Communication & Confidence.
Shame Waves: Surfing to Success
Shame Waves: Surfing to Success

Shame Waves: Surfing to Success

You just gave the best performance ever. You were calm, confident and engaging. The audience loved you!

But then you sit down. Flooded with adrenaline, your brain works quickly, evaluating your performance—your dreadful, awful performance. In high resolution, your brain replays the errors, the omissions, the failures. Moments ago you were proud, now you’re embarrassed. 

But wait! Before you give up, let me throw you a life preserver.

What happened?

You’ve been hit by a Shame Wave. It may feel like you’re drowning in shame, but you can and will survive. Hang on tight—I’ll get you back to shore and show you how to stay safe.

What’s a Shame Wave?

A Shame Wave is a strong and sudden tidal wave of shame and embarrassment that slams into many people right after they do something in public, whether it’s giving a speech or speaking up in class. Shame Waves attack beginners and experts alike.

Where do Shame Waves come from?

Craving for Community

Humans are social creatures. We crave community. To be part of a community depends on that community accepting us. Our brains try to protect us from getting kicked out of our community. They do this by stopping us from doing things the community may not like. Embarrassment—the painful shame felt when we stand out for a bad reason—is a tool our brains use.

Embarrassment protects us from getting kicked out of our community, but can also cause trouble. A bit of embarrassment keeps us humble—too much becomes a Shame Wave.


It’s human nature to evaluate our own performance. This helps us learn and improve. But used unskillfully it can generate Shame Waves.

Many of us learn by focusing on the negative. Reviewing our performance, we tend to remember only mistakes and problems. Even if 99% was perfect, our brain focuses on the 1% that wasn’t.

Try this simple perspective trick. Hold your hand at arm’s length. How big is it? Now hold it right in front of your eyes. How big is it? Huge, right? It’s the same with self-evaluation; if we focus on the 1%, it feels like everything was terrible. This feeling can generate Shame Waves.

Why are Shame Waves bad?

Shame Waves are destructive. Not to be confused with useful feedback, Shame Waves are mean. Useful feedback is gentle, timely and appropriate. Shame Waves are violent, inconsiderate and hateful. At best they inhibit learning, at worst they drown your self-esteem.

Shame Waves damage your self-confidence too. They also damage your learning-confidence—the belief that you can improve at something.

Shame Waves can make you give up.

Shame Waves, helicopters and failure

Shame Waves are like helicopter parents. Although their intentions are good—to protect us—there’s lots of powerful negative messages. Shame Waves tell us “for our own good” that:

  • You’re not perfect at this
  • Because you’re not perfect, you’re a failure
  • Failure is bad
  • Winners never fail
  • Failure never leads to success
  • If you fail you should quit immediately

Those messages are evil! Failure is a normal, necessary part of learning. We do very few things perfectly the first time—almost everything you’ve learned in your lifetime took more than one attempt.

If you refuse to do things you’re not good at, you won’t learn. And you need to be a lifelong learner to have a great life.

Grab a board and enjoy the ride

We need coping strategies to support ourselves. Good coping strategies are like surfboards that help us stay safe and ride Shame Waves to safety. They can decrease the number of waves that hit, and the amount of damage done.

Coping strategies can be simple, like taking a few slow breaths. They can be complex, like retraining our thoughts. Here are some of my favourite coping strategies:

Coping strategies

  1. Plan ahead for Shame Waves. Brace yourself and reduce the impact.
  2. Remind yourself that your brain’s being mean but its intentions are good. Thank your brain and tell it to be nicer.
  3. Expect to be imperfect, and to make mistakes. Focus on what you learned from your performance.
  4. Think about next time: What will you do better next time?
  5. Journal about Shame Waves you’ve experienced. Rewrite them in a positive tone.
  6. Meditate. Do nothing except sit with the shame. Allow it to wash over you. Don’t try to fix it. Just sit and feel shame’s heat. Let it blaze and rage until it burns itself out.
  7. Breathe. A long, deep, slow breath in through your nose, then out through your mouth. Relax. Repeat twice.
  8. Tell someone you trust about your Shame Wave. Talking can help weaken its power. And you’ll probably discover that you’re not alone.
  9. Practice the 10-10-10 rule: How will you feel about your performance in 10 hours? 10 weeks? 10 years? Adjust as necessary.

You’ll find that some of these strategies resonate with you and some don’t. That’s fine. Find what works, and make your own surfboard of strategies. Next time a Shame Wave hits, grab your board and ride to the Beach of Success.

Wear your PFD

Seriously. If you go in a boat, wear your PFD—Personal Flotation Device. Let’s stop needless drownings.

And if you’re performing, bring your PFD—Performer’s Failure (at) Delight. Learn to delight at failure; it’s necessary to learning. What we call “talent” is usually just the result of lots of work—and the willingness to fail repeatedly. 

So if you’re terrible at something, terrific! Now’s the time to start learning. And if you’re good, terrific! Now’s the time to keep improving. 

Expect some Shame Waves, create a strong surfboard of strategies, and ride those waves to the Beach of Success!