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Embarrassment

Shaming Is an Aggressive Act

Shaming can guide us toward social norms or impair our self-worth.

Key points

  • Shaming involves degrading, humiliating, insulting, embarrassing, and even dehumanizing others
  • Broad research has shown that self-compassion is the antidote to shame.
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Source: Evrymmnt_Shutterstock

Shame is a self-conscious emotion that can be a positive motivator to follow social norms. However, all too often, internalized shame can be intensely emotionally debilitating. It can involve degrading, humiliating, insulting, embarrassing, and even dehumanizing another person or group. Consequently, shaming can be viewed as an aggressive act that violates the human spirit—leading to feelings of being flawed, inadequate, or damaged.

Shaming may be expressed through words, facial expressions, tone, or other behaviors and conveyed face-to-face, through others, or—as has become increasingly prevalent—through public exposure on the internet. Shaming might address any aspect of an individual, such as weight, height, language, religion, ethnicity, or any emotional, intellectual, or physical trait.

Shaming by parents

Through direct and indirect messages, parents influence children's perceptions of themselves. Consequently, they may contribute to a child’s shame—with or without intent. Some may make direct statements that stifle a child’s aspiration for self-improvement and undermine their self-worth. “You’ll never be as good as me with the guitar," “You’re just slow at reading,” “You shouldn’t feel that way,” and “Your sister was much more advanced in reading when she was your age,” are just a few examples of such shaming. Additionally, children may feel shamed by hearing parents share with others a private conversation they had with them.

While parents may use shame to teach a child how to behave, it reflects a form of punishment that only fosters more long-term resentment. Such shaming may be experienced as a betrayal, which can powerfully impact a child’s trust in their parents as well as in other relationships.

Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse can powerfully contribute to shame. However, neglect can be just as shaming, as it can communicate a message not only of rejection but of not being worthy of attention.

123rf Stock Photo / Nicoletalonescu
Source: 123rf Stock Photo / Nicoletalonescu

The shame of neglect is powerfully reflected in an anecdote shared by one of my clients, an individual who had 10 siblings. On one occasion he asked his father, “Dad, could just you and I go do something together?” His father responded in a loud, harsh tone with, “That is so selfish! You want to leave your brothers and sisters home while we go off alone!” His father, also from a large family, may have similarly experienced shame about wanting to feel special.

Shaming by teachers

Teachers can significantly influence a child’s experience of shame or they can be compassionate. Having been an elementary school teacher for six years in the South Bronx, I had observed how some, with and without intention, shamed students—calling them “stupid” or “ignorant” or suggesting they would never amount to anything. Further, such responses become a model for shaming—especially when stated in front of a child’s peers.

Shaming by other figures in authority

Clearly, all figures in authority have the potential for shaming. These can include religious leaders, politicians, police, neighbors, extended family, or any others with whom a child has interactions. And while shaming may be used to enforce the mores of one’s culture, it can also be at the core of racism, misogyny, homophobia, ageism, and other forces that seek to diminish a group of people as a whole.

Bullying

While bullying is an expression of exerting power over another, it almost always involves shaming as an act of aggression. And while demeaning, subjugating, and belittling others, the bully can momentarily distract himself from his own underlying and haunting sense of shame.

Impact

The extent to which shaming causes harm depends upon an individual’s personality, past experience, and current coping skills. More intense shame yields a profound sense of isolation due to feeling flawed or even unlovable. It can also foster hyper-vigilance in an effort to avoid exposure of one’s perceived flaws or vulnerability to further shaming. As such, it may also be at the core of intense perfectionism.

Shame has been associated with anxiety, depression, suicide, anger, and aggression (Tangney, Stuewig, and Mashek, 2007). It can also foster intense self-criticism and judgment of others and has been associated with maladaptive responses to anger, including malevolent intentions; direct, indirect, and displaced aggression; self-directed hostility; and negative long-term consequences (Tangney, Wagner, Hill-Barrow, et. al., 1996). Additionally, a number of studies indicate that individuals who feel shamed are more prone to blame others (Nathanson, 2008).

