Shame can be a terrible thing. It can cripple self-esteem, self-respect and our sense of innate value and worth as a human being. But I also think that shame can be a powerful constructive force.
The word “shame” is often understood today as though it is only a destructive force. However, Webster simply defines shame as “a feeling of guilt, regret, or sadness that you have because you know you have done something wrong.”
When I was a child and did something wrong, sometimes my mother would point a finger at me and say, “Shame on you!” I remember the sick feeling I had inside as soon as I heard those words. I wanted to hide. I wanted to crawl under a rock. I wanted to make it right. Those feelings were so strong that they made me determined to do whatever I could to not feel this way again. That usually meant taking responsibility for what I’d done, and then taking some kind of action (like changing my behavior). No excuses, no shifting blame, no scapegoats. This is constructive shame as defined by Webster.
But here’s the problem: Too often, the people who struggle with shame aren’t actually the ones who should. They are the victims of the people who should.
Shame becomes destructive when the wrong people feel it. I see it in the children we care for at Love146 who have been victims of child trafficking and exploitation. I see it in victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. Too often I see shame carried by those who should not be carrying it, and the weight is crushing.
But I don’t see it often enough in those who should be carrying it. Every once in a while perpetrators express some level of embarrassment or regret — and usually, it’s only after they’ve been caught or found guilty. Most of the time, the regret centers on the fact that their horrific actions will have a negative effect on themselves and their own future, rather than on the lives of those whom they have wronged.
Embarrassment is cheap compared to shame. Embarrassment is a knee-jerk reaction to getting caught. It doesn’t result in change. Instead it results in attempts to prove that the embarrassing action was “just a fluke.” They try to explain it away, out in the open for everyone to notice. But shame is much deeper. It will drive you under a rock in the shadows where, hopefully, the true, hard work of change begins. No excuses.
If there were more of us who carried shame when we should, there would be fewer people carrying it when they shouldn’t.