Sorry, Brené, We Should Feel Ashamed. (Part Two)
A few weeks ago, I wrote an article that received mixed responses, ranging from “this is misguided and dangerous” to “that needed to be said.”
Some read it as if I was suggesting that to face climate change and social injustice, we need to be shamed into it. Admittedly that was the question that got the ball rolling, but it’s not where I ended up. Shame probably shouldn’t be anyone’s final destination. Several readers didn’t like me bringing Brené Brown into it, and well, shamed me for daring to question her ideas because she has a Ph.D. and who the hell am I?
The idea I questioned is that “shame is [not] helpful or productive.” Brené says, “shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous.” Whereas “guilt is adaptive and helpful — it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort.”
A maladaptive result of shame is paralysis, and guilt inspires new behavior.
I agree and disagree (and agree to disagree). I do recognize myself in her 12 categories of shame (appearance and body image, money and work, motherhood/fatherhood, family, parenting, mental and physical health, addiction, sex, aging, religion, surviving trauma, and being stereotyped or labeled), and accept that a lot of that shame is toxic. These types of shame are also highly personal.
What if there’s a shame that is transpersonal and not dysfunctional? What if there’s a collective shame that is key to our survival and is evolutionarily adaptive? And what if we’re missing it because we are so fixated on our individuality and our personal feelings?
But, I’m a university dropout and don’t even have a bachelor’s degree. How dare I bring myself into a conversation for which I have no pedigree? Perhaps I should go back to school and get my paper before I write another word. But, I’m too old for that. I guess I missed the boat. I should shut up and let the scholars do the talking. I don’t know the facts like she does. I haven’t done the research like she has.
I’m too reckless with my words. My god, up until last year, I didn’t even know what intersectionality meant. I’m a hack. I don’t even have a job. Who the hell do I think I am?
What could I possibly know about shame?
If I succumb to all those thoughts, I might never write again, which proves Brené’s point about shame paralysis. But, I’m still here and well past my ten-thousandth round in the arena. I have spent much of my life in some kind of trance dance with one or more of her 12 categories while the world burned in the background.
I don’t believe I was engaged with an evolutionary shame, mine was the maladaptive man-made personal variety.
They were all little-me shames: I’m too fat, too ugly, too young, too old, too white, too intense. I’m not rich enough, not creative enough, not well-educated enough, not fit enough, not a good enough mother/wife/friend. Little-me shame begins every accusation in one of two ways, we are either too much of something or not enough. This shame keeps our attention right at our own navel.
“I’m unworthy,” little-me shame says. “No, you’re actually awesome and special,” little-me shame retorts. “No, I’m unworthy, and here’s why!” “No, you’re special, and here’s why!” And back and forth this goes, often for decades, sometimes for generations.
Countries go to war, entire populations are oppressed, babies go to prison, plastic fills the ocean, the planet heats up, the sun rises and falls, and here we are, in our little boxes playing ping pong with our little-me shame and our precious self-worth.
This shame stands in contrast with Brené’s view of guilt, which recognizes when a mistake was made and seeks to make amends. Guilt almost sounds like a mature version of shame.
Let’s say I accidentally hit someone’s car, guilt would have me apologize and pay for the repair. I lie to a friend, so I admit it, apologize and promise honest communication in the future. Maybe, I even commit a crime. I work through some big old shame, confess, stop my behavior, make amends, seek counseling and vow to do better in the future.
Let’s say that every day I collude with and invest in systems that are directly responsible for systemic injustice, climate change, and the sixth mass extinction. I enjoy more money, more safety, better housing, greater opportunities for myself and my children because of the color of my skin, and I live a whole life without acknowledging that my privilege comes at the expense of others.
Even though thousands of scientists are telling me that my children’s lives are at risk, I go on with business as usual, so I, uh… save up for a Tesla, offset my flights and share Black Lives Matter posts? Can we please get back to regular programming now?
Once we recognize our personal connection and complicity in all the shitty things happening in the world, I’d be darn surprised if most of us didn’t feel some shame. According to Brené, guilt says, I’ve made a mistake, whereas shame says, I am a mistake. When thousands of species are facing extinction and we are creating an inhospitable planet because of our collective behavior, maybe we are a mistake.
