I’m a big fan of Brené Brown. Her book I Thought It Was Just Me changed my life by giving me a much clearer picture of how shame works and the language to talk about it with others. In fact, I respect her work so much that I posted two videos of her TED talks on my inspiration page, up there in the navbar and I’ve given her book to several friends. But there’s something that she holds firmly that I disagree with quite strongly.
In her talk Listening to Shame, she says that she thinks that there is no positive value to shame. Like many other people, she makes a distinction between guilt and shame. In her view, the former can motivate us to make positive changes, while the latter is always toxic. I disagree, though I suspect that’s more an issue of semantics than anything else.
When I talk about shame and shame reactions, I’m using those terms to describe a whole category of emotions, in much the same way that I might use the word anger to talk about mild irritation, annoyance, rage, vexation, hostility, impatience, and outrage, among other feelings. They range in scale and scope, in cause and effect, but there’s a commonality among them. When it comes to anger emotions, they’re all expressions of “there’s something going on that I don’t like.”
For a while, I thought of these different emotions on a spectrum, until a recent conversation with my friend Megan helped me realize that a spectrum implies a zero-sum game. In our chat, we came up with the idea that our emotions are more like tents. The anger tent contains all of the feelings I listed above, and many others. They have some common characteristics, though they vary a lot in terms of how they arise and how they manifest. But it’s not as if they’re all the same thing, with differing volumes, which is what the spectrum model implies.
Similarly, in the “shame tent”, we might find chagrin, humiliation, embarrassment, guilt, stigma, remorse, reproach, mortification, and regret. And just as some of the emotions in the anger tent can be adaptive, depending on the reasons for them and how we act upon them, some of the emotions in the shame tent can be, as well.
In my view, shame is a powerful medicine. At its most fundamental, it’s the emotion of disconnection: it causes and is caused by disconnection. That makes it a really effective tool for controlling people– if you don’t do what I want you to, I will disconnect from you. Of course, that only works to the degree that you want me to engage with you. If you don’t care what the Pope thinks, the fact that he’ll excommunicate you for your sexual choices is irrelevant.
But those emotions are also quite good at teaching people what our expectations for their behavior are. For example, I expect the folks in my life to demonstrate respect for other people, regardless of their sexual orientation, sexual practices, or gender expression. If you don’t, I will call you on it. If you persist in not changing your actions, I will disengage from you. To the degree that you want to be in connection with me, that can be a motivation to explore your ideas and beliefs and perhaps, change them.
I’m certainly understand that shame can easily become toxic. Sometimes, the rules that are being enforced are inconsistently applied, or relate to things that we can’t change (or at least, not without great cost to ourselves). Or perhaps the disconnection is disproportionate (such as when the we are triggered and overreact). When there isn’t a clear path to reconciliation and reconnection, unprocessed shame lingers and festers. And of course, when the rules simply don’t make sense or aren’t explained in ways that we can understand, the recipient has no clear way to change their actions. The difference between medicine and poison is the dose, the timing, and the individual reaction to it.
So I’m with Brown that shame can cause many different problems. And perhaps my disagreement with her comes down to a matter of semantics. I use shame as an umbrella term while she uses it to talk about a specific emotion. But in my experience, all of those different feelings that are in the shame tent have a lot in common. And when we’re able to encompass them instead of being overwhelmed by them, they can be amazingly motivational.
The one time I cheated on my partner (yes, sometimes, polyamorous people can and do cheat. It’s a long story.), I felt such deep shame afterward that I told her about it immediately and have never been tempted to do it again. It wasn’t guilt that I felt- it was shame. It’s the difference between “I did a bad thing” and “I am a bad person.” And just like the dog that won’t cross the invisible fence after getting shocked, I won’t do anything that violates our relationship agreements again. Fortunately, we have a really solid foundation and are quite practiced at reconnecting with each other when conflicts arise.
I think that much of why I prefer to think of all of these different feelings residing within the same tent is that they share a lot of characteristics. When I feel guilt, remorse, stigma, or humiliation, my somatic responses tend to follow specific patterns and I usually feel it in similar places in my body. I tend to blush, I have trouble maintaining eye contact, my shoulders slump, and my chest collapses inward. I might also notice a shift in my perception of time as my cognitive functioning freezes up and I get hyper focused on “what I did wrong.”
Further, the skills I use to deal with these different feelings have a lot in common. On a physical level, taking a walk, or doing some gentle back bends to release my chest can work, no matter where I am in the shame tent. And talking about the situation in terms of what I did instead of how I’m wrong can begin to release me from the pattern of the shame spiral. So can taking a break from things to give my attention to something else, in order to calm down before returning to deal with it.
Since my experiences of these various emotions show these similarities, I think it makes a lot of sense to call them all “shame reactions.” In fact, when I’m in one of them, I’ll often simply say that I’m having a shame reaction, rather than worrying about deciding exactly which emotion is going on.
I suppose if there was a different word to label the tent, I might use that. And I’m confident that Brown would agree with me that any emotion can be toxic, if it’s larger than our ability to manage: anger can become rage; sadness can become despair; happiness can become mania. But that doesn’t mean that we have to say that everything in those tents is necessarily a problem. And the fact that some of those emotions can be toxic doesn’t mean that they don’t have a lot in common with the more adaptive forms.
In the end, I guess it doesn’t really matter that Brown and I use the words differently, as long as people can learn to overcome their difficulties and rebuild their relationships. At the same time, given that shame is part of most people’s lives, I’d much rather not suggest to them that it’s a toxic emotion. There’s so much confusion around the word that I’d rather offer ways to make room for it than try to cast it out. And as part of that, I think that seeing it as simply the name of the tent is the way to go.