The Surprising Connections Between Shame and Productivity

The Surprising Connection Between Shame and ProductivityThe first hints I got that there might be a relationship between productivity and shame came when I was reading Brené Brown’s book, The Gifts of Imperfection. In describing her studies of shame and vulnerability, she writes: “As I started analyzing the stories and looking into re-occurring themes, I realized that the patterns generally fell into one of two columns; for simplicity’s sake, I first labeled these as Do and Don’t. … The Don’t column was dripping with words like perfection, …, certainty, exhaustion, self sufficiency, … and scarcity.” Oh crap, I thought, this sounds a lot like the words people use to talk about productivity.

It got worse. In the chapter on cultivating a resilient spirit and letting go of numbing, she points out that we “numb and take the edge off” by staying busy, pursuing constant change, obsessively planning, and working all the time. Sound familiar?

But here’s where she really got me: perfectionism. Perfectionism, writes Brené, isn’t about doing your best or trying to improve. “Perfectionism is, at its core, about trying to earn approval and acceptance.” We adopt a belief system that says, “I am what I accomplish and how well I accomplish it.” Let me be the first to mention: calling myself The Productivity Maven might be an indication that I derive some of my self worth from my productivity. OK, maybe a lot of my self worth. I admit it: I’m an achievement junkie.

Perfectionism, Brené explains, is one big fat shame avoidance strategy. The idea is that if you can do, act, or look perfect, you can avoid the pain of experiencing shame, blame, or judgement. Intellectually, I know that perfection is unattainable, but how often does that truth stop me from trying? And when I fall short of perfection (which is every freaking time), shame is right there to berate me with the idea that if I’d tried harder, I could have avoided the whole nasty shame-filled experience. Not only that, but perfectionism is an ideal procrastination tool: if you never produce, you never have to experience failure or shame but if I’m not productive, I feel–groan–ashamed. Ack! Is there no escape?

Well, yes, there is. Brené calls it being “wholehearted.” In essence, living wholehearted means “cultivating the courage, compassion, and connection to wake up in the morning and think, No matter what gets done and how much is left undone, I am enough.” The first time I read that sentence, I almost fell out. I am enough? Who the hell are you kidding? I’m not enough–I’ve never been enough.

And that’s when I really got the connection between productivity and all this shame stuff.

Productivity practices are predicated on grappling with constant scarcity. Not enough time. Not enough control. Not enough perspective. Not organized enough. Not reliable enough. Not [fill in the blank] enough. From the moment we awaken, to the second we fall asleep, to the time we wake up in the middle of the night worried sick about what needs to get done, we are behind, backlogged, and battered by ‘not enough.’ “The opposite of scarcity is enough,” writes Brené. At the core of Wholeheartedness “is vulnerability and worthiness: facing uncertainty, exposure, and emotional risks, and knowing that I am enough.”

I’m not totally convinced yet–that I am enough–but I have this sense of hopefulness about it that’s getting stronger every day. And the closer I get to accepting this worthiness as the truth about me, the calmer I am and the more confident I become. It’s a bit strange that embracing less control, more uncertainty, and greater vulnerability can give me the courage to show up and let myself be seen, and (ironically) be more productive, but I’ll take it.


  1. says

    This is beautiful. I was just thinking about the shame involved in growing up being told not to daydream – that it got in the way of getting stuff done. And then you taught me that a daydreaming mind is a healthy one – and can be more productive and more vibrant and joyful. That Brene chic keeps coming up in just about everyone’s writing that I love and admire. I’m going to have to go read her! Thanks!

  2. says

    Hey Tara,

    Great, powerful stuff. I’m coming to terms with similar things, both related to my own perfectionism and where that comes from, and my spiritual experience. I’ve recently decided that religious legalism is the same response. It’s a way to try to take control of something outside of your control, guaranteeing that you’ll be accepted and OK.

    As I look ahead at a day that is only starting, and is already too full for me to be perfectly productive, this post is a reminder that I needed. Thank you.

    • Glenn says

      I have addressed shame and my spiritual experience too.

      For me, shame was keeping me away from growing in my spiritual life.

      I found, it is out of my love for God I follow him. I was raised to follow God out of fear and shame.

      Keep growing!

  3. Glenn says

    Another excellent piece! Shame is very powerful.

    On productivity, I married into A++ family (3 generations of women). It started with my wife’s grandmother having to raise 4 children as a widow. She was mother of the year in Fargo ND in the 50’s. She obtained a Masters, taught school and raised the family.

    My Mother in Law, first born, helped raise 3 boys. She became a nurse (ER and Neuro Stroke).

    My wife was straight A student, Phi Beta Kappa in college.

    I found living with my wife, for an unknown reason, shame was a major component. It has been driving performance.

    My shame was in being raised Irish Catholic. My family had issues with Alcoholism.

    I adore my wife. I definitely married up. In following her, I saw her as a role model in organization.

    I realize shame was a major component in our struggles. Making mistakes is blow to self confidence. I believe if a person is dealing with this in productivity, shame is an issue in relationship.

    • says

      Dear Glenn,

      I am so honored that you would share your story with me like this. Shame is such an incredibly powerful force! I know that shame has played pivotal roles in my own family relationships. I pray that you will find healing within and in your relationships.

      With love,

  4. says

    Hi! Just found your blog and getting a lot out of it. This post in particular resonated with me; perfectionist? Just a little. HA! I love Brown’s work on whole-hearted living, but I have not read her “Gifts” book yet. The idea that perfectionism is a shame avoidance tactic hit me like a 2×4, because yes, yes it is. I’m a long way from thinking “I am enough” but this called me out on it a little. A mindset I need to cultivate!

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