Let’s Stop Feeling Ashamed About Our Jobs! (Here’s How)

It’s inevitable, isn’t it? When you meet someone, the conversation always makes a stop by your work.

You feel it coming from the moment you first learn someone’s name: “So, what do you do?”

A lot of us really hate this questions.  How do you feel about it?  If you have any ounce of struggle with your job or dissonance between what you do and who you are, you likely don’t care for that question.

When we do work that is congruent with our identity and values, it’s easy and fun to talk about. But if it’s not something we believe in 100%, there can be awkward feelings of shame or embarrassment around it.

If you’ve ever had a job that you weren’t in love with, I have something to say to you:

No matter what you do, what if you were proud of it? Can you imagine it? Can you imagine answering with confidence when someone asks what you do? Can you imagine not feeling that shameful and squirmy feeling?

No matter where you are in life and work, please hear this:

Whatever you’re doing,
even if it’s not what you want to be doing,
even if it’s not your dream,
even if you don’t like your job,
even if you’re not using your degree(s),
even if you have breakdowns every night before bed as you dread the next day at work…even then…
you have nothing to feel ashamed of.

I love the high levels of thinking around work. I love thinking about purpose, meaning, calling, vocation, mission and the mark you want to leave on the world. I love all of that.

But work isn’t only about that. It’s also about paying the bills. It’s also about making ends meet. It’s about finding a way to get the things that you need in life.

Work is also what you do to get by.

And there’s nothing wrong with getting by.

I spent a few years serving pizzas. I don’t regret those years. I learned a lot about how to help people have a good customer experience and how restaurants run.

In college I sat at a security desk at the entrance to a dorm from 3-8am, trying to stay awake and hoping to get some homework done—rarely doing either well.

In high school, I cut grass and worked as a church janitor.

In Jr. High I cleaned up pens at a llama farm.

When I’m not working on The Meaning Movement, I’m a photographer.  And I recently began doing contract work for an online video-based software company.

A good friend of mine is a talented writer.  She’s going to make a full time living off her work some day, but right now, she works at the YMCA.  It gives her an income and gets her out of her house and out of her head.

Another friend is a musician.  His band is fantastic, and their following is growing— slowly but surely.  They make some income as a band, but it’s not enough to sustain his family.  Right now, he works at a game store.

Listen: I don’t care what you do— if it’s what you need to be doing right now, then bless it. Get that money! Do what you need to do. And feel proud about it!

Life is hard. Making ends meet is a challenge. And if you’re working, then you’ve found a way to make it work for now.

How to Answer Without Embarrassment When Someone Asks What You Do

When someone asks what you do, own it. Here are three options you can borrow in response. Tell them what you do and follow up with:

1) It’s just a job. I’m not sure what I’m up to in life, but I’m exploring options.

2) But I’m not really that into it, nor do I find my identity in it. Here are the things that really wake me up in the morning…

3) But I’m trying to find a way to do ___(that thing that you really want to do)____. I’d love if you know anyone doing similar work that might be able to help me get there.

And then leave it at that.

I want you to have the permission to let that be enough.

Whoever it is that you’re afraid of disappointing, they’re not worth it.

The Source of Shame

Psychologically, shame is the result of a dissonance between your standards and your actions.  When it comes to your work, you feel like you should be doing something different or in some way better than what you are currently doing.

Feeling ashamed of your job is the result of working a job that is below your standards in some way.

It can be helpful to have high standards for yourself— they can motivate you to achieve greatness in your life and work.  But they can be condemning if they push you to feel shame about who you are and what you do.

Your standards for yourself and your work come from your story.  Do you know where?  Who was it that told you that you needed to pursue a specific career?  Who is it that has so much power over you?

Maybe it was a parent who believed that you should be a doctor or lawyer, but now you’re working retail.

Maybe it was a teacher who said that you were too smart to work with your hands, but now you’re a groundskeeper.

Maybe it was a mentor who told you that you could be a great business owner, but for now you’re waiting tables.

Spend some time identifying those stories and those voices.  Doing so will help you take back some of their power.

We’re All In Process

If you need someone’s permission to be in process, I’m hereby giving it to you. If your dad calls and wants an explanation, send him a link to this post.

I want you to know that you’re ok. Own it. Rock what you got. If you have a job, it’s a gift. Sure, it may not be the dream, but it’s a job— and that’s better than what a lot of people have.

