The biblical story of the prodigal son begins with the youngest of two brothers asking his father for his inheritance in advance. The father consents, and the son leaves home to travel abroad, squandering his small fortune on revelry and “wild living.” A famine strikes, and the son finds himself destitute. He finds work as a swineherd, and ultimately realizes his mistakes. The son returns home, to be welcomed by his father, but scorned by his older brother. In response to his oldest son, the father explains:
“But it was appropriate to celebrate and be glad, for this, your brother, was dead, and is alive again. He was lost, and is found.” Luke 15:32
The father welcomes his youngest son home, with forgiveness, compassion, and mercy.
The story has much to teach us about the human condition, particularly around shame. A Scientific American article by Annette Kammerer explains shame:
“We feel shame when we violate the social norms we believe in. At such moments we feel humiliated, exposed and small and are unable to look another person straight in the eye. We want to sink into the ground and disappear. Shame makes us direct our focus inward and view our entire self in a negative light. (emphasis mine).”
For leaders, shame shows up as a constant, sometimes subconscious story. Like the prodigal son, we feel grossly inadequate, deeply flawed, or humiliated. Chronic shame can keep us from speaking our minds, contributing to our team, or making important decisions.
In a deep way that may not be readily apparent, we seek forgiveness. As the son confessed to his father, our first step in navigating shame is to recognize and name it. Gently, and with a great deal of self-compassion, we can acknowledge its presence.
From there, we can study it. What are the stories we tell ourselves? What words do we use? Journaling can be a very useful practice here. Some key words to look for are “never” and “always, “ as in:
“I’ll never get my business off the ground.”
“I’m always screwing something up.”
These beliefs can be sneaky. The words may be implied, as in:
“I (always) let my team down.”
“My boss (always) thinks I don’t do a good job.”
In any case, once you identify the belief and the words, write them down. Now, for each belief ask yourself:
What do I know about this belief to be true?
What do I know about this belief to be false?
What is another way of looking at this belief?
Chances are, you’ll feel a loosening as you start to shine a light on the belief. Can you rewrite those beliefs so they are helpful in any way? Perhaps “I’ll never get my business off the ground” becomes “I need to learn more about marketing in order to get my business off the ground.”
Other stories may come with a bodily sensation and no apparent words. Perhaps you get a sinking feeling in your stomach when you need to give a presentation, or you feel a tightness in your throat when someone asks for your opinion. Again, gently investigate the feeling. Where is it? Is it a tightness, or maybe a shaking feeling? Does it come and go? Finally, can you simply let it be and acknowledge its presence?
Now, investigate a little further. How does this show up in your posture? Do you hunch over a bit, protecting yourself? Do you gaze at the floor, hoping no one will call on you? Where do you sit when you walk into a meeting room?
Finally, begin to investigate how you might change your posture and physical presence. If you felt full of confidence, how would you sit? Or would you stand? If you had something very important to say, what would eye contact look like? What chair would you choose if you were leading a bold conversation? Find some ways to begin to practice these. Start with small, safe steps. Maybe you can consciously try to keep better eye contact in conversations, or try getting to a meeting early to get a good seat up front.
Finally, watch how your feelings change as you begin to unravel how you carry shame through language and your body. In many cases, shame causes withdrawal. We seek safety, to go unnoticed, to not draw attention to ourselves to prevent anyone from seeing our flawed self. As the son returns to the father, we seek forgiveness.
Releasing shame can take time, patience, self-compassion, and external support. To get started, you can experiment with the following questions in your journal or meditation practice, remembering to be gentle with yourself.
Who do you need to seek forgiveness from?
What specific action do you need forgiveness for?
What steps can you take to forgive yourself?
What do you need to let go of?
How can the father in you forgive the prodigal son in you? What do you need to be not lost, but found again?
ICF-Certified Conscious Leadership Coach
I enable leaders to increase their impact by exploring their beliefs, behaviors, and language. By shining a light on unconscious patterns, I help them establish a new way of being that brings self-awareness, emotional intelligence, confidence, and better relationships. These skills enable leaders to:
- Embrace vulnerability
- Build trust and psychological safety with their teams
- Clearly communicate individual and team goals, and hold accountability
- Communicate with intention, authenticity, and compassion
- Give and receive feedback that enables learning, development, and deeper relationships
- Solve difficult decisions
- Face the future with optimism, enthusiasm, and energy
- Resolve past difficulties and hurt
I have over 25 years of corporate experience, with expertise in coaching and organizational development. I have coached leaders at Roche Pharmaceuticals, the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Danone, LinkedIn, and many natural products companies.
I am a graduate of Newfield Network’s Coaching for Personal and Professional Mastery program and am certified through the International Coach Federation. A longtime meditation practitioner, I emphasize conscious, mindful leadership, and business practices that benefit all.