Shame, Humility, and Confidence

Unlike most students these days, I only applied to one college. I had known I wanted to attend the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill from early adolescence, and I’m thankful I was academically qualified and I was accepted.

When I arrived, I noticed a great uneasiness in me concerning my place on campus. I felt unsophisticated and unpolished. I don’t think these feelings were particularly misplaced — I was unsophisticated and unpolished. I genuinely felt a gnawing most of the time which said to me, “At some point, they will realize you don’t belong here.” I have no doubt that this feeling, however irrational, had more to do with old feelings than with any particular intellectual, emotional, or character deficits. There were some superstar students, sure, but there were also other North Carolinians with much the same public education as me.

If I were to place a word on this feeling, it would have to be shame. I have since learned a bit about the origin of this emotion, and gained some perspective on it. In fact, a TED talk by Brene Brown on this topic has gone viral and been viewed almost four million times, quite a number for a talk which has a transcript 34 pages long! Brown has also written a bestselling book on the topic.

In my case at UNC, I think this reached a summit for me one day when I walked into a men’s clothing store on Franklin Street. (There weren’t as many options back then for students without cars.) I said to the salesman, “I need a new pair of shoes.” He looked down and said, “You sure do.” For whatever reason, I felt this as great disapproval and judgement. It was all I could do to maintain some composure. I looked at the prices, mumbled something, and left with my figurative tail between my legs. This moment, about 36 years ago, obviously left a mark.

I think my sense of shame, both in this clothing store and in general, was not uncommon for someone with my upbringing. I’ll save a discussion of that for another time. And the good news is that I got over it in a big way. I can only claim one event I would describe as supernatural in my life. It happened, still on campus, when I was about 20. I was walking in an area, ironically called The Pit, when from out of nowhere, I felt a flush run through me in my mind, body, and soul. I knew at the minute it wasn’t a normal occurrence, and I also knew at the time I would never feel irrational shame again (and I never have). I suppose if one is only going to have one supernatural experience in life, that wasn’t a bad time or purpose.

Since that time, I must say I have never felt intimidated by or “less than” another individual. Even those who I most respect or admire, I just see as another human being with remarkable qualities.

This is not to say I am not humbled by others. I’m humbled by the unselfishness of my 97-year-old adopted mother. I’m humbled by the willingness to face danger shown by so many first-responders and soldiers. I’m humbled by the willingness I see in some parents to put their children’s needs ahead of their own. I’m humbled by teachers (especially special education teachers), those who overcome disabilities, and caregivers. I could go on.

What does this have to do with your life? Your professional or business life? I want to encourage you in two ways: 1) If you have elevated a friend or someone in your office or even the president of your company above you, raise yourself to that same level; 2) If you think you occupy some place on the ladder of success above others, then lay the ladder on its side and take a horizontal view of the world. Don’t worry: You can still maintain respect for someone without feeling like less of a person. Humans have a remarkable ability to hold more than one thought in mind at the same time.

Consider your relationship to shame, confidence, and humility. Watch the talk mentioned above. You certainly don’t need a supernatural experience to realize you are made of the same stuff as anyone else and need not doubt it. The person who owns your company and the person who checks you out at the grocery store both deserve your respect, because your attitude toward them is more about you than about them.

There are a lot of ways to increase your self-confidence if needed, but don’t be afraid to ask a trusted friend to help you gain perspective.

In a future post, I will address some of the ways I have learned to keep a strong self-image in the face of challenges. Know that everyone has doubts, and doubts do not equate to reality. I am betting that you have a track record which will give you hard evidence of your abilities. Embrace that track record. As Brene Brown says, “You either walk inside your story and own it or you stand outside your story and hustle for your worthiness.”

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