Shame Is Not a Catalyst for Change. So What Is?
To date, shame has never worked well as a catalyst for change.
Before we dive in, let's briefly distinguish between guilt, shame and being accountable.
- Guilt is a result of believing you've done something bad. It has to do with the act, not the actor.
- Shame is a result of believing YOU are bad, that something is inherently wrong with you. The act may be perceived as bad, but it's the actor at fault.
- Being accountable is the result of taking ownership of an action - good or bad.
Recognizing something you've done is out of your integrity and feeling uncomfortable about that is a healthy response. It is an internal alert that you are out of alignment with your values, or the values you've accepted in society. Holding yourself accountable to your actions is a healthy follow up to this.
Believing you are inherently bad can never result in positive change because it removes all your power. If you were born "bad", what chance do you have to improve?
None, really. You are a victim of you brokenness. It's really difficult to take ownership and adjust your actions when you think they are tied to your identity.
Let's look at an example I observed not too long ago. It is between two people; however, many of us attempt the same strategy within ourselves to motivate change.
Recently at my speakers club I witnessed a disturbing act. A man got up to give a prepared talk for our "mentor moment." I will call this man Ted. Ted gave a killer talk! We laughed. We pondered our existence. We learned a ton. It was really very good and well delivered. Lots of genuine applause was offered in appreciation.
Toward the end of the meeting, the person running the club - we'll call him Larry - got up to evaluate the meeting. He spent two minutes scolding Ted for his talk because it went over the allotted time and pushed the schedule off track. The irony that this two minute reprimand about the meeting being over time seemed to slip past Larry. Needless to say, it was a pretty solid buzzkill.
To be fair, it is Larry's job to ensure the meeting stays on track. He was fulfilling his duty. Every group needs a Larry - especially when a bunch of creatives get together.
But was it necessary to shame Ted in front of the group? More importantly, did it accomplish what Larry wanted?
I assume Larry chose to address the matter in this way for two reasons:
1. We have a false belief that if you make someone feel badly about their actions they won't do them again.
2. It would serve the whole group to receive this message so no one would stray in the future.
What actually resulted was Ted not coming back to the club and the rest of us feel very hesitant to sign up for any roles. So not only did it hurt Ted's feelings enough for him to stop coming, but it also discouraged the rest of us from being involved. Ted loses because he feels uncomfortable coming to club now. The club loses because the supportive environment we work to create has been cracked. Larry loses because the participation and enthusiasm for the club he manages has depleted (and he looked like a jerk, to boot).
These are pretty consistent results when shaming is used as a catalyst for change. It is easy to see it with other people, but it can be hard to detect within ourselves.
Some common phrases I've used personally in an attempt to shame myself to greatness have been:
- I should have done this from the beginning. Then I wouldn't be screwed right now.
- I'm such an idiot. I can't get anything right.
- If I was thinner, more people would like me.
- Everyone is smarter than me. I shouldn't even be allowed to work here.
- Why would she want to be my friend? I don't have anything to offer anyone.
And so on and so forth. Can you relate to any of these sentiments?
Spoiler alert: None of them made me take ownership of my situation and seek out healthy alternatives. No, instead I felt even worse about myself and dug my heels deeper into destructive behavior.
I stopped showing up for myself - just like Ted stopped coming to the club.
I felt discouraged from working hard and trying new things - just like the rest of the club didn't want to participate anymore.
And my life got consistently worse until I lost all enthusiasm and desire to continue - just like Larry lost the enthusiasm and drive for the club.
Lose. Lose. Lose. Only this time, I'm the one losing.
So if shame isn't an effective catalyst for change, what is?
You may not like the answer, but it's love. Self love. Now, this didn't start off looking like me cherishing the precious being that I am (hell, I would have laughed right in that statement's face). It started as one small action. A brave choice that would take me years to really understand. I walked into a 12 Step meeting. It was terrifying and awkward and clouded in uncertainty.
I wouldn't have claimed that to be an act of self love at the time. I saw it as an act of desperation. But desperation for what? As I look back now I can see that I was desperate to save my life - desperate to be loved. Little did I know that act of desperation was a sign of love. Love that would only grow as I dug deeper into my life, my past, my self.
It wasn't shame that motivated me to change. It isn't shame that champions me to greatness now. It was and continues to be love. Not gooey-eyed, puppy dog love. I'm talking about staring my demons in the face, slaying internal dragons, crawling through mud and walking on burning coals love - all with open wounds and exposed nerves. LOVE.
Self love is hard. The path is grueling. The surrounding environment is not favorable. Few ever attempt it and fewer still get there. But if you're looking to make a change for a happier life, you've got a much better shot walking on this road then the one paved with shame.
Next time you walk past a mirror, look into. Glare into the eyes of whatever demon you perceive there and with all the courage you can muster declare "I LOVE YOU."
I dare ya!
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