In comments on things I write about, I’m noticing something I want to make a distinction between. Sometimes I write something about the social responsibility of vaccination to protect the vulnerable and marginalized, for example. Or I write about anti-racism and how it’s incumbent upon us to check our white privilege. And somebody- or usually loads of somebodies- says, “Stop shaming me” -and then accuses me of being an abuser. This hurts when people say this, because I’m honestly just trying to help protect the oppressed, vulnerable, marginalized, and voiceless, but I’m not intending to shame the oppressors or those who refuse to cooperate with helping protect the oppressed- and I’m very careful with my language to make sure I am mindful of not demonizing, dehumanizing, or casting anyone aside as a monster.
What’s happening here? Let’s examine this reaction and evaluate the difference between feeling shame (a totally normal, natural, and helpful emotion that protects you from causing harm to others) and being shamed (an often abusive, manipulative way to coerce someone to do what you want them to do.) The first is a healthy reaction. We should feel shame when we realize we’re doing something that could hurt someone else, like refusing to wear a mask or defending white privilege and refusing to consider the impact of white supremacy on Black and Indigenous People of Color (BIPOC.) It seems to me that this is a Republican, anti-mask, anti-vaxx, QAnon, and “All Lives Matter” mantra right now- “Stop shaming me,” as if it’s someone else’s fault for pointing out the injustices of our culture in ways that make someone feel bad.
It’s okay to feel bad if you’re behaving in ways that are unconscious, selfish, abusive, or violating of the boundaries of others. That pro-social feeling is supposed to motivate you to care more, to try harder to be a cooperative social animal in a society where people have to sometimes make sacrifices or change their behavior on behalf of the good of the whole. As Karla McLaren explains it, shame is the feeling that arises to restore your own integrity, to help you protect others or keep you from violating the boundary of others. So if someone is violating someone else’s boundary by breathing on them without a mask during a pandemic that spreads via respiratory means, they should feel shame!
If You Abuse Power To Harm Others, Shame Is An Appropriate Emotion
If someone in a position of power is abusing their power by sexually harassing a woman at work or by abusing the power of the presidency to spread a big lie and incite violence, they should feel healthy shame- because those behaviors are not okay. Shame is the right feeling when you’re responsible for harming someone else. Doctors like Christiane Northrup and Kelly Brogan might very well feel shame right about now, because the data is now very clear that they made a mistake and abused their power, and their misinformation broadcast to millions may have been responsible for unnecessary deaths. Donald Trump, the Proud Boys, QAnon advocates, and Oath Keepers would also feel shame if they hadn’t been so hurt that they simply can’t feel shame when they are violating the boundaries of others and behaving in anti-social ways. That’s their trauma, and all trauma needs treatment so we can cooperate with each other in pro-social ways.
But let me be clear. I’m not MAKING someone feel shame by saying that. I’m just educating the public about how we can help protect each other in pro-social ways, like being willing to get a vaccination, even if you’re a bit hesitant about doing so, because it might save the life of an elderly neighbor who is less privileged than you or being willing to take a stand in solidarity as a white ally for BIPOC who is willing to feel uncomfortable doing their own anti-racism work- which can evoke a lot of healthy shame. At least it does when I do my own anti-racism work. And that’s okay. My shame is not taking me out or paralyzing me; and I’m not blaming public health officials or anti-racism teachers for shaming me. My shame is motivating me. I can’t do better until I know better, and I’m grateful to those who are helping to teach me. When I am called out for making a mistake, it would be inappropriate to blame someone else for shaming me, when I’m the one who messed up and needs to make things right. My shame is my own, and it’s not their fault if their true words evoke shame in me, even if I don’t like feeling shame (who does?)
Shame & Abuse
Now that is very different than the way our parents have often shamed us to try to control us or the way Donald Trump uses shame as an abusive tool for narcissistic gaslighting and tyranny to try to control those who take a stand against his abuse. That is not healthy shame; that’s a kind of perversion of shame, a toxically imposed shaming that can do great damage- because often, you didn’t actually do anything wrong, or if you did, it was minor and got blown out of proportion. For example, my mother (and my church) pummeled the teenagers with shame if they so much as had a sexual thought or feeling. But sexual thoughts and feelings should not evoke shame. Unless you’re allowing them to violate someone else’s boundaries, they’re normal, healthy teenage reactions to puberty, rather than a healthy emotion intended to restore your own integrity.
