The Job Shaming Game: How to shake it off

Job shaming has brought the topic of the dignity of work to the mainstream. Why did the photo of an actor working at Trader Joe's strike a chord? Dr. Mark Gouston explains why and offers a solution to restore pride in your working life.
This is a photo of Mark Goulston, M.D.
Mark Goulston, M.D.

A recent USA Today article on job shaming talked about former Cosby Show actor, Geoffrey Owens, being seen and shamed for working as a bagger at Trader Joe’s. Fortunately, in that article, many people came to Owens’ defense for working at a “regular” job.

What goes on in the mind and motives of someone who would shame and seek to humiliate a person who had to take a more humbling job than as a previous “star” role or one that is out of their career to earn a living?

I think it comes down to certain people having or even being consumed by envy and/or jealousy. Envy is wanting what someone else has as in envying someone being a TV star. Jealousy is about being angry at them for having it.

People who wish to shame and humiliate others when they have fallen from a higher position are doing so to get even with those others for causing the shaming people to feel less than or inferior.

Sadly, jealousy is rampant, and there is an increasing number of people who take delight in watching someone fall from a higher and more powerful position down to something much more humble as their comeuppance. To such jealous people, the chance to increase that comeuppance is irresistible. It’s not unlike how bullies bully other people to feel more powerful and feel better about themselves.

What’s more relevant for this discussion is how to overcome your feelings of shame at having to take a job of much less stature and pay than a previous job?

When it comes to a job and matters of pride versus embarrassment, men have a far more difficult time accepting a lower level, lower stature job or something outside their career than do women. That is because men offer are more prideful than women, and it attacks a man’s ego more than a woman’s to have to do a job that they see as beneath them.

For women, it is more often a matter of seeing a job as a way to pay their bills and support their family. Indeed, women don’t like the feeling of taking a job that is less than a previous one or different from a prior career, but they won’t refuse to accept it as often as a man will. Why is that?

For women, their identity is not as connected to what they do for their job as it is connected to their relationships with their family and friends. A higher or lower position is not a threat to that identity.

For men, their identity is very often connected to their jobs and their job status. In their minds, the higher level their job, the more power they feel and the more they feel they are more successful and more worthwhile than men who are in a job beneath them.

Therefore, let’s focus on when a man needs to take a lesser and more humbling job than he previously had and one that is outside his regular career.

Job shaming can be self-inflicted for many men.
A decline in the male labor force participation rate could be attributed to the shame they feel in taking a lower-paying job. Photo – Shutterstock

How can a man do that with minimum damage to his ego and self-esteem? The best practice a man can have to deal with that is to live a life always trying things beyond his reach and where failure is frequent. This does not mean he should set himself up to fail, but rather to keep pushing beyond his limits and seeing that he can bounce back. The more that he can do that, the less of a problem it will be for him to deal with anything that feels like a temporary setback or failure.

How can a spouse psychologically and emotionally support a man when he has to take a job that is beneath him or outside of his career?

One technique you can use to break through to a man in these situations is called mediated catharsis. It works by asking that man who is being or acting negatively about something he doesn’t want to do to repeat angry words that you give him to say.

For example, you might say to him, “I’d like to try something that could make this situation better. Repeat after me, ‘I hate that I have to take a bad job that is so beneath me! This is not what I expected to have to do at this point in my career! It’s just not fair!’”

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He may look at you like you’re crazy, but if you can coax him to say those words, it may help him get his frustrated feelings off his chest enough to cause him to actually start laughing and then feeling relief and then being able to think and say, “Oh well, it’s not the end of the world.”

By the way, why is it that we think some jobs have no dignity?

It’s not a matter of a job having or not having dignity; it’s a matter of believing we couldn’t bear the disappointment of having to do such a job which is so less or so out of the career we were previously doing.

One of the ways to get through this psychological roadblock is that after you have helped someone vent their feelings tell the other person to repeat and say back to you: “I guess what it comes down to is that I am so disappointed that this is what I have to settle for now.”

After they say that, put your hand on their shoulder and say in a loving voice, “I understand, and I don’t think it will always be this way. And I still think you’re great!”

Join the Conversation: How did you react to the social media shaming of Geoffrey Owens? What can be done to improve attitudes about job dignity? Tell us your thoughts on our Facebook page.

Dr. Mark Goulston is an award-winning business psychiatrist, a consultant for Fortune 500 companies and the best-selling author of seven books. His latest book, Talking to Crazy: How to Deal with Irrational and Irresponsible People in your Life can be found on Amazon. Catch up on Dr. Goulston’s previous articles here.

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