Shame

The way we shame people looks like this. Imagine that somebody comes to you for advice, and you decide that if he is in this situation it means that something is wrong with him. If this is happening to him, he must be bad… or stupid… or lazy. Conveying this to the speaker is shame. And that is a very big mistake.

This is what happened to Beth:

Beth wanted some relationship advice from her friend Jessica, who was quite knowledgeable in this area. This was the third time over the years that Beth had come to Jessica for help regarding men, and Jessica decided in her heart that Beth is a ‘loser’ when it comes to romance. Jessica opened the conversation by saying, in a tone that conveyed condescension, “What’s it this time, Beth?”

Beth swallowed, ignored the insult, and proceeded to lay out the dilemma she was facing. When she finished, Jessica said: “My God, Beth, how do you keep getting into these no-win situations with men all the time?”

Jessica’s words stung, but Beth simply said: “Jessica, I really needed your help on this. What do you think?” Jessica let out a long sigh and said: “Alright, Beth, let’s see how to get you out of this.” She then proceeded to analyze the situation and offer Beth some wisdom.

As it turned out, Jessica’s advice was spot on, as it usually was. Beth applied it and resolved her dilemma successfully. But in her heart she was left with deep resentment for the way Jessica had shamed her and had used her distress to speak down to her.

Life has interesting ways of playing out, though. Some weeks later, a friend of Beth’s was telling her that he was looking for a person to be one of the team leaders for his company, and had heard that Jessica was very experienced in that area. Beth sensed her chance to even the score with Jessica. “Yes,” Beth said, “Jessica is a very smart and talented woman. She also has an acid tongue. Anybody who needs her advice more than once will find that out soon enough.”

Beth’s friend thanked her, and silently shelved the idea of hiring Jessica. And Beth, in turn, felt that she had put Jessica and her arrogance in place.

This is what shame, and the results of shame, look like. Jessica shamed Beth by drawing a conclusion about her based on the situation she was in. It was the third time that Beth had come to Jessica with an issue regarding men, and so Jessica decided that Beth ‘has a problem’ in this area.

Jessica expressed this indirectly, but no less effectively, with a condescending opening: “What’s it this time, Beth?”

You might say: “I am an expert and people need my advice, and they will come for it whether or not I shame them. My effectiveness has nothing to do with being clean of shame.”

Actually, that is true only some of the time. There are times that people will avoid you in order to avoid being shamed. Your children, your spouse, your friends, people at work, all may decide that they are unwilling to be shamed. You may find that your relationships severely affected, and your effectiveness greatly diminished.

But even if people will accept the shame because they are desperate for your help, there is a toxic residue. Shame hurts, and it creates anger and resentment that poison relationships. And when Beth got the chance, she sought to restore her dignity by striking back at Jessica.