I’ve been studying, talking about, and teaching workshops about shame for several years and one of the issues that comes up over and over is whether shame is always bad or not. I’ve been looking for ways to talk about this, since I think that shame does serve some purposes and can help us grow and change. But I also have a deep respect for Brene Brown and I’ve been an admirer of her work for some time. She’s of the opinion that while guilt can help us recognize where we’ve made mistakes, shame is always damaging. In her most recent book Daring Greatly, she says:
Guilt is just as powerful as shame, but its influence is positive, while shame’s is destructive….We live in a world where most people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong, it’s dangerous…In fact, shame is much more likely to be the cause of destructive and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.
Guilt and Shame
For those who are unfamiliar with the distinction between the two, guilt is often described as “I did something wrong” and shame is the sense of “I am a bad person.” I find that an important difference to understand, just as the differences between anxiety, worry, and panic are important to comprehend. In my experience, the nuances between related emotions can help us gain more clarity and self-awareness. And yet, I still resist seeing shame as inherently destructive.
One reason for that is that I simply can not label any of our emotions as negative. I reject what I see as the false duality between “good” emotions and “bad” ones. I know that some feelings are more comfortable than others, but that doesn’t make the uncomfortable ones bad. After all, pain (by definition) hurts, and it’s also one of our most important teachers. And while shame is one of the more challenging emotions to experience and sit with, I believe that what makes our feelings hurtful is how we act in response to them, not their existence.
When we characterize any of our emotions as destructive, negative, harmful, or hurtful, we cast them into the Shadow. We make it harder to listen to what they have to say, to learn from them, and to process them. Yes, shame is often painful to experience, but that’s one reason we need to develop shame resilience, rather than casting it aside as a negative force in our lives. As I’ve developed my capacity to sit with shame and hear the messages it offers, without either wallowing in it or exiling it, the more valuable it has become as one of my guides. When we stop fighting or running from our Shadows and become willing to listen to them, they often become our allies.
Is Shame a Noun or a Verb?
I think that one difficulty we face in doing this work is that we use the word “shame” as both a noun and a verb. We use it to talk about the feeling of shame, as well as the process of shaming another person, and that seems to be where a lot of the confusion comes from. I 100% agree with Brown that shaming is almost always destructive. Telling someone (or yourself) that they’re a bad person, that nobody will want to be with them or love them, that they’re sick/dirty/sinful/disgusting is not likely to inspire them to change for the better. At best, it motivates them to hide who and what they are, but that only reinforces the problem.
When we distinguish between the feeling of shame and the act of shaming, we can start creating language that makes room for the emotion as simply one more portion of our internal landscape. It’s neither good nor bad, even when it’s uncomfortable. We can also build tools for responding to the feeling without engaging in the act of shaming other people. That helps us take responsibility for ourselves.
“The greatest burden a child must bear is the unlived life of the parents.”
Why Does This Matter?
Learning to accept our feelings as neither good nor bad, while working to increase our capacities to respond to them in ways that support growth, connection, and love, is part of emotional intelligence. Shame resilience and self-regulation are two aspects of this skill set and it’s been my experience that the more we see any of our feelings as negative, the harder they are to develop.
It’s also important because it lets us see that the use of shaming to control people is just as hurtful as physical violence. It might not be as visible, but it still leaves scars. Building new language around this can help us recognize these patterns and find new ways to act.
As part of that, I think it’s important to recognize that shame will happen, because it’s the emotion of disconnection. When someone whose positive regard we seek disengages from us, or disconnects from us, shame is often the result. As Gershen Kaufman puts it, it’s a rupture in the interpersonal bridge. But all relationships will have moments of misattunement and disconnection, which means that some feelings of shame are inevitable. Trying to avoid them leads to enmeshment and codependency. Building shame resilience and learning how to apologize and make amends will work a lot better because they make room for accidental stepping on toes. But we can’t do that if we vilify shame.
On the other hand, we don’t need to deliberately shame other people because if they want our positive regard, they’ll feel one of the shame emotions, such as guilt or embarrassment, when misattunements happen (unless they’re sociopaths). Finding out that I’ve done something that hurts someone I care for will trigger a shame emotion for me. It might be a small one, or it might be a big one. And the more shame resilience I’ve developed the larger the emotion I can process without slipping into a shame spiral. But in my view, the problem that Brown identifies isn’t that shame happens, but rather, that it happens beyond our ability to manage, just as anger beyond our ability to manage becomes rage and fear beyond our ability to manage becomes panic.
Instead of demonizing rage or panic, I think we need to ask what we can do to build our skill at managing anger and fear. And similarly, instead of saying that shame is destructive, I want to ask what we can each do to learn shame resilience and expand our capacities to move through shame.
For me, part of the answer is learning new skills to respond to and process my feelings of shame so that I don’t engage in the act of shaming myself or anyone else. It means learning fierce compassion and avoiding coddling myself or others when difficult conversations needs to happen. It means letting go of the world “should” and using language that honors diversity of experience. I’ve been working on this for many years and I expect this project to take the rest of my life.
Setting aside this one point, I continue to be a huge fan of Brene Brown’s work. Her books have been incredibly useful for me, and for everyone I’ve given them to. I’ve read a lot on the topic of shame, but nobody else offers as many tools for changing how we deal with it, how we build compassion for ourselves and others, and how we can move forward.
I also think that shifting our language to separate shame as the feeling and shaming as the action can help us recognize that they aren’t the same thing. My hope is that we can learn to let the emotion be part of our lives, while holding ourselves accountable for how we treat other people. And as part of that, I will continue to allow shame to be, without demonizing it. After all, that doesn’t seem to make it go away, so I might as well learn to be friends with it. Try it for yourself and see if any of your shames have anything useful to share. You might be surprised at what happens when you do.