How I’ve Dealt with the Shame and Embarrassment of a Failed Career

“If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive.” ~Brené Brown

The embarrassment you feel upon realizing you don’t actually have what it takes to make a success of yourself. It’s embarrassing to realize that you have spent so much time training for one thing, and you failed at it. The fear of what to tell people when they ask you what you’re up to.

Of course, you don’t tell anyone how you feel, as you’re too embarrassed to admit you even have these feelings, so you just bury it all away.

I know these feelings all too well, as I’ve been through them all. To finally acknowledge what I felt and to deal with it, it took me many years. As a coach once told me, “Buried emotions never die.”

I was always aware that I wanted to work in the arts. Acting was something I enjoyed, as well as drama and dance. It was so strong that I didn’t even consider a career in another field.

When I was six years old, I took up dance lessons. At eleven years old, I enrolled at a performing arts school. My training started.

I continued my training at a college that was well-respected after school. At sixteen, I received advice to lose weight, wear make-up and not wear heels. I didn’t realize it at the time, but this wasn’t the healthiest thing to tell a teenager.

It took me three years to graduate. This moment was possible because of all the work, sacrifice, and hard training. I wanted to be an actor, work in the theater and then move on to TV and film.

But that didn’t happen.

Instead of going all-out in my career, I stopped. My last year of college was a crushing experience.

All of the previous terms led to our last show. We performed for several weeks at different venues around the city. It was intended to give us all an opportunity to display our talents. Each performer was encouraged to invite agents with the intention of signing.

However, I didn’t invite anyone. It was so embarrassing. I felt I had been cast in utterly the wrong role, and no matter how much I tried, I just couldn’t make it work, and no one seemed to care.

It was humiliating to think of how I wished I could fall down the steps at the Tube Station so that I wouldn’t have to do the chores.

I didn’t leave college feeling excited or confident. Instead, my confidence was at its lowest point.

My training was useless. All those years, all those dreams, all those aspirations, but when push came to shove, I didn’t do anything with it.

Over the years, I kept telling myself that my last term was too difficult that it broke me. This is why I stopped going to college. I blamed everyone else.

I had to confess that my decision to leave was made years ago. To understand why it was took me longer. Now I see that I was afraid.

In fact, I was petrified that I wasn’t as talented as I thought I was. I knew if I put myself out there and tried to make a career out of it and failed, I would have proof that I wasn’t talented.

If I turned my back on everyone and gave up, then I was able to be incredible and have a chance at a successful career in the arts.

However, emotions are complex and it took me long to uncover the truth.

So, at the age of eighteen, I was completely lost. I didn’t have any formal education and I wanted nothing more than to perform. It was a complete loss.

It was like I froze. I didn’t get an agent; I didn’t go to auditions. I just quit.

This was the moment I’d been working towards all my life. That was a huge shock for me. It made me feel like a total failure, and I was embarrassed.

It was embarrassing and humiliating that I kept in touch with only two college friends.

As I walked down Oxford High Street, two of my ex-colleagues appeared before me. To hide, I ran into a store to conceal my identity from the two of them.

All I could think was, “What would I tell them?” They were probably off in West End Shows, and what was I doing? I failed. This was pre-social media so nobody knew who I was.

I finally decided to go to Thailand. There I spent almost a full year. After becoming a dive instructor, I met my future husband.

My career grew from strength to strength once I returned home. After I was done with school, I believed I was moving on. I found happiness in my current life.

However, whenever someone would ask me questions about my education or the things I did in school, I would freak out. “What do I tell them? How do I explain that I trained, but never turned it into a career?” They would know my dirty secret, that I was an untalented failure.

I was a liar and would make up stories about why I chose to switch careers after I finished my education.

I couldn’t understand why I still cared so much about this. How could I believe I was being truthful?  Deep down, though life was good, there was something missing. I felt sometimes like there was something missing from my stomach.

