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  • Chloe Upton

The place where little pieces of self-esteem and ambition are chipped away

By Chloe Upton

Introducing Chloe’s article


One of the important expressions in the ontological approach to life, work, coaching and leadership is that “Mastery in life is mastery in dealing with breakdowns”. The notion of breakdown in this context means an interruption (that sometimes can be a disruption) to our anticipation of how our life will be. Another expression is, “The most significant learning can develop from our biggest breakdowns”.


In this article Chloe Upton shares a significant breakdown she experienced that threw her life into turmoil, and how she used the emotional learning she had gained from an Ontological Coaching course, and from other sources, to generate powerful learning for herself.


The shock and the aftermath


I missed out on a job. It wasn’t merely that I missed out on the particular opportunity, which I didn’t really expect to be offered. No, the disappointment was being assessed as not suitable for a role that I had performed competently for some years.

Seriously, the first time I had an interview for a role at that level was ten years before. I got offered the position then, and wasn’t able to take it for one reason or another. Over the subsequent years, I went through numerous recruitment rounds and was found suitable at that level putting me into two or three ‘pools’ from which the organisation could appoint without another recruitment process. I worked at that level for five of those ten years without getting a permanent appointment.

This particular recruitment process was standard. Job advertised. Apply. Attend an interview. Wait.

Three weeks after the interview, my manager called me into his office on a Monday morning to give me the news that I had been assessed as not suitable for the particular role and not suitable for the level more generally. It took me a few rounds of ‘WHAT?’ and moments to comprehend what he was saying. Not suitable? After all these years? With my experience and my successes?

As his message dawned on me, I could feel the sting of tears and fought, unsuccessfully, to control my anger and frustration. I lashed out (verbally) at my manager. I threw blame at him, at the organisation, at the process.

Back at my desk, I got through the rest of the day mostly fighting tears. I left work at 4pm, taking my computer home and planning to work from home the next day to restore my composure. As it turned out, my composure needed a longer restoration.

When I walked in the front door at home, the flood gates opened and I cried in my bewildered daughter’s arms. What a joy a daughter is!

The evening was lost in a fog of misery and, after tossing and turning for hours, I cried myself to sleep in the early hours of Tuesday. I decided to take a much-needed mental health day.

On Tuesday, I spent the morning on the couch, curled up in a ball, crying. My eyes were red and puffy, and my face ached. As the anger, frustration, grief and disappointment abated around lunchtime, I ventured outside to take the dog for a walk with sunglasses and cap low over my face.

The walk was good, but my internal dialogue was still negativity and gloom. I needed another mental health day. Fortunately, I have been a generally healthy employee over many years, taking few sick days, and have hundreds of hours of accrued personal leave.

The emotional ramifications

In my other life as an ontological coach, I am trained to identify and put a story around the negativity and gloom. Usually I do this in partnership with someone else, but there is nothing like turning the spotlight on yourself.

In a moment of quiet under that spotlight, I had a flash of insight that underneath the anger and disappointment lurked humiliation and shame.

I am familiar at recognising the emotions that are easier for me — anger, frustration, disappointment, grief — but humiliation and shame? I realised these are emotions I usually keep buried deeply under piles of firewood in the back shed. Even vocalising the word ‘humiliation’ to myself brought on a fresh burst of tears.

Thanks to the emotional learning I experienced in the 18-month Ontological Coaching Program I did several years ago, the work of Dan Newby, Brené Brown and others, we know that a breakdown of the stories behind these emotions looks something like this.

Anger — ‘this is wrong or unjust’

Frustration — ‘it should have happened already; it shouldn’t be this hard’

Grief — ‘I feel I will never recover’

Disappointment — ‘this isn’t what I expected’

Humiliation — ‘I have lost my self-esteem and self-respect and I want to crawl into a hole and die’

Shame — ‘I am flawed, there is something fundamentally wrong with me’

It is a bleak list of stories to carry.

These are emotions that turn us inwards and close us off from others. We might, for example, lash out, look for someone to blame and, in the process, damage a relationship. We might collapse into a place of helplessness and hopelessness, where little pieces of self-esteem and ambition are chipped away. We might withdraw and hope others won’t notice us.

On this occasion, I did all of these, but collapsing and withdrawing tend to be my coping strategies.

Our most uncomfortable emotions, by the way, are different for each of us. For some, anger might be the one we hide away from. Or we might do anything to avoid uncertainty. Or mortification. Or rage. Choose your poison. Or, rather, your poison has chosen you.

