The Problem With Shame

Shame and guilt are not the same thing. One is a killer, the other a path to self-improvement.

Today, the TED Talks Twitter account tweeted this snippet of a talk from Brené Brown on shame. Brown is a shame researcher and the author of several books on the topic:

I appreciate Brown's perspective. In her book, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t) (Affiliate Link), Brown lays out the problem with shame quite clearly:

When people ask me how I became a shame researcher, I tell them that my career was built around one sentence: “You cannot shame or belittle people into changing their behaviors.” When I was in my twenties, I worked in a residential treatment facility for children. One day during a staff meeting, the clinical director, who oversees the therapeutic work done with the children, spoke to us about helping the kids make better choices. He said, “I know you want to help these kids, but you must understand this: You cannot shame or belittle people into changing their behaviors.”

He went on to explain that, regardless of our intentions, we can’t force people to make positive changes by putting them down, threatening them with rejection, humiliating them in front of others or belittling them. From the moment the words were spoken, I was absolutely overwhelmed by this idea. For weeks, I thought of little else. Yet, no matter how long and hard I thought about it or how many times I repeated the statement out loud, I couldn’t get my head around it. There were minutes when I thought it was, at best, pie-in-the-sky, wishful thinking, and then there were brief seconds when I believed it was the truest thing I’d ever heard. But, despite my confusion, I recognized that there was something incredibly important about understanding shame. As it turned out, I spent the next ten years of my life researching shame and its impact on our lives.

A lot of people, when they talk about "Catholic guilt," really mean that they were shamed when they did things wrong. They were taught to feel and internalize shame concerning sin — a long-lasting, even permanent effect — rather than experiencing the transitory emotion of guilt, which leads to changes via repentance and corrective action, and ultimately, peace.

I know this feeling of shame all too well — I’ve both received it and dished it out, and when it comes to both, I’m trying hard to figure out how to repair the damage.

As Brown says, what makes shame so deadly is that it’s about identity, whereas guilt is about behavior.

Shame is, “I did a bad thing because I'm bad/awful/unforgiveable/disgusting/etc."

Guilt is, "I feel sorrow and remorse for this bad thing I did; it's not who I am or who I want to be, and I'm going to work to change it."

When we feel shame, what we feel is trapped within a kind of horror concerning our own existence: "This is who I am. I was made this way, and there's nothing I can do about it. It’s my destiny to be awful." It makes us feel powerless to change ourselves. And that, in turn, leads to more destructive behaviors, because if you're a monster at heart, what difference does it make what other bad things you do? After all, you’re already a lost cause.


This is also, obviously, how the shamed person winds up down the road of addiction and self-harm. There’s only so much shame one can live with. The need to numb that pain is essentially bottomless. Living with the idea that one is, at heart, a rotten person, is simply too much to bear for long.

I also like what Brown has to say about the importance of vulnerability. I can’t speak to the experience of women, but I’d say she's dead on when it comes to men and shame: we are terrified of being perceived as weak. And for good reason. This isn’t just unprovoked self-consciousness, but socially reinforced behavior. Guys constantly (and sometimes mercilessly) tease and deride each other when weakness is perceived. Although it’s often good-natured, it still reinforces the idea that vulnerability is a path to certain peril, and thus, one best avoided.

I’m no psychologist, but it seems likely to me that this is all part of our jockeying for position within the dominance hierarchy. As Jordan Peterson relates in the first rule (Stand Up Straight With Your Shoulders Back) of his 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos (Affiliate):

The part of our brain that keeps track of our position in the dominance hierarchy is therefore exceptionally ancient and fundamental. It is a master control system, modulating our perceptions, values, emotions, thoughts and actions. It powerfully affects every aspect of our Being, conscious and unconscious alike. This is why, when we are defeated, we act very much like lobsters who have lost a fight. Our posture droops. We face the ground. We feel threatened, hurt, anxious and weak. If things do not improve, we become chronically depressed. Under such conditions, we can’t easily put up the kind of fight that life demands, and we become easy targets for harder-shelled bullies. And it is not only the behavioural and experiential similarities that are striking. Much of the basic neurochemistry is the same.

Consider serotonin, the chemical that governs posture and escape in the lobster. Low-ranking lobsters produce comparatively low levels of serotonin. This is also true of low-ranking human beings (and those low levels decrease more with each defeat). Low serotonin means decreased confidence. Low serotonin means more response to stress and costlier physical preparedness for emergency— as anything whatsoever may happen, at any time, at the bottom of the dominance hierarchy (and rarely something good). Low serotonin means less happiness, more pain and anxiety, more illness, and a shorter lifespan— among humans, just as among crustaceans. Higher spots in the dominance hierarchy, and the higher serotonin levels typical of those who inhabit them, are characterized by less illness, misery and death, even when factors such as absolute income— or number of decaying food scraps— are held constant. The importance of this can hardly be overstated.

And the consequences of doing poorly within this hierarchy are truly brutal, which is why we put so much energy into climbing towards the top. Peterson explains:

If you are a low-status ten, by contrast, male or female, you have nowhere to live (or nowhere good). Your food is terrible, when you’re not going hungry. You’re in poor physical and mental condition. You’re of minimal romantic interest to anyone, unless they are as desperate as you. You are more likely to fall ill, age rapidly, and die young, with few, if any, to mourn you. Even money itself may prove of little use. You won’t know how to use it, because it is difficult to use money properly, particularly if you are unfamiliar with it. Money will make you liable to the dangerous temptations of drugs and alcohol, which are much more rewarding if you have been deprived of pleasure for a long period. Money will also make you a target for predators and psychopaths, who thrive on exploiting those who exist on the lower rungs of society. The bottom of the dominance hierarchy is a terrible, dangerous place to be.

