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It Wasn’t My Fault

Many small business owners are feeling the walls closing in around them due to the Covid-19 pandemic and are dealing with issues that are out of their immediate control. Among those needs are wondering how to sustain a business when customers are unable to buy, feeling obligated or committed to seeing to the needs of their employees, making decisions around whether to re-open their businesses at all, etc. However; while good business practice is to have back-up or emergency plans, that usually includes proper insurances to recover quickly from fire, flood, vandals, etc. Or, it means backing up mission critical data in the cloud. Few small business owners think in terms of the world economy being devastated all at once. When an event this unanticipated occurs, it is only natural to feel it isn’t my fault that my business is failing and to want to mask or hide how deeply this has impacted the individual and his/her family.  For many entrepreneurs, they are now experiencing an emotion that can be especially difficult for them to navigate – shame.

An Expert’s Opinion

Professor Brene Brown, at the University of Houston, has made a career out of addressing the deleterious effect shame has on us and the impact it has on our behavior. Dr. Brown’s definition of shame is, “I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Of course, that feeling manifests itself in negative behaviors to protect one’s psyche. Refusing to see the truth as it is, preferring to hold onto a previous perception of reality being one negative behavior that can lead to a spiral downward. Anger is another (often turned inward). And depression is often rooted in shame. Left unchecked, someone experiencing shame can create any number of barriers to protect the feeling of helplessness or of being a victim of circumstance.  When our self-image is based on our jobs or careers and it is either taken away from us, or severely limited, we have very hard decisions we need to make about how to find a way forward.  We can blame, we can rail at how the world or others have conspired against us, we can protect our psyches by reminding ourselves of all of the “if onlys” in our lives that could have had different outcomes, etc.

From Someone Who Lived It

While Dr. Brown shares many personal stories of her own shame and the impact it has on her professional and personal live, and she stresses the importance of being vulnerable enough to share one’s fears, mistakes, misjudgments, etc. with others and with oneself, many of us can learn from those who not only study this as an academic subject, but have learned how to cover up the truth while having their foundation and core being rot away from the inside.  Joshua Stephens is one such person who sheds insight on his own journey.  Mr. Stephens is upfront about his own journey through abuse, addictions, and feeling as if he had to mask the pain he felt through decisions that only confounded the emptiness he was feeling.  He has graciously allowed me to share his answers to questions I posed to him.

  1. Given the Coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having on small business owners who may be experiencing hitting rock-bottom, how important is asking for help or relying on others to rebound and recover?

          Paramount. In times of hardship, isolating ourselves emotionally, mentally, and/or physically, robs us of our ability to be known – something us business owners thrive on! By letting others know what we are feeling and thinking, we invite their presence into our lives. Though our businesses may not survive, being in community with              others can produce a deeper level of camaraderie. As I’ve heard it said, “A friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity.” Even if we lose all of our possessions, we still have each other – we can always rebuild!

2. It is natural to look around yourself and see that you are the victim of circumstances that are NOT of your own making – how do you recommend people remain resilient?

I think we must first acknowledge our circumstances and to varying degrees, make peace with it. Despite our best efforts, we cannot change the past. The next step takes a lot of intention; in order to thrive, we have to transition from a “victim” to a “survivor” mentality. If “victim” becomes our identity, then we have given other people             the power to define us and they have won. If “survivor” becomes our identity, then resilience has paved the way to our success. Most survivors I know are victims, but they do not allow themselves to be defined by their victimization. They acknowledge the circumstances that forced them to survive and move on.  If we allow the actions             of  others to lead us into bitterness, whether through financial fallout, broken interpersonal relationships, politics, religion –  or any other scenario, we allow ourselves to become victims of circumstance. Being a survivor requires you to push through no matter what obstacle you’re facing. We cannot live in the present if we are holding            on to the past – we must keep moving forward!

3. How do you recommend someone get past the shame of admitting they are not what they appear to be others?

        In my experience, the only way out of shame is through confession. However, for those of us who walk in shame everyday, the thought of exposing that which causes us shame is terrifying. In fear, we hide. From birth to the grave, we tell ourselves we’ll tell no one. OR, in glimmers of hope we make promises with ourselves to tell our            loved ones “tomorrow,” but then “tomorrow” never comes. Again, complacency is a killer.  Because experts estimate the mind thinks somewhere between 60,000 – 80,000 thoughts a day, I encourage those I council to write out their thoughts. Sometimes having a general outline of what, why, and how is the first step to connecting the             dots of your thought life. Once you have a clearer picture of that which ails you, then I recommended confiding in a trust worthy person; a close friend, spouse, teacher, counselor, pastor, etc. It takes a lot of bravery to do so!  A consistent story I hear that runs through those who have conquered shame, is that they didn’t do it alone.

4. How necessary is it to grieve for what was lost or never had; to recognize a dream may not come true, etc. before being able to move past it to success?

       Without fully embracing the grief cycle, I don’t think we can fully experience the final stage of acceptance and hope. So many of us get stuck along the way in denial, guilt, bargaining, depression, and in doing so, miss the opportunity to experience healing. To quote Tony Robbins, “Change happens when the pain of staying the same is               greater than the pain of change.” My idea of what success looks like has changed over the years. If you would have asked me ten years ago, I would have told you it looked like being applauded by my peers with a six-figure salary, living in a nice house, married to a hot wife, and driving a fast car. However these days, success looks like          spending quality time with my family and being fully content with who I am. Not that I don’t desire to continue growing, but I don’t allow the an aspired to future  version of myself to make the current version feel inadequate. I try and play the hand I’ve been dealt to my best effort. (Mr. Stephens then added that he is in fact married to a        hot wife!).

There is little doubt that we are living through a time in our lives that few of us were prepared for, and the strain it is placing on us is real.  Many businesses will be forced to close their doors and entrepreneurs will have to re-create themselves.  At the bare minimum, the initial step to recovering is to recognize whether we are helping or hindering our efforts through our own thinking, decision-making and behaviors.


David Zahn