Important emotional learning

While these are difficult emotions, the reality is we all feel them from time to time. And there is nothing wrong with that. Emotions tell us something and, when we can tune into them, when we can listen to the story, we can make choices about our responses.

Speaking of choices, the chemical signal in our brain of an emotion lasts about 90 seconds. After that, our response is a choice. It is not necessarily a conscious choice, as we are habitualised to respond in a particular way. Habitialised by the environments we exist in - our immediate and extended families, our cultures, our places of work, our education and religious institutions.

Once we are aware of this, however, we can start noticing our emotions and responses, which is the first step to responding differently. We can slow down, pause for 90 seconds, let ourselves feel that uncomfortable emotion, then think about a response.

There was another dimension to my tears.

Even as I was curled up in my ball in couch, I knew that I wasn’t really crying about this particular disappointment. I knew this situation had triggered an old story that was now playing in my head.

I was crying in frustration for when the same level job interview and outcome had happened eight or nine years before, then again two or three years later, and again. And I was, once again, crying for the old ‘not good enough, not smart enough’ story, which I have carried since childhood.

That night I managed eight hours of sleep, although my watch told me it was pretty poor quality. When I woke on Wednesday, my eyes were closer to a normal shade and the tears less frequent. Those powerful, negative emotions were subsiding.

As I have been delving in to my inner world for the last thirty years, I started thinking about myself. I thought about my fifteen plus years at this particular office and how I have been treated. I think I have been treated poorly at times, but at that moment I recognised that the common denominator through various iterations of the office and ten years of striving to be appointed at that particular level is … me.

What has been my contribution to this situation? How have I allowed myself to be treated? How have I shown up? What unconscious messages have I given the office about what I think of myself? How has my sense of self-worth manifested to the outside world?

I recalled a book I read many years ago on relationships, where the author writes about each party taking 100% responsibility for their part in the relationship (I can’t remember the title or author unfortunately). There is no 20:80, no 30:70, or any other arbitrary figure that apportions more or less blame to each party. Until each of us are willing to accept 100% responsibility for our part, we are stuck. While the author was writing about intimate relationships, it is the same in any relationship.

I saw clearly how it applied to my situation.

Over the weeks and months preceding these events, I had been thinking a lot about how we are the products of what, and how, we think about ourselves. This was one of the important learnings of the previously mentioned Ontological Coaching Program. It is also the basis of the teachings of Joe Dispenza, Napoleon Hill, Louise Hay and others.

We are the sum of our past. What we project out into the world, and get reflected back, is the past we have had, rather than the future we want.

That is, until we do the inner work to start changing from the inside out.

If our lives are the product of what we think about ourselves, and I have found myself in this same situation time and time again, what does this say about me? About how I think about myself? About how I show up in the world? About the belief I have in myself?

These are questions that will come back to me time and time again. There is no magic pill or simple answer. It is a life’s work, this inner journey.

And although it can be confronting and uncomfortable to dwell on our inner world, it is helpful. Catching those glimpses of humiliation and shame, and feeling them, helped me recover quicker. Recognising that the upset was not just about this incident, but about previous disappointments and the repeating pattern of my career, helped me recover quicker. Seeing a pattern of collapsing into helplessness and hopelessness, helped me recover quicker. Remembering the 100% rule and accepting responsibility for my part, helped me recover quicker.

As my self-reflection progressed and my anger, shame and humiliation dissipated, I started to see colours in the world again.

I worked the last couple of days of the week, but stayed a safe distance from the office. On Friday, I phoned my manager to apologise for my anger. I stayed calm, but I’m sure he could hear the shake in my voice. By Friday afternoon, I managed a smile with my kids and even a laugh as I overheard my son watching an early series of the Australian satire, Utopia, which was very fitting.

What did I learn?

(1) All things pass. When you are in the thick of it, you feel as though you may never smile again. And then you do.

(2) Humiliation and shame are really uncomfortable for me. I might hide behind anger or frustration, but asking myself what is lurking underneath brings up the real story.

(3) The old chestnut — you keep putting yourself into the same situation until you learn the lesson you need to learn.

(4) Accepting responsibility is essential to move on.

(5) It is a really good time to get a new job.

Postscript: I am now happy in a new job.

Chloe Upton lives in Perth, Australia. She combines work in the public sector with a small number of coaching clients, where her focus is helping people grow older well. She can be contacted at

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