Sorry, Brené, We Should Feel Ashamed.
“I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful — it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort. I define 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.” ~ Brené Brown
Lately, and this last week especially, I’ve had an intense painful feeling and belief that North Americans are bad. That we are so terribly flawed that our behavior makes us unworthy of connection. We promote people who imprison babies and hold them hostage so they can push their own agenda and seek personal gain into super-power leadership.
Industrialized humans are so flawed that we have caused climate change and the sixth mass extinction. We are so flawed that we continue to elect leaders who support business as usual even though our children’s lives are at stake. We are making terrible ancestors of ourselves, so terrible that we might be the last of them.
Our behavior is so unworthy of connection that unless we start cooperating with all of Life, we will get voted right off this planet.
I’m writing from my home in Canada, and have been in tears all week thinking about the shameful actions taken on by the US government. Shameful. Yes, America, you should be ashamed of yourselves. Right now, I’m ashamed to be your neighbor.
But before you deflect your shame back onto me, know that I’m ashamed too. Because our country, like yours, was never discovered, it was brutally colonized and Canadians stole beautiful children from their beloved parents, put them in residential schools, beat and tortured them, and never let them go home.
The result today is that I own a lovely home in the traditional territory of the Lekwungen Nation while many First Nations have been without healthy drinking water for decades, and 25 percent of inmates in Canadian prisons are of First Nations descent even though they only make up four percent of the population. We have never made amends. We have barely tried to level the playing field.
According to the Guardian, “between 1980 and 2012, at least 1,017 First Nations women were murdered, while a further 108 went missing in suspicious circumstances.” What did my friends and I do while our sisters went missing? Among other things, we did Yoga and bought real estate on stolen land.
In some online women’s spaces lately, BIPOC women have been calling out spiritual white women on their unrecognized racism. The conversations have been uncomfortable. There have been several white women who have felt the conversations were shaming. Some white leaders were hosting retreats for all women but only featured white presenters.
Other white women teach Yoga, some are shamans, maybe they offer African dance, wear bindis or dream-catcher earrings. They aren’t doing anything wrong. They are just profiting from and enjoying the richness that colonization has finally offered them. This is feminism working.
Maybe one did call her program Lighter and featured a white-faced woman with multiracial limbs going from dark skin to light skin.
Maybe she did feature a black man hanging from a clock whose skin was gradually getting lighter, and maybe she did use an eagle feather painted with First Nations symbolism, and maybe she did delete the entire conversation where BIPOC men and women devoted themselves to educating spiritual seekers on things like cultural appropriation and white supremacy.
These white women had good intentions, and their character was never really in question. The impact of their behavior was being called out, but the criticism was deflected because the women went into shame and their shame became the central issue. But a lot of white women who were tone-deaf before are listening now.
In some cases, the difference between Brené’s definitions of guilt and shame may boil down to fragility.
I’m a little ashamed to admit that I have frequently wondered why we don’t actively shame or call each other out regarding all the inappropriate responses we have to climate change and the mass extinction event we have caused.
We shamed each other into not smoking and not drinking and driving. #MeToo is shaming men into not raping women, so why not shame each other into not flying/driving, eating meat, and over-consuming?
Everything we love is literally on the line due to our desire for comfort, convenience, travel and tasty treats, yet we still celebrate each other’s destructive desires, whether they be exotic vacations, new shoes, or home renovations. Is avoiding pressing someone’s Shame button more important than our survival?
For the record, within the last two weeks, I have flown, bought a new pair of shoes, and am considering a new kitchen. I am coming to you from deep within the paradox and the question. I am the poster child — the very archetype — of the person whose lifestyle contributes most significantly to climate change.
I’m a well-to-do, well-pampered, “avocado and toast, please,” caffeinated immigrant Canadian woman with two children. I have family, friends, and interests scattered all over the world, and I’ve burned a lot of carbon flying to meet them.
I still want all the things I’ve been conditioned to want. I am deeply cognizant that my lifestyle is incongruent to Life, yet this knowledge hasn’t immediately dissolved my conditioned desires. I still want to see my family in far away places. I want an orderly place for my pots and pans. I want cute yet practical shoes.
