How Toxic IS Shame?

People sometimes ask, “what’s the big deal about shame?” The person asking is often dismissive about the whole subject. S/he doesn’t see the significance of certain words nor their impact upon the recipient. Thus, the recipient ought to “buck up,” “get tougher skin,” “blow it off,” or “push back.” I’m not surprised when the person acknowledges the fact that s/he confronted similar words all the time while growing up “and I turned out okay.”

On some level, this person is correct. Not every unkind word is deliberately meant as an
affront to the individual, nor can every conversation be absolutely shame-free at all times. People slip up, say unkind words, shame another (consciously or unconsciously) and end up hurting another’s feelings. It’s to be expected. No one is perfect. Baseball teaches us that progress is what matters, not perfection. So, if and when we say something that diminishes another person’s spirit, admit it, apologize for it, and take another swing at it. No conversation is ever completely finished. We can always revisit one and say, “I’ve been thinking about our conversation the other day, especially where I said (x, y or z) and I wonder if we could do that part over?” Then say what it is that you want to say, only in a different way.

Make no mistake, however, the toxicity of shame, especially persistent, chronic shame, can be very devastating. I counseled a very prominent man who divorced his wife of many years and felt terrible about it. He was a pillar of society. Active in church. A wonderful friend and neighbor. He did nothing to raise doubt about his faithfulness nor his devotion to his wife and family. Yet, she constantly criticized him, berated him for the smallest of “infractions” (e.g. not getting the recycling out in time) and undermined his efforts to be helpful and courteous. The biggest blow came when she finally had an affair, an especially open and brazen ordeal. Why? everyone wondered. It turned out that she came from a terribly dysfunctional, alcoholic, co-dependent – and very shaming family. Nothing she or any other sibling ever did was ever right, good enough, worthy, a good job, or valued. Deep down, she never felt that she really deserved such a kind, loving and devoted husband. Shame, with a capital “S.”

Another prominent man could not understand why his son committed suicide. “He had so much going for him.” What the father failed to recognize is that “junior” (his son carried his same name) was never allowed to be his own person. He was always being compared to his talented, athletic, and very successful father. The son was not the hard-driving, affable politically-savvy businessman that his dad was. He was constantly being compared to his father and came up short. He never measured up, was never good enough (substitute: fast enough, tough enough, shrewd enough, smart enough) to compete with his father and win at the same level. His only value to his father and to the family was his name…and it wasn’t even unique to him. It was his father’s.

Teenagers are desperate to belong to the right tribe. If they see Facebook pictures of friends that do not include them, they can have anxiety attacks that someone has cut them off from their social lifeline. And on it goes….the toxicity of shame inhibits relationships, impedes productivity and imperils the Commons. A regular dose of Little League affirmation could go a long way to neutralizing that toxicity. How can we use more “atta boy,” “atta girl” in our conversations?

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