Shame in the Low-Morale Experience

[This content was originally published on November 14, 2017 at The Ink On The Page.]

I’ve read my low-morale study (and the qualitative data associated with it) several times since its submission and publication. One thing that I’d like to take a closer look at is the link between the cognitive impact of perfectionism and the affective impact of shame that some participants had as a result of their experience. Both are discussed in the study, and I began more active consideration of these links about a month ago – noted on my Facebook account (which I often use as a sort of public Rolodex/note-to-self archive).


Earlier this month, Meredith Farkas – who has publicly noted her recovery from low-morale – published an American Libraries column about burnout and the need for librarians to deny resilience narratives in order to regain a sense of well-being and professional balance. Within her discussion, Farkas quickly describes her reaction to being to unable to advocate for herself to her manager: 

“Library workers need to feel comfortable talking about the negative aspects of our work. We need to reject narratives in this profession that suggest we can do more with less, and we must feel safe advocating for our own well-being in the workplace. I remember once trying to tell a manager that I didn’t have the bandwidth to take on a new responsibility and feeling intense shame about it. We should never be embarrassed to advocate for ourselves.”

Burnout was implied in my study – participants recalled being asked to fill in the gaps as campus administrators began library employee attrition maneuvers or slashed resources budgets; doing good work but then being told it was worthless; being asked to do a task and then berated when the task was completed or if they tried to question or ethically refuse the directive(s); being threatened with less pay because they wanted to take time off; etc. 

Similar to my study results that library administrators and managers are usually the perpetrators of low-morale, Farkas also notes the need for administrators to recognize their roles in these experiences of burnout.

Incidentally, not long after this study was accepted for publication, I ended up attending a talk by shame researcher Brené Brown. I decided to read her book, I thought it was just me (but it isn’t), in which she discusses links between shame and perfectionism. Within this context, Dr. Brown reviews three ways people disconnect and place shame screens in order to avoid feeling shame. Brown credits the formation of these responses to Dr. Linda Hartling, a Relational-Cultural theorist focusing on Human Dignity studies. The responses are:

  • move away (“withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, keeping secrets”)
  • move toward (“seeking to appease and please”)
  • move against (“trying to gain power over others, being aggressive, and using shame to fight shame”)  (p.89)

These shame responses were certainly reported by the low-morale study participants, as evidenced in cognitive responses of self-censorship, a conscious reduction of work-loads, reducing outreach initiatives, reducing professional engagement (move away) and perfectionism, “staying despite/sticking it out,” or giving up autonomy (move toward). And as you know from my earlier post about this study, I think there is probably a likelihood of “move against” responses as well.

BTW, Farkas also discusses Fobazi Ettarh’s concept of vocational awe, which I think is totally amazing and also maps – devastatingly – to the low-morale experience. More on that soon.

If you have dealt with low-morale or burnout, was shame part of your experience? How did you respond?

Works Cited

Brown, B. (2008). I thought it was just me (but it isn’t): Making the journey from “What will people think?” to “I am enough.” New York: Gotham Books.

Ettarh, F. (2017, May 30). Vocational awe? Retrieved from

Farkas, M. (2017, November 1). Less is not more: Rejecting resilience narratives for library workers. American Libraries.  Retrieved from 



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