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Shame on You! Do You Use Shame to Control Others?

Using shame to get others to do what we want is easy, but damaging.

I just started reading Brene Brown's book I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn't): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy, and Power. Brene is a "shame researcher," and the book is about how people—particularly women—experience shame. Within two pages, I started to remember shaming incidents that happened when I was a child. This post isn't mean to be about blaming daddy and mommy, but to point out how most of us use shame to some extent or other as an attempt to control other people.

One incident that is very mild but for some reason has always stuck with me was this one: I was about 12 or 13, and I was sitting at our kitchen table with my dad, eating a slice of apple pie that my mom had made. She makes really good apple pie, and before I knew it, I had inhaled it, wolfed it down, snarfed it. It was like there had never been any pie there. My dad, still eating his piece, said something shaming about how quickly I had eaten the pie. I can't remember what he said, exactly, but I remember feeling a hot wave of shame course through me, which I can still feel when I think back on it. Even now, when I'm eating with others, I time my consumption to the people around me, so as not to finish faster than they do. When I do clean my plate faster, I feel slightly ashamed again. And when I see other people eat quickly, or take the last piece of a shared plate of food, I sometimes feel arrogant towards them, like they should be ashamed of themselves. I don't usually say anything, but I still feel it. That incident with my dad taught me that people who eat too quickly are pigs and are shameful.

I only recount this scene to show how effective shame can be in teaching others the lessons we think they should learn. Shaming works. Unless the person we're trying to shame really couldn't care less what we think of her, almost everyone will respond to shaming in some way, although it will almost never be in a way that nourishes the relationship between the shamer and the shamee. Shame makes us feel terrible, like we're horrible people, broken, worthless, and disgusting. And when someone shames us, we lose respect for that person. Shaming, like sarcasm, is easy but damaging.

Brown defines shame as "the intense painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging." We are probably wired to feel shame because it keeps us in line with the rules of our society. When we break or flaunt the rules, we may be ostracized, which could mean death or at the very least, disconnection, which can feel worse than death. So the reason that shame works so well is because we're wired to connect to and to seek acceptance from others, and shame effectively withdraws that acceptance and connection. But, as the apple pie incident shows us, shame can embed itself in us deeply. Shaming words may never be forgotten, and shaming others, though it may be effective for behavior change, damages them and lowers us in their esteem. Who wants to be around someone who tries to make them feel ashamed?

I started to think about how shame has worked in my life, incidents where I felt shamed and where I attempted to shame. I can still remember trying to shame an old boyfriend into wearing slacks instead of jeans to a friend's wedding. I remember how another old boyfriend, during an e-mail exchange in which he was angry with me, ended one e-mail with an out-of-context PS that read, "Oh, by the way, you should consider brushing your teeth more often. Your breath stinks." Though I knew he had meant it to shame me, and I checked with friends who said they hadn't noticed that I consistently had bad breath, I'm still hyper-conscious of my breath to this day and notice that I sometimes cover my mouth or turn my head away when speaking to others. The shaming worked.

There are many different ways we shame others: Sarcasm, name-calling, expressing disgust, and eye-rolling are all ways we communicate that someone else is not worthy of our respect. Shaming behaviors make us feel superior to that other person, as well as communicate to them that we wish they'd be or act differently, without us having to actually talk to them in an adult way and take responsibility for our own feelings. The same way teasing is so often rooted in hostility, shame takes its energy from judgment and self-righteousness. Shame, in whatever form it takes, is a way to control the other person by using their deeply ingrained need for connection to threaten them with disconnection. It's genius. And nefarious.

The best weapon against shame is empathy. If we tune in to our empathy, our ability to understand how it might feel to be in someone else's shoes, we can understand how painful it is to hear shaming words. If we've resolved not to cause harm to others, we can use this empathy as a way to turn off the instinct to shame others, and as a reminder to choose kinder words when we need to communicate. We can practice the art of checking our words before speaking them, especially when we feel disgust, anger, or hurt. Are the words we are about to say necessary, helpful, and true? If not, then, with practice, we can choose not to say them, and instead consider what it is that we really want to communicate.

How about you? Can you recall times when someone else has used shaming behavior to show you that you weren't okay the way you were? And can you remember times when you've done that to others?

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