How to Recover from Embarrassment in Three Not-so-Easy Steps
Earlier this year I stood on stage as a storyteller. I prepped for months, practicing every word, intonation and body movement. This was going to be my moment. My big break. I’d share my story with every vulnerable detail and people would find it so irresistibly relatable and empowering, my name would become commonplace in the city, perhaps even in lights.
The big day came, and I shared my story. Then, it was over. Just like that.
I thought I’d feel relieved, but I didn’t. I figured I’d feel a sense of achievement, though that feeling never arrived. I assumed I’d feel full of gratitude for the opportunity, but instead I felt like I had a vast and endless need for praise and attention. I most certainly did not see my name in lights anywhere. A couple of weeks later (yes, weeks) this listlessness faded away. When I watched the video of my performance months later, I was sitting in a conference room viewing it proudly with my team. But as the tape progressed, I felt a million miles away from the warm womb of the supportive storytelling audience and my unsettled feeling turned into embarrassment.
But what was so embarrassing? Was it my patterned shirt? My word choices that made my husband sound like a total jerk? The fact that I said the word ‘thong’ on stage? I still didn’t know, but it was time to figure it out, because not knowing would mean I would miss the opportunity to learn. More importantly, I’d only be suppressing the embarrassment, allowing it to come back again.
So here’s what I did:
1. Wrote down everything that made me cringe
This is where I’m lucky because I have a video to watch. If I didn’t have the video, I would have journaled the entire experience, noting the pieces that make me feel uncomfortable. In this step I didn’t worry about the why just the what. The most important piece of this exercise was to not intentionally beat myself up. The goal here was to examine the situation without making myself feel worse. For example, some of the things I noticed were my wooden hand gestures, getting closer to the microphone for emphasis and yes, my patterned shirt.
2. Imagined myself doing it differently
Just as athletes use mental imagery to improve their game, I pictured myself doing the entire thing over again, just differently. In some cases, the solution is simple: stop wearing patterns on stage or while being filmed. In other situations, it may be necessary to seek help to improve: have someone help you cut content to keep the story moving at an appropriate clip. Perhaps the mental imagery involves a totally different setting. After all, storytelling on stage may not be my thing.
3. Watched myself watching myself
As it turns out, my story wasn’t actually about how rough it was for me starting out in tech, it was about my self-doubt taking over my entire life, pushing me to work way too hard to prove myself. In the end, I was only trying to prove myself to myself, and it occurred to me that I WAS STILL DOING THAT because here I was, embarrassed about my performance. So embarrassed, I contemplated asking to have the video taken down. Not only is that just plain ridiculous, it is a perpetuation of self-doubt taking over my life. The continuation of an unhealthy cycle. When I paid attention to this—watch myself watching myself—I left space to see the damaging self-loathing, and I made the choice to take up some of that space to stop the behavior. Once I arrived here, my embarrassment went away. In fact, it truly just disappeared.
In the end, I fulfilled my duty as a storyteller. I stood on stage and told a story. People laughed at some of my jokes, clapped at the end, and sent a few LinkedIn messages telling me how empowered they felt hearing my story. Having your name literally in lights means nothing, and it certainly doesn’t automatically change anyone’s life. I’ll take a personal LinkedIn message any day over that.
And by the way. As I’m watching myself write this, I’m giving myself a big hug and saying thank you. Getting in front of 300+ people isn’t easy, and I’m not going to let myself take that away from myself.
A true tech community leader, Megan Bigelow is the founder and board president of Portland Women in Tech (PDXWIT), a 501c3 nonprofit. She created and continues to lead the organization with a singular focus on empowering women and underrepresented groups to join tech, while at the same time, supporting and empowering individuals to stay in tech. This is done by connecting people to companies, mentors and skill-building opportunities. The PDXWIT community is over 5000 strong — representing 29% of Portland’s tech workforce — and includes the support of 80+ tech companies. Above all, Megan is committed to building a diverse and inclusive tech community.
In her day job, Megan is the Director of Customer Reliability Engineering at Heptio, in which she is scaling a team responsible for owning the reliability of customers' Kubernetes environments. Her favorite part of the job is solving enterprise problems with open source technology.
