Shame on you!
Most of us have had this sentence flung at us—sometimes repeatedly! Even if it was not uttered out loud, it was nonetheless inferred—usually, after we messed up, made someone angry with us for anything from a genuine transgression to something significant. Or, when we failed to meet some arbitrary societal norm.
We—ourselves—may even be guilty of spewing these words on occasion.
The Effectiveness of Shaming
The thought behind the notion of shame is this: if we—as individuals—feel shame about something we said or did which was displeasing, we will then modify our behavior and comply. In short, we will shape up to avoid any further "shame on you" comment.
The problem is that shame—while indeed efficient for behavior modification—is a terrible way to get anyone to "comply."
Yes, this last sentence may seem like an oxymoron, if the "shame method" works to produce the desired end result, why shouldn't we use it? And, often.
We shouldn't use it because, while compelling in inducing outward behavior modification, it does not—longterm—yield authentic change.
Shouldn't we be after true heart transformation and not solely after a more "appropriate"—but shallow—outward demeanor?
When we spew the "shame on you" statement, it is not an innocuous proclamation without dire repercussions.
Most often, we do so with one goal in mind: the hope for change.
However, it turns out shame is a terrible master.
What we genuinely want is for individuals who do wrong to have a compelling heart change, repent for a misdeed, make restitution, and never do it again. We desire for the guilty to feel appropriate guilt.
Except that shame and guilt are not the same things. Not in the least.
My favorite author on shame research--Dr. Brené Brown—explains the difference between shame and guilt thus: guilt is when we feel "I did something wrong" while shame is thinking "something is wrong with me."
Shame infers we are not up to par. Ultimately, the message of shame is that we are not enough.
The message of not enough never fails to be a trigger for me. Unfortunately, I am not the only one who succumbs to this shame message.
Shame is insidious and prevalent in our culture.
Women are shamed for their looks or their mothering. Men for their feelings or their job performance.
The shame theme is woven into the fabric of our culture. The shame language—either overt or covert—is everywhere.
Sadly, the largest cesspool of shame is the internet—and social media. Most of us feel rather smug and secure behind our screens. The false sense of anonymity it gives us does not always bring out our best.
Regrettably, in the past, I have been sucked in a few of those media battles in which no one wins and we all leave a bit bruised and numb asking ourselves how we got there.
The good news is that I learned my lessons well—albeit the hard way—and I have boundaries in place to ensure this never happens again.
Societal Shame Messages
Women are relentlessly shamed for their bodies. If you are a woman, it is assumed you should enter Summer with your "bikini body." To earn the label of "hot" or "pretty" women should have specific body measurements, full lips, and wear a clothing size in the single digits. Love handles are frowned upon, and let's not mention stretch marks and dimpled thighs. Women with ample bosoms are the cream of the crop.
In short, women are shamed for their bodies on a daily basis and are often reduced to just being a body. Eye candy. Decoration.
Gray hair is most assuredly not "hot" and women who choose to let their "sparklies" show—on purpose no less—are "letting themselves go" or "hags."
On the other hand, men with a crown of silver are "distinguished" or "wise."
News flash, pretty bodies are not required for sainthood, nor should they be a requirement for love and belonging.
Men Are Not Immune to the shame messages.
God forbid that a man should cry too easily, possess no athletic abilities—or worse—hates sports. What about the man who does not like fast cars or faster women? The man with no six-pack abs and who is content in his job with no desire to promote?
Indeed, not being a tough go-getter can be a terrible stigma when you are a "man." A man should suck it up and be aggressive to acceptable standards—which means short of punching someone in the face.
A man should be able to witness the casualties of war, run into burning buildings, and see others maimed without falling apart.
A tall order.
This shame messages dehumanize all of us.
There are no winners.
The message many of us hear day in and day out is that we don't measure up to the standard of "good human" or even "acceptable human."
Being average is shameful.
We hear we lack "something" to make us worthy to belong and be loved. This is a terrible message because it is untrue.
All human beings are intrinsically worthy of love and belonging, and those who fail to receive their due, often become those humans who hurt others without conscience.
"Not enough" does not bring out the best in any of us.
Shame on Me
Indeed, I am at my worst when I am in shame.
So are we all.
We either want to crawl under a rock (freeze), come out swinging (fight), or run away (flee). When we are in survival mode—fight, flee or freeze—our prefrontal cortex is highjacked by our limbic system, and we can no longer hold space for compassion—for others or ourselves.
When in shame, I have sadly felt dark emotions, and regrettably, I have indulged in all three behaviors. Most of the time, my less than stellar reactions—when I feared I was not enough—ended up making me feel I was right in my first assessment. Sub-human indeed.
"Undeniably, I mustn't be enough if I can say or do these things. I missed the Mark by a mile."
And so the cycle continues.
I was raised in shame because as I mentioned above it is masterfully effective at controlling behavior, and well-behaved children are "good" and good kids make good parents...right?
Moreover, good kids turn into good adults, and they then make a perfect society. Easy peasy.
Not necessarily, an accurate assessment though.
Many a criminal—once caught—left unsuspecting friends and neighbors dumbfounded and commenting: "she was so nice" or "he always said sir and ma'am and carried my groceries."
The thing is, those who act "well" out of shame are not the same individuals as those who treat others well from feelings of worthiness.
Unworthiness does not—ultimately—bring out the best in us. These thoughts are not just mine. Research is showing us this is true.
We behave at our very best when we feel our best, and we do not feel our best when we are under shame's spell.
To be human is to be imperfect.
Even those human beings we put on a pedestal or call heroes and heroines had—or have—their dark times and their shortcomings, sometimes very significant ones. Perfection is not possible, nor is it recommended.
To try to measure up against artificial societal norms—for anything—is setting ourselves up for failure and maybe a touch of insanity.
So then, it begs the question: how do we avoid these messages when they are everywhere, and we are shamed continuously for our feelings, our bodies, our academic failures, our human frailties as well as an endless plethora of subjects?
According to Dr. Brown, shame cannot survive when it is spoken. Once exposed—and it is met with compassion—it can no longer thrive. Having a trusted individual who is worthy of your confidence is invaluable in this process.
Speak your shame even though that is the LAST thing you want to do. But, do so wisely, with those who have earned the right to your confidence.
You Are Enough
The only qualifier to receive love and belonging is to born.
Great news since we all qualify.
I won't lie, there are individuals I find very hard to love. The good news is that while I should be kind to all, it is not my job to love all nor to provide a tribe for all. However, neither should I feel the need to shame others for not being like me.
Will I always succeed?
The one thing I know for sure is that you, me, we do the best we can with the tools we have. Granted some may have better tools than others. I know I have better ones today than I used to in the past. However, I do not need anyone to shame me for the times my tools were abysmally inadequate for the task at hand. I am well acquainted with my failures without needing a reminder nor a running commentary, thank you very much.
As the author and poet, Maya Angelou once said: "when we know better, we do better."
To this truism, I resoundingly say amen and amen!
So Beloved, learn to recognize your shame triggers and don't buy into all the messages which bombard us.
Daily if you must, remind yourself that you are worthy of love and belonging. Do so especially when you don't feel it.
Be mindful of your words and deeds and know that you are indeed imperfect and beautiful all at the same time. Most of all, liberally give grace, especially to yourself and those you love.