You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself
Approximate Read Time: 21 minutes
“Justin….Juuuustin. Ok…why don’t we just have Ryan read instead.”
I had my nose pressed so hard into my book that I hoped no one could even see the sides of my face. My face would have been in my knees had the desk not prevented it. I was trying to shrink into the smallest possible ball, hoping to all but disappear. My entire body glowed so hot that I thought it might do permanent damage.
This was one of the most uncomfortable and emotionally painful experiences of my life. Yet, I would never wish a life on anyone that did not contain something similar.
This was the moment of my deepest shame. While fourteen years later I can still recall and recreate the pain as hot as the day it happened, this is also one of the most important moments of my life. I don’t think I would be writing these words without that moment and you certainly would not be reading them here on IHD.
The thing that filled me with so much shame was simply being asked to read aloud in my 11th grade English class. We were reading The Crucible by Arthur Miller and I was randomly assigned the male lead role of John Proctor. I survived the first several days, but was constantly keeping my worst fear at bay. This morning it flared up far worse than I ever imagined.
When I was younger I had a speech impediment. I never really solved it in the classic sense. I suppose you could say that I still have it now, even though that’s not how I view myself. My parents and I called it a stutter, more for convenience than accuracy. The speech therapists that I saw a few times each week in school did not have a specific name for it. Apparently my case was unique.
I can’t really describe the feeling other than a freeze-up or a hard stop. When I arrive at the problem word or syllable (some are far worse than others) my entire mouth and face lock up and make continuing impossible. I become physically incapable of forming the next word or sound. It feels like the ultimate betrayal from my body. To have such a basic and integral skill suddenly fall away feels frustrating and shameful, but also leaves me completely infantile - incapable of even ordering food, much less actually expressing any deep thoughts.
I say that I never solved it because I never learned how to prevent it from happening or to shut it down when it did. I developed my own method to get past it. Since I couldn’t move through it, I had to go around. Some sounds and words were much more likely to give me hang ups and I learned to feel the sensation of a hard stop coming. When I knew I was likely to hit a wall, I simply came up with another way to direct my sentence - the same meaning with different words. By the time I was in the third grade my speech therapist told my parents that I didn’t need to continue therapy. She knew that I was creating my own little detours rather than working on the methods that she prescribed, but she told my parents that my own way of coping had grown so seamless that I didn’t really need her help anymore. She told my parents that I was developing such a broad vocabulary for my age, that she was confident that I could navigate on my own.
I tell this story with a bit of pride, but also knowing that it’s not (nor will it ever be) a perfect solution. I was able to navigate everyday life, rerouting sentences when necessary, avoiding difficult sounds, and taking a winding path through a field of potential freeze ups. But that morning when I was required to read aloud, the exact words right in front of me and everyone else, I was presented with my worst nightmare.
Nearly a decade after I had been declared “cured,” I was instantly snapped back to my 8-year-old self, completely frozen and incapable of speaking when my first line arrived. The teacher called on me for nearly a minute, my friends sitting around me tapped my shoulder, but I just sat hunched with my face buried in the desk and waiting for the moment to pass. I couldn’t even look up to ask for someone else to read. While that morning and the weeks to follow were absolutely miserable, I now consider that shame I felt as the driver of the most important transformation of my life.
When I got to college two years later, I signed up to lead study sessions for calculus. I dreaded that decision and was nearly petrified on my first day, but I knew that it would be a perfect opportunity to work through my speech issues. I knew that when speaking on a subject that I was both passionate and well-versed in I was much less likely to hit my hard stops. This proved true and my confidence in my speaking abilities began to grow. Eventually, I realized that constantly talking around the boulders in my path had endowed me with the ability to explain a concept or idea in multiple ways. I could meet a student at their level and find a way to teach them that made sense to them, an incredibly useful skill for teaching mathematics. As my confidence grew, so did my love for teaching. This led me to coaching and teaching in the fitness sphere and eventually to writing (which progressed to writing for Breaking Muscle and meeting Shane). I now come alive when leading a workshop of 30 plus students more than any other context in my life.
My early struggles and deepest source of shame gave me the pathway to direct my growth. This is not an easy process. I felt fear every step of the way. It has been over fourteen years since that moment in English class and I still feel that I have much more to learn. But, I know that without the shame from that moment I would never be writing this today.