I love helping you step into who you were born to be, but I’m tired of the shame and groveling that happens to the people that don’t know what that is yet.

Everyone is in process. You’re in process. Own it. There’s nothing wrong with it. If you’re not allowed to be in process, then you’ll never accomplish anything worthwhile.

Every book started as some silly scribbles on a piece of paper.
Every scientific discovery started as a crazy idea.
Every Fortune 500 company began with a half-baked concept.
Every movement started small.
Every person you admire had to figure it out as they went.

If they get the chance to be in process, then you get it as well.

We’re all unfinished. That’s the point. The process is what makes the story. A dream is only a dream when it’s different from reality. If you have big dreams, it means your life isn’t everything it could be. And that’s the point. There’s possibility! It doesn’t matter where you are right now. It’s a starting place. It’s another step in the process. What matters is that you own it.

Next time someone asks what you do, take a deep breath, remember that you’re enough. And then make solid eye contact and tell them, without shame, guilt, or that squirmy-I-can’t-wait-to-change-the-subject feeling.

In the comments below, I want to hear from you.  What do you do that you feel embarrassed or ashamed of?  Where do you think that comes from?

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  1. Erika August 15, 2017 at 11:25 am

    I have a master’s degree and graduated 2 years ago but haven’t been able to find a job that relates to my area because I dont have “enough” experience. In Mexico is really hard to find a job when you dont have enough experience or the right connections, it doesnt matter that you are educated “enough”. Im currently working in a call center (kind of) and everyone always ask me what am I doing here when I should be somewhere else due to my studies. This is something that really affects me, not because of what other people think but that I also think that myself. I’ve been telling myself that it is temporary and that Im here due to certain events , but I cant help to feel that I am wasting my time here.

  2. Mark January 18, 2018 at 2:35 am

    What about someone that has lost their mental abilities? I have been struggling with depression, and somehow with that in the last 6-8 months I became incompetent at my job (calibration technician at a medical device company). I just started making mistake after mistake, and couldn’t improve my performance. I had to be moved to being a custodian, working nights, at a 3 dollar an hour pay cut. While I am grateful they gave me another job instead of firing me, I have low expectations of being able to do this job well enough to keep it. I have just done my first day of training in the area where I will work, there is a lot of work to do and quite limited time to do it in. I am now slow and forgetful. So I have just gone from a long string of jobs where a lot was expected and I delivered, to a low level low status job, and I probably can’t even do that. How am I not supposed to feel shame, that I am now a failure, that I am broken and may not be able to be fixed?

    1. Dan January 18, 2018 at 12:07 pm

      Hi Mark,
      Thanks for your note. Depression is a very serious struggle. If you have yet to do so please find a therapist as soon as possible.

      As far as your question about shame: when I hear your story I can see that you feel shame, but the events all make sense to me. If someone has to take a sick leave because they have the flu, there is no judgement against them. The same should be said for emotional struggles. There’s clearly more going on here than surface level work issues.

      Again, please reach out to a mental health professional as soon as possible. Depending what area you are located in, Psychology Today offers a directory here: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/therapists

      1. Mark January 18, 2018 at 12:51 pm

        I have been doing therapy. I have taken many different anti-depressants. I have had ECT. Nothing works. I am barely holding on day to day, nobody cares or can do anything else for me. I am just expected to somehow keep providing for the family while getting little to no support other than “think positive thoughts”. My wife has withdrawn from me to the point where we are just roommates. I am upset, angry, depressed, have suicidal ideation, and just all around hate myself. Self harm thoughts are reoccurring, I often have to fight off urges to cry at work, and just keep sinking lower and lower. I think about going into the mental ward but that didn’t help at all before, so why do it again?

  3. Edward July 6, 2018 at 12:02 am

    Thanks for this wonderful piece Dan.

  4. Spencer Ehler January 26, 2019 at 3:36 am

    Dan, thank you so much for this post. I need this so much right now. Personally, I have followed my intuition (heart) ever since I left high school for college. I never graduated because it told me to take a break. I was incredibly socially anxious. Thereafter, I started and failed at several entrepreneurial ventures. The most recent, I succeeded for a full year—full-time—but hated the work and stress; so I quit. Now, my heart has told me to write an autobiography (which I’m 110% for!). But it also told me to take my job back at the Starbucks in one of the wealthiest areas in the world (to provide income)… which makes me feel like I’m taking 10 steps backward in life.

