Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Brené Brown - Shame Corrodes Our Ability to Believe We Are Capable of Change


New York City, under Mayor Bloomberg's direction, recently unveiled its new anti-teen pregnancy campaign, with a series of posters similar to the one above (which is part of the series). A lot of people who are frequently liberal allies of Bloomberg have denounced the ad campaign, including Planned Parenthod:
Planned Parenthood issued a statement denouncing the poster campaign, saying that it ignored the racial, economic and social factors that contribute to teenage pregnancy and instead stigmatized teenage parents and their children.
Brené Brown - author of Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead, The Gifts of Imperfection: Let Go of Who You Think You're Supposed to Be and Embrace Who You Are, and I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn't): Making the Journey from "What Will People Think?" to "I Am Enough", among other works - also weighs in on the issue, and she suggests (rightfully so) that shaming these young mothers is pouring salt in an open wound. Most of them probably did not plan to be mothers, but it happened, and shaming them for it will just create even more shame as they shame themselves.

She should know - Brown is one of the leading researchers and writers on shame in the U.S., and her TED Talks (The Power of Vulnerability, 2010, and Listening to Shame, 2012) have been HUGE successes.

This is from Brown's blog.

Public Shaming is a Better Example of "If it feels good - do it" than Teen Pregnancy


March 20, 2013


Richard Reeves’ New York Times Op/Ed arguing that shame is an essential ingredient of a healthy society is not only wrong, but also potentially more dangerous to parents, children, and society than teen pregnancy – the example he uses in his argument.

Last week New York City unveiled its public education campaign targeting teenage pregnancy. Taking a page from the Georgia obesity campaign and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, the campaign features pictures of tear-stained toddlers admonishing their teen mothers for ruining their lives.

The ads are painful, and in a moment of sheer frustration and anger, I thought about ditching this article and just sending both Reeves and Mayor Bloomberg pictures of tear-stained pregnant teenagers staring out and declaring: “Please don’t attack my self-worth. I’m already struggling and desperate for love and belonging.”

Having spent the past decade studying shame, courage, and vulnerability, I know that ploy is cheap, easy, and ineffective. I’m going old school – with facts.

To be effective, all shame- and stigma-based campaigns rely on the intended audience’s feeling empathy and guilt when they see the images. In New York the goal is for teenagers to see the forlorn toddlers and think, “I don’t want to do that to a child.” In anti-obesity ads, the goal is for parents to see a desperate child saying, “Please help me. I don’t want to be fat,” and think, “I’ve got to start making better choices for my family.”

Here’s the rub:

Shame diminishes our capacity for empathy.

Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.


You can’t depend on empathetic connection to make a campaign effective, then crush the needed empathy with shame.

Researchers June Tangney and Ronda Dearing, authors of Shame and Guilt, explain that feelings of shame are so painful that it pulls the focus to our own survival, not the experiences of others.

Example: A man shakes a bottle of pills in his wife’s face, “Look around you! Your pill-popping is destroying our family. Our son is failing out of school and our daughter is literally starving herself for attention. What's wrong with you?”

Does the shame of what she’s doing to her family lead her to get help, or does it lead her to slink away and get high? After-school specials tell us she gets help. Data say she gets high. In fact, new research shows that some addiction may be born of shame and that shame leads to relapse rather than relapse prevention.

A man is convicted of domestic abuse and the judge sentences him to stand downtown during rush hour holding a sign that says, “I am a wife beater.” Would you like to be the woman he comes home to that night? Are you safer when he’s in shame or repairing shame?

Reeves basically makes the good shame/bad shame argument, explaining that shame should be used in some ways but not others.

I don’t see any evidence of “good shame.” Not in my research and not in the research being done by other affect researchers.

I define shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Along with many other shame researchers, I’ve come to the conclusion that shame is much more likely to be the source of dangerous, destructive, and hurtful behaviors than it is to be the solution.

It is human nature, not just the nature of liberals (as Reeves argues), to want to feel affirmed and valued. When we experience shame, we feel disconnected and desperate for belonging and recognition. It’s when we feel shame or the fear of shame that we are more likely to engage in self-destructive behaviors, to attack or humiliate others, or to stay quiet when we see someone who needs our help.

Making the distinction between good and bad shame, and promoting so-called good shame is like saying there’s “good starvation” and “bad starvation” and that we need to address the obesity epidemic with “good starvation.” Just like there’s no such thing as “good starvation,” there’s no such thing as “good shame.”

The “good shame” that Reeves describes is actually a combination of guilt and empathy. And, interestingly, there is actually significant research on the important roles both guilt and empathy play in pro-social, positive behavior.

Is this just a case of semantics? No. We don’t refer to balanced, healthy eating as “good starvation” because it’s confusing, inaccurate, and misleading. It also obscures and confuses what we really need to do to move toward positive social outcomes.

The majority of shame researchers agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between “I am bad” and “I did something bad.” Shame is about who we are, and guilt is about our behaviors.

When we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends to others, or change a behavior that we don’t feel good about, guilt is most often the motivator. Of course, you can shame someone into saying, “I’m sorry,” but it’s rarely authentic. Guilt is as powerful as shame; it just doesn’t have the paralyzing and debilitating impact that prevents shame from being an effective agent of meaningful change.

Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s place in order to understand what they are feeling. When we are empathetic, we can listen and respond authentically to others, and we have the skills to consider how our actions will impact others.

Again, why don’t we just refer to guilt and empathy as “good shame”? Because it’s inaccurate. It clouds the fact that being empathetic and communicating with others (colleagues, children, partners, friends) without using shame requires most of us to develop new skills. Labeling these skills “good shame” moves us away from the hard work of understanding, identifying, and acquiring the knowledge we need to change.

Based on my own experiences with shame (we all have it) and what I’ve learned about it as a researcher, I know the intense pain, isolation, and fear it causes. I’m not proud to say this, but even with this knowledge, if I thought shaming people would, in the long run, keep them safer and make the world a better place, I might do it. As a parent and an observer of human behavior, I can get extremely fearful, and that fear might allow me to overlook the pain caused by shame if I thought it would ensure a better outcome.

Fortunately, I don’t have to wrestle with that moral dilemma because we know that shame never works as a catalyst for healthy, lasting change.

Shame is at the core of violence, addiction, disengagement, and fear. Shame is about anger and blame, not accountability and change. Meaningful change means understanding the realities of these girls’ lives (and the boys who get them pregnant) and working with them to cultivate educational opportunities, hope, and support.

Reeves writes, “We need a sense of shame to live well together. For those with liberal instincts, this is necessarily hard. But it is also necessary.” I’m not sure what he means by “liberal instincts,” but what I do know is that using shame as a tool when we are frustrated, angry, or desperate to see behavior change in people is a much better example of the “it feels good – do it” ethos than the teen pregnancy problem. We might feel justified in belittling and humiliating people, but it makes the world a more dangerous place.

I'd love to know what you think. Respectful debate and discussion is always welcome! ​

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