My mother used shame as a weapon and a tool. “You should be ashamed of yourself” was a tool for her manipulation, and it was weaponized with the threat of exile. If I didn’t do as she demanded, she threatened to kick me out or withdraw her love. As a child, this is a very effective threat, because children are vulnerable and cannot survive on their own. So we’ll pretzel ourselves into any shape, even one that is far from our natural one, in order to please our parents. As a result of childhood shaming, we often have a hard time feeling natural, healthy shame in adulthood. Even an inkling of it can take us out. Just look at how some of our Republican senators are pretzeling themselves to try to avoid being shamed by their cult leader. It’s clear they don’t have a healthy relationship to shame that allows them to say “We messed up and we’ve changed our minds and want to protect democracy.” I hope they get therapy so they can use their shame to restore their own integrity and protect others.
Healthy Shame Is A Pro-Social Emotion
Empathy researchers like Karla McLaren and Brene Brown may disagree about the distinctions between guilt and shame- and whether these are good or poisonous emotions. I tend to agree with Karla, who discusses how guilt and shame are different – and how all emotions have value.
It took me years of therapy to be able to feel shame and allow it to have its pro-social benefits on me without taking me out. I thought I had to be perfect and wasn’t allowed to make mistakes. Now I realize that’s simply not true. I can make a mistake, be called out on it publicly or privately, feel shame, own up to my mistake, apologize, and try to do better next time. Those who are unable to do that are going to make the rallying cry of “Stop shaming me” every time they feel an emotion that’s hard to feel- and they’ll blame the messenger instead of doing the hard work to try to behave in more pro-social and less self-absorbed ways.
So I’m all for getting therapy if you’re hypersensitive to feeling ashamed when you’re called out on anti-social behaviors or make a mistake, either intentionally or inadvertently. And I’m all for interrupting those old patterns that make you defend yourself or attack someone else when you feel shame. Then shame won’t take you out. But please- don’t blame the messenger when there are a lot of good messengers trying to educate those of us who may not have known better. It’s not kind or fair or just to blame someone else for your uncomfortable shame when you’ve participated in harming others.
Boundaries Protect You (& Others) From Abuse, So Use Them!
I’m also all for setting good boundaries around people who try to control you by shaming you when you haven’t done anything wrong. Those people are toxic and you need to keep your distance from them. If you consider me one of those people, by all means, simply unfollow me- but there’s no need to keep saying “Stop shaming me.” Just to set my own boundary, I’m not going to let anyone manipulate or silence me from speaking out about social justice issues or a public health crisis by trying to pressure or shame me, as if I’m to blame for someone else’s bad feeling. So please, I beg you, if you don’t like what I say and it’s not helping you learn, grow, make pro-social decisions, and evolve, just follow someone else.
“Stop shaming me” seems to be right up there with “Don’t cancel me.” But if you’re behaving in anti-social ways, you might wind up feeling shame, and you might be held accountable for that anti-social behavior.
The truth is that our country is in the midst of a moral crisis right now, and when you get called out on your integrity breaches, your questionable ethics, your unjust behaviors that harm other peoples, your boundary violating assaults to others, your racism, your refusal to cooperate with public health measures, or whatever has your hackles up, instead of attacking the messenger, try just feeling what you feel and noticing what it brings up for you. Who made you feel bad in the past when you made a mistake? Was there ever a way to be held accountable and still be forgiven? Did anyone model healthy repair for you or teach you how to say you’re sorry when you mess up, as we all do? If not, consider getting professional help so you’re more resilient as our culture reckons with our often shame-inducing past, something we must do if we’re going to create a more just democracy.
Think how much better our world would be if those in power right now, especially those who refuse to hold others accountable for legitimately shameful behavior such as inciting insurrection on our democracy, could let their shame help them do the right thing?
If you’re feeling any shame as you read this, please- take responsibility for it. Go back and read what I actually wrote. Did I say anything shaming? Or am I just talking about the importance of pro-social behaviors that consider not just your own best interest, but the best interest of others? Does it make you feel bad to have to think of others? Do you only want to do what’s best for you? Does it make you feel like I’m saying you’re a bad person if you don’t want to?
Heal Your Past So You Can Feel Healthy Shame When You Mess Up
Please- if you feel that way- that’s your trailhead to deeper healing! I swear I’m not saying you’re bad, and it is not my intention to shame anyone. I’m a devoted practitioner of Internal Family Systems (IFS.) In fact, I just endorsed IFS founder Dick Schwartz’s new book- No Bad Parts- which will come out this summer. So I really sincerely mean it when I say I don’t believe anyone is summarily bad. I think a lot of people are hurt- and hurt people hurt people. But that’s not an excuse to let anyone off the hook. So let’s heal instead of hurt! But sometimes we have to hurt – or feel shame- in order to heal, both ourselves and our world. May we all learn to love bigger.