"The embarrassment, shame, and anger from this still feel acute almost two years later. How do I finally put this behind me and move on?"
Disclaimer: Identities are kept confidential. The advice given here should be taken at your own risk. If you are having true mental or physical issues, please seek professional assistance.
This year I'm trying to 'spend down' my shame and look at situations that have made me feel ashamed over the last couple of years in an effort to move past them. I keep coming back to one situation that has caused me a significant amount of professional shame, and for some reason, I can't let this one go.
In brief, I was asked to interview at a very prestigious organization two weeks after giving birth to my son. Of course, nothing fit, so I found myself frantically buying a new suit and shirt that sort of fit my postpartum body, looked professional, and allowed me to nurse.
I was interviewing a very senior man and I thought it was going really well - he seemed laser-focused on me, laughed at all of my jokes, etc. About halfway through the interview, I looked down and saw that the clasp on my new shirt had come undone at some point and my shirt was basically showcasing a fair portion of my breasts and nursing bra. My face turned red, my eyes filled with tears, and as I looked up at this man, I realized he had let me sit there with my breasts on display for I don't know how long.
I didn't get called back, and even if I had, I could have never worked with or for this man; however, I now partner with this organization and am dreading the day when I may end up in a meeting room with him. The embarrassment, shame, and anger from this still feel acute almost two years later. How do I finally put this behind me and move on?
Every one of us has a story that we still cringe at when we think about it. I could probably list five in a few minutes and still turn beet red when I talk about them. I understand why you would feel embarrassed, but I wanted to present two alternatives to think through that may help release some of the shame that you’re holding on to.
1) I definitely do not want to make it seem like I’m letting him off the hook—because I’m not—but there definitely IS a possibility that he chose not to mention it because HE was embarrassed and didn’t want you to think he was acting inappropriately. I think we both know that you would have been much more comfortable if he had just politely said something to draw your attention to it, but even I’m having a little bit of trouble figuring out how to say it. As a woman, I would have ZERO problem, but as a male with a clear power imbalance, I’m just not sure what the best way to handle that is. I do think addressing it and dealing with your own discomfort to not let someone feel MORE embarrassed is the way to go, but finding a way to say it that won’t make you uncomfortable for the rest of the interview is hard.
2) Obviously, he could have known and not told you because he is a creep. That’s definitely a real-life thing that happens. So my question is, why are you letting yourself carry around the shame that he should clearly be holding? You did NOTHING wrong. In fact, you were downright heroic going to a job interview TWO WEEKS POSTPARTUM. I could barely find my shoes two weeks postpartum. HE did the bad thing. YOU did everything right. You weren’t showing off your body because you wanted him to see. He should be ashamed. That is not your responsibility to carry. You. Did. Nothing. Wrong.
And if you have to work with him? So what? You’re still talented and capable whether he’s just an embarrassed pushover or a creep. You can make sure that you’re not in a room with him alone again and let a trusted colleague know there is this thing that happened and you might need their backup. Then you do your job and make him wish that he had hired you.