Let’s talk about shame. Let’s not run from it, trying to avoid its pain, or hide from it, pretending we don’t have any, or allow ourselves to be bullied by others who believe they have the right to make us feel shame. Let’s drag it out into the open, take a deep breath, and examine it.
What is shame? Shame is a basic human emotion – we’re born with it. And it’s universal – everyone feels it. I think the best definition comes from Brene’ Brown, the shame researcher: Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. (You can find Brown’s TED talk on shame here)
Why are we born with shame? Its definition points to a possible explanation: as social animals, we depend on others for our survival, so we need a mechanism to insure that others can be depended on. If we all have the basic need to belong – to feel we’re part of a tribe, a family, or a group – and if we all feel intense pain associated with not belonging, then we will be strongly motivated to cooperate and work together. Perhaps it forms the basis for an internal moral compass.
Let’s call this healthy shame – because it’s normal, and it functions to keep us connected to our tribe, which can help us survive. We can learn from it. If we could stop being so afraid of shame, and instead see it as a normal emotion, based in our need for social connection, then we could begin to talk about our experience of shame with others, which would lessen its control over us.
Of course, we don’t experience shame as useful, in fact we’re ashamed to even admit that we have it, and we’d do anything to avoid experiencing it. Shame avoidance is at the heart of addiction, because it drives us to numb those intensely painful feelings in the quickest way possible. And it underlies depression, lurking in our negative self-talk: I’m such a loser. No one wants to be my friend. I might as well be dead. Shame can truly make us suicidal, because it hurts so much to feel unworthy of belonging – and because without our tribe/family/friends/group, we’re alone, and that’s scary.
(Some researchers have suggested that the pain of social rejection, or of anticipated rejection, is as severe as any intense physical pain, and may in fact be processed in the same area of the brain.)
But there is something even worse than feeling shame: being shamed publicly, by someone else. Some people seem to think it’s their right to make someone else feel shame – maybe their child, or another family member, even a friend, or co-worker. Two of my clients recently experienced public shaming by co-workers, and it was absolutely devastating to them.
The research shows that the value of shame as a moral compass is only when it arises as the result of self-reflection. Shame cannot be commanded or demanded by another person – because then it’s humiliation instead: an abuse of power by one person to reduce another’s social status in the group. Humiliation is trying to control someone else’s behavior by manipulating their emotions – in this case, their need for belonging, and fear of being ostrasized from the group.
Let’s make this clear: publicly shaming someone is not constructive or useful. It’s humiliating, it’s toxic, and it’s really no different than bullying, harassment, or other forms of interpersonal violence.