    I’m such a go-getter and I’m so scared to really begin work at Starbucks, because “what will people think?” right? Damn! I hate my ego! So, yes, I will most certainly dig through the roots of my pride and insecurities in this arena, because I HAVE TO! Your post really has helped and will continue to help me a ton. Something I’m, in a way, happy to grapple with.

    1. Dan January 28, 2019 at 5:42 pm

      Thanks for this Spencer. I really appreciate your thoughts. I’m glad this resonated with you and that you found it helpful.

      Starbucks is a great place to work. I know quite a few people who been helped by a job at Starbucks to get where they want to go or to simply have income and benefits in the meantime (good benefits too!).

      Keep your head up.

  5. R January 30, 2019 at 1:08 pm

    Firstly, thank you for writing this post.

    I am too in the same situation. I have recently had work cut back from a 7 day part time job to just weekends. As a result, I am struggling to make ends meet. To try and reduce the struggle, I have taken on a job as a pizza delivery driver. What a change…..from making $40 – $50 in a couple of hours to trying and making the same amount in a whole evening. I am totally ashamed to admit to people about what I do now. In addition to the change, I am slowly showing signs of depression. But, all in all, I try to keep my head up and smile as much as possible.

    1. Dan Cumberland January 31, 2019 at 6:19 pm

      Keep your head up! You’re making it work, and there’s no shame in making it work. Don’t give up.

  6. Benbo Barett April 14, 2019 at 8:41 pm

    My case might be different from the intended target of this article. It’s not about flipping burgers or whipping up lattes.

    I work as a low-level lead software developer. I am over 50, with almost 30 years of experience. I manage 2 developers, both older than me. Salaries are very low where we work. It’s a very small company, perennially struggling.

    The people are all decent and nice though, from the CEO down.

    My friends I went to university with are making double or more what I do. I should be an IT manager in some big place. OR, even at a small place like where I work, I should be at least be the main guy driving technology. However above me there is a CTO, a really brilliant guy who is heads and shoulders better than me. And even our CEO is smarter than me at my own job (even though he’s managing a myriad other things like biz dev, marketing, sales, financing, etc.)

    All this fills me with feelings of defeat, degradation, and above all shame. I just can’t accept myself being a person of such low ability. I don’t want to kill myself but I can’t figure out how to live with myself.

    And this is going to sound truly horrible, but by this measure I look down on the 2 guys I manage even more than I look down on myself. This makes me feel like a terrible person but it’s the truth. I think the company can only afford loser trash like us.

    1. Dan April 15, 2019 at 1:32 pm

      Thanks for this Benbo. I’m curious: what keeps you there? It sounds like there’s not much upward mobility and you don’t care for your role that much. Why not seek out something with more space for growth?

      1. Benbo Barett April 16, 2019 at 1:07 am

        Thanks Dan.

        I have tried to look for other jobs but didn’t get very far.

        For one thing, I believe there’s a lot of age discrimination out there. In fact this may be related to the very factor I wrote about above (that I’m ashamed about): I’m in a pretty low position for a guy in his early 50’s with nearly 30 years experience. Maybe employers are viewing me as a bit of a loser.

        Another thing is that because I lack a great track record, I haven’t made a huge effort to get a job at a higher level. I see tech leader roles that need someone to manage teams of 30 or so. I’ve only ever managed projects with 2 or 3 or 5 (at most) people. I’d be petrified managing 30 people.

        The third factor, which may run counter to the other factors, is that I actually like my company. (What I dislike is the pay, and my own level of underachievement for a guy my age. I hate myself, not my company). As I wrote above, everyone here is kind and decent. The CEO is tough but fair, sincere, and a very good listener.

        Even the 2 guys I manage are decent men. They are good fathers and husbands. This makes me all the more sad thinking of them as losers, but the fact is that they are older than me and in an even lower position, and I am a loser, so logically it just washes out that they must be losers too. Besides the work title/role, they just seem decidedly dumber than me in our everyday work.

        So I want to do a great job here but I feel so much less intelligent and capable than others here in key positions. I’m just too slow and dumb (although I feel smarter than the 2 guys I manage). Besides my low status in my career, my inferiority in my own company among my peers (like our project manager, our product manager, the CTO, of course the CEO) contributes to feeling ashamed of myself.


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