You're not alone

I've shared this text almost as-is internally at @Scrapinghub, the company I work at. As it had a good response, I'm sharing it here after some minor editing. I wrote it mainly to my programmer friends, but many people will probably relate to it.

Here are some things that I want to share with you:

If you’ve ever felt that you’re a mediocre developer at best, even though you show up and do your best everyday, you’re not alone.

If you’ve ever felt bad about not being nearly as productive as you’d want to, you’re not alone.

If you’ve ever thought that you will probably be fired eventually because you’re not as smart and accomplished as your peers and “someday they’ll figure that out”, you’re not alone.

If you’ve ever refrained from introducing an idea out of fear of being ridiculed or laughed at, you’re not alone.

If the thought ever crossed your mind that you’re a fraud waiting to be uncovered, that everyone is smarter and better and faster and more knowledgeable than you, I want to tell you that you’re not alone.

Most of us go through that at least at some point, sometimes every day. And the thing is, there are ways for us to overcome these feelings that, even if we don’t completely eliminate them, it help us to grow both personally and professionally.

I want to talk about these issues, because I believe this conversation is important for building our culture and we all can benefit from it.

Scarcity culture

There is this book titled Daring Greatly which talks about the culture of scarcity that we’re living in, what’s dangerous about it and how we can deal with it.

Scarcity is this strong sense of lacking something, of never being good/smart/healthy/safe/successful/etc enough.

Quoting the book:

Scarcity is the "never enough" problem. The word scarce is from the Old Norman French scars, meaning "restricted in quantity" (c. 1300). Scarcity thrives in a culture where everyone is hyperaware of lack. Everything from safety and love to money and resources feels restricted and lacking. We spend inordinate amounts of time calculating how much we have, want, and don't have, and how much everyone else has, needs, and wants.

What makes the constant assessing and comparing so self-defeating is that we are often comparing our lives, our marriages, our families, and our communities to unattainable, media-driven visions of perfection, or we're holding up our reality against our own fictional account of how great someone else has it.

Never before we were so aware of how much we lack and how inadequate we are. If you’re like me, you will not have trouble relating to this. We have things like the Github timeline making us feel bad about not contributing much to open source, we obsess about StackOverflow points and similar rank systems, and when comparing to our more accomplished peers it’s easy to think that we are so little and don’t have anything to contribute.

Brené Brown, the researcher who wrote the book tells us that the formula of the scarcity culture is made of three components: shame, comparison and disengagement. This same dynamic can show up not only in the larger culture, but also in family, work or any other community.

She offers the following questionnaire as a starting point to start reflecting on these three components:

  1. Shame: Is fear of ridicule and belittling used to manage people and/or to keep people in line? Is self-worth tied to achievement, productivity, or compliance? Are blaming and finger-pointing norms? Are put-downs and name-calling rampant? What about favoritism? Is perfectionism an issue?
  2. Comparison: Healthy competition can be beneficial, but is there constant overt or covert comparing and ranking? Has creativity been suffocated? Are people held to one narrow standard rather than acknowledged for their unique gifts and contributions? Is there an        ideal way of being or one form of talent that is used as measurement of everyone else’s worth?
  3. Disengagement: Are people afraid to take risks or try new things? Is it easier to stay quiet than to share stories, experiences, and ideas? Does it feel as if no one is really paying attention or listening? Is everyone struggling to be seen and heard?

Looking at the larger culture, my answer to most of these questions is yes. Watching the news and the social network feeds (specially at the moment of political turmoil we’re living here in Brazil), it’s oh gosh, yes!

Now, if that’s the situation of the larger culture, what if we want to build an organizational culture (in our family, in our work) that goes the opposite way to these cultural norms of scarcity? There will always be pressure from the larger culture, so how would that work?

Well, first of all we need awareness. Then it’s a matter of commitment and hard work, every day.

Quoting the book again:

The counterapproach to living in scarcity is not about abundance. In fact, I think abundance and scarcity are two sides of the same coin. The opposite of “never enough” isn’t abundance or “more than you could ever imagine.” The opposite of scarcity is enough, or what I call Wholeheartedness. As I explained in the Introduction, there are many tenets of Wholeheartedness, but at its very core is vulnerability and worthiness: facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks, and knowing that I am enough.

Now, if we want to be vulnerable and cultivate worthiness, we really want the opposite of the conditions from those questions from before. This is the problem of a scarcity culture. It prevents us from taking risks, from facing uncertainty, from putting ourselves out there, from feeling that we belong.

When we ask a question, and when we try to answer a question, when we send out our work for review, review the work of someone else or when we get our own work reviewed, when we publish a post, give an opinion -- all these involve the exact kind of exposure and emotional risk we’re talking about here. And when we don’t feel we’re enough, we disengage because it feels too risky.

Understanding shame

Some things to know about shame:

  1. We all have it
  2. We’re all afraid of talking about it
  3. The less we talk about it, the more it can control us

Quoting the book:

There are a couple of very helpful ways to think about shame. First, shame is the fear of disconnection. We are psychologically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually hardwired for connection, love, and belonging. Connection, along with love and belonging (two expressions of connection), is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Shame is the fear of disconnection—it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. I’m not worthy or good enough for love, belonging, or connection. I’m unlovable. I don’t belong.

Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.

And by the way, as far as the brain is concerned, shame and pain hurt the same way.

Shame is real pain. The importance of social acceptance and connection is reinforced by our brain chemistry, and the pain that results from social rejection and disconnection is real pain.

It’s also important to distinguish shame from guilt, which can be understood as the difference between “I am bad” and “I did something bad”.

