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Is Shame Ever Helpful?

Is shame ever a good tactic? If so, when and how? (Asking because it has been very effective for me at times. Feeling shame but not humiliation...) -- Linda from Boston

Dear Linda,

The word shame comes up often in social justice work, because we are often fighting things we should be embarrassed by as a society, like being a global leader in gun deaths. Yet, its possible that shame, and its cousin guilt, can paralyze rather than motivate us, and that it borders on humiliation that drives people away rather than toward movement.

As you point out, though, shame often accompanies taking responsibility for things we’ve done wrong. It’s likely that you have to feel at least a little shame to make yourself do something differently. For me, the key question is who owns the shame? If someone is trying to shame me, they own the shame. If I’ve discovered, perhaps because someone told me, that my actions have harmed people, then I will probably feel shame because I try to be a good person and not hurt others. Then I own the shame. Shame you can own might be galvanizing. Shame that is forced upon you feels like humiliation. Humiliation isn’t something most people run toward.

My 5th grade teacher, Mrs. Levitt, was the best I ever had. Yet, when I was in 6th grade, I once told a few of her new students that her field trips were kind of boring. They weren’t, and this was entirely about me trying to be cool in the eyes of the younger students. Well, of course they told Mrs. Levitt, and of course she confronted me. By confronted, I mean that she pulled me aside in the hall one day, said that I had been one of her favorite students, and she always thought we had a good relationship, and that it hurt her feelings that I would say such a thing when I had never said it to her. By confronted, I mean she said exactly these things in a low tone of voice, but very directly, in about two minutes. It’s been 40 years, but I remember how ashamed I felt that she had to have this conversation with me because I already knew that I had done wrong. Yet, I likely wouldn’t have given that much energy if she hadn’t talked to me. Today, you will rarely hear me badmouth another person, and certainly never without telling them first that I intend to critique them. But Mrs. Levitt didn’t shame or humiliate me – she just told me what was real for her.

So, telling the truth, directly and with integrity, is always a good tactic. Shame may be an outcome. Actions that lean toward humiliation tend to include going public, removing the chance for redemption, focusing on who a person is rather than what they’ve done, and badgering the wrongdoer.

I’m not saying that these tactics are never warranted – sometimes they might be -- but it depends on what you want from the target of public shaming, or badgering or blocking redemption.

Bottom line, shame can be useful, but it has to be owned to lead to behavior change. We can’t generally make other people acknowledge something they don’t want to own, but we can lead a lot of people to take their blinders off and see clearly, including their own behavior, simply by telling them a direct truth.

Rinku, this is brilliant. Yes exactly. I often bristle when people talk about “no shame” because feeling ashamed has completely changed my life. But I own it. You’re exactly right. Getting myself to a place where I can truly hear and completely own my actions and feel shame, if appropriate, seems key. And working to create those conditions for others. Thank you.

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