Mark Greene believes shame is so prevalent in our culture, so universal, that we simply can not grasp the vastness of it.
For Americans, shame is how we make people to behave in the ways that we approve of.
We use it on our children to get them to attend to us. We use it as a heavy-handed short cut in our adult relationships. We use it in our political debates and public discourses. Whether its about the cultural, the sexual, the political, or the religious, we don’t just disagree, we shame those who don’t speak or behave in ways we approve of. We express shock, anger and outrage at their core personhood. We say, “you should be ashamed of yourself.”
This is not a right wing or left wing issue. This is not about class, race or gender. This issue cuts across all segments of American society. Shaming in our American culture is epidemic. It shuts down dialogues, triggers defensive binary arguments and blocks us from finding common ground in our relationships, families, personal and professional lives.
When we shame our kids, two things are happening, we are training them to feel bad about who they are and we are teaching them to shame others.
It starts with the littlest of our children. Not only do we tell them about right and wrong, we go a step further with statements like, “don’t be so selfish” or “you are exhausting” or worse, “you have disappointed me, failed me.” We shame our kids into behaving, which may be effective in the short term, but do we really understand what are we training them into? When we shame our kids, two things are happening, we are training them to feel bad about who they are and we are encouraging them to shame others.
This is why parenting advocates ask us to point out the action, error or poor decision our kids make without condemning the child themselves. A crucial distinction for how we treat children and adults alike if we are to break the cycles of shame in our culture.
This summer, my wife and I were swimming in the Frio River in Texas. It was a beautiful sunny day. There were a hundred or more people hanging out on the river.
In front of us, towered a thirty foot high slab of rock jutting up vertically out of the water. Kids were using a rope line tied at the top to scale the steep incline of the slab and jump off the other side into a deep blue swimming hole. One boy had climbed to the top but could not bring himself to jump. Each time he tried to jump, he would start toward the edge, involuntarily sit down and then scoot back up towards the top the rock. He tried over and over again, but he could not jump off. Kids were lining up behind him, going past him, and jumping.
His father began to call out to him from below. Encouraging him to be brave and jump. His dad was supportive and encouraging, but his voice carried all across the river. More and more people were watching as the boy would take a few halting steps toward the drop off and then panic and back up. His fear became a public spectacle. Climbing back down the way he came was also a frightening prospect, the sheer face of the rock where the rope dangled would have been very difficult to descend. Jumping was likely the safer option.
After about five minutes of this, a single boy below in the water yelled out. His voice, high pitched and clear, rose and echoed off the cliffs around us.
“What are you, a girl? You’re just a scared girl!”
When the boy above heard this, his expression shifted from fear to total despair. He was like a hunted animal, caught between his fear of getting hurt and his fear of being publicly shamed.
When the boy above heard this, his expression shifted from fear to total despair. The shaming moment had arrived, held in check thus far, by the number of adults interspersed among the kids in the river. The boy above was deeply ashamed of himself for not being able to master his fear, we could all see it in his face. But now he was like a hunted animal, caught between his fear of getting hurt and his fear of being publicly shamed. His dad began to climb the rock face to get to him.
Another man from the boy’s family group, began to call to him from below. “Just jump! Just count to three and jump!” There was a tone of impatience in his voice. Was he, in some way, feeling shame at the boy’s fear? Or was the man genuinely concerned about the emotional impact the boy would face as the seconds dragged on?
The people below watched the increasingly painful public spectacle. When the boy in the water called the boy on the rock “a girl,” I immediately was aware of how many girls were watching and listening. Perhaps a few of the girls on the bank smiled at the ruthless efficiency of this taunt. I don’t recall. But the dozen or so mothers, faced upturned, were not laughing.
Shame moves in ripples through a population, in different ways, depending on one’s age or view of the world.
In moments like this, shame moves in ripples through a population in different ways, depending on one’s age or view of the world. Clearly, someone had regularly shamed the boy in the water. Was it his parents, his teachers, or kids at school? Who knows. But the boy had learned how powerful a tool shame is, and he now casually employed it in a very public way against another boy who was in distress. He not only shamed the boy on the rock, he degraded every girl within hearing and left every adult in the area with a choice: Do I remain silent or call out something supportive, or what?
