You feel the blood rush to your face. Your hands are shaking, and your heart tries to beat itself out of your chest. Tears prickle your eyes. You pray for the ground to open up and swallow you whole. Everyone is looking at you and thinking you are an oxygen thief, a waste of space, abhorrent, disgusting.
We have all experienced shame at some stage in our lives. These moments etch themselves deeply into our brains, scarring us to the core. Nothing has as damaging an impact on our psyche than a severe public shaming. Particularly if it has been performed by a parent.
Shaming; a part of the parenting toolbox
Shaming; both in its obvious and subtle forms, have been a staple in the parenting toolbox since time immemorial. It can be on the outrageous global scale, like those poor kids in the “Get along” shirt posted to Facebook; or it could be a case of bringing up an indiscretion in front of the whole family, instead of in private. I am sure all of us have been on both sides of this scenario in some way, so can relate in one way or another. As the parent it can appear to have the desired effect - it creates such discomfort in a child they are less likely to repeat the behavior… while in your presence anyway. But what does it actually teach kids?
Some of the lessons learned from a public shaming are:
- It is socially acceptable, and often even celebrated, for adults to act like bullies.
- That they need to perform in a way that you see as acceptable with out understanding the “why”.
- To lie.
- To justify their behavior.
- That they are awful people undeserving of love, or even inherently evil; so they have no control, or desire to behave appropriately.
- How to be a narcissist.
- To fear judgment of themselves as a person when there is criticism, or discussion to the contrary of their beliefs.
Why shame does so much damage
The reason shaming is so deeply damaging is that we are, at heart, social creatures. For millennia, we have relied on our tribes and villages to survive. If we are ousted by the group, we are completely vulnerable to starvation, or attack from wild animals. When we are shamed, we are told we aren’t good enough to be part of the tribe; and this hits our deepest, most primal fears. If everyone hates us, we could die.
It is understood that at the core of many mental health problems like depression, anxiety, PTSD, self-harm, and eating disorders; shame is often a powerful underlying issue. Sometimes, this is self imposed and other times, the message has come from elsewhere. But either way, the result is the same.
Damaged people aren’t shameless; damaged people are mortified.
There exists the idea that people that commit horrendous crimes, murders, assaults and rapes, are completely without shame; but that is often a simplification of what has really gone on in their psyche. Damaged people have often been shamed so often and so deeply in their formative years, that they believe deep down, they are inherently evil and cannot change. They are without shame - they often describe themselves as being without feelings at all. Our strongest word for shame is “mortified”. Is it any wonder when the severely shamed feel dead inside?
Hard core criminals are not the only ones we witness with shame issues - some of the most obvious ones are internet trolls and vigilantes. Not just those that set out to be nasty, but also those that take offense to anything that sits out of their world view.
I see this so often in parenting circles - if I said I was a breastfeeding/ homebirthing/non-circumcising/non-spanking/co-sleeping/etc. mother in the public sphere, it would only be a matter of time before a person who has been deeply shamed in childhood, will start trying to explain why what you have said is offensive, judgmental, dangerous or wrong. The further a view sits from the mainstream, the more vitriolic the comments become. “If other people believe 'x' over what I have done, which is 'y', then they are going to think I am not good enough.”
Offense becomes the best defense, and a shaming is incredibly contagious. We see people becoming more and more polarized and dogmatic, as each view-holder pours shame on those that think differently. All the while, feeling more justified in their outrage and worldview.
When I read about the Benjamin Franklin effect - which is the idea that “we like people we do nice things for, and we dislike people we treat poorly; not the other way around” - I instantly saw how being “programmed” by shame would create this situation. Shame has taught you to hate the people you have wronged - we see this time and again with bigotry, misogyny and homophobia.
What can we do?
As I mentioned, we all walk around with our own experiences of being shamed - some of our wounds are deeper than others'. Every person you have ever interacted with, carries around the same hurt you have had; and the more abhorrent you think they are, the deeper that scar runs. There is an antidote to shame; but those that need it most, are the ones we are generally the most reluctant to give it to; especially if it is ourselves. The antidote to the shame-damaged is compassion and empathy.
Two women who have used this technique successfully* are MaryBeard and Cindy Gallop**.
When it comes down to it; you have a choice to play a part in healing both yourself, and our terribly broken society.
- Treat your kids as raw materials - they are just learning their place in the world. Teach, guide and explain, without shaming.
- Take the time to examine your own history and feelings when it comes to shame and feeling judgment. Look on with empathy and compassion for yourselves as you contemplate ideas that challenge your belief systems.
- Look for the shame damage in those that attack or wrong you. Remember that you don’t hold any responsibility for their wound - you aren’t the troll whisperer, but empathy is never wrong. They still are that shamed toddler.
- You can hold people to account for their actions while still maintaining compassion and empathy, rather than shame.
- Walking away to protect yourself can be an act of compassion.
** Loc 375 "Make Love, Not Porn" by Cindy Gallop