The ancient part of your brain specialized for assessing dominance watches how you are treated by other people. On that evidence, it renders a determination of your value and assigns you a status. If you are judged by your peers as of little worth, the counter restricts serotonin availability. That makes you much more physically and psychologically reactive to any circumstance or event that might produce emotion, particularly if it is negative. You need that reactivity. Emergencies are common at the bottom, and you must be ready to survive.

Clearly, navigating between manifesting the vulnerability necessary for rewarding and fruitful relationships and maintaining and improving one’s position within the dominance hierarchy is truly a walk on a razor’s edge.

And shame can absolutely convince you that you belong on the low end of the dominance hierarchy.

As a writer, my signature style, and what I think has made me successful, is my willingness to be raw, open, and empathetic. It's what allows me to connect with people. One of the biggest and most frequent compliments I get for my work is, “I don’t know how you do it, but you wrote exactly what I’ve been feeling lately. I just didn’t know how to put into words.”

It’s a weird thing, this gift. I can feel it sometimes when I’m writing something that winds up being particularly powerful (though certainly most of what I write doesn’t fit that description). It’s this strange awareness that what I am expressing is not just my own private experience, but something shared by many. When I write pieces like this, it almost always means speaking to my own insecurities, which helps others to look at their own and feel understood.

There’s one experience in particular that stands out in my memory. One of my first professional writing gigs was as a consultant at a small-town firm, where I wound up being asked to ghostwrite website copy for a man who had lost his 19-year-old son to an opioid overdose. This tragedy had led him to begin a new anti-drug initiative he hoped would help get dealers off the streets. I got to know the details of his tragedy, and sat down to write something from his perspective to help people to understand the passion that drove his fledgling organization.

It was my job, with no kids of my own, at the too-young age of 24 — just five years older than the son he’d unexpectedly lost — to write the first person testimony of a grieving father who needed to put the intense feeling of grief and loss into action, and to rally others to support his cause.

No pressure or anything.

But I'll never forget him standing there in our office, after he’d read what I’d written, looking at me at first in silence, dumbfounded, and finally saying, "I just don't understand how you can say what I'm feeling like that." We didn’t know each other well, but I could see it in his eyes. I’d captured it. I taken his feelings and given them form, and it meant a hell of a lot to him.

The key to doing this kind of work is, again, a sort of brutal vulnerability. It means leading with your emotions, sometimes, so you can feel what others feel, and see things through their eyes. It means taking risks, because if you do a hamfisted job of capturing the feeling of a father whose world imploded because his firstborn son was just found dead, face down on a floor, how do you think that conversation is going to go?

One needn’t be a writer to enter this space. There are people who do this as friends, counselors, pastors, and conversationalists. It’s the ability to identify with, not externalize and depersonalize, the experience of others. It’s a powerful ability that can be put to good use. But it’s also a liability, because it opens and exposes anyone willing to take that leap of faith to a kind of emotional violence.

To give you an example of what this can look like, I’ll share a bit of a recent email I received. It came in response to some of my recent writing, in which I shared openness about my struggles with faith, and the recognition of how childhood emotional trauma had caused me to be anxious and angry, and to hurt people I loved unintentionally. (Traditionally speaking, not very “manly” topics to openly admit.)

“Should you make it through the abyss into which you're throwing yourself,” the pseudonymous emailer wrote, “you'll come to see your current emotional exhibitionism (what you excuse as merely being ‘open’) as it is: thoroughly ignoble and queerly muliebral. You'll look back on all such postings with shame, and you'll be right to do so.” 

“Noble souls embrace restraint,” he continued, a little further on. “Noble souls don't expose their dirty laundry to the mob. Embrace at least a modicum of nobility for now. You can build on it later.”

The discomfort this curmudgeon clearly felt at my “ignoble” openness was so intense that he could not restrain the impulse to chastise and shame me. It was nothing like empathy or even fraternal correction; the former wasn’t even attempted, and the latter was impossible, because it lacked even the pretense of a fraternal relationship upon which such correction must always be based.

The experience reminds me of the time when, some years ago, a particularly proud individual in my life — an “elder” — was so uncomfortable about my apologizing to him for having lost my temper with him (due, ironically, to his insufferable pride) that he almost couldn’t stand to hear it. He was practically squirming, and eager to waive off the offense and change to any conceivable other subject rather than have to spend a moment contemplating such embarrassing realities as guilt and repentance.

I don’t know if I’ll ever learn not to internalize shame. It’s an ugly beast, and in myself at least, it has grown fat on all the things I’ve done which should deservedly inspire guilt. After all, guilt and shame live on the same food. One of the ways I exorcize it, however, is to call it out by name. I do tend to wear my heart on my sleeve, even, perhaps, to a fault. But I hope I’ll never “expose all my dirty laundry to the mob;” the mob is not entitled to such intimacy.

I will, however, always admit to the “mob” that I have dirty laundry, and that I know they do too, and because of that, we will enjoy a common bond. One of the best ways to defeat shame is to expose it to the light, rather than allowing it to skulk around inside of you, talking you into feeling worthless and afraid of being exposed as the fraud you think you are.

Learning the difference between shame and guilt is new for me. I think it’s a thing worth doing, so we can learn not to hate ourselves for the evil we’ve done, but to learn instead to make amends, heal, and move forward. I’m still in the process of figuring out how that works, but I hope that if this piece speaks to you — and I have a feeling that for many of you, it will — you’ll take the time to to do it, too.

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