Shame is Feedback
Our modern culture has grown pretty obsessed with shame. Brené Brown has risen to near celebrity status for her books, TED talk, and new Netflix special that outline her work on shame and vulnerability. We had even transformed shame into a verb: shaming. What used to be a mere feeling is now an act that you can do to someone; an act that you deserve to be called out and demonized for. The current social justice narrative tells us that shame is harmful and that if we could eradicate it, the world would be a better place. Everyone is perfect just the way they are, even as depression, suicide, heart conditions, obesity, and mindless phone use reach an all-time high. No one needs to change or grow, even when the average US life expectancy has decreased for the first time in the industrialized world. We need shame now more than ever. While I would never defend purposefully causing undue pain, shame is not a negative.
Shame is painful and uncomfortable and well, shameful. But we would not be capable of feeling shame if it did not serve us in someway. Evolution is the great optimizer. Our capacity to feel a certain emotion could not persist through the generations if it did not serve some individual and/or social function.
Shame gives us vital feedback. It shows us the gap between where we are currently and where we would like to be (or perhaps where society wants us to be, but more on that later). We need to be shown this gap if we are to grow. Shame is the spotlight that illuminates the exact areas where we need to direct our growth. Of course it hurts to be revealed as imperfect, but this knowledge (and possible public demonstration) of your imperfections drives your growth like nothing else can.
I think of growth through the following growth loop:
Growth/progress = Try something —> Fail —> Reflect and Reassess —> Try again.
This then loops back to the beginning. We grow a bit more strong, resilient, capable, knowledgeable, and tough with each loop through the cycle. This is called a feedback loop. We need feedback from the previous attempts to better inform our efforts for the next cycle. Shame is that feedback. Shame shows us where we fell short and where to direct our efforts next time. This is deeply uncomfortable, but it could not be more vital.
Without feedback we cannot grow. Imagine you were asked to shoot 100 free throws with a basketball, but the hoop was hidden behind a curtain. If you couldn’t tell whether you made each shot, you would have no idea how to adjust the next one. You could be missing to the left over and over. A simple adjustment to the right might mean sinking a perfect basket, but you would never get that vital feedback. Living in a world where we try to eradicate shame means that all of our growth efforts are just a shot in the dark. Even worse, it could mean a world where no one feels the need to grow in the first place.
You Are NOT ok Just the Way You Are, and Neither Am I
If you’re feeling “shame triggered” right now, you’re welcome. This isn’t meant to cause you unnecessary pain. It’s completely necessary. You are not fine just the way you are.
I’m sure that if we met, we would get along wonderfully and that I would thoroughly enjoy your company. I would have very little, if anything, critical to say about you. But, that doesn’t mean that you could not be better.
I am extremely proud of who I am and what I have accomplished. I love my relationships, my physical abilities, the friendships that I have cultivated, the teaching and writing that I have put into the world, and work that we have done here with IHD. But, I would never want to remain exactly as I am now when I wake up tomorrow, much less many years from now. To be told that I am destined to remain in my current version for the rest of my life is the worst possible fate to which I could be sentenced.
As uncomfortable as shame feels, it is perhaps the only place from which we truly grow.
Shame and the Growth Spectrum
Shame is one of the most powerful emotions that we can feel. It is more than just a feeling. It has a physical sensation. Deep shame can take over every inch of your body, making it so unpleasant and painful. This is why the current social justice trend conflates kindness with an assurance that no one ever suffers any shame. But, shame’s physical component and way that it can completely take over our being also give it an immense capacity for good.
Imagine yourself standing in the exact middle of a spectrum. To your left are all of the things that you want to avoid: poor physical health, poor nutritional choices, unhealthy and toxic relationships, feeling trapped by your job or living situation, procrastination, depression, obesity, mindless unproductive habits, and a general lack of discipline. To your right are all of the reciprocal things that we strive for: physical and emotional health, loving and uplifting relationships, more money, more freedom, a sense of purpose and meaning, more physical strength and capacity, agency and control over your life, and discipline.
While knowing that we could work to move forward in one direction or that we could easily slip in the opposite direction, most feel quite content to remain in equilibrium. Even knowing what lies to each side, it is all too easy to simply maintain your personal status quo. We require a significant force to push us from center. Shame is the strongest force available.
All of the positive things that lie to our right promise a more fulfilling life. They are alluring and pull us toward them, but this pull is mostly in our head. We imagine what it would be like to be stronger and more healthy. We imagine how more freedom and agency would improve our life. We can see how working in this direction would make our life better. This can be a strong pull, but it is mostly imagined and theoretical.
