What Will They Think?
How to Shut off the Shame Spiral and Let Yourself Be Good Enough
I am no longer happy for friends when they achieve big, substantial success. I mean, I am. I’m happy you got the thing you wanted and the big pay check and the fancy Hollywood Reporter press. Right? But, also, I’m not happy because I wonder if deep down this is what you truly wanted or if you’re just chasing the next thing to show those people that you made it. You know what I mean? I want you to make you happy. I want you to know it may not look like letting a massive corporation determine your worth with a six or seven-figure deal. I want you to know it’s OK if you decide to leave it all and become a professor or go back to school or be a mom full time or leave sales or open a coffee shop. I want you to determine your own success.
I know a ton of very successful people in big tech and / or corporate America. At times, I have been one of them having worked for some of the biggest brands in the world. (I view success as variable, I suppose.) I wish I could say that the venn diagram of successful people I know overlaps as a neat circle with those who are happy… but in my experience, it doesn’t. In fact, I often see those two circles as ships passing in the night.
Too often, I see colleagues blindly chasing power, money and fame when what they actually want is more self esteem and autonomy. “But what will they think?” they wonder aloud. This invisible they underscores all of their actions. They is the abusive parent who never gave them attention and so seeking external validation through their career is their antidote. They is the friend whose career has skyrocketed over theirs and causes them to smile through clenched teeth. They are the ex who married the person after you and you’re going to show them. As a child of immigrants, they could be showing los gringos how you’re just as good as they are.
It’s as if we’re hamsters purposely seeking a wheel when we are in an open field and could be choosing to play.
Here’s a secret — they will never make you happy and nothing you achieve will ever make them care. You have to find what makes YOU happy— even if it doesn’t look like everyone else’s. The reality of life is that nobody thinks of you as much as you do… and yet, your internal they drives your “shoulds” and your shame spiral.
So, what is the shame spiral? The shame spiral is the ol’ existential conundrum that if we achieve x, y or z then we will be happy but it’s an infinity loop and we are never happy. “Once I break 100k a year then…” Well, now you have to get to 250… then 500, then 7 figures… then. “Once I get the VP title…” Well, now you have to chase the EVP title… the C-suite. “Once we get the record deal…” Well, now you need to sell those records, recoup that advance, book the TV appearances… nab the shiny awards… and then do it all over again to prove you’re relevant.
The shame spiral assumes success is linear — it isn’t. It makes you feel horrible when you encounter a setback or change directions (which is actually called growth). It insures you never feel like enough, which is easy for you to believe because it’s your operating mode.
The underscoring narrative here is always — if I achieve this, then I will be — because… I am not good enough as I am. Right?
I was speaking to someone recently about the irony that when we beat ourselves up it does not result in more motivation. Yet, we don’t see it. Instead, we move our goal post to insure we feel like a failure yet again.
Example? I was coaching a gal who was in a toxic work environment. Every day she steamrolled through a list of herculean tasks. Too many tasks for one person. It was so clear that she should leave this job and was being utilized poorly. Yet, when confronted with this idea she would say,
“But what if they think I can’t hack it?”
She was willfully choosing to stay miserable because she was worried about what they would think.
It sounds crazy, but I bet there are parts of your life where you do this too.
They could be your parents, it could be some of your “friends,” it could be an invisible mob on social media, the church you grew up with… you know who your they is.
Friend, I want to give you the license to evict that they. They have overstayed their welcome and you don’t need a shame roommate anymore. You deserve happiness and you are good enough. Also, you can make this change today and feel infinitely lighter if you so choose.
I think of this exercise as a writing prompt. I love to do exercises like this with my coaching clients. High achievers always love homework. I recommend folks try this by putting pen to paper because I believe in the power of the written word. If that’s not your bag, try typing your answers on the Notes app of your phone or maybe sit quietly and meditate or you can think of these questions while you take a nature walk.
- Where in your life are you letting a they decide your future and your happiness instead of you?
- What is the benefit of allowing this they to determine your path?
- If you get real quiet and ask yourself, “What do I really want?” What do you hear? What is the truth you’ve been afraid to admit?
I’ll leave you with one more homework assignment — this next week, anytime your they starts to shame you, “Good job eating that pizza, looks like you blew another diet…” Fight back. “Hey brain, thanks for sharing. Pizza is just food. Food is just energy. I wanted pizza today, so I had it. I can start my day over at anytime and success is not linear. Tomorrow I’ll eat more vegetables… no big.”
Or… “Your boss didn’t like your presentation. They all think you’re a failure. You will never get that promotion. Mike is going to steal it from you.” Fight back again. “Hi brain, thanks for that input. The good news is my boss doesn’t determine my self esteem. My presentation was OK, not my best work, but we’re all under a lot of pressure. You know, the more I get quiet and think about it… I don’t even know if I really want that promotion to be honest! It seems like a nightmare and I’ve actually been thinking of leaving this company anyhow, so everything worked out for the best and I’m proud of myself.”
Your shame spiral and they brigade hasn’t motivated you or supported your growth, so they some contrary action this week and see how you feel.
If you want to learn more about me or my work as an executive coach, go to: tatianasimonian.com