Guilt is more like: “I did something bad”. Guilt is not bad, because it’s something you understand that you did and you can change that. And if you feel guilty you will feel impelled to change. Guilt is what’s happening when we apologize for real and try to make amends. This is the kind of feeling that, if you’re a parent, you want your child to feel when doing something bad, so that they can change their behavior.

Shame is more like: “I am bad” or “I am not good”, and that’s much more dangerous. Shame is such a deep fear that when we feel it, our instinct is not to try to make amends -- unlike the positive outcome of guilt, shame’s influence is always destructive. If we do something bad, and instead of feeling guilt (e.g., thinking: “oops, I did something stupid”) we feel shame (thinking: “I’m such a stupid loser”), the instinct is to protect ourselves by blaming something or someone, rationalize our mistake, give a fake apology or simply hide.

There is no positive outcome for shame (at least not for unacknowledged shame). Brené Brown reports that researchers have correlated shame with addiction, violence, aggression, depression, eating disorders and bullying -- while guilt is inversely correlated to those. (the book has many pointers for this, but sadly most are books and academic papers not freely available -- I’m sharing some links at the end).

The good news, though, is that if we just start talking about shame, it diminishes. Just by being aware of it, and discussing it, we suddenly have more control of it. Such is the power of language.

Building shame-resilience

We can’t not have shame -- it’s just part of being human.

But we can learn to be shame-resilient.

Brown calls shame-resilience “the ability to practice authenticity when we experience shame, to move through the experience without sacrificing our values, and to come out on the other side of the shame experience with more courage, compassion, and connection than we had going into it. Shame resilience is about moving from shame to empathy—the real antidote to shame”.

If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive. Self-compassion is also critically important, but because shame is a social concept—it happens between people—it also heals best between people. A social wound needs a social balm, and empathy is that balm. Self-compassion is key because when we’re able to be gentle with ourselves in the midst of shame, we’re more likely to reach out, connect, and experience empathy.

In short, empathy and self-compassion are the key values here.

This really hits home for me, because I’ve noticed that when I’m anxious, feeling inadequate and listening to the voice in my head that tells me I’m a fraud, I will avoid having a needed honest conversation, I tend to be impatient towards others’ mistakes and reject others’ ideas without giving thought on why they’re even thinking that.

And when my self-talk is more of acceptance, like “hey, this is difficult for everyone, give yourself a break, remember that nobody is born smart”, I am more willing to face a problem I’m having, discuss new ideas and help someone with a problem of their own.

Vulnerability and minding the gap

The book has a lot more to offer, there is a great chapter about the “armory” that talks about the defenses that we set up in order to not be vulnerable, how they get in the way and how we can deal with them.

On the subject of disengagement, the book tells us to be aware of the gap between where we want to be and where we’re actually standing. We don’t need to be perfect, but we do need to be engaged and committed to our values and keep trying to close this gap between what we aspire and what we practice.

The gap starts here: We can’t give people what we don’t have. Who we are matters immeasurably more than what we know or who we want to be.

The space between our practiced values (what we’re actually doing, thinking, and feeling) and our aspirational values (what we want to do, think, and feel) is the value gap, or what I call “the disengagement divide.” It’s where we lose our employees, our clients, our students, our teachers, our congregations, and even our own children. We can take big steps—we can even make a running jump to cross the widening value fissures that we face at home, work, and school—but at some point, when that divide broadens to a certain critical degree, we’re goners. That’s why dehumanizing cultures foster the highest levels of disengagement—they create value gaps that actual humans can’t hope to successfully navigate.

Minding the gap is embracing our own imperfection and vulnerability, and practicing the values we hold important in our culture. This requires shame resilience, because we will sometimes find too big of a gap, and we’ll have to remind ourselves of our values and that showing up and putting ourselves out there already counts.

For me, personally, minding the gap means different things in different contexts. At work, it means to accept that there will be always be more things I want to do than what I’m actually able to work on. For an organization, minding the gap may be understanding that you want to be a great success and cultivate great values, but sometimes you fail to practice those values and success seems a bit distant. When we mind the gap, acknowledging the distance of where we are and where we want to be, then we’re more willing to help closing it.

The book has a chapter dedicated to disruptive engagement: how we can start daring to have difficult conversations in our organizations, cultivate an honest and constructive feedback culture, and learn to get more comfortable being uncomfortable. And it starts with understanding how scarcity affects us, combat shame by talking about it and normalizing (i.e. sharing how it’s normal to struggle and feel inadequate at times), ultimately rehumanizing the way we lead and work.

An important point is that: “you can’t give what you don’t have”. Who we are matters more than what we know or want to be. This is why it’s important for leaders to embrace shame-resiliency and vulnerability: if we want people to take risks, we have to be willing to engage with vulnerability, take risks and cultivate trust. When we’re too controlling, we end up losing impact. When we think of ourselves as not good enough, we tend to spread that feeling unto others who are looking up to us. We become stagnant.

The chapter ends with the leadership manifesto, which is pretty awesome.

Final thoughts

So, my hope is that this will help raising awareness about these issues and perhaps we can all start talking about them and diminish the power of our gremlins. I believe it is important to be mindful of the scarcity culture and do our best to prevent shame and disengagement.

You may not be doing bad, but it’s probably good to be mindful of these things, how they affect us and our interactions and how we can find our way to fight shame and its negative outcomes.

Because if we give in to this scarcity culture, we lose innovation, we don’t show up, we play blaming and cover-ups to discharge our pain and discomfort, we don’t give feedback, we stop contributing and we stop caring. And we don’t want that. We want the opposite.

We all want to be brave and dare greatly.