By: Vanessa Solesbee, CAPP
Today, I felt shame for the first time in a long time. Not your average “uncomfortableness” but real shame. And then immediately, I was ashamed of feeling shame. So, what does a reasonable person do? Put that shame on full display, in hopes that others who have felt the same way I did earlier today will: 1) not feel alone, 2) think about how we communicate “with ourselves to ourselves” (intrapersonal communication) and 3) redirect this almost-reflexive shame emotion into something that makes us (me, you and our industry community) stronger.
Often, in my work as a public involvement specialist, I receive copies of letters that are submitted to Town/City officials (good and bad). Typically, these are fairly straight-forward; someone is for or against a particular policy, program or parking management strategy that I’m helping communicate to the local community. Today, however, at the end of one of those long letters, the gentleman included a “PS” that said (and I’ll paraphrase for brevity), “your consultant should dress more appropriately, not like she is going out on a date.” The author went on to say that I didn’t have any credibility because of the way I was dressed. Instantly – I was filled with shame, anxiety and fear. Did I embarrass my client? What was I wearing that day? I always take great care with what I wear to not distract from message…how did this happen? What did I do...?
Heart-racing, my mental spiral worsened as I tried to think back to every detail of that day; the public meeting, my posture, the cut of my dress and the suit jacket. This “shame spiral” went on for several minutes, until I realized that his comment wasn’t about me at all. The letter-writer was simply using an ad-hominem (personal) attack to discredit me (the person) because he didn’t like what was being proposed (paid parking). Of course, I dressed and carried myself in a professional manner. And honestly, the issue wasn’t about the length of hemlines, bare arms or skirts vs. slacks. It’s not even about dress codes or personal hygiene/presentation. While extremely important to our success as professionals in a public-facing industry, the real issue here is communication: both interpersonal (how we communicate with others) and intrapersonal (how we communicate with ourselves).
Many of us in the parking and transportation industry are often in the hot seat. Whether we’re in front of City Council, our supervisors; being stared down by a reporter, angry customer or simply trying to do our jobs and write a parking citation. And while we vigorously prepare, train, plan and practice what to do in those tough interpersonal situations, I think we oftentimes overlook how many times a day we’re filled with silent shame because of something someone said (or something we assumed with their silence); we’re berating ourselves internally because we messed up; we’re telling ourselves over and over again that we’re just not good enough. The challenge to all of us is to recognize these moments of self-abuse” and to do the hard work to turn each one into a moment of “self-coaching”. The saying that “you wouldn’t let a friend (or customer) talk to you the way you talk to yourself” may be trite and over-used but it couldn’t be more true. While, how you talk to yourself can instantly change your mood and ability to focus (short-term impact), when constantly repeated this negative internal self-talk can impact your confidence professional ability, your relationships and even your health. Much like our crafty parking public, emotions need somewhere to go and without thoughtful attention, they can spill over into interactions with colleagues, partners and employees.
So, next time something doesn’t go your way or someone says something that cuts right through to your core, just remember to take a few minutes and recognize how you are communicating with yourself. Go for a quick walk, phone a friend, write a feisty response and then toss it in the garage, or blog about it to hundred of your closest industry peers…! Whatever your strategy, first, be kind to yourself because at the end of the day, there is one person who should always have your back: YOU.