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The Problem With Shaming

Posted by thethousandmarch on March 6, 2012 at 7:00 PM

In a couple of my most recent posts concerning manliness I’ve stated that shaming is not an effective way to motivate men to “act like men”. I’m going to say a little more about that in this post.

I recently read a book by Richard Weissbourd entitled “The Parents We Mean to Be: How Well-Intentioned Adults Undermine Children’s Moral and Emotional Development”. Jessi and I bought the book two years ago when Cosette was born, but I didn’t get around to reading it until Cillian’s recent birth. I wish I read it earlier (hopefully Cosette is not irrevocably damaged) – really it is a great book that I think will help me be a better parent and I highly recommend it.

The first chapter of the book is entitled “Helping Children Manage Destructive Emotions”. In this chapter Weissbourd talks about the effect of feeling too much shame and inferiority. He tells us of the work of psychiatrists James Gilligan who worked with convicts for twenty-five years.

“I have yet to see a serious act of violence that was not provoked by the experience of feeling shamed and humiliated [says Gilligan]. . . .” The risk of shame became for them worse than the risk of death. “The most dangerous men on earth,” Gilligan says, “are those who are afraid that they are wimps.” (Pg 13)

To me this sums up the problem with trying to motivate by shaming. Weissbourd explains that we should not try to erase all feelings of shame. If we maintain a high moral standard of behavior, which we should, people will naturally feel some shame when they break the standard. This is not necessarily a bad thing; we should be ashamed of certain actions. A desire to avoid such shame can prevent us from acting badly in the first place. But too much shame can literally turn us into sociopaths.

A more constructive emotion is guilt. “When guilt is serious . . . we feel a need to atone; until the wrong is set right . . .” (pg 14). We generally feel guilty for what we do, but we feel ashamed of who we think we are. If we are insecure about who we are – being ashamed of who we are – we often act out in negative ways to try alleviate our feelings of shame. So, if we try and shame men into acting like men we will most likely not get the results we desire. Instead these men will act out in negative ways to prove their manliness.

Now in relation to raising children Weissbourd explains how we as Americans rarely openly shame our children, but we still often communicate to them that we are disgusted with them.

. . . [R]esearcher Michael Lewis observed that mothers in middle-class communities were quite careful both to avoid verbally expressing contempt for their children and to focus on children’s behavior and not their traits, But Lewis found many mothers, in criticizing their children’s behavior, were also exhibiting disgust in their facial expressions. (pg 20)

I realized the other day that I did this to Cosette. She was whining about something and I gave her a look of disgust and turned away from her. I could see how my look hurt her feelings and then she really started to cry. I instantly realized what I had done. It surprised me that at such a young age she could read this non-verbal communication and that it upset her.

I was the target of much shaming in elementary school, some unintentional, some intentional. I was not a good student, nor did I have good “citizenship”. I was made to feel inferior by adults and peers, and despite the fact that I was bullied many adults assumed I was a bully because I was a big kid. All of this created quite a lot of negative motivation in my life. I still deal with strong feelings of ambition, to prove myself worthy, which are much too selfish and self-seeking. I’ve mostly managed to turn my feelings of inferiority to positive means. I was relatively successful in sports and eventually did well in school making it from special ed to grad school. I was an honor graduate from Air Force basic training – something which is very difficult to accomplish. But, despite everything I’ve accomplished, none of it made me feel better. I still had all the same feelings of shame and inferiority. No accomplishment is ever enough. Shame can never lead a person to peace.

As Christians we should never attempt to motivate by shaming. This is not the way of Jesus, or his Gospel. Jesus alleviates our guilt and shame by taking it upon himself and atoning for those sins which cause our guilt and shame. He makes us new, children of God reconciled with our Father. We have been clothed with the righteousness of Jesus and have been declared good. This is our new identity. Jesus’ record of goodness is credited to us – if we must say it, Jesus’ record of manliness is given to the men who follow him. There is no more condemnation, there is no more shame. When Christian men are taught who they truly are now that they abide in Christ and his Spirit abides in them, then they will begin to live out that identity. If pastors berate the men in their congregation, or if parents belittle their children and shame them they will get men and women who don’t know how to live out the identity Jesus has bestowed upon them. Instead they will act out who they think they are – people still in bondage to the sin they are so ashamed of; disgusted with themselves feeling that God is disgusted with them too. But God is not disgusted with us no matter our sin; his arms are wide open waiting to embrace us.

Categories: Grace, Basic Christian Belief, Manliness