Shame moves us in the same direction, but it gives a push from behind rather than a theoretical pull forward. Shame moves us forward not by the promise of better, but by illuminating all that we want to leave behind. We feel this push far stronger than any pull forward could be. Shame isn’t a thought or a dream or a promise - there is nothing theoretical or imaginary about it. Shame is visceral. We feel it through our entire physical body and emotional spectrum. This is deeply uncomfortable, but also has the unrivaled ability to get us moving.
The movement to protect everyone from shame stands on the values of comfort and convenience. Creating this comfort, though, can only come from ignoring reality. The expectation for indefinite comfort is not only fantasy, but it isn’t even productive. Removing shame cuts off the necessary feedback for growth. Worse, building the belief that you have the right to be protected from shame eliminates your ability to understand what it has to tell you.
This is where the current narrative on shame has it all backwards. Just because it feels bad, doesn’t mean it is bad. Just because it hurts, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. Shame isn’t some bug in our emotional programming leftover from a more primitive time. It’s not a flaw in the human condition whose eradication spells progress. It’s an alarm built into our system that serves a vital purpose. Shame is on your team and aims to help you grow. It is painful, but that is the only language it speaks to inspire change. Just as the burning sensation on your hand aims to protect you from keeping your hand in the fire, shame only wants to show the areas where you need to direct your work.
When to Ignore It and When to Heed the Call
There are two types of shame. Both play a vital role in our lives, but we need to learn their distinction.
Internal shame is exactly what it sounds like. This is the shame that we feel inside ourselves and not from external social pressure. This is knowing that you are not in the physical health that would like to be. It’s knowing that you have been neglecting a project that is truly important to you. This was the emotion in my 11th grade English class. It was seeing with incredible clarity an area that I wanted to develop. Because it is self-derived, internal shame usually comes from areas that are truly important. It is wise to fully consider what it might be showing you. In other words, internal shame is almost always valuable.
Social shame is also exactly as it sounds. This is the shame that comes from the gap between societal expectations and who you are or something that you’ve said or done. This is social pressure and cultural norms, but it can also be specific criticism from friends, family, coworkers, or perfect strangers. While we should almost always listen to our internal shame, we need to develop a much more nuanced relationship with social shame.
Social shame is often unhealthy peer pressure or cultural norms. Our growth can depend on bucking the Standard Model and ignoring the social shame that follows. Growth and fulfillment come from defining your own personal values and then acting in accordance with them. This often means standing apart from your friends, resisting the habits that advertisers hope to instill in you, committing to your development above all else, and just occasionally being a weirdo. This is knowing that your growth comes from your personal values rather than external norms and expectations.
However, social shame can also be infinitely value. When our shame emotion originates from compassionate criticism meant to help us rather than hurt us, we need to listen.
Toward the end of high school my mom sat me down for one of the most important talks of my life. I was always a high achieving student and by the time I was 16 or 17 I had developed a strong sense of my own intelligence. I had a good memory and learned new concepts and drew novel connections relatively quickly. My ego had hardened my “smartness” into a piece of my identity and I looked for opportunities to continually prove it. I found joy in correcting others, pointing out logical fallacies, and explaining things in a way that ensured the other person understood exactly how obvious that particular concept was to me. It wasn’t all the time or to everyone but, in my moments, I could be quite the pretentious dick.
I don’t remember what my mom and I were talking about but, whatever it was, I was lying on my routine pretty thick. She immediately cut me off and said something to the effect of: “Don’t talk down to me. Look, you might be smarter than a lot of people but that doesn’t give you an excuse to be condescending.” A total punch in the gut. I was glowing with shame. I couldn’t do anything but hang my head and tear up. My entire ego and budding young identity was shattered in the moment. I had no idea that I was coming off as pretentious. It was completely subconscious. Ego is fragile and once I had convinced myself of pieces of my identity, I had to constantly protect and prove them. Rather than just feeling a quiet confidence in who I was, I had to make outward demonstrations to convince the world. And really, it was just to prove it to myself. Ego is insecurity.
My mom went on to show me exactly how I was behaving. She told me that it was subtle and thought that I might not be consciously aware of my behavior. I wasn’t making these garish, over-the-top shows of ego and being purposefully elitist or hurtful. Rather, my face and actions showed my subtle disapproval with whoever I was talking to. I was looking down on them and even though I did not say or show this outwardly, my true feelings always came through. She told me that this would not only prevent a positive interaction in the moment, but that it would also hurt all of my current and future relationships. All of this delivered with the compassion yet brutal honesty that only a mother can offer.
