Shame

I entered the front door of the hotel lobby with excitement. SCORE had played such an impactful part in my small business journey, and I was grateful for the chance to speak to the experiences in which I had taken part as a SCORE mentee.

I looked through the small crowd and spotted my host. Together, we began circling the room to meet the other attendees. After saying hello to several guests, I turned around and there he was: the state leader of the Small Business Administration (SBA).

SBA provided my previous small business loan – the financing that had allowed for the growth of our retail franchise concept. It was the loan provided to us after putting up our house as collateral. It was the loan on which we defaulted, and on which we lost our home and what seemed like our entire world. To make matters worse, this event coincided with the two-year anniversary of closing the doors of our small business.

“Of course he’s here,” I thought to myself, as the anxiety swept in. SBA is a major supporter of the SCORE program, but it just had not occurred to me when I agreed to participate. As I shook his hand, my mind raced. If I had anticipated him being there, would I have agreed to show up and tell part of my story? I would like to say I would have done it anyway, but in that moment, as shame flooded my soul, I wanted to turn around and run away. Instead, I asked him how things were going, all the while dealing with the familiar internal feelings of shame.

The meeting commenced, and I soon found myself standing in front of all the guests, no more than ten feet from him. What could I do, what could I say while standing up here with the very personification of my experience? I could ignore reality or I could do what I knew would instantly kill the shame; I could be honest. Right then and there. And so when one participant raised her hand and asked me, “What happened to the franchise?” I took a deep breathe and boldly proclaimed, “Well, I would be one of the SBA’s non-success stories. I would be part of their ‘failed’ loan statistics. And interestingly enough,” I continued, “I had always secretly vowed to never be one of those. And yet, here I am…”

In my anxiety, I expected the crowd to be stunned silent, but instead they were warm and fair, expressing what we all know to be true: in business, you take risks, and sometimes the outcome is not what we would desire, and not what we planned in that well thought out business plan.

“There are no failures,” one gentleman kindly offered. “There are only lessons learned.” Of course, I agree with that sentiment. In fact, you have all heard me preach that very lesson here on my blog. But in the moment, when faced with the cold, hard reality (this time, in the shape of an SBA officer!), shame can override common sense and leave you feeling “less than.” Instead, I told the truth, wrapped up my session – feeling nothing but relief – and took my seat.

I felt relief because I overpowered the feelings of shame, described the situation aloud and owned the outcome. That alone could have been a win for me that day. However, speaking truth into circumstances not only gives us power in the moment, but it also produces results beyond what we may imagine.

As I was preparing to leave, the SBA officer approached me and offered his hand. Looking me directly in the eye, he said, “Thanks for speaking. I have never considered you a failure. It is business. You only lost money. You have your family, you have your health. At the end of the day, it was a business transaction. I appreciated what you had to say.”

Offering his card, he continued, “We need to get you up on the stage to speak again. You need to keep sharing this message of perseverance.”

Wow. That. Right there. That. I was stunned, to say the least.

You see, shame often shows up because we have been telling ourselves the same damaging story for so long – a story that may not even be true. Shame is that voice inside our own head, telling us what others think and who we have become. But shame is a liar. After two years of feeling guilt and sadness that I could not fulfill a legally binding obligation, I chose to own the truth and speak it aloud. In doing so, I found in others grace, kindness and truth.

How often in life do we dwell on something that didn’t go according to our plans? How often do we revel in the circumstance, writing a story in our mind of what others must think, when in reality, if we delivered our story with boldness and honesty it would actually inspire and spur others to move forward, to deal with their own story and to, in turn, go out and make an impact?

I left that speaking engagement feeling empowered and grateful. Don’t let shame dictate the story you share nor the life you lead.

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