How Does Shame Proliferate?

by Dan Walsh

We discussed Daring Greatly on Saturday at the T&D Book Club.  An interesting question came up: If shame is so damaging, then how can it be so common?

We came up with three potential answers: it is effective in the short term, it is a legacy from before we became human, and it is very subtle.

Shaming is Effective in the Short Term

Shaming is an effective deterrent, a quick way to get compliance, and an easy way to transfer negative feelings. Shaming drunk drivers in local newspapers helps curb DUIs. Shaming a student for being loud in class will shut them up – fast. Shaming an employee for losing an account will shift the blame from their manager. Shaming works, but only in the short term. In the long term, this shame builds up and really starts to change how people see themselves. That driver becomes a “no good drunk”. That student becomes of “trouble-maker”. That employee becomes “the fuck up”. Once someone starts seeing themselves as something they’re not, that image becomes a self fulfilling prophecy. They will become a drunk, or a trouble maker, or a fuck up because that’s how they see themselves.

Shaming as Legacy

Shaming is so effective because we have co-evolved with it. Going all the way back to before we were even truly human, shaming was devastating. Being ostracized from the hominid group was assured death: no protection, no shared food, no help getting more food. We evolved to avoid shaming at all costs because it meant death. This model carried over into our first civilizations, where shaming methods became part of lawful punishment. Today’s civilizations are largely constructed on the foundations of our past. No legal system has every truly been reinvented, only ever adapted from previous examples, so shame is carried along from the past. In the same way that we have biologically co-evolved with shame, so have our societies.

Shaming is Subtle

Shaming is able to persist because it is so subtle and pervasive. Subtle changes in language can produce shame. For example, “you are a bad designer” or “this design is bad”. The first creates shame, the second doesn’t. Because this difference is so minor, shame can creep in everywhere on accident. It proliferates and becomes pervasive until we see it everywhere without realizing it. It is so common that even if our eyes are open enough to see it, we mistake it for being normal.

Aside from a massive propaganda campaign, I don’t know how to raise awareness and education of this issue more than Brene Brown is already doing.