Finally — and most importantly! — Megan is the mother of two young children, Jette (5) and Francis (2), and enjoys packing everyone up with husband Scott Bigelow for bike rides to nearby swing sets.
The world as it is/was
The early part of my career was hard. I thought it was hard because I was young, because I was new to working, because I was still figuring out who I was. And that was true. Of course. But there were also some special things that came with being a woman in tech.
In my first real job, I had a much older colleague tell me, in, like, a creepy whisper, that he could see my thong through my pants. (Audience response). I wasn’t angry, I mostly just felt embarrassed and ashamed, and, you know, never wore thong underwear again.
When I finally landed a job as a systems administrator, I’d often have to be kneeling down in the server room to rack servers or replace hard drives. Male coworkers couldn’t resist making comments. I’ll never forget one of them saying, “being on your knees is exactly where you should be.” (Audience response).
It didn’t occur to me that this was harrassment. I had never heard the phrase “hostile work environment.”
Several years later, in a position I thought was the “job of my dreams,” I found out that a new male colleague on the team was being paid 30% more than me, doing the exact same job. Not only was he doing the same job, I was outperforming him.
But again, it didn’t occur to me that this was gender inequity. I thought tech was a meritocracy! This meant I was doing something wrong. I launched Project Turn Into a Badass Super-human to fix this. To achieve this, I
began working 10-12 hour days
earned a master’s degree
volunteered with Girls Inc.
Joined a board of directors
Enlisted in Toastmasters
Stopped drinking Became vegan
and married someone who supported all of this (and by the way his support of all this meant he was constantly telling me to slow down, to take care if myself, get some sleep.) (2:15)
In 2011, after five exhausting years off over-functioning, I was able to go to the Grace Hopper Women in Computing conference. [Shout out to Grace Hopper] I had never seen women from any industry coming together and supporting each other, let alone mine. I’d never experienced the power of that. It felt amazing. Suddenly I felt less alone and I felt seen. I woke up about the sexism we were facing, yet I also felt hopeful. I wanted to keep this feeling going. So when I got home, I founded PDX Women in Tech. [Add quick sentence explaining PDX Women in Tech]
About a year into it, I was feeling great. The group was gaining traction and I started to feel more ambitious. Now was the time to advance my career into management. And another big thing had happened - I gave birth to my first child, my daughter, Jette. While on maternity leave, I started my new job hustle during nursing and naps. I had coffee meetings on the weekends, searched job boards late at night, resume edits in the few spare minutes I had when Jette wasn’t crying. (3:30)
About two months into my combined maternity leave and job search, my husband landed his first job as an Engineering Manager. He wasn’t even looking. But I was SUPER happy for him. However, things weren’t happening for me, and I was growing more exhausted. I felt defeated.
Then, at the tail-end of my four-month leave, it happened. I landed a job as a manager of a large team at a software company! DONE and done. I thought, now I can take a break and just enjoy the rest of my leave with Jette. But then my new company asked me if I’d help them recruit women for their upcoming hiring event. I wanted to say no, but I said YES. a little voice inside my head was like, don’t mix work with PDXWIT, don’t give up your maternity leave. But I was also grateful for this new position, and wanted to show my new bosses that I was really that baddass superhuman. (4:35)
I went to work emailing and calling and working the small PDXWIT community and found 15 recruits to attend the hiring event. And then — of course — they asked me if I could attend this event. I said YES. I said YES in spite of the fact that it was being held on the last weekend of my maternity leave.
The event was an all day spectacle with all my new colleagues and fancy senior leadership. I was as on-point as I could have been. There was no nursing room, so I raced out to my car every few hours to pump — in broad daylight. And then I was apologizing profusely every time I ran back in, afraid my new bosses would think I was a slacker. But it was all worth it - at the end of the night, five of the women I recruited to the event were getting job offers. I was exhausted yes, but I also felt good. I realized I could change the lives of women, many of whom were brand new to tech. Surely my new leaders would be impressed with my ability to single-handedly change the ratio of my new team. (5 min) (6:00)
Raising the stakes
So I started my first management position feeling stellar. I had a team to manage, and we were doing work I felt really confident I could handle. In the first week, however, my boss, who worked in the SF office, informed me that he didn’t know what to do about this guy “Brad.” Brad had started the team that I was now the boss of. Brad was a little younger, maybe late twenties early thirties. It turned out that Brad had been under the impression that he was going to get promoted to co-manage the team with me, though our boss did NOT have that plan.
