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Shame On Me

How Shame Almost Destroyed My Business

This past week I’ve been living in an alternate universe.


One where I don’t feel the need to hide who I am. Where my sexuality doesn’t define me or give me cause to feel unsafe or uncomfortable.


That alternate universe is Palm Springs in the Californian desert, where I’ve been exploring Modernism Week in preparation for our TDC trip in 2025. With a resident population identifying as 40-50% gay/LGBTI* (which grows significantly during holiday season), it’s more “the norm” to be gay in this fabulous, diverse city that’s home to some of the most significant architecture and design in the world.


Several times during the week, I’ve caught myself covering up the fact that I’m gay: hiding the iPhone screensaver pic of me with my handsome partner Brendan when I’m showing a new acquaintance on a tour bus something on my phone, or talking about “my partner” without mentioning his name or sex, and nodding politely when someone asks about my “wife” and just replying “Oh, I’m not married.”


These things don’t sound like much, but they’re indicative of a deeper sub-conscious belief that I need to hide a part of me for fear that it won’t be accepted, might cause discomfort to others or, at worst, might put me in a position of danger (though this is far less likely in 2024).


This experience really reminded me of how these deep-seated beliefs that still influence my behaviour today. The need to hide my sexuality is deeply rooted in feelings of shame.


Growing up in the Australian country town of Ballarat in the 1970’s – 80’s, being gay wasn’t a good thing. In fact, at high school, boys (who weren’t even gay) would be bashed and called a “poofter” for no apparent reason. I remember consciously deciding that being gay was wrong, that I was broken and, most importantly, I needed to do everything to make myself small, not stand out and do my best to fit in. The good and bad thing is that I was expert at disappearing. I flew under the radar for my whole school life, only choosing to come out in my 20’s.


Unfortunately, making myself “disappear” like this only fuelled the shame. Every time I lied or covered up who I really was, it compounded the feelings that the alternative was wrong and dangerous. As the world’s most renowned authority on shame, Brene Brown notes: “Shame loves secrecy. The most dangerous thing to do after a shaming experience is hide or bury our story. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes.” As a teenager, my shame about being gay was fully metastasized.


You’re probably wondering what my experiences of shame have to do with you and your business.


Shame is an insidious force that can affect even the most outwardly successful business owners. Shame is often driven by feelings of inadequacy, from a sense of not fitting in, or not being “normal”. It can manifest in different parts of our work life, masquerading as all manner of behaviours that are designed to avoid, cover up or compensate for deep feelings of shame. Behaviours like perfectionism that cover up a fear of not being good enough.


Going back to the start of the 2000’s, in the early days of my design business, I was certainly winging it. I hadn’t studied interior design, nor did I have any previous experience running a business. For many years I was swimming in an ocean of not knowing what to do, mainly due to a lack of any sort of processes. Even though I was experiencing outward success (getting published, successful project outcomes and happy clients) I knew was failing at business, because there was no money in the bank. I knew I was making mistakes, but I didn’t know what the better options were, nor did I have anyone I felt I could to talk to.


Then came the shame spiral.


Things went from bad to worse with the finances, so I felt shame, so I stayed quiet. I didn’t know where to get help and because I was so ashamed of my failings, I felt I couldn’t tell my friends and family, so I didn’t have emotional support. Shame manifested as crippling self-judgement, making it painful to even think about the future. The business suffered more, so I felt more shame, so I stayed even more quiet so the business suffered even more, and so on.


Eventually (around 2003) everything caught up with me and I hit rock bottom, personally and professionally. I was in the deepest of deep shame holes. I was forced to admit my situation to people close to me, and share my despair.


A funny thing happened. No-one judged me, and so many people (friends, family and even industry colleagues) rallied around and helped me get through the worst of it. The shame lifted almost immediately.


I called upon friends to teach me how to understand finances, I upskilled my business skills and I created new systems and processes that formed the foundation of what I now teach at The Design Coach.


Ultimately, this was a turning point for me, fighting my way back to what would become considerable success.


Unfortunately, my experience is all too common in the world of small business. I work with many designers and architects who struggle to understand the business of design, working themselves into the ground to keep their passion afloat, feeling a deep sense of shame about their perceived inadequacies.


If you're reading this, and relating to some of my experiences, there's a good chance you've been dealing with shame. These are some of the ways I’ve experience shame manifesting in my life that you might relate to:


  • Making myself small. Not feeling “enough” or not feeling “normal” created shame and drove a need to fit in, be more like everyone else, and not be my true authentic self.

  • Isolating myself. When I was feeling shame, the last thing I wanted to do was share it with anyone, even though this is indeed ended up being the best way to manage it.

  • Perfectionism and overachievement. To cover up my self-perceived inadequacies, I went into performance overdrive. Every year at high school I was awarded the “Industry Award” for highest effort and achievement in my year level.  

  • Staying "busy". By staying busy, I wasn’t allowing myself to pause to reflect on whether the “busyness” was actually moving me towards my goals, or just creating a distraction.

  • Defensiveness. Whilst in the depths of shame, my defences were heightened to protect myself from perceived judgement. This just alienated me even more.


The great news is that shame can be managed. The first step to overcoming shame is to identify it. As previously mentioned, shame is insidious and will hide itself under a raft of other emotions.


TDC Developmental Coach Louise Walker works with our members to identify how shame can affect their approach to business:


"Shame is a form of self-judgement. Identifying that you're running a story of shame is a powerful first step. This allows you to then become objective to the experience. 


Understanding your reference point and meaning-making around shame is key and involves unravelling where, when, and how you learnt to judge yourself (or something) as shameful, and for what purpose".


All of us experience shame at some point in our careers, and when we keep it quiet, it can grow into something quite overwhelming.


These are some of the things I’ve done (and continue to do) to overcome shame that might help you:


  1. Naming it. Naming shame as a feeling, as I’m feeling it, diminishes its power over me.

  2. Getting inquisitive. Curiosity is the enemy of judgement. Whenever I’m feeling judgement (of myself or others), or feeling defensive, I ask “What’s happening to make me feel this way?”

  3. Being empathetic. Being kind to myself and others reduces judgement and helps me open up to learning more about the genesis of these feelings.

  4. Talk about it. Talking about my shame to people I love helps me to understand my emotions better and really diminishes the shame. I’ve also found that leaning this level of vulnerability has connected me to people on a deeper level.

  5. Asking for help. Over the years I’ve sought various forms of help, from personal therapy to address the discrimination I faced as a child and teenager, to business coaching that helps me to upskill in areas I need to improve. Most recently I’ve been working with a developmental coach to create healthier behaviours and belief systems.

  6. Setting big goals. Allowing myself to dream big dreams, and believing in myself has helped me to move past the old stories of "not enough" and step into a new confidence.


We'd love to hear your own stories; either any "aha!" moments you've experienced reading this, or how you've managed to overcome those feelings.


In April we launch our Premium Group Coaching Program which provides a powerful and supportive platform for designers and architects to share their stories and connect with other likeminded business owners. We intentionally keep the group small, so if you're interested, join the waitlist today.


Until next week, stay well and always be kind!



Andrew and the TDC Team


(* Source = Forbes USA 2022)

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