Avoid Shaming

Most of us know, intuitively, that if we want someone to change an opinion or behavior, shaming them is unlikely to encourage such change.

But most of us nevertheless tend to use shame, either subtly or overtly, when we have a difference of opinion from someone else and want them to see our point of view and act accordingly.

Shaming others to try to get them to change is not only ineffective, but it’s counterproductive. Trying to influence others, which includes other advocates, by shaming them—in even the most subtle of ways—tends to bring about the opposite outcomes of what we want.

Perhaps not surprisingly, shaming is a leading driver of infighting (as well as counterproductive advocacy).

Guilt and shame: what’s the difference?

Shame is not the same as guilt. Guilt is the feeling we have when we believe we’ve done something wrong or harmful. Guilt is how we feel about a behavior. Guilt is an important, prosocial emotion that increases the chances that we’ll course-correct to avoid doing something harmful again.

Because most of us can’t prevent our guilt from morphing into shame, it’s best to avoid both shaming people and guilting people.

We feel guilty when we think “I’ve done something bad.”

We feel shame when we think “I am bad.”

Shame is the feeling of being less-than, of having less inherent worth than others. When we feel shame, we feel morally inferior, less worthy than others of being treated with respect.

Shaming behaviors can be subtle, such as an environmentalist’s eye roll when their shopping companion buys a single-use plastic product. They can also be overt, such as an LGBTQ+ activist’s verbal assault on a fellow activist who expresses a contrary opinion about advocacy strategies.

Because most of us can’t prevent our guilt from morphing into shame, it’s best to avoid both shaming people and guilting people. Instead, we can simply communicate the ways in which their behaviors are causing harm. Most people don’t need to be “made” to feel guilty. When they become aware that they’ve caused harm, they naturally feel the accompanying guilt.

For example, instead of saying, “You’re a hypocrite if you care about climate change but buy single-use plastic bottles” (shaming) or “Buying single-use plastic bottles is a hypocritical thing to do” (guilting), you can say, “I read that single-use plastic bottles have a high carbon footprint. Have you considered buying a reusable bottle instead?”

Shame and dignity

Our dignity is our sense of inherent worth, and honoring dignity is one part of the formula for healthy relating. When our dignity is harmed, we typically end up feeling shame.

When our dignity is harmed, we typically end up feeling shame.

Donna Hicks, an Associate at the Weatherhead Center for International Affairs at Harvard University, spent a decade researching dignity and wrote about her findings in her book Dignity. Hicks found that it’s necessary to honor people’s dignity if we want to motivate them to change.

According to Hicks, “The desire for dignity is universal and powerful. It is a motivating force behind all human interaction—in families, in communities, in the business world, and in relationships at the international level. When dignity is violated, the response is likely to involve aggression, even violence, hatred, and vengeance. On the other hand, when people treat one another with dignity, they become more connected and are able to create more meaningful relationships. Surprisingly, most people have little understanding of dignity.”

The science of shame

The approach that many of us have learned to use to influence others’ attitudes and behaviors is based on the assumption that if we make someone feel bad enough, then they’ll change. But research suggests otherwise. A significant body of literature on shame shows that shame has an inverse relationship with motivation to change. In other words, shaming someone is likely to bring about the opposite outcomes of what we want.

For example, emotional pain (which includes feeling shame) and physical pain have similar effects on our brain. What this means is that the brain doesn’t know the difference between a harm to dignity and a harm to our body—and that the pain that shame inflicts is as real as physical pain. People fear the pain of shame, so rather than being open to the information being presented during a shaming communication, they’re likely to withdraw or attack in self-defense.

And research shows that when we feel shame, or even the threat of being shamed, we become defensive and dysregulated. In this state, we have less access to our rational faculties and are less connected with our empathy.

Shame and dysregulation

Dysregulation is the experience of our nervous system being out of balance. When we’re dysregulated, we may feel overstimulated, emotionally raw, irritable, anxious, or like there’s a “charge” inside us.

When we’re dysregulated, we’re essentially in survival mode, so it’s not surprising that we’re less rational and less empathic. We’re understandably more self-focused. Think about it this way: if a person is drowning, they’re not thinking about how they can support others. All they can do is try to grab onto anything that floats.

When we ask someone to change a behavior that we perceive as unethical, we’re asking them to reflect on how their actions don’t align with their moral values. In doing so, we’re asking them to be psychologically open to both seeing ways they’ve been contributing to harm and to the feelings that go along with that awareness.

We’re asking people to drop their psychological and emotional defenses: to stop justifying a harmful behavior and to experience the emotional results of dropping their defenses. We’re asking them to be the opposite of defensive—to be vulnerable.

How can we expect someone to be vulnerable with us if we don’t show them that it’s safe to do so?

