He looks at me just like he always did but somehow I know he can feel it. My friend is joking with me in the hallway to my office. As I laugh and listen to his stories, my mind’s eye is distracted. Behind me, just out my friend’s field of vision, is the dark, stinking fug I’ve been carrying around. He squints, as though trying to make out my dark cloud. Then he stops and asks me if I’m OK.

I don’t answer truthfully. I’m too ashamed.

Today, I did a big thing badly. As always, I made a beautiful thing. As always, I was proud of it. And as always, I didn’t think before I showed how proud I was. My lack of foresight put my client in an awkward position and he is understandably disappointed. The fragile trust I had worked so hard to build is in jeopardy and I feel like the proverbial bull in the china shop.

But I believe that strong emotions have things to teach us if we’re listening. So let’s look at the connection between creative enterprise and shame.

A Short History of Shame

There is evidence that blushing is an evolutionary adaptation that helps people trust you. A trio of Dutch researchers found that publicly conveying embarrassment or shame may signify that someone recognizes they have made a social or moral infraction and that they regret it. Others then feel more inclined to trust the person because their blush signaled their willingness to learn from their mistakes.

Where internal shame has not been enough, communities throughout history have found ways to externalize the shame: For example, tar and feathers in feudal Europe and rotten vegetable-throwing soon thereafter. In Aboriginal Australia, serious crimes were punished by spearing the thigh or leg. Yikes.

In epidemiology, especially for STIs, shame is a killer. The shame, or stigma, of infections such as HIV often discourages community members from seeking testing and treatment, allowing the infection to spread. In LGBT health, we know that to combat HIV, we first need to combat stigma.

What’s In a Name?

The word shame is thought to have come to English via the Dutch word skem, or pie, in turn from kem, meaning to cover, as a reflection of our shame-filled impulse to hide ourselves. In Greek, shame straddles two words: aiskhyne, meaning shame from dishonor, and aidos, which is closer to bashfulness. To put someone to shame has been with us as an expression since the 13th century.

There are lots of useful words around shame in Aboriginal cultures: A shame job means an embarrassing situation that is usually fairly minor, like wearing odd socks to school. However, sorry business is usually much more serious and usually refers to practices and protocols around mourning a community member’s death. Sorry business is private business.

How Shame Works

Psychologists categorize several different shame states by their impact on us. They are:

  • Genuine shame: Truly felt dishonor or disgrace.
  • False shame: An internalized form of self-shame, usually based on the failure to reach impossible or unrealistic standards.
  • Toxic shame: A false, pathological shame, as in childhood trauma.
  • Vicarious shame: Feeling shame on behalf of another person.

Generally, we feel genuine shame: We know we did something wrong and we feel bad about it. But that doesn’t explain why, after the first blush, we continue to feel shame even after we have decided it would be better for us just to let it go. Why does it stick to us? Psychologist Margaret Paul says it’s because we find shame useful – for making sense of rejection and for protecting ourselves against feelings you are more afraid of.

“As long as we believe that we are the cause of others rejecting behavior, then we can believe that there is something we can do about it. … We don’t want to accept our helplessness over others’ feelings and behavior.”

That’s one hell of a shame job there, Dr Paul. Point noted – no wallowing allowed. But I like to think the stickiness of shame is useful, too. It humbles you and makes you slow down, take a beat, and reexamine the decisions that led you to the shameful act. The fact that I can’t just shrug it off means I am more likely to learn my lesson.

The Shame and Terror Cycle of Life as a Creative

If shame is the deadweight keeping you anchored, terror is the sputtering two-stroke engine that hurls you ever forward into the abyss. Either you don’t have enough work and you feel terror and shame about your ability to pay rent – or you have too much and you feel terror and shame about your ability to do it all well. If you’re like me, the conflict between these two states gives you the energy you need to survive as a creative while also continually threatening to tear your boat in two.

So how do you balance these two states? I don’t know. If I knew that, I might not have spun myself up into a terror cycle and made the poor decision in the first place. What I do know is that like it or not, I need to sit with my shame awhile to identify what led me here. Only then can I start to let it go.