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“You should be ashamed of yourself.”
I was walking out of a group quiz in Physics lab, and boom. That was dropped in my lap in the middle of a gloomy day when I was already tired and grumpy from not enough sleep the night before, and no powerlifting that morning.
I had recently published an article on non-exclusivity. Some weren’t fans.
For a few minutes, I felt my stomach drop—the statement made me question everything I was doing.
Should I really be ashamed of myself? Was this all a desperate mistake? Am I an embarrassment?
I had to take a deep breath. In that moment, I had to ask: Do I truly, under all that conditioning that dictates who I’m supposed to be, think I should be ashamed?
I was well-aware of what I was saying when I wrote my article. Shame didn’t even occur to me. I know where I’m going with my writing, and have already done the mental dance around how I want to write and what my voice is.
Then why did getting negative feedback, especially from someone I love, impact me so easily? Why did I feel derailed that day?
Well, first off, I was shamed by people I love. Shame is a big, powerful, hurtful emotion with the capacity to sideline even the best of us. That red-cheeked feeling of getting sent to the corner in front of the whole class scares us into feeling like outsiders and not worthy of, at the base of it, human connection, belonging, and love.
All human beings inherently know the impact shame can have on a individual’s behaviour—it’s relatively manipulative, and a way to influence people; it’s why shame is so common.
When we don’t like something that someone “in our clan” does, we shame them to keep them in line. This emotion developed to keep tribes together when leaving tribes meant death. By shaming others, we tell them their behaviour is wrong or doesn’t fit here, and it needs to change to confirm the status quo and what’s acceptable.
In the modern age, that function of shame has become obsolete. There are seven billion people on this planet. There is a community out there that will accept and love any individual who exists. Even serial killers have groupies nowadays, not that that’s such a great thing.
Most of us aren’t tuned into this. We run on the default setting, which dictates that shame is important and we need to stay in our tribe.
And so we shame each other probably more than we ever have.
The individuals close to me still greatly use communicating shame and disappointment to try and alter my behaviour. They are ashamed of me.
What they are not aware of is that shaming others comes at a cost. Over time, the use of shame to influence the behaviour of others will degrade the relationship with those individuals. Shame is not reinforcing. Shame hurts both self-concept and image. It certainly hurt mine that day.
I felt it. In those messages, I could see how much they didn’t understand me or what I was doing. I realised how their messages impacted me as if I’d just run into a wall. It made me discouraged and angry at them. Once I settled down, I realised I couldn’t trust or share with them like I thought I could. That is what their use of shame cost them: a relationship where I felt comfortable sharing every part of my life.
One could argue we need to use shame to teach norms to children.
This is actually unnecessary—there are research-backed behavioural methods of change that can do what shame can do without the negative impact.
In this new age, shame muddies up the waters. We innately want to shame others who do things that cross our values and norms, yet we have no need to—since there are so many ways of existing in the world now.
Many of our modern communities develop around specific topics or abilities or goals. We maneuver through more social circles than we ever have. We now often do not share the values of or don’t even know the behaviours of many of the people we interact with. I don’t know the values of my teammates at my dojo, yet I view them as a part of my tribe.
Shame has lost its place.
Statements like “You should be ashamed of yourself,” or “It will be used against you,” or “It doesn’t look good” only hurt everyone involved.
There are many people in the world who can and will accept us as we are, in whatever capacity we come to them. We’ve created a plethora of circles to join, and accessing that abundance allows us freedom.
We have beautiful opportunities to follow our path and speak our voice, despite the shame, misunderstanding, or judgement of others, for by living our lives, we can find and attract those we truly will be accepted by, instead of living by the rules of those who can’t.
We get back on the path we’ve decided we are going to follow, even if those around us can’t see it as being good. And that’s freeing.
For me, that means jumping into this article, and the next, and the next, and continuing to write, fight, and f*ck.
We shouldn’t be ashamed of ourselves.