We began yelling encouragement to the kid, but it seemed to only make him more aware of how public this humiliation had become.
The boy’s father made it to the top of the rock and took his son’s hand. They got ready to jump together, hand in hand, then the boy balked. He was still too afraid. His father decided that dragging his son over the side by the hand was too risky. He shifted his strategy, picked up his son, spoke to him quietly, and then tossed him off. As the boy fell, I could see he was going to hit the water badly. He pitched forward into a belly flop. Arms flailing, his body made that hollow pop sound when he hit the water; blinding pain to go with the humiliation.
The boy’s father jumped right behind him. The boy lunged up out of the water yelling, “oh my god!” over and over, gasping for air and weeping. It was a train crash horrible moment. Slowly everyone went back to their conversations. The father took his son aside and sat with him as he cried it out. I looked away, trying to give them some kind of privacy there on the muddy river bank.
What keeps coming back to me is how shame was operating all around us that day.
To begin with, the boy in the water, the boy who taunted the kid on the rock, was clearly taking pleasure in employing shame. It was a glory moment for him. You could see him looking excited and proud as he taunted the other boy, glancing around in the moment, looking for acknowledgement. The implication was, “I’m only saying what everyone else is thinking, right?” It was as if he expected others to acknowledge his shaming as an act of leadership.
For many boys and girls, shaming is a central tool for climbing higher in the pecking order, accruing authority, and confirming their conformity. This boy learned it; now he was using it. How much shame of his own he was burdened with, I don’t know. But it is safe to say that the most fierce advocates for employing shame are themselves, often filled with it.
I was acutely aware of how familiar this all felt to me. And probably to other adults who were watching. When I was a boy, witnessing some kid being publicly shamed was so commonplace as to be a daily or even hourly occurrence. Shame was the language we all spoke. The cruel machinery of the all important pecking order. It brought back the nausea I had always felt, watching victims (usually other boys) being force-fed their own self-loathing. It might be about their bodies, or their clothes, or their lack of a girlfriend. It was always something they had little power over. Always something ultimately unfair or vacuously irrelevant, which just made it all the more humiliating.
The trick as a child was not to be the target of a public shaming. Never be the target.
Meanwhile the boy on the rock. What about him? When I saw how quickly his struggle to jump collapsed into public shame, I knew he also had been shamed. Maybe not from his father, but perhaps from his peers. I could see shame radiating off him as he stood suspended between his fear of getting injured and his fear of failure. Failing at what? Jumping off a rock? What made this moment so powerful a trap for him?
He did not have the confidence, the self esteem, to simply say, “Nope, no thanks. This is not for me.” So, he dangled, frozen, in a display of crippling public shame.
Once we have been trained to be ashamed of ourselves, we don’t need active confirmation from others. We assume they are disappointed in us, even contemptuous of us. We fill in the blanks with the most damaging possible messages.
I’m also left wondering, did he automatically assume our contempt as he scanned our upturned faces? Sadly, the answer is probably yes. Because once we have been trained to be ashamed of ourselves, we don’t need active confirmation from others. We supply it on their behalf. We assume others are disappointed in us, even those we love. We fill in the blanks between us and others with the most damaging possible messages. Even when those messages are not their intention at all.
It is this willingness, this need to fill the blanks with self condemnation and shame, that collapses relationships and destroys marriages. It leads to all manner of self destructive behaviors. Shame fuels itself, becomes its own self-fulfilling prophesy. And no one, no matter how kind or supportive they are, can sustain support for someone who has succumbed to the voice of shame.
If I was that boy’s dad, (and I think his dad did a good job under difficult circumstances) I would have made a different choice. I would have said, first and foremost, “You don’t have to do this. Period. We’ll get you down. Just back off and sit.”
But the boy felt he had to jump off the rock. Once he faltered, shame, spoken and unspoken, rushed in immediately. By not jumping, he felt he was a public failure in front of his friends and his family. The messages this boy supplied himself, the ease with which he delivered the most brutal self-assessment possible, left him no room for alternative courses of action. This is when shame is most destructive.
