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The upside of shame

Shaming has a bad reputation because it can lower self-worth and cause us to spiral into dysfunction. Shame can be devastating to our sense of belonging and community. But there’s a difference between good shame and bad shame, and are well-served to note the distinction.

Bad shame: Shaming a person for something outside of their control is never ok. It might be a physical feature, an inborn characteristic, a circumstance of life, a mental illness, a health condition, an addiction, or another hardship they carry. Shaming in those cases is just shameful.


It’s also unacceptable to shame over things that bring no harm to others. If someone wears awkwardly fitting clothes, or they have an unusual hair style, maybe their behavior is outside the norm, as long as no one is hurt, they should be treated with graceous acceptance.


Good shame: When shame helps us to hold one another accountable, and promotes our shared well-being, it is a vital tool for social good. Shaming is our oldest and most fundamental method of social control, a punisher used to influence behavior in one another, and when used fairly with wise intentionality, it can be an instrument of positive change.


When I was in college, I saw a great example of good shaming. A woman was shopping in an outdoor market, and her dog took a crap right in the middle of it. Instead of cleaning the mess up, she just kicked it under a nearby fruit display. She must have thought no one would notice, or no one would have the courage to confront her about it, this must have been the norm she was used to. But an alert store employee had the gumption to call her out, give her a bag, and tell her to retrieve the turd to dispose of it properly. This exchange happened in front of several onlookers, and it taught a valuable lesson of accountability to everyone, including me.


With the staggering number of people in the world, we can’t rely solely on laws, police, and other regulatory bodies to promote conscientiousness, it must be a group effort. When we don’t’ shame one another appropriately, it sends the message that we don’t have to be responsible for ourselves, that people can harm their surroundings without consequence, and let their entitled recklessness go unchecked.


There are many levels of shame, all of which have some virtue. We shame our politicians for unethical behavior, and this helps protect our government and society. We shame corporations for irresponsible practices, to stop them from putting profit over people. We shame those in power for cheating, lying, and exploiting others, it’s a form of collective protection.


We must balance kindness with accountability if we want to continue evolving toward a better tomorrow. Preventing bad shame while promoting good shame ensures we accept and love one another with empathic kindness, without losing our sense of responsibility to be good humans.


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