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How to deal with shame in business

Shame in businessEverybody loves hearing stories of successful businesses and entrepreneurs. Most business owners aspire to sail their own ships with the hope of financial gain. And yet, even the best laid plans so often go awry.

Around 300,000 businesses die every year in the UK (whilst 400,000 are born). Competition is fierce and it takes focus, determination and luck to succeed in a world that seems to change at an increasingly rapid pace each year.

The transcendentalist Henry David Thoreau famously wrote that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Currently it appears that many retailers and suppliers are silently struggling to cope with poor sales, increased costs, lower profits and the threat of potential failure.

Shame of Failure

Failure in itself is not the biggest issue for business owners though, it’s the stigma of shame and the suffering that might come with it that most find hardest to bear. This sense of shame can have damaging consequences on health, confidence and well being.

Ideally we’d all have a sense of detachment from our businesses and the objects in our lives that are the achieved through financial success. More often than not we don’t. We identify ourselves with our status and get attached to an idea of ourselves (our ego). This is not surprising when we’ve poured blood, sweat and tears into our business endeavours and associate this with who we are.

When faced with failure people can choose to act in ways that cause even more harm, pain and suffering to themselves and those around them. They may lie to conceal the reality of the situation, they may cheat in a desperate attempt to fix things and in the most extreme cases they may even take their own lives.

Most people in these situations don’t want sympathy. This only makes it worse. They need empathy. They need someone who can see the world from their perspective in a non-judgemental way. They need to feel heard. It’s so important to understand each other’s feelings and to let them know.

If you know of someone in a situation where they might be experiencing a sense of shame, a card is a great way of reaching out and letting them know that you care and are there to listen to them when they need it. A phone call or coffee together is even better.

Identifying Shame

If you are finding yourself in a difficult situation with your business right now and you feel ashamed about it, the first thing to do is to recognise that feeling. It’s most often linked to expectations you have of yourself or that others have of you. Certain people, situations, words or self talk will trigger the feeling for you and it’s important to be aware of what these are.

So often we feel like it’s all us, we are the only one in this situation, it’s my fault, something is wrong with me. Because of the expectations of ourselves and others, we can often place ourselves under incredible pressure, making the situation even worse. It helps to take a step back.

Reality check

The truth is we are almost never alone with any given situation. We are not the only ones who suffer from expectations. The world at large affects all of us. If you are caught in a storm don’t blame yourself for the weather.

I recently attended a talk by an economist on the future of the British economy. With Brexit, squeezes on living standards, increased costs, low income growth, low GDP growth and the retreat of consumers it’s continuing to be a challenging time to be a business owner. Particularly in the retail and wholesale sectors.

Make sure that your expectations are realistic. Normalise your situation and be aware that you cannot control how others perceive you. Taking your focus away from yourself and seeing the bigger picture can be help to alleviate your sense of shame.

Connect and Change

Sharing our stories also helps to normalise situations and feelings connected to shame. You need to be brave to practice this one as it can feel vulnerable.

Because I often write about positive stories and subjects in this column I am very much aware that I could come across to readers as some kind of know-it-all that has it everything sorted in my business and my life.

Nothing could be further from the truth. I have good times and bad. I get some things right and have made spectacular mistakes which have cost me thousands of pounds. I try to help others as much as possible and I know that sometimes I have inadvertently ended up causing suffering. I have experienced hardship in both life and business and have at times felt truly ashamed of myself.

To deal with this sense of shame it’s important to reach out and share your feelings with someone that can empathise. They don’t have to be an expert. They just have to hear you.

Next you need to create change. Take an action that will help to change the situation you find yourself in.

Asking for help

Have you ever noticed that no matter how lost a man is he will rarely ask for help? It’s such a classic stereo type that I chuckle whenever I see it or catch myself doing it.

We often don’t ask for help when we need it and there are people out there who are happy to give it to us. Sometimes we convince ourselves that we don’t need it and then get angry with our loved ones for not reading our minds and giving it to us.

It’s so important to express how we feel and ask for what we need. Sounds easy enough, right? Sometimes we feel ashamed to ask. Asking somehow solidifies the situation we are in.

The truth is you can’t hide from it anyway. It won’t go away. So be brave. Ask for help if you need it. You are braver for asking than not.


If there are people in your life who trigger shame in you when you speak to them be aware of these triggers. Change the subject or avoid seeing them and then make sure you spend time with those who are great at empathising.

Become a good empathiser yourself and you will draw more of this into your life. You can help others by being compassionate.

Avoid blaming others as this promotes shame in the world. Shame is a cruel tool that does more harm than good. No matter what anyone says, you cannot shame people into altering their behaviour. So don’t do it.


I’ve described how shame can cause suffering when things are difficult in business. Though this can be extended to a whole load of other things in your life that you might have shame triggers for. Your body, a relationship that didn’t work out, your role as a parent, your career, the list is endless.

Shame and suffering are invariably caused by our expectations and desires. Sometimes we aren’t even aware that they don’t belong to us. We’ve picked them up from somewhere or someone else. Keep your expectations realistic. Know were they come from. Are they really yours? Then try to not identify your expectations with your own sense of self. Mindful detachment will mean less suffering and pain in  the long run.

This will pass

I can safely say that every time that I have found business or life tougher (and felt like a failure) has led to a new phase of growth both personally and in business. If you are finding it difficult. Remember that this too will pass.

Be grateful for all of the good things in your life. Practice self care by not being too hard on yourself and giving yourself a break. Take action to prevent things getting worse. Most importantly, remember that you are not alone. No matter how bad things may feel, someone else will have experienced it too. Take comfort in this and remember to ask for help if you need it.

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