Or maybe some of us are. At the very least, maybe the lens through which we see the world is mistaken, and maybe the assumptions we base our behavior on are profoundly flawed.
Many of us waking up to humanity’s impact feel ashamed right now. The shame is so intense because we don’t know what immediate action to take and we are feeling it personally. We know we are part of the problem, but can’t employ an appropriate guilt response because the problems are so big, systemic and ingrained.
We can do the work of dismantling our conditioning and reexamine our place in the world, but our next steps aren’t clear. It’s going to take time, and we need to take meaningful action now. This is beyond guilt. It’s a collective affliction, and individuals can’t take full accountability, yet we need to take full responsibility for the systems we have collectively created, disempower them and do better.
It’s a pickle, for sure.
If we aren’t individually and collectively ashamed of our role in bringing about the Anthropocene era, what does that make us? When did shamelessness become so highly regarded, worthy of holding the highest offices and earning the biggest paychecks? When did we start shaming shame? Maybe we need to be wary of the toxic little-me shame, but we shouldn’t toss the baby out with the bathwater.
Shame is a real, valid and very strong human emotion. It is not an evolutionary mistake.
Yet, for all the shame hovering in the air, we aren’t paralyzed by it. I wish we were. I wish we were on our knees, praying for redemption. We are collectively talking (or not talking, as the case may be) about a planetary and social crisis that goes way beyond getting caught with our hand in the cookie jar, and we are carrying on like this is someone else’s problem.
It’s as though there is is a battle between the good guys and the bad guys, and we are all passively the good guys, who might feel bad about our extra 10 pounds.
With the rapid rate of change in our biosphere and social systems, we are in evolutionary times. Barbara Marx Hubbard, a futurist, suggests that in this time of planetary crisis, we must stay close to our evolutionary impulse. The human emotion of shame may be exactly what we need to save ourselves.
What if shame, the Grandmaster Shame, not the little-me shame, is a highly adaptive and intelligent evolutionary impulse designed to alert us to straying too far from the laws of our own existence?
What if this profound shame is trying to wake us up to our rote, destructive and unconscious behaviors? What if it is an emotional pain response similar to the physical pain of touching a hot oven which is trying to force us to stop what we are doing, for our very survival? What if it’s part of Earth’s consciousness?
Religion, capitalism, politics, and academia (let’s just call it the patriarchy) have hijacked our shame response and reduced it to a chronic and toxic ache. For the last few thousand years, its salesmen have promised a cure through exclusive consumption of their brand of doctrine, product, or knowledge. This shame is maladaptive, but it is great for business.
“Feeling bad about yourself? Well, that’s because you are bad. You’ve always been bad. But if you join our institution/buy our product, we will make you, if not unbad, at least not hellishly bad.”
Meanwhile, the real intelligence behind this powerful survival mechanism has been left fallow by the generations conned into believing that the supremacy of power-hungry men had greater authority than the intelligence of their own lived experience.
We know how to live. But we don’t remember because we have traded our natural intelligence for the prettiest lipstick, new fad diet and the most expensive car. We’ve bestowed it to the priest who says, you can only find God through me and a 10 percent tithe.
We’ve abdicated it to a culture that insists you don’t open your mouth without a degree and a well-paying job. Given it to the candidates who point out how the other has it wrong.
We hate shame, but are ruled by it.
We hate shame, so we bypass it.
We hate shame, yet are easily controlled by it.
Yes, my vote is for shame. Our Life-given shame. The one that drops us past our defended egos and connects our behavior to our impact on the world. I hope we all feel this paralyzing shame and allow it to command our attention to the trance and the watershed moment we are in. I pray that this shame will stop you, bring you to your knees and make you question everything you think you know.
I pray that when you are face down on the ground, you will listen for Earth’s heartbeat and remember your way home.
In my bones, I don’t believe we are a mistake, but ultimately, it’ll be Nature who decides whether She can or will continue to tolerate us. She’s the homeowner. We’re the shitty tenants, complaining about our petty lives, smoking in bed and tossing our butts out of the window. There’s an eviction notice on the door, but we have yet to read it.
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.