While horribly shameful and painful at the time, this is perhaps the greatest gift my mom has ever given me. This is the function that social shame can bring. We feel shame, not for our failure to meet peer pressure or societal expectations, but because our behavior is hurting the people that we love. Calling a random stranger fat as you pass on the street is completely different than sitting your best friend down to tell them that they have gained a lot of weight and you are seriously worried about their health. A similar idea, yet a completely different act. Brutal honesty, when motivated by love and delivered with compassion, can be our greatest teacher.
You will feel shame in these moments, and usually much deeper than internal shame. The social shame from compassionate criticism takes us by surprise and comes with a side of embarrassment and an awkward moment. It can be extremely difficult to receive with humility. It is one thing to examine and work to slowly dissolve aspects of your ego in your personal practice. It is entirely different to have a piece of your ego confronted and attacked by surprise. This is shocking and your most natural response is to retreat and barricade yourself behind walls of your own construction. When you’re not expecting it, any criticism regardless of how it is delivered or the intent behind it, feels like an attack. If you have ever watched Intervention, a TV show where loved ones confront an individual about his/her substance abuse, then you have seen how even the most compassionately intended shame causes people wall off rather than open up.
In these moments, try to understand the intention behind the critique rather can barricading yourself behind our own shame. Yes, you feel shame and embarrassment and the disappointment of your loved one, but let all of these inspire change. You’re not being attacked. You’re being helped, served, and loved. My mom wasn’t trying to cut me down and make me suffer. She was trying to slice away a little piece of my identity so that what was left could thrive. She was brutally honest, but also effective and loving.
Shaming Up and Shaming Down
At face value, the current social justice movement is anti-shame. Within this narrow worldview, shame has no place as either a social tool or an evolutionary necessity. But closer inspection reveals that it can hypocritically both demonize or celebrate shame depending on where it comes from and how it’s directed.
We’ll draw a distinction between shaming up and shaming down. I’ll start by simply reminding that “shaming” never used to be a verb. Elevating “shaming” to an action demonstrates the wrong thinking around shame in the current cultural discussion. Shame is simply an emotion. In declaring “shaming” as an action, we assume it as inherently negative. We fail to recognize that there might be any purpose or positive outcome from shame. This undermines our above notion that shame can be a healthy and nurturing force in your life. But “shaming” as a verb is the rhetoric of the day and a critical aspect of the social justice narrative, so we’ll use it for this discussion.
While claiming to be anti-shaming, social justice warriors actually use shame as their greatest tool in their efforts to effect social change. Call-out culture, the trend to publicly out any perceived oppressor in the harshest and most defamatory possible way, relies on shame for its strength. Within this understanding, it is perfectly acceptable for an oppressed person to publicly shame their oppressor. The power imbalance between them justifies this tactic. Being white while speaking about race, regardless of how tender, humble, or intelligent your remarks are, offers justification to ruin your public reputation. This is what they would call “shaming up,” when an oppressed person shames their oppressor. This logic actually incentives people to find oppression wherever they look. It is not difficult to see how quickly this slippery slope leads to disaster. Over the course of their life, everyone will have relationships or interactions where they will find themselves on both sides of the power dynamic. No one is universally powerful and no one is universally at the bottom. If we take this logic to its extreme end, eventually we will all be outed as oppressors as the bar for public shaming gets progressively lower.
Shaming down is when a person of more perceived power causes someone of less perceived power to feel shame. This is completely unacceptable in the current cultural trend. To cause someone shame does not automatically demonstrate that “shaming” was the intent. If the power dynamic falls in your favor, you are not allowed to accidentally misstep or put your foot in your mouth. This logic is also completely disingenuous if the true aim is to effect positive social and individual change.
What is the purpose of shaming up? Is it to simply out someone and remove their influence from society? Sometimes it seems that way, but granting the charitable assumption tells us that the social justice movement attempts to do good by using public shaming to incite positive social change. To call out a supposed oppressor, they aim to show that that behavior is unacceptable and will not be publicly tolerated. Inherent in this logic is the recognition that shame has the power to move people to change. Inherent in this logic is the understanding that shame is powerful feedback for growth.
Given the recognition that shame can serve positive social change, isn’t more shame better? We don’t want to purposefully hurt people for no apparent reason, but if shame can move people for their own betterment, why would we ever insulate them from it? Why should the source of it matter? Why should it matter where they happen to fall on the socio-cultural-political-economic ladder?
