself. Imagine all of your surroundings and where they are, then float higher above yourself until you can see your entire town or city and notice that the world is going on as usual. Enjoy the view. Then come back into your body and open your eyes, noticing that the negative feelings and fear has left your body. This meditation can be done fairly quickly, and when you practice it, the process becomes second nature.

5. Recognize that shame is faulty programming

When we look at infants, we can instantly recognize their total innocence, free from shame. Somewhere along the way, they are taught shame. Perhaps it was a caregiver who scolded a child for a dirty diaper or for doing something childish. Perhaps it was an authority figure who was having a bad day and took it out on you. Maybe it was our peer group who was cruel and unkind, as only adolescents can be. No matter how we learned our shame, it is unnatural to feel that way. When we feel shame, we need to realize there is a glitch in our psyche that we need to forgive and heal. While we may need to adjust our behavior, we do not have to destroy ourselves about it.

Shame does not have to ruin our careers and our happiness. Be aware of it, and forgive the people that installed it. It is healthy to regret your acts; it is unhealthy to condemn yourself for them. Doing the best we can is enough.


James Gray Robinson was a third-generation trial attorney specializing in family law for 27 years in his native North Carolina. Burned out and emotionally spent practicing law, he quit in 2004 and spent the next 16 years doing extensive research and innovative training to help others facing burnout and personal crises to heal. In 2017, at age 64, using the tools and strategies he learned, Robinson passed the Oregon bar exam and is again a licensed attorney. Learn more about his work at lawyerlifeline.net or email him at [email protected]


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