But Brad and I had hit it off during the hiring process. So I thought, this won’t be a big deal. Brad had a hand in choosing me, right?!
Things did seem to work out OK at first. And then I heard that Brad was hanging out with many of the team members on the weekends, going to bars. But that made sense;I couldn’t be invited to socialize, now that I was boss. I stopped thinking about it, until one day, one of the women that I recruited told me that people were complaining about me at these hang outs, and Brad would say nothing. I decided to just talk to Brad, right? Ask for his support. And I did. And he apologized, and said if it happened again, he would stand up for me and shut it down. But it just kept happening, and it was getting back to me, and I realized this was a serious problem. So I decided to talk to my boss about it, get his advice. This is what happens in management, right? Someone has to be the boss, and hold everyone accountable, and not everyone is going to like you. I just needed a wise mentor. Only, instead of wise mentoring, he informed me that Brad was telling him that I was terrible at my job, that morale was ruined, and that everyone wanted to quit. There was a full walkout planned. (9:00)
I was crushed. I got in my car that night and just cried. As much I tried, I could not develop thick skin about this situation. On the drive home every day to see my six-month-old daughter, I cried. But everyday, I would just suit up, and vow to work harder and just be better.
Despite this mess with Brad, my team was actually doing really well, and so it grew. At one point I had 50 people directly reporting to me. Which was too many, really; I was in meetings all day. So I got approval from the higher ups to install team leads as a way to build structure. After a selection process, I picked 4 men, and 1 woman.
The ONE woman I had promoted, Brad did not think was qualified. This was the tipping point. He very publicly and loudly complained I had given her preferential treatment. And then he rounded up a group of team members, and coordinated them all in filing an HR complaint against me. For sexism. (10:40)
Suddenly I was being investigated for being sexist. This wasn’t a joke either. They wanted to know everything about my team lead selection process and why I believed this woman was qualified. They also wanted to know more about PDX Women in Tech–like this was a feminist separatist organization with the mission of replacing every man with a woman. I remember sobbing during these calls trying to convince the HR investigator that I only got PDXWIT involved because I was asked to help change the ratio.
My world turned upside down. Was starting PDX Women in Tech, and advocating for more women to be hired in this industry, going to cost me my job? (8:30)
What happened next is anticlimactic. The investigation came to a close. They did not find that I was sexist or preferentially promoting women. I was not fired or censured. Brad ended up quitting. But there was some core innocence I lost after that. (12:00)
Looking back, I see this is the point when things started going really different for me professionally than for my husband. His first management position did not go anything like this. No one complained about him being too tough. No one filed HR complaints against him. He just had to do his job. He never had to spend his evenings, weekends and lunch breaks working for culture change, or recovering from bizarre sexist attacks. Things got easier for him, as it should, when you have more experience and years under your belt. While things just got harder for me.
these experiences were so different that they are worth mentioning. (12:48)
The world as it is now
When I think about the younger version of me, the me who could turn into a super woman, the me who would lean in, and the me who would work ridiculously hard, just to be enough, I feel enormous compassion for her. In fact, this is how I feel now for women just starting out. Tech remains a tough industry for women.
But there are rewards. Thanks to the gross men in the server rooms, and the jerk Brads, I have much thicker skin. And also - all that work to become a badass, it did kind of make me badass. I do have this confidence now that comes from years of experience and hard wins. And I have my kids who I adore.
There are still days I feel like a failure, like I’m not doing enough or trying hard enough, to make things better or get farther, for myself and for others. I worry that I’m speaking out too much, or not enough, or not for the right things. But I’m also learning that there will never be an enough. And it’s ok to just say, enough, for now. And take a break. Get some sleep. Skip a few luncheons. And spend my weekends playing Lego with my kids. (10:15) (14:00)