The Danger of Shame
Welcome back to our series Honoring A King: Our Struggle Towards Justice Everywhere. In Part III, I seek to clarify what shame is and begin to illuminate its undeniable connection to injustice anywhere and everywhere. Shame, much like injustice, is often misunderstood, is incredibly subversive, and has a profound impact at macro (systemic) and micro (individual) levels. Simply put, it is both a public and private crisis. If we are serious about honoring the life and legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., each of us must have the courage to face the reality shame plays in ALL our lives.
It is both impossible and irresponsible to ignore the profound impact Dr. Brené Brown has had on our contemporary understanding of shame and the way it impacts how we operate as human beings. Her groundbreaking research has inspired several best-selling books, TED Talks, podcasts, and a variety of insightful resources on vulnerability, relationships, leadership, and the art of meaningful connection. However, her tenacity to clarify and define shame and bring it into the light of public discourse is one of her greatest achievements. Brené defines shame as,“the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” This is highly problematic because All humans are neurobiologically hardwired for connection. In essence, relationships are the modus operandi of human existence. Although there are many reasons we need to be concerned about shame, when its primary function is to deceive us into believing we are unworthy of love and acceptance—a fundamental need for thriving—the results are damaging and often catastrophic.
Feeling shame is a deeply personal experience, and one every human can relate to—if we are honest enough to admit it. Because it is a universal emotion, it does not discriminate. It could care less about your gender, race, religion, body-type, political affiliation, sexual orientation, or country-of-origin. If you think your socio-economic status, marital status, vaccine status, or Facebook status protects you from shame, you are dead wrong, it does-not-care. There is no amount of professional or academic success that prevents shame. It loves to target professional athletes, therapists, surgeons, C-Suite executives, film, tv, and music stars, just as much as those not afforded with fame and fortune. From white collar to blue collar, to no collar at all, we all tend to wrestle with our worthiness and are thus victimized by the villain of shame.
Personally, and professionally, I have come to realize just how insidious shame is. Its mission is to deceive, distort, divide, and divorce us from our true nature as humans, our unique design for relational connection. At its core, shame is terrified of our capacity for connectedness with self and other. Therefore, it seeks to divide and conquer relationships with ourselves and one another. In my work as a therapist, I have observed how shame goes by many names. A quick online search reveals a multitude of synonyms. While there are indeed many, a few I often use interchangeably are disgust, contempt, and hate.
According to Oxford Languages, disgust is defined as, “a feeling of revulsion or strong disapproval aroused by something unpleasant or offensive.” As a parent, I’m no novice to the word disgust. There have been many times in the parenting journey we have heard, “ewwww, green beans and broccoli are disgusting!” I know kid, at one time in my life I thought the same thing about guacamole, but I’m starting to come around. I’m just now seeing a green theme here, maybe that is why Pixar decided to make their Inside Out character Disgust, green, but I digress. Unfortunately, in the therapy room, green beans is almost never the target of someone's disgust, it is usually a self. “I am so disgusted with myself.” Or, “She must think I’m disgusting.”And even,"I can't bear to look at him anymore, he disgusts me." Regardless, this form of shame has determined that something about ourselves or another is not worthy of love and connection.
Oxford Languages defines contempt as, “the feeling that a person or a thing is beneath consideration, worthless, or deserving scorn." Again, here we see how worthiness, or lack thereof, often becomes attached and/or detached to a person. I frequently hear this toxic version of shame come up in my therapeutic work with couples. Where Dr. Brown is world renowned for her research on shame, it is hard to imagine anyone topping the ranks of expertise as it relates to working with couples, then Drs. John & Julie Gottman. Their life-changing relationship research has spanned over 40 years and has helped countless couples navigate rupture and repair via The Gottman Method. Throughout decades of research and working with couples, The Gottman’s have identified certain predictors that lead to divorce. Can you guess what the number one predictor is? You got it, contempt. According to Dr. John Gottman, “contempt is sulfuric acid for love.” While contempt leads toward divorce in many couples, its acidic impact also leads to a divorcing from the self. When we fail to see our own goodness, realize we are worthy, our actions and behavior to medicate or avoid this reality becomes relationally destructive and toxic.
Some might say it is hyperbolic, but I sincerely believe the word that most accurately describes shame is hate. I prefer the Dictionary.com definition of hate. It states, “to dislike intensely or passionately; feel extreme aversion for or extreme hostility toward; detest:” Hyperbolic or not, this is the sense I get of a person, myself included, when we are in the throes of our shame. We are stuck in a toxic and broken cycle and incapable of locating our goodness and worthiness on our own. Our internal messages are malicious and their ratings trend towards TV-MA. They are violent, crude, demoralizing, and harmful. In Loving Your Enemies, a famous sermon delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., brilliantly articulated the destructive state one is in while navigating the shameful storm of hate.
King teaches, “For the person who hates, the beautiful becomes ugly and the ugly becomes beautiful. For the person who hates, the good becomes bad and the bad becomes good. For the person who hates, the true becomes false and the false becomes true. That’s what hate does. You can’t see right. The symbol of objectivity is lost. Hate destroys the very structure of the personality of the hater.”
Likewise, shame destroys the structure of our healthy self. It paralyzes, confuses, and brings unbearable darkness to the soul. Its prejudice distorts and leads us to a false self that forgets goodness, kills hope, avoids truth, breaks trust, and sabotages meaningful connection. Therefore, I emphatically believe shame is not only a form of injustice, it is the source of injustice anywhere and everywhere. When shame (disgust, contempt, & hate) gets turned inward towards the self and outward towards others, injustice becomes inevitable. If we are to truly honor Dr. King’s dream, we must not grow weary in our diligence to avoid the danger of the shame trap by seeking loving solutions to a crisis that threatens us all.
In the fourth and final installment of this series next week, I will elaborate on the spectrum of injustice and the many ways injustice presents in our world today. Additionally, I will offer some next steps to hopefully help facilitate healthy healing, growth, and change at both the micro and macro levels.