When adults or children succumb to shaming, we surrender our power to choose what is right for us. We buy into the idea that we are not good enough, smart enough, attractive enough or successful enough. We feel intense shame each time we fail in the eyes of others. Even if we simply think we have failed. Once shame takes a hold of you, it never stops trying to enter every interaction.
Shame strips us of our natural sense of self preservation and replaces it with a willingness to do anything to get off the arbitrary and hateful hot seat as defined by whatever bully might seek to shame us. Some children see their parents that way. Its a chilling thought and should give us all pause. I often ask myself what messages am I giving my son? Love, patience and encouragement? Or irritability, annoyance and shame? Amidst the hurly-burly of parenting, I have to stop and think hard about this on a regular basis.
This is how shame works. Once we have been trained to be ashamed of ourselves, we don’t need active confirmation from others. We supply it on their behalf. We assume they are ashamed of us. We do the work for them.
For adults, shame can be about everything; our sexual selves, our failures, our imperfect bodies, our difficult pasts, our losses, the relentless litany of our regrets. Shame can leech the joy out of life. It is a loop of self-destructive internal dialogues that blind us to what is good and magical and strong in us. Shame is a sure fire recipe for depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, divorce, alienation and despair.
And because we Americans are so prone to using shame to get our way with others, it has infused our public and private lives. It is so universal, that we simply can not grasp the vastness of it. It is the forest we can not see for the trees. It is the very air we breathe and the water we drink. Shame is everywhere, insinuating itself into the memories of our childhoods and the voices of our loved ones. And the only clue we have of how universal shame actually is, is the privileged position it holds as that little voice in our heads that whispers over and over, “You’re never going to be good enough.”
AND NOW FOR THE GOOD NEWS: If we are immersed in a culture of shaming, can we overcome shame in our daily lives? The answer is yes. And here’s how.
Dr. Saliha Bava, a couples and family therapist with a practice in New York City, has a simple and powerful answer for dealing with the culture of shame: talk about it.
“Shame thrives on confusion and misunderstanding. When you illuminate shame by talking about it, its power diminishes. When we talk about shame, as shame, we can share how we intend to be heard, because so often, others can hear statements as shaming that are not intended that way.
Shame is also deeply personal. We can not know what others might view as shaming unless we talk with them about it. And this includes our friends, wives, husbands, parents and children.
“Shame thrives on confusion and misunderstanding. When you illuminate shame by talking about it, its power diminishes… We can create spaces for listening. Create spaces for difference.”
When we talk openly about the culture of shame, we have the power to replace it with something new. What I choose to create is called the culture of permission. You may want to choose something different. Perhaps, for you, it is a culture of compassion. Or a culture of discovery.
As couples and families, we can create these conversational spaces in which we talk openly about what shame is for us as individuals. We can create spaces for listening. Create spaces for difference.
These are meant to be ongoing conversations. That weave in and out of our daily talk. As part of this, we can help ourselves and the children in our lives identify moments of shaming. We can learn to spot shame when it appears. Once we see shame for what it is, we can identify it throughout our lives and guard against letting it have a hold on us.”
Dr. Bava’s point is clear. If we don’t talk about the messages we give and get, and clarify our intentions for others, the culture of shame will, by default, define those messages for us.
So let’s start pushing back against the culture of shame by bringing it out of the shadows and into the light. Let’s talk about it, starting with the people we love most.
Photo: Shame by Steffen Sameiske
Take three minutes and view our GMP TV video on Protecting our Kids from Shame with GMP Executive Editor Mark Greene and Couples and Family Therapist Dr. Saliha Bava
Read more by Mark Greene:
The Man Box: Why Men Want to Control Other Men
The Man Box: The Link Between Emotional Suppression and Male Violence
The Lack of Gentle Platonic Touch in Men’s Lives is a Killer
Touch Isolation: How Homophobia Has Robbed All Men of Touch
Boys and Self-Loathing: The Conversations That Never Took Place
Our Society’s Brutal Economic Message to Straight Men About Expressing Gender Differently: You’d Better Not…
The Dark Side of Women’s Requests of Progressive Men
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