Individuals with a higher societal or economic status have a lot to offer. This is not to say that everyone at the top deserves to be there. However, most fit people understand how to eat and move well. Most wealthy people work hard, plan well, and manage their money responsibly. Yet, I can only imagine the blow back if George Clooney were to suggest that impoverished people should not be financing cars and buying large TVs. He is a wealthy white man and has absolutely no right to speak on such matters. How dare he shame down. Never mind the practicality of his words.
Rather than admire those who have worked hard to achieve and value the advice that they might pass down, social justice warriors demonize their success as evidence that they are oppressors then cut them out of the conversation for positive social change. To me, it is preposterous to eliminate feedback from the top. If people at the bottom had the tools to improve on their own, then they wouldn’t be at the bottom. I don’t mean to sound callus nor do I simply expect everyone to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. There are obvious barriers to some people and numerous historical examples of social oppression, but it is incredibly counterproductive to eliminate any well-intentioned person from the cultural conversation regardless of their status, race, or gender.
All of my advocacy for the shame’s positive aspects come sunder the requirement that criticism, regardless of how harsh, must be delivered with compassion and a desire to do good. Short-term pain is always worth long-term growth. I look back on all of my most shameful moments, both internal and public, as indispensable to my growth.
As we see on the individual level, shame can drive a person to improve. It spotlights the areas where you need to work and provides the strong emotions necessary to force you from your comfortable equilibrium. This is vital and irreplaceable feedback.
Any movement that seeks to protect people from shame will cause far more harm than good. There are always unintended consequences, especially when a movement attempts to make broad and sweeping changes to cultural norms. To eliminate pain is to eliminate progress. Shame is feedback. While I have never been in the depths of a shame cycle and thought anything but, “this is the worst experience of my life,” I would also never change the world to eliminate these types of moments.
A system that removes shame might increase short-term comfort, but it cannot change the facts. Protecting a person’s feelings by not pointing out their short-comings preserves their mood today but prevents their growth tomorrow. It cuts them off from the most vital phase of the growth cycle: feedback.
If we cannot have an honest conversation about the uncomfortable facts in our culture or our individual short-comings, we stand no chance of improving them. This is the great irony of the social justice movement. By protecting the feelings of all the “oppressed” people in our culture, we do nothing to actually address the source of their suffering. All the “woke” individuals who promulgate this trend demonstrate their emotional immaturity rather than their progressive values. They cannot sit with the uncomfortable facts long enough to actually get to their root cause. It is deeply uncomfortable for most people to talk about the fact that more than half of violent crime against black people is at the hand of other black people. Yet, if we are going to improve the conditions in the communities where this is most prevalent, we have to be willing to speak about it. Protecting the feelings of these individuals in the short-term only prolongs any meaningful change.
This is the same on an individual level. Don’t go around making insults, but when you see things that could change for the better and you honestly want to see that change, don’t restrict your feedback. If a friend has a substance abuse problem, talk about it with them. If your brother is incredibly irresponsible with his money, tell him and offer some honest but biting feedback. And if I drift back toward being a pretentious dick, please tell me.
Strapping on Your Emotional Sandals
When observing the values that the anti-shaming trend is built on, I cannot help but think of the Chinese proverb about the Emperor’s sandals. One day the Emperor was walking with his advisors when he stepped on a thorn. To prevent himself and others from ever suffering another thorn in the foot, he demanded that his advisors arrange for every road in China to be covered with leather. His advisors returned a few days later with a new invention: sandals. They told the Emperor that it was far more practical for him and all of his subjects to protect their own feet rather than make the whole country safe.
Removing shame and its thorny feelings from our cultural and individual experience is to insulate the entire world for fear of the occasional thorn. This is not only impossible, but we wouldn’t want to even if we could. It’s better to strap on your emotional sandals and better still to learn how to navigate through the world avoiding thorns and addressing them when they inevitably find your feet.
Shame is those little thorn bushes. It shows us where not to step, both in our own lives and in the current culture. It causes us pain, not to do harm, but to drive course corrections when necessary.
You Should Be Ashamed of Yourself
No one should feel undue pain. But when it is due, no one should be cut-off from their pain either. I would never alter the times when I felt the deepest shame because I know how deeply they contributed to my growth. If possible, I would never remove any horrific shame from my future. I love the fact that when I step out the door each morning, I run the risk of stepping on thorns. I love the fact that the world will show me where I could be better.
We have a capacity to feel shame for a reason. It isn’t some aberrant emotional bug in your system that humanity will eventually evolve past. It isn’t even meant to harm you. Shame is an alarm, beautifully built into your system to show you exactly where and how to grow.
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