This is what I shared with my coach. My love of the arts, dancing and my failures, shame, embarrassment. It was a time when I broke down and wept. I was so angry that twenty years later I still hadn’t moved on.

This was a very significant thing in my entire life. It was there. It just needed to leave. I was unable to let it go. It seemed so pathetic. I just kept saying, “This is so ridiculous, why can’t I just let it go?”

Keep in mind what I have said before. Buried emotions never die. They never leave you; they’re just festering

I was so confused by it all, I didn’t understand why it still had such a hold on me. Why did I feel so ashamed and embarrassed? I was helped by my coach to get it out.

My lies had taken over my life and I needed to get rid of them.

It took me so long to realize what I had done. It was a scary teenager. Fear of rejection, failure, and even death was all I could think about. I made up a lie in order to get around it and quit.

It was time to be at peace and to admit my guilt. I found this hard to do, as I didn’t like this version of me. Blaming everyone was easier than recognizing that it was me who was preventing me from moving forward.

It was necessary to forgive myself.

I stopped lying to myself and acknowledged that I was terrified of failure when I graduated. I gave up on my dream to fail so I quit. I discovered that I had an innate love of the arts, and that I was in need to have an outlet for it.

Although it was difficult work, and required many sessions in order to find the truth, once I had, I was able to speak freely about my past and the arts without embarrassment. Finally, I was able to move forward.

Re-connecting with Alice as a teenager took a lot of effort. I wrote letters and showed her my compassion by forgiving her. Also, I did lots of work to recognize what I had accomplished and who I was.

I know I’m not alone in what I felt and what I went through. Because as hard as it was to begin this healing journey, there’s still so much more I can do.

For anyone who is experiencing what I did, know that you’re not alone and you’re not silly for feeling the way you do. It is possible to change this.

Through this process, I have learned many new things.

You can’t just ignore what you feel.

It was so confusing to me at the time. I didn’t try to figure out what was going on, but instead I just ignored it all.

I finally had to face my shame, embarrassment and accept what they told me about myself. Was that the message?

You can always find a message in your emotions and feelings. All you have to do is be open to hearing them. Journaling was a great way to do this.

It can take time.

If, like me, you have already spent years ignoring what you felt, that also means you’ve likely spent years telling yourself lies. You will need to take the time necessary to understand what it is you’re feeling. Don’t expect an overnight change.

There are still things that need to be worked through. Complexity is a hallmark of human nature, so it can take time to overcome all barriers.

Share what you’re feeling because you won’t be alone.

I can remember talking to my manager about how it felt. He had the same background as me, and he said, “Alice, I felt exactly the same way.” He told me he moved cities just to get away from people he knew.

Just hearing that made me know I wasn’t insane. He understood. It was incredible.

We hear it all the time, but sharing what you’re going through really does help. Please share your stories.

Have fun and stop punishing yourself.

Most likely, someone reading this has given up something they loved. It’s time to take it out of the box and allow yourself to have fun again. You don’t need to keep punishing yourself.

I didn’t allow myself to dance for years. It was just too difficult. But my body wanted it. I realized it wouldn’t be a career, but that didn’t mean I had to cut it out of my life completely. But I still enjoyed it.

It’s been a long journey for me. Mainly because when I quit twenty years ago, I had a rush of feelings and emotions, and I didn’t know how to deal with them, so I pushed them away and lied to myself. All the lies I believed took me a while to unravel.

You don’t need to be embarrassed or feel ashamed, but also know it’s okay if you do feel this way. Just don’t hide from these feelings. Accept them and be open to them. This will allow you to let go and move forward.

Alice Graves

Alice helps women rediscover their passions in life. Alice assists women in career transitions by helping them to uncover and then explore their dreams. Alice draws on her personal experience of having been unable to fulfill her life’s dreams for many years, only to discover the extent of its impact. Alice invites you for a conversation and to receive her weekly tips and motivation.

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