One of my favorite coaches, authors, and all around humans, Jason Goldberg, says this about Professional Coaches, “We are in the PR business - permission and reminders!” Boy, is that true, and one reason I know I will have a Coach by my side for as long as the universe allows me!
Kids generally don’t feel the need to ask for permission until adults teach them the concept, and most make it a life requirement. We often take this belief that we need permission from “adults” in our own lives, and feel a measure of shame about it. We feel ashamed because our conscious mind says, “Come on, grow a pair, you’re a big girl now, you don’t need anyone’s permission.” But our subconscious mind, which data shows is the actual driver of our actions, says, “I don’t know if I’m allowed. What if I fail and I’m blamed, humiliated, shamed, etc.?”
And we are not wrong.
In my work, I’m often asked to help clients communicate more skillfully. Thus, some refer to me as a “Communication Coach”. But nine out of ten times, the real problem is not that my client does not know how to have the uncomfortable conversation, but rather she doesn’t want to. She is rightfully afraid of the consequences. She thinks if she speaks truthfully and on the same level, she might be fired, divorced, or suffer some other irreversible negative result. But what I know to be true is that she, you, and I, are most afraid of being micro-shamed.
Unlike micro-aggression, which is a word that has had a recent resurgence and is specific to behavior towards minorities, micro-shaming is less defined. For the purpose of this conversation, I’d like to define it as: a statement or response from a seemingly trusted source that leaves the receiver with a feeling of confusion and shame.
Let me bring it home for you with the following 3 real life examples.
My client Mark is an experienced and dedicated regional head for a well known global consulting firm. In preparation for an important presentation to the global CEO, Mark takes the step of asking for advice from a leader, Jeff, that sits between him and the CEO. The meeting is helpful and at the very end, Jeff says to Mark, “Make sure he sees why we hired you.”
Another client, Catherine, has been in a verbally and emotionally abusive marriage for years and has kept it hidden from her own mother. She needs her mother’s help and support if she is to take the difficult step of leaving her home with two small children. She finally gathers the courage to share the truth of what is taking place behind the closed doors of her house. Her mother listens and lets Catherine know that she will do everything to help her. Of course, she can count on her support, and even invited Catherine and her toddlers to live with her. But as the conversation was coming to an end, her mother half asked, half thought out loud, “I don’t understand how a daughter raised by me could tolerate this treatment?”
Now the most personal of stories is my own. I recently dipped my toe (and quickly withdrew it) in the fresh hell called, “online dating”. I met Jack, a wonderful man who I had a great deal of chemistry with. Although chemistry can be rare at any age, it can feel like a search for the Dodo, when you’re my age. Nevertheless, here it was, and of course I appreciated it. However, another gift of dating as one’s older self, is the wisdom of knowing yourself and understanding who you can grow with emotionally.
As lovely as this man was, I was very clear that we were not going to grow together emotionally and intellectually. So after 4 dates, I let him know that I did not see a future for us and was not going to continue.
He was not happy about my decision, and although at first he exercised a measure of maturity and kindness, over time his texts became more hurtful. I chose not to respond because I had nothing more to say.
It would have taken its course, egos would have calmed down, and eventually my hope was that given how terrific and talented he is, we could even be friends. But then he wrote, “.....and you call yourself a Life Coach?”
Yeah… that friendship ain’t happening.
What all these responses have in common, is they inject a microdose of doubt and shame deep into the heart and soul of the one receiving the message. This is often not done consciously or with deliberate mal intent. If we are honest, we have all engaged in the behavior at some time in our lives.
When these two clients (all names and identifying details changed) shared their story with me, I had an actual somatic reaction. First, every hair on my body stood in attention (a sign that I was experiencing some kind of threat), then the anger started welling up inside me, and lastly, and, unusually during a professional conversation, tears began to well up. After a great deal of self reflection, I believe what I experienced after the initial threat and anger settled down, was heartbreak. My heart broke just a little bit for the precious human in front of me who had experienced this hurt and shame. It also brought to life the times I have experienced it myself and perhaps inflicted it onto loved ones.
None of us take pleasure from breaking hearts, although sometimes, very rarely, it has to be done. But micro-shaming is a habit that disguises itself in so many different and seemingly harmless, even positive, disguises - like curiosity, care, helpfulness, and sarcasm to name a few - that the only defense we have against it is absolute diligence and total commitment.
Now that you understand the word, the action, and the results, ask yourself, where and if you are breaking a heart in ways so minute that it doesn’t show in the moment, but over time will create the kind of break that can’t be put back together. It’s never too late to mend and build, rather than break.
P.S. I’m committed to sharing my Life Coaching skills and tools out into the world, in the hope that it can help others. If this blog resonates with you, please consider forwarding it to anyone who may benefit from it. If this was forwarded to you, subscribe here.