Let’s talk about shame.
Always a great conversation starter, I know! But it’s important. Because I think we’ve been misapplying shame, both towards ourselves and, more critically, towards others.
Firstly, in the collapse between shame and guilt. For they are not the same. To use Brené Brown’s succinct description: “Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.” How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake?” How many of you would be willing to say that? Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.” *
Quite the difference there. Guilt is I did something bad. Shame is I am bad. And if we are bad, as in intrinsically, inherently, certifiably, bad, then… what else can we expect to do? Of course we’ll do bad things. We’re bad. We have evidence of it. There’s not even any point in trying to change either, or if we do try, it’s going to be hard because changing who we are is hard, right?
Shame does not make us better. It may make us reflect, but it gives us no path: “Shame is highly, highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, bullying, suicide, eating disorders.
[But] Here’s what you even need to know more: Guilt is inversely correlated with those things. The ability to hold something we’ve done, or failed to do, up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It’s uncomfortable, but it’s adaptive.”
Shame drives disconnection. It only serves to turn us into little bags of bad, trying our best to hide that badness from the world until it becomes to great a burden and we lash out.
Shame drives unproductive behaviours. We get trapped in our realms of badness and act accordingly. We know ourselves and the world as a pile of not worthy, and get hijacked by little or large actions trying to regain status, agency, or some sort of high ground.
Shame begets shame. We harden ourselves and begin to see threats all around. We are not free to invent or to create as we try to make up for, hide, avoid, or justify that for which we feel shame. Our minds are not clear, peaceful.
Going back to what Brené asked, “if you did something that was…” and fill in the blank there. Because we’ve all done hundreds if not thousands of things that, in hindsight, we wouldn’t have wanted to do. Knew we shouldn’t have done. That are not the behaviour we want to engage in, not the actions we want to do, not who we – the true, central, authentic self we – want to be. Be it incidents of major import or small moments of interaction with a stranger, we’ve got them in our past.
And when we can look upon those thousands and bring guilt to the situations, then we gain access to moving forward. We gain the freedom to make amends, apologize, look deep within, and step into possibilities. To become who we authentically wish to be.
That’s big for us, as individuals.
The issue is that we peddle in shame. We weaponize it. We point it at others and launch it, with “Name and shame” being the tactic of the day. “Nuke them from orbit… it’s the only way to be sure.”
Besides being a diversion tactic** it is immensely unproductive. Turning people willy-nilly into bad people does no one any favours. It elicits defensiveness, fosters rancor, and demeans and devalues. It does nothing but foist onto others the very straitjacket we’ve been talking about above.
If the intent truly is to bring accountability through shaming, it is completely ineffective.
Pointing out bad behaviour through guilt, though, is fine. It can work. Guilt is adaptive. It leaves room for growth. And as we learn to shift ourselves to bring guilt and ownership into our personal lives we also begin to learn how to bring guilt and accountability towards others. We learn how to speak to unsavoury, unethical, and unscrupulous actions and behaviours such that guilt, and not shame, is what arises.
And while it may seem strange to try to make people feel guilty, it is a far cry less strange than shame-throwing. The less we bury ourselves under piles of shame, the less alone we feel, the less hostile things become, and there even grows an invitation to apologize (which is what we all want, really), to transform (which we also all want), to own up and make things right (also something we all want), and ultimately to move forward towards a more perfect future.
* She also provides two additional definitions for Embarrassment and Humiliation. Humiliation is a kind of proto-shame where you don’t feel you deserve the shame/humiliation. Embarrassment is usually fleeting, and can be funny. Unlike shame, it is characterized by a feeling of not being alone, and that it doesn’t need to define us. If you can tell others about it, it’s likely embarrassment.
** And it very much is used a smokescreen: “If I get everyone else in a shame mode, no one will see my flaws!” This fear of “being found out” is 100% the definition of having shame.