If I could wish one thing for my nieces and nephews it would be to grow up without shame. It's an amazingly sensitive subject that makes me a little jumpy to explore. It's very edgy for me.
I guess I'm like a lot of people and I feel shame for feeling shame.
I started thinking about it after a short interaction I had with someone and after reading this article in the New York Times today. The article talks about whether doctors should lecture their patients about being overweight and it makes the point that people who are too heavy are already very aware of that fact. Because it's not a surprise revelation, making them feel shame about their weight is a shortsighted and ineffective approach. In fact, it will most likely have the opposite effect of the one intended, making the person feel even worse about themselves resulting in more self-loathing and self-destructive behavior.
Shame is such a harmful and agonizingly painful feeling. I think it's that harsh inner judge repeating the critical comments we have heard from others. Things like: "Why would you do such a thing." "What is wrong with you." "You should be ashamed of yourself."
And it's handy. As a discipline it works extremely well. Someone who has been shamed has the appropriately contrite reaction. The unacceptable behavior stops, replaced by blushing, head hanging and penitent acceptance. There is nothing like shame to keep someone in line.
I found myself using this technique myself recently (I'm ashamed to say) by asking someone how they could be so blasé about something. It wasn't a fair question and it was teeming with accusation and judgment. I wanted to immediately take it back, but it had already elicited the "correct" response and I was stuck with their reaction and my remorse.
I have been on the receiving end as well. I was publicly shamed by someone on an airplane to Hawaii recently and it's an experience that will stay with me for the rest of my life. But hand-in-hand with that excruciatingly painful experience came an incredible affirmation of the power one change agent can have.
As we deplaned, a woman caught up and walked with me to the baggage claim. She had heard what the other woman said to me on the plane and was kind and bold enough to tell me just how wrong she thought the other woman's comments were. "I know I wouldn't have been able to hold my tongue in your place," she said. "And I just want you to know that I thought her behavior was rude and unacceptable."
The tears I had been holding back from the bitterness of the first experience leaked out with this woman's kindness. That sour experience was immediately turned sweet and the lesson learned entirely different than it would have been otherwise. I'm indebted to her for both her compassion and for her poetic apologue. From that small experience we became friends and she even invited me to the North Shore for a home-cooked meal.
Her example is a roadmap through shame. I hope someday I can be that same agent of change with a gun to shame's head.
5 months ago