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The Difference Between Shame and Accountability

Shame buries all potential good underground. Accountability breeds growth.

In our small mountain community, after a 9-foot massive snowstorm on top of an unstable snowpack, a well-known and respected skier and leader in the community set off a human-triggered avalanche in our local backyard mountain, resulting in a 911 call that triggered first-responders to come to the rescue.

According to the local avalanche reports, the snowpack was incredibly unstable, and the avalanche risk was high that day. Unfortunately, this skier was very aware of the dangerous conditions. Although he put many others' lives in jeopardy (first responders and skiers below him), he thankfully made it out safe and relatively unscathed.

The report was posted on social media, and the community was angry. The public was angry because the skier endangered so many people while holding a high position on the local avalanche advisory board. As a result, the people wanted answers as to why he decided to ski this route, knowing it was dangerous and that he warned the public to avoid avalanche terrain until the snow becomes more stable.

The skier got caught red-handed. His answer to the community was harsh, defensive, and it even involved name-calling. He was angry that the community was shaming him, and although some people were shaming him, mostly everyone was holding him accountable. This sparked my interest in the difference between accountability and shame and why it is essential to understand, especially in our current social media world.

Defining shame

Social media is a breeding ground for shame. We type out our visceral reactions full of emotion on the keyboard without realizing that behind the screen, we are interacting with an individual with feelings, emotions, and opinions who can potentially be our neighbor or distant family member. It is easy to cast shame on someone in the virtual world. Still, even if you are typing unanimously on an internet forum, shameful words can often lead to defensiveness, hostility, and avoiding taking responsibility.

The feeling of shame can ignite an individual’s defense to externalize the horrible unworthy feeling of “I’m bad.” Shame buries all potential good underground. Shame does not only happen in the virtual world of social media, but it commonly occurs in romantic relationships, in the workforce, in athletics, and the community. Shame includes name-calling, blaming the individual (instead of blaming their actions), and is used to admonish someone.

Shame is egocentric and should not be used as a social justice tool. Shame is about ego and therefore is incompatible with empathy. Individuals who engage in shaming are usually taking out their microaggressions, self-esteem issues, and trauma on another person. Shame creates feelings of disconnection, un-belonging, and being unlovable, leading to depression, addiction, and suicidal ideations.

It is merely impossible to talk about shame without mentioning Brene Brown, the forward-thinking, progressive female pioneer who defines shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love, belonging, and connection.”

We not only shame others, but we shame ourselves. When we make mistakes, instead of saying, “That was not wise,” we often say, “We are not wise,” confusing our actions with our self-identity. When we make a mess, we should say, “We made a mess,” not, “I am a mess.”

Defining accountability

Accountability is taking responsibility for your actions or holding another human being responsible for their actions. It is about the action, not about the individual. When we hold ourselves or others accountable, we often ask:

  • “Why did this happen?”
  • What was the thought process behind this?”
  • “Did you learn anything from this, and if so, what?”

Accountability involves empathy, responsibility, humility, and growth. Accountability is not comfortable, especially when it is done on a public platform or within a community. Calling somebody out who has done something objectively wrong as a way to hold them to higher standards in the hope that they fix their mistakes and grow in the future can be messy and can be taken as a personal attack. It can also be vulnerable for the individual who is asking for accountability. It is hard to hold others, and yourself, responsible. It takes work, courage, humiliation, emotional intelligence, insightfulness, and empathy.

Understanding the difference

Shame is name-calling, put-downs, “You’re a bad person.” Accountability is, “You’re not doing your job.” Often when we hold someone else accountable, they view it as shaming. You can hold someone accountable without name-calling or demeaning but with direct and respectful language. If it taps into a place of shame for the other person who then reacts negatively, keep in mind that you are not responsible for their reaction.

Accountability is hard, and asking others to take accountability for their actions is ever harder. Asking someone to be accountable does not guarantee they will be, and therefore, it is essential to remember that when you hold someone accountable, it is not your job to make them come forward, as it is their responsibility to take accountability and come forward. Inviting someone to make a change and forcing their hand are two different things, and often the latter can lead to shame.

More from Kristen Fuller, M.D.
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