It should be no surprise that living in a culture with increased anger, we’ve also witnessed increased shaming—whether associated with wearing, or not wearing, masks during the pandemic, getting vaccinated or not, and even favoring a specific political policy. A review of almost any post or YouTube video will show a broad range of comments intended to evoke shame.

Self-compassion is the antidote to shame

It is important to cultivate awareness among all individuals, especially those who have authority, that self-compassion and compassion for others are the antidotes to shaming. This is especially important for those who play a significant role in one's development. Such compassion promotes overall well-being and helps us thrive and flourish.

Social psychologist Kristin Neff, the author of Self-Compassion, states that such compassion entails mindfulness, a sense of humanity, and loving-kindness. Mindfulness aids us in recognizing feelings and thoughts and gradually cultivating the capacity to sit with but not be overwhelmed by them. Recognizing and acknowledging our humanity allows us to accept our flaws, weaknesses, and mistakes. By doing so, we feel more connected with, rather than isolated from, others. Loving-kindness entails a sense of tenderness, concern, and love for ourselves especially when we are suffering.

Research has shown the very positive effect self-compassion can have on reducing shame. It has been associated with a reduced tendency toward shame, as it is related to depression and body shame (Sick, Pita, Nesbitt, et. al., 2020), with decreased shame associated with anxiety (Callow, Moffit, & Neumann, 2021), and with helping parents to reduce shame when responding to parental challenges (Sirois, Bogels, & Emerson, 2018). Additionally, self-compassion has been found to be a mediator in creating safe affect when working with early childhood memories (Steindl, Matos, & Creed, 2021).

Shaming can be contagious, leading those who are shamed to shame others. Likewise, cultivating self-compassion and compassion for others creates a ripple effectleading others to practice self-compassion and compassion. Consequently, we help reduce shaming by calling it out when it occurs, providing education on shame, and supporting programs that help participants to cultivate self-compassion.

Chris Germer, co-founder of the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion, emphasizes that behind shame is our powerful need to feel loved (Germer, 2021). As such, overcoming the pull of shame calls for developing the resource of mindfulness self-compassion. In this way, we begin to experience it in a different way. He further states, "Shame feels blameworthy, but it's innocent; shame feels isolating but it's universal; and, shame feels permanent and all-encompassing, but it is transitory, and it is a burden carried by only part of who we are” (CMSC website). Ultimately, managing shame calls for each of us to cultivate the self-awareness essential to recognize it as reflecting our intense need to be loved, included, and accepted.

References

Tangey, J., Stuewig, J. & Mashek, D., (2007) Moral emotions and moral behavior. Annual Review of Psychology. 200, 58, 345–372.

Tangey, J., Wagner, P., Hill-Barrow, D, et. al., (1996) The relation of shame and guilt to constructive versus destructive responses to anger across the lifespan. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol. 70, No. 4, 797-809.

Nathanson, D., (2008) Managing Shame, Preventing Violence. Video presented by The Silvan S. Tomkins Institute.

Sick, K, Pila, E., Nesbitt, A., et. al., (2020). Does self-compassion buffer the detrimental effect of body shame on depressive symptoms? Body Image, Vol. 34, September, 175-183.

Callow, T., Moffitt, R., & Neumann, D., (2021) External shame and its association with depression and anxiety: the moderating role of self-compassion. Australian Psychologist, Vol. 56, 1.

Sirois, F., Bogels, S., & Emerson, L. (2019). Well-being in response to challenging parenting events. Journal of Psychology: Interdisciplinary and Applied, Vol. 153, 3, doi.org/10.1080/00223980.2018.1523123

Steindl, S. & Matos, M, (2021). Early shame and safeness memories, and later depressive symptoms and safe affect: the mediating role of self-compassion. Current. Psychology, Vol. 40, 761-771.

Germer, C., (2021). Part of his presentation for Mindfulness and Wisdom Week, 2021, Self-Compasssion: An Antidote to Shame. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rTFN8t9SXiQ

Center for Mindfulness Self-Compassion Website. https://centerformsc.org/shame-and-the-wish-to-be-loved/

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