I woke up this morning feeling very heavy with the amount of shaming that has been occurring over the last several weeks on social media platforms regarding the pandemic. People expressing their opinions, judgements, and jokes about others regarding toilet paper, travel, social distancing, and now wearing masks. Online shaming has in itself become a new norm providing an avenue for someone to express their judgement and get validated for it.
I’ve never had much education around shame. The most amount of education prior to today that I’d received on shame is from the TedX talk by Brene Brown. In her talk, she stated, “Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.”
Shame occurs regularly in society. It has been there all along and I never recognized it for what it was. “Shame is external and comes from judgment from others to try to enforce social norms…Social Norms are unwritten rules about how to behave. They provide us with an expected idea of how to behave in a particular social group or culture.” (McLeod, 2008). Examples of social norms include flushing the toilet when you exit a bathroom stall, washing your hands before leaving the restroom, covering your mouth when you cough, and chewing with your mouth closed.
Shaming is an “attempt to enforce either a real, or perceived, violation of a social norm…External enforcement for norm violation might be shaming or ostracizing the violator from the group; or it could be honoring an individual for compliance with the norm” (Klonic, 2016).
Shaming has been and is used in religion, politics, our schools, and legal systems. “In the bible, nakedness is a source of shame. The book of Genesis 2:25 says of Adam and Eve, “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.” That changed when they rebelled against God’s commandment and ate of the tree of knowledge. From then on, they felt ashamed in each other’s presence: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.” This biblical interpretation of nakedness as shameful still deeply informs the social norms and conventions that determine how we deal with human physicality and sexuality. Although our notions of whether, how, where and in the presence of whom a person may be undressed have changed over the centuries, the shame we feel when we transgress the norms has remained” (Kammerer, 2019).
My Catholic upbringing kept me in the closet for years for the fear of being shamed and shunned for being gay.
Our legal system uses shaming as a means for punishment and one form which I’d not given much thought to before is by forcing those who receive a DUI to have “drunk tags” on their car. Alcoholism is something in particular that is often publicly shamed due to the misunderstanding of the illness. Social shaming occurs within the recovery community itself to aid in enforcing certain behaviors such as getting a sponsor and service work. During the pandemic there has been shaming around those choosing to stay home and attend zoom meetings versus those choosing to continue to go to in person meetings. Those choosing to go to meetings quoting the responsibility statement. Those choosing to stay home quoting the CDC. Both creating a divide within the community.
As I continued my research this morning one article discussed how shame has been used in our school systems through charts depicting good or bad behavior. This made me reflect back to my second grade school teacher. She had a giant cutout of a dog house that she kept at the front classroom. Each student in the class had a bone with their name written on it. If we misbehaved in class we were asked to get up in front of the class and retrieve our bone and put it in the dog house. Clearly this made an impact on me considering this is one of the few things that I recall from my early years.
From the limited amount of research I have done, it seems that shame can sometimes be effective in controlling behavior, hence its still prevalent use in society.
The problems though with using shame as a means for social norms enforcement is, “it creates an ‘us or them’ boundary that reinforces group affiliation and separateness. It can become about groups, perceived good guys and bad guys and not about issues” (Rutledge, 2015).
“Shaming is an attack, it triggers our desire to protect ourselves and withdraw. It is not the opening of a dialogue. While I am in favor of highlighting places in society where change is desirable, promoting shaming as a solution hurts us all. Negative emotions make people (and organizations) close-up; they diminish cognitive flexibility and lessen the willingness to consider other points of view. Using social shaming creates exactly the opposite environment to the one that would be most likely to lead to positive resolution” (Rutledge, 2015).
The problems specifically with online shaming is that the effects are unending. Once posted, the punishment is ongoing which seems unjust for a potential slight infringement. In addition, it does not always take into account the full story. Perhaps the reason you saw xyz person without a mask, or out in public, is for a “good” socially acceptable reason? “When the state punishes, it has applied a process to determine whether the person being punished has in fact committed the thing for which they are being punished. No such measure exists in norm enforcement and the Internet’s ability to amplify social norm enforcement punishment is made even worse when there was no actual norm violation to cause it” (Klonic, 2016).
The other down side to using shame is that you can’t be sure of its effectiveness. Shaming is only effective if those it is being used on have the same societal norms as you and place the same value on those norms.
You also never know how shame will be internalized by another individual. Some people are more shame-prone and others more guilt-prone. People who are more shame-prone tend to have greater levels of depression and anxiety. Your intentions might be good in attempting to shame people to “right behavior” however if they are shame-prone it can have a much deeper effect. An example provided by Kammerer, 2019, shows the difference in guilt-prone vs shame-prone individuals. “A shame-prone individual who is reprimanded for being late to work…might be likely to think, ‘I’m such a loser; I just can’t get it together,’ whereas a guilt-prone individual would more likely think, ‘I feel badly for showing up late. I inconvenienced my co-workers.’ Feelings of shame can be painful and debilitating, affecting one’s core sense of self, and may invoke a self-defeating cycle of negative affects.”
We all are going to have judgements, we are human. Understanding the impact judgements and shaming can have on others though has been extremely eye-opening for me.
To end this on a more positive note, here are a couple tips I found on the Clearview Treatment Programs website, 2020, on ways out of shame:
- Seek out relationships and commit to vulnerability with safe people.Do everything in your power to find community. Shame begins to disappear when it is shared in a safe place.
- Move out of your head and into the open.Don’t keep everything inside. Put your shame out into the world. Write about the shame. Share your story of shame. Create artwork that represents your shame. Shame finds healing when it is taken outside of ourselves and placed into the world in some way.
- Develop self-compassion.Consider what you would say to a friend who was feeling the same things you feel. Begin to respond to yourself with love and care and concern, just as you would respond to others with love and care and concern.
Kammerer, A. 2019. The Scientific Underpinnings and Impacts of Shame. Retrieved from: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/the-scientific-underpinnings-and-impacts-of-shame/
Klonic, K. 2016. Re-Shaming the Debate: Social Norms, Shame, and Regulation in the Internet Age. Maryland Law Review. v. 17., Issue 4.
McLeod, S. 2008. Social Roles. Retrieved from: https://www.simplypsychology.org/social-roles.html
Shannon, Lori. 2020. Clearview Treatment Programs. 5 Ways Shame Can Shape Your Life. Retrieved from: https://www.clearviewtreatment.com/blog/5-ways-shame-can-shape-life/
Rutledge, P. B., Ph.D. 2015. Psychology Today. Shame on Social Shamers. Retrieved from: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/positively-media/201505/shame-social-shamers