Whatever happened to shame?

About fifteen years ago I had a job that was very important in terms of my career development.  I wasn’t 100 per cent qualified according to the job description but my boss saw some hidden potential in me and took a chance on my future success.  He turned out to be a great leader and I have a tremendous amount of respect for this person and for his commitment to the role, which he still holds today.  I desperately wanted to impress him and to prove that hiring me was the right decision. But I wasn’t perfect, and like everyone else, I screwed up from time to time.  When this happened, and especially if it was due to negligence, laziness or carelessness on my part, I was mortified, apologized for my role in the mix-up and asked what I could do to fix things.  Later, in the privacy of my own home, I would watch TV in bed, eat most of a medium pizza, down a bottle of wine and go to sleep feeling miserable. This was how I coped with the shame of letting down not only my boss but also myself. The next day I would clean myself up, dust myself off and start all over again, vowing never again to make the same mistake and keeping a somewhat low profile until I had “proven” myself again.  In this case, shame was a case of short-term pain, long-term gain.  It was a powerful motivator to be more aware, try harder and do better.

This kind of shame is not something I consciously set out to experience.  Thanks to a combination of innate personality and strict upbringing, I’m somewhat hardwired to feel shame when I screw up and even now, when I forget to bring the dessert to a family potluck or my kids tell their dentist that they don’t floss regularly, I feel the heat of shame and embarrassment rise from my neck to my forehead.

Imagine my surprise then in my first management role when I learned that some people are not ashamed when they screw up and worse still, most are not even embarrassed.  One of the toughest things for a manager is the realization that what motivated you to succeed is not necessarily the same thing that will motivate one of your employees and in fact, you need to learn what motivates each person in order to properly lead them.  For some it’s public recognition, for others its money or a new title and there are some people who will only work hard in exchange for something tangible like the privilege of working from home.  I can accept this but up until then, I had been labouring under the misconception that the concept of shame was universal and could always be relied upon to help people improve.

Not so. But the concept of screwing up is universal and no one is immune to it.  It’s human and in the fast-paced environment of a PR agency, it’s probably inevitable.  So, the first time I called someone on the carpet for a screw-up caused by their failure to properly proofread, double-check details or use sound judgement, I expected that they would be appropriately shamed, would deal with it in whatever way worked for them (not everyone has to eat an entire pizza after all) and come back the next day with a renewed passion for excellence.  But the person just smiled, shrugged her shoulders and said, “These things happen”.  I was so ill-equipped for this response that I reacted with stunned silence followed by yelling, which was not my intention at all.  While some of the people I’ve worked with have shared my proclivity for actually being embarrassed by their gaffes, it seems that nowadays, most don’t, or if they do, they don’t show it in any discernible way.

Shame has fallen out of fashion in the past few decades.  A major tool in the disciplinary arsenal of my parents’ generation, it has been cast aside for more modern, humane methods like talking it out, boosting self-esteem and putting the blame elsewhere. There was some method to this madness.  A couple of decades of psychoanalysis revealed that carrying around shameful reminders of childhood transgressions was having a serious impact on many adults’ ability to live a fulfilling, guilt-free life.   John Bradshaw, author of the New York Times bestselling book, Healing the Shame that Binds You, explains that there are two kinds of shame – healthy shame and toxic shame.  Healthy shame is what helps us get along with other people, prevents us from going through life as a total narcissist and, used properly, can be a force for positive growth. We need a little of this in our lives.

Toxic shame, on the other hand is often guilt-based and makes us feel bad about how we look or feel, where we were born, how we were raised, our religion, or our sexuality. When the baby boomers ushered in the self-esteem movement, they were right to try to rid society of toxic shame.  Whether it’s imposed by others or self-imposed, it has no useful function and indeed, paralyzes many sufferers well into adulthood. The problem is, in attempting to rid ourselves of the pain of toxic shame, we threw the baby out with the bathwater and ditched healthy shame at the same time.  The pendulum has swung too far and we’re now living in an age of self-revelation where doing anything in public is acceptable.  Rather than take accountability for their actions, criminals blame their childhood, their stress level, the economy, Wall Street.  Fame-hungry reality stars compete in lewd and degrading competitions desperate to extend their 15 minutes of infamy.  Teenagers videotape themselves or others behaving badly and then share it on Facebook for all to see.

I think it’s time to embrace a return to healthy shame for the good of society.  Just imagine, in a world where people are shamed for their embarrassing behaviour, there would be no Keeping Up With the Kardashians, no Wall Street banking tycoons still holding jobs, no people having loud inane cell phone conversations in public and no politicians emailing photos of their genitalia to interns.  This is something I can get behind.

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