“The difference between shame and guilt is the difference between I am bad and I did something bad.” Brene´ Brown
This is a story that could be a trigger if you have lost a child. It is about more than that, but I feel I must warn you that it could bring some tears.
The story was not unusual really. A father was at an event talking about his daughter who had died. In fact, he, like so many others, decided to do something great in the name of his child. Watching the video and reading the story, tears poured down my cheeks. I ached for that father and for his daughter. She died in great pain — heart-breaking, excruciating pain, and unlike most children who die with loving family surrounding them in their final moments, she died alone. In the words of Brown, the daughter died with shame that says I am bad, and the father lives with guilt that says I did something bad.
I have heard stories of suicide before, and I haven’t heard one yet that didn’t make me incredibly sad. After all, a person ends their own life typically when something has pushed them over the edge, or when someone has pushed them to a point from which they don’t believe they can return. This story, though, held my attention quite a while and still does. I’m a parent. The main characters in the story are a parent and child. Immediately, I thought about my own children and every word I’ve ever spoken to them. I know that in my worst moments, I still have looked them in the eye and said, It doesn’t change how much I love you. What other people have said, however, has been out of my control, and what I see and hear people say about and to other people today is a harsh reminder of how many people live and die because others have shamed them, have delivered the message You are bad.
Recently, I have witnessed friends who have been
- shamed for being overweight
- shamed for being depressed
- shamed for letting children sleep in the parents’ bed
- shamed for letting children cry it out in their own bed
- shamed for not going to church
- shamed for being too sensitive and too insensitive
- shamed for being different than someone else considers normal
And I have certainly shamed myself for not being the best wife, mother (in-law), daughter, volunteer, writer, photographer, and friend that the messages in my head have convinced me I should be.
Shaming someone inflicts pain using words that can be forgiven but never unheard nor unspoken.
- Why do people shame others?
- Are the results what we hope they’ll be?
- How can we better respond when someone tries to shame us?
- What is the best way to stop shaming others or ourselves?
Too often, shaming happens in relationships with people we care about — our spouse/partner, our parent, our child, our best friend, our employer, or even our teacher. Offra Gerstein, Ph.D. says about these times, “Shaming another individual gives the shaming person a temporary sense of superiority and comfort through the belief that he/she is superior to the other.” That’s the why.
When we shame someone, there are only a couple of things that happen, outside of our momentary feeling of superiority. Sociologist Thomas Scheff says, “People who feel shamed tend toward two polarities of expression: emotional muteness and paralysis, or bouts of hostility and rage.” Is that your goal or mine? I don’t think so.
My first instinct when someone shames me is to shut down, as I fight tears. Professionals agree we shouldn’t rush to react, but should give ourselves a minute to think through what was said and respond to let them know how off-base they were in their words. Whether or not they die a thousand times while hurrying to apologize is out of our control, but as I shared in a recent writing, it probably isn’t even really about us — it’s about them.
The best way any of us can stop shaming others or ourselves is to recognize the power of our words. It sounds so simple, but it’s a choice we each must make when we open our mouths. I know your child forgot to pick up the toys and am sorry you tripped on them in the dark, but shaming her for forgetting won’t change the stubbed toe. Feel free to substitute any person or item in that scenario.
Nathan Matthis lost his daughter Patti Sue because he and others shamed her for being the person she was. I am certain he is making amends every day for the words he spoke that couldn’t be unspoken, for the shame with which he saddled her.
I don’t care what you are struggling with today, no one needs to make you think you are a bad person when you simply have made them uncomfortable. Maybe you made someone’s day a little more difficult because of what you did or didn’t do, how you fell apart or how you don’t look pulled together. Whatever momentary superiority a person feels by shaming another pales in comparison to the message the lie of shame tells an innocent person.