How to stop shame, embarrassment and guilt

Follow this plan to tear down walls and build bridges

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Wall, you’re fired! Get me to that bridge!

When I was a teenager, we lived in a gated community. You had to drive through a gate with a security guard to get into the neighborhood. The “bad guys” in cars couldn’t get in, so we were “safe.” Of course, my friends from outside the neighborhood walked in. One time a classmate walked in and stole a car. Many times kids walked in to go to parties.

Wall, you’re not doing your job.


In our everyday lives, the “bad guys” are shame, embarrassment and guilt.

The wall we put up to keep them out is defensiveness.

The way to walk in? Build a bridge by getting curious.


CASE #1: When someone disagrees with you, you feel as if you have to protect yourself.

This is a “trigger”, an event that causes an emotional reaction. When you get triggered, you respond in one of three ways: you go into fight, flight or freeze mode.

To read more about emotional triggers, download my free guide “Three Steps to Get a Grip Before You Say Something You Regret” at

The defensive response (fight): You talk louder or repeat yourself.

The opposite (flight): You feel shamed or embarrassed into silence.

TRY THIS: It’s not about you. It’s about your idea. Say, “Tell me more about that…what do you think is the biggest problem with this idea?” Now listen.

I see this all the time when working with creative people who come up with interesting (and sometimes completely wacko) ideas. In fact, it’s often the wackiest ideas that start a conversation that connects to brilliance. When you shut it down, you miss out on that potential brilliance. So let’s say you share an idea that gets shot down in a meeting with, “That would never work.”


1) Be aware. Feel your wall of defensiveness rising. You want to protect your idea! But you will instead:

2) Take a deep breath to calm your nervous system.

3) Then you get curious and ask a question like, “Why do you think this won’t work?” But here’s where you can be really brilliant, by then asking, “What parts of it might work?” or, “If X wasn’t an obstacle, would there be other ways to think about this?” And so on.

CASE #2: When someone brings up a related topic, you feel you should know about.

The defensive response (fight): You may explain why that idea isn’t relevant or important.

The opposite (flight): You feel shamed or embarrassed that you should already know about that. You should have read that book, if you were really prepared.

TRY THIS: It’s not about you, that you should magically know everything on the planet all the time.

Say, “That sounds interesting, what did you like about it?”

Man, oh man, this is my Achilles heel! I’m writing about defensiveness and I’ve read a bunch of books about it. Let’s say that I bring it up to a colleague, and she says, “Oh, have you read fill in the blank? It’s a great article about defensiveness.” I have not read that article, so shame and embarrassment flood through me. It’s so ridiculous, there’s no way I could have read everything in the world about this topic, nor does my colleague expect this. In fact, she’s trying to connect with me by sharing something helpful that she can relate to my topic.

This is a gift, not an attack!


1) Be aware. I follow my own advice, feel the knot in my stomach and:

2) Take a deep breath to calm my nervous system.

3) Then I ask a question, “What did you like about that article/book?”

I can see through the wall of defensiveness!

CASE #3: When someone points out your mistake.

The defensive response (fight): You feel as if you have to explain it away with all the reasons why it’s not really a mistake or why it’s someone else’s fault. “I couldn’t finish that on time because Brad was so late with the data I needed. And Julie was two days past her deadline for the graphic design. And Steve never did edit it, I finally had to finish it because he took too long…”

The opposite (flight): You apologize (often over and over again for years, every time you see the person).

TRY THIS: It’s not about you; it’s about something that went wrong or something that you did incorrectly. Own it, yes, but don’t over apologize. Apologize ONCE.

Then say, “How can we avoid this in the future? Any ideas?”


1) Be aware. Feel your wall of defensiveness rising. You want to protect your reputation! But you will instead:

2) Take a deep breath to calm your nervous system.

3) Then you get curious and ask a question like, “What do you do when this happens?”


In our defense (ha ha), we are hardwired to protect ourselves.

To find connection, even when you want to defend yourself, try listening instead. Ask a question.

Curiosity brings us closer together, while defensiveness drives us apart.

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