Nobody’s “Shaming” Me, Dammit

January 16, 2014 in self-coaching, tough love, Uncategorized

If you’ve looked at a computer screen in the last couple years, you’ve noticed an increase in “shaming.”  Slut-shaming, body-shaming, woman-shaming, poverty-shaming, and yes, even (the albeit hilarious) dog-shaming.  I’ve read countless articles and instances of one person/people/institution “shaming” another person/people/institution.  I often agree that there are systems, practices, and institutions that could use some serious re-hauling, and yet I’ve never been on board with the term “shaming.”  In Summer 2012 I sat in a small discussion in a chapel in Portland with Brené Brown (omg omg omg), hanging on every word she said because I love her.  Yet even then, as she discussed how to identify when someone was “shaming” someone else, I thought to myself, “sorry, woman-who-I-just-happen-to-sort-of-worship, but I don’t buy it.”

I couldn’t put my finger on why this term irked me until recently, when I saw an article called “Jennifer Lawrence Body-Shames You More Than You Might Realize.”  Instantly, it clicked.

Thing is, shame is an emotion.  It is something you feel.  Like joy, or grief, or fear, or pride.  But shame – or any emotion – is not something someone can do to you.  It does not land on you like rain.  The same way someone’s best efforts at making you feel happy aren’t going to work unless you’re truly up to feeling happy.

When I was little and my dad would do insanely goofy and idiotic things in public, I would say “Dad, ugh I’m so embarrassed!” and he would say, “No, you’re not!” like a big naive idiot, bless his goof-ass heart.  As if his intention decided my emotional response.  Saying someone has “shamed” another is similar.  J-Law, or anyone, can make statements, take actions, even imbue those thoughts and actions with all the intent in the world to make me feel shame.  But if I don’t feel shame, then sorry, Internet, but shame hasn’t happened here, merely the intent to shame.  And if shame has happened, then you haven’t successfully “shamed” someone.  You merely said something or did something, perhaps with the intent to create shame (this is still a decidedly very shitty thing to do, btw).  The person’s shame had everything to do with the million pieces of their own life and their beliefs, not your astounding ability to emotionally manipulate.  You did not create shame – your creative work in this scenario simply ended at you being an asshole.  Nice try, though (jerk).

There are certainly lots of emotional responses – good or bad – that one hopes their actions or words will create in others.  One can speak, act, even enact authority, force, or policy – with the intent of creating a specific emotional response from the other.  They can talk, yell, push, shove, use every awful derogatory word in the dictionary, throw their authority around, essentially be a total fuck about it.  But whether I experience their intended emotion isn’t their call, only mine.  Which might be why when some HuffPost contributor told me Jennifer Lawrence “shames me more than I realize,” I got a giant beam of HELL NO brand clarity around this whole “shaming” thing.  My shame isn’t up to Jennifer Lawrence, or anyone else.

Thing is, shame still blows.  But luckily, the same way we all learned to feel shame (as kids, in middle school, years of practice, whathaveyou), we can learn to feel other emotions too.  Here are a couple thought strategies to practice to build your shame resilience, so next time some d-bag tries to “make you” feel ashamed, you can simply acknowledge the douchebaggery and carry on with your day.

1. Remember the difference between ‘authority,’ and ‘power.’  Your boss has authority over your workload.  A cop with the authority to arrest you…has the authority to arrest you.  Your landlord has the authority to demand rent.  The rules one is allowed to enact based on their social status are very different rules than the ones that dictate your emotions.  So if your supervisor calls you out on a blunder, remember: she has the authority to demand a certain kind of work from you.  But enacting her authority as your supervisor is where her control over the situation ends.  She does not have the power to determine you should feel shame for any mistakes you’ve made.  So before you fall into beating yourself up over what she said, ask yourself what kind of authority this person really has (her role as your supervisor), and what kind of authority you are giving her (the power to control or determine your emotions).  No amount of authority in the world earns anyone the power to determine your emotional response.  That is the one thing that is always in your control – not theirs.

2. Name it and claim it (props to Brené Brown, because this grew directly out of her work encouraging you to acknowledge your shame when you feel it).  You will feel shame.  Promise.  So when you feel it, say it.  Either to a friend, in your head, or – yes, I am invoking the mother of all personal growth practices - to yourself in a mirror, straight between the eyes.  When you’re willing to acknowledge “[This person] said [this thing] and now I feel ashamed because [...]” you do a couple powerful things.  First, you get to some truth about what you believe.  Chances are, if something someone says or does triggers a shame response in you, you likely believe a snippet of their story too (example: “my boss is right, I really should have the hang of this by now…”).  Unearthing painful beliefs can sting, but it helps remind us that our feelings are in our camp, grown from our beliefs and truths – not our boss’, and certainly not Jennifer Lawrence’s (ugh).  The other thing naming and claiming does is remind you of an important thing: that emotions are just emotions.  I know, I know: just emotions?!!?!  But it is indeed true.  They feel big and huge and like they could crush you.  But they can’t.  Shame can make your face hot and make your heart race and make your palms sweat.  And that is about all the physical control over your body, your actions, and your free will it will ever have.  The rest is up to you.  So when you look emotion in the face and call it out, you’re essentially saying, “Ha, I see you, Shame, nice try.”  Give it a shot next time you feel icky and ashamed about something; observe the shrinky-dink effect.

Your shame is your own.  You can let that be empowering.  It’s not something someone else can plant in you or place atop you like some shitty-feeling crown.  It is not something that simply is because someone else wants it there.  And, like many of our other big scary awful emotions, it has something to teach you.  So tune out the a-hole blabbing on on Fox News who just “shamed” you, and tune in to your very unique, very personal shame.  Then call it out, and listen up.