January 29, 2024

Navigating shame to create connection and inclusion

By Bryon Lambert

When I facilitate workshops, I long to connect with participants. It’s a common desire that you might have at work, at school, or as you move through the community. One feeling that can get in the way of connection is shame. It can hinder our ability to create inclusion and find the connection we want.

My struggle with shame is deeply rooted in my childhood, where I often found myself in trouble for my behavior, leading to frequent discipline. As a sensitive child, I internalized this negative attention, and the shadow of shame has lingered throughout my life, subtly influencing my communication.

For instance, I often share that I’m a preacher’s kid as a way to connect with others. However, in certain circles, such as predominantly black audiences, I become more self-conscious about talking about this part of my identity. In the black church, being a preacher’s kid is a born-into-life experience. My father went into the ministry when I was in my teens, so I’m careful not to misrepresent myself in my community. This type of communication course correction is a consequence of shame, creating distance instead of the connection I want.

How does this relate to inclusion?

The definition of inclusion is the act of creating environments in which any individual or group can feel welcome, respected, and valued. In my workshops, my goal is to encourage participants to think about positive connections. I’m aware, though, that these recollections can also unearth moments of disconnection, triggering feelings of shame. As a facilitator, I’m tuned in to this crucial moment where individuals can either appreciate the relationship between behavior and impact or resent reminders of past failures.

Rather than letting shame lead to unpleasantness, I propose viewing it as a sign of an imbalance. For example, I experienced shame when I misgendered someone during a workshop. Shame came up quickly, and then I slowed down and acknowledged the imbalance between my intent of inclusion and the impact of my mistake. Apologizing and correcting myself were vital steps towards balancing the situation.

Whether it’s a reminder of being on the wrong side of a justice issue or seeing the reaction of a colleague after using an outdated phrase, see that feeling of shame as an opportunity to get back in balance. Find a learning environment where you can practice. When I’m struggling to understand a new concept or correct a behavior, I remember the times I was sitting with a group of new musicians buzzing and hacking our way through songs. We used our missteps as fuel for improvement instead of giving in to shame. Some of us even evolved into a passible band. With this analogy in mind, substitute my guitar with your words. Slow down. Fret each note carefully. Notice the mistakes and accompanying feelings, but don’t dwell there. You’ve got music to make.

Leave a Reply