Shame is based on fear and leads to distrust

Shame is based on fear and leads to distrust

Distrust tells more about you than about its subject. Do you have low self-confidence? Are you afraid of shame?

I stand unashamedly behind my capabilities, actions and values. I know many consider it – well, shameless – but only recently have I understood why some get irritated by it. It can be hard to give control for someone unashamed.

Even though I’m not afraid of shame, I still must understand it. Things get difficult when people have the fear of shame at the back of their minds. Unawares this fear turns into formless, destructive and harmful lack of trust. Many good things are left undone because of the humane fear of shame.

It is generally accepted that trust is largely automatic. It is built on four pillars:

  1. Benevolence: are you a kind person?
  2. Integrity: are you an ethical person?
  3. Competence: can you deliver what you promise?
  4. Predictability: is your behaviour consistent?


It is impossible to give absolute definitions to these terms, because individuals are subjective. How to define whether your actions are ethical or not? If your task is to sack 10 people in order for the remaining 90 to keep their jobs, your integrity is strongly dependent on the point of view.

The same way your intentions are questioned every time you aim to make a change in know-how or ways of doing. Those suffering from imposter syndrome – which are surprisingly many – are afraid to be revealed as incompetent, leading to shame. The other extreme, those with high self-esteem, tend to become troublesome when they feel that their competence is questioned.

These three examples were easy: they can all be explained in one sentence. But building trust and the fears resisting it are much more complicated.

There are two fundamental factors in modern specialist work that cause distrust.

Nowaday a typical high value project is done in a team where at least some people don’t know each other from before the project. In addition to this the work is done in various locations and online. Research shows that this kind of virtual work encourages distrust among us.

On the other hand, research on swift trust shows that trust can be built quickly when forming temporary project teams. In these cases the trust is based on stereotypes: Richard is a visionary, Ginni has the practical know-how and Gary is good at putting things together.

This becomes a problem when the team members need to adapt and change roles. This negates the stereotypes. Also, when the responsibilities and tasks change unexpectedly, the abovementioned fourth pillar, predictability, is negated as well. This leads to lack of trust.

Without trust there is no progression.

This year I’ve made an exception by invoicing a customer for a work of which result I was not satisfied with. The top management wanted me to run a project, but the middle management wasn’t too keen on the objective that my work would support. The outcome was merely ok, mostly all-the-same, but not good enough in my view.

The project fell through for two reasons. First of all, the background study (if done right) would have questioned the established way the decision making was arranged. This made the interests of the organization and the individual go against each other. Secondly, the background study (if done right) would have surveyed the know-how of individuals within the organization, which understandably was a touchy topic. Both of these factors caused uncertainty and distrust. The work was complicated by two human emotions.

Good things were left undone because shame and fear slowed us down.

Things could have gone differently. I wish more people would have read about self-compassion. It can be defined as being open to your faults and mistakes and embracing the way you are instead of criticizing yourself.

Those who are compassionate to themselves are less likely to stress in comparison situations. They understand that incompetence is not a word of abuse.

Self-compassion also means being honest to your weaknesses. It is possible to develop your character only when you don’t deny your faults. On the contrary, trust can’t be built among people who are constantly afraid of shame. This fear only leads to a circle of pretension and prevents learning.

Shame and the fear of it will vanish only after you dare to expose yourself to open evaluation.

If we had the will to stop caressing our excellence or incompleteness, we could focus on the essential. Too many of us enjoy indulging in their self-importance or self-pity. This leads to the rest of us being careful of poking that jerry-built self image, and prevents us all from building mutual trust.

Unnecessary lack of trust is caused by humane fear of shame. If we were more graceful to ourselves, we would all have healthier human relations. When you don’t have to be afraid of your weaknesses, you feel better about yourself. And only those feeling good can join hands and create something bigger than themselves.

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