If North America were a three-legged stool, one of the legs would be the Pursuit of Happiness, one would be Original Sin, and the other would be Dominion over the Earth. But America is not a three-legged stool, there have always been dark and invisible legs supporting it.
Make no mistake, within those borders, the pursuit of happiness has always been for white people, and white people have always been able to pursue their happiness at the expense of others within and beyond their borders.
I can pretty much guarantee that your coffee came at the expense of others. Your heated house came at the expense of others. Your car is at the expense of others. Your vacation is at the expense of others. Your clothes, your phone, your water, your whole standard of living is at the expense of others. Is guilt enough when you see an orangutan lose his habitat for our right to eat Nutella? Shouldn’t we feel ashamed?
I feel ashamed. I feel ashamed about the millions of times I have turned a blind eye at injustice because (a) I’m numb, and (b) I benefited from it. I feel ashamed that I have allowed myself to see this as normal. And this shame feels appropriate to me. Shame as a response to waking up to this blindness doesn’t feel maladaptive, it actually feels like sanity.
Shame is how societies have enforced their rules and obligations for millennia. What is original sin if not a tight layer of shame that we’ve been collectively wearing for the last 2000 years? Shame is a huge part of the emotional foundation our society was built on. It’s the portal right here in front of us, so let’s dive in and mine it for the wisdom it brings.
Brené Brown says that the antidote to shame is empathy, and says it needs three things to survive: secrecy, silence, and judgment. “Shame cannot survive being spoken,” she says, “It cannot survive empathy.”
So when we do make the connection and feel the inevitable shame of placing our own comfort and convenience above all other living things, we can soothe ourselves by having empathy. We were born into this.
Can we recognize both our guilt and innocence and change our behavior so it matches the version of who we want to be? Can we get political and maybe even confrontational when it come to standing up against cruelty, oppression and injustice?
Let’s be ashamed of ourselves and talk about our shameful behavior, so that for the first time in modern history, we can make collective decisions based on a desire for connection, community, belonging and safety. Let’s use this shame to sever the ties with the old shameful ways of thinking.
We do belong here. Everything on Earth belongs on Earth. Believing and behaving as though (white) (male) human desires and needs are more important than anyone else’s is truly shameful. It severs the connection to Life. We’ve been told the story of survival of the fittest like it’s the only story to evolution on Earth, but it’s so secondary to evolution that it’s barely worth mentioning.
Life has survived on this planet, it has thrived and evolved, mostly through a web of extensive cooperation, acceptance, respect, resource-sharing and communication. We are the outliers here with our unbalanced drive to hoard, compete and dominate everyone and everything. We are missing out on all of the connections nature offers.
Our collective actions have thrown us into a state of division. We believe we are separate from nature, and we are becoming further fragmented from connection to Life by the second. Shame is the snowball that became the avalanche we are now running from. But the more we run from it, the bigger it gets. Shame is trying so very hard to get our attention, so let’s gather around and have a listen.
If it helps, arm yourself with anger at the previous generations who have left us this mess (though if you happen to believe in reincarnation, that won’t be very helpful).
Thich Nhat Hanh says the revolution we require for our very survival begins with falling in love with the Earth.. The real problem with shame, as Brené identifies, is that it throws us into emotional exile. We simply cannot fall in love with a world we believe doesn’t love us. How can we love a God (Life) who thinks we’re fundamentally flawed?
If you want to know how the story of original sin turns out, look up — we are very near the climax. So let us wriggle out of the cocoon that shame has spun us into. Let us spread our new wings and tell a new story. One where we behave as though all kids are our own children, every parent is our kin, and this beautiful world is worth loving. It might even love us back, if we’d only let it in.
Sandy Ibrahim is a Canadian of Egyptian and German descent. She does not know if her grandmothers are cheering her on or rolling over in their graves. After leaving her childhood home at 17, she has been pursuing sovereignty while maintaining a state of reverent bewilderment. She’s spent the last two decades raising two sons, and has worked as a systems analyst, a boxing coach, and a book-marketer. You can currently find her practicing Yoga, freaking out, writing, and volunteering for TreeSisters. You could contact her via her website.