We’re more likely to be able to hold people accountable if we create an environment in which they can open up enough to reflect on their harmful behaviors, and feel willing and able to rectify them.

How can we expect someone to be vulnerable with us if we don’t show them that it’s safe to do so? If you’re in a swordfight and your opponent asks you to remove your armor, you won’t do it if you see that their sword is still pointed at you.

Shame and disconnection

Shame is perhaps most problematic because of the damage it does to our ability to maintain healthy, secure connections.

Research has shown that people who have healthy, secure connections with others fare better in virtually every aspect of life: they’re physically and mentally healthier and more likely to be successful in what they set out to accomplish. And the consensus among experts is that we’re hardwired to seek meaningful connections with others and to avoid the pain of disconnection.

Brené Brown, who’s arguably the world’s leading researcher on shame, describes shame as “the intensely painful feeling that results from believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” Brown also points out that “the number one feeling contributing to disconnection is shame.”

In fact, Brown says that shame is actually the fear of disconnection.

Shame is perhaps most problematic because of the damage it does to our ability to maintain healthy, secure connections.

To manage this fear—or the actual experience of shame—people engage in a host of relationally harmful strategies, which Brown refers to as “shame shields.” These are strategies for avoiding or managing the pain of disconnection: moving away (hiding, silencing ourselves, and keeping secrets); moving toward (seeking to appease and please); and moving against (trying to gain power over others by being aggressive and by using shame to fight shame).

These are just a few of the ways that shame causes us to act in ways that are destructive to others and to ourselves.

Unethical behavior often results from being shameful, not shameless

Brown says that when we use shame to try to make people behave more ethically, we’re missing the whole point. “The real problem,” she says, is not a lack of shame, but “...a lack of empathy…. Shame isn’t the cure; it’s the cause.”

“The last thing people [who behave unethically] need is more shame. More accountability for their behavior and lack of empathy? Yes. More shame just makes them more dangerous, gives them the opportunity to redirect attention to the shaming behavior, and, weirdly, can drum up support from others who are also looking for a way to discharge their pain and an enemy to blame.”

Consider how some nonvegans use the fact that a vegan is being verbally aggressive as a justification for rejecting the entire vegan message. They focus on the vegan as a shamer, rather than on the real problem of animal exploitation that the vegan is trying to highlight.

As Brown points out, “Shame is not a compass for moral behavior. It’s much more likely to drive destructive, hurtful, immoral, and self-aggrandizing behavior than it is to heal it. Why? Because where shame exists, empathy is almost always absent. That’s what makes shame dangerous. The opposite of experiencing shame is experiencing empathy.”

Can shaming ever be effective?

Some people believe that there are two kinds of shame: toxic and helpful. However, Brown points out that all shame is toxic, because it involves assigning a negative label to a person, rather than to a behavior.

But you may still be wondering: Is shaming ever an effective means of motivating positive change? The short answer is probably not. Virtually all of the literature on shame demonstrates that shame is counterproductive to bringing about positive change.

Some advocates look to successful movements like Black Lives Matter as testament to the idea that shaming is effective. However, much of Black Lives Matter advocacy has not been shaming. Rather, it has been about raising awareness of problematic, racist attitudes and behaviors and their consequences, and holding people and institutions accountable.

When shaming tactics seem to have brought about positive change, it’s important to consider whether the change occurred in spite of, rather than because of, the shaming.

If shame is counterproductive, why is it widely used?

Shaming behaviors are widespread and normalized. They’ve been modeled for us by our culture, our family, Hollywood, and so on. Most of us have learned to put others down as a way to get what we want, including to boost our own sense of self-worth.

And according to evolutionary psychologists, we’re hardwired to shame others and to fear being shamed. Humans are social animals, and shame has historically been used to ensure that we adhere to social norms and values (consider taboos against incest, murder, and drug abuse). Shame has been a tool for keeping tribes and communities intact.

Another reason we may use shame as a tactic is because doing so gives us the feeling that we’re doing something productive when we feel powerless. As Brown puts it, when we’re trying to bring about change but change isn’t happening quickly enough, we can look for a fall guy to blame and shame. Simply pointing the finger at someone else can make us feel like we’re at least doing something to bring about change.

How not to shame

The best way to avoid shaming is to build relational literacy, which includes learning effective communication. The more we understand how to relate to others in a way that’s healthy, which by definition is not shaming, the less likely we are to shame them.

It’s also helpful to understand the core belief that drives shaming attitudes, which in turn give rise to shaming behaviors: the belief in a hierarchy of moral worth.

And it’s important to learn what approach is effective at motivating people to change.

Of course, even if you communicate in a way that’s not shaming, this isn’t a guarantee that the other person won’t feel ashamed. But you can’t control how others respond. When you relate in a way that’s healthy, you can know that you stayed on your side of the street and maintained your integrity in the communication.

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