Richard Reeves’ New York Times Op/Ed arguing that shame is an
essential ingredient of a healthy society is not only wrong, but also
potentially more dangerous to parents, children, and society than teen
pregnancy – the example he uses in his argument.
Last week New York City unveiled its public education campaign
targeting teenage pregnancy. Taking a page from the Georgia obesity campaign
and Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet
Letter, the campaign features pictures of tear-stained toddlers admonishing
their teen mothers for ruining their lives.
The ads are painful, and in a moment of sheer frustration and anger,
I thought about ditching this article and just sending both Reeves and Mayor
Bloomberg pictures of tear-stained pregnant teenagers staring out and declaring:
“Please don’t attack my self-worth. I’m already struggling and desperate for love and
Having spent the past decade studying shame, courage, and
vulnerability, I know that ploy is cheap, easy, and ineffective. I’m going old
school – with facts.
To be effective, all shame- and stigma-based campaigns rely on the
intended audience’s feeling empathy and guilt when they see the images. In New
York the goal is for teenagers to see the forlorn toddlers and think, “I don’t
want to do that to a child.” In anti-obesity ads, the goal is for parents to
see a desperate child saying, “Please help me. I don’t want to be fat,” and
think, “I’ve got to start making better choices for my family.”
Here’s the rub:
our capacity for empathy.
corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.
You can’t depend on empathetic connection to make a
campaign effective, then crush the needed empathy with shame.
Researchers June Tangney and Ronda Dearing, authors of Shame and Guilt, explain that feelings
of shame are so painful that it pulls the focus to our own survival, not the
experiences of others.
Example: A man shakes a bottle of pills in his wife’s face, “Look
around you! Your pill-popping is destroying our family. Our son is failing out
of school and our daughter is literally starving herself for attention. What’s wrong with you?”
Does the shame of what she’s doing to her family lead her to get
help, or does it lead her to slink away and get high? After-school specials tell
us she gets help. Data say she gets high. In fact, new research shows that some
addiction may be born of shame and that shame leads to relapse rather than
A man is convicted of domestic abuse and the judge sentences him to
stand downtown during rush hour ho
lding a sign that says, “I am a wife beater.”
Would you like to be the woman he comes home to that night? Are you
safer when he’s in shame or repairing shame?
Reeves basically makes the good shame/bad shame argument, explaining
that shame should be used in some ways but not others.
I don’t see any evidence of “good shame.” Not in my research and not
in the research being done by other affect researchers.
I define shame as “the intensely painful feeling or experience of
believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” Along
with many other shame researchers, I’ve come to the conclusion that shame is
much more likely to be the source of dangerous, destructive, and hurtful
behaviors than it is to be the solution.
It is human nature, not just the nature of liberals (as Reeves
argues), to want to feel affirmed and valued. When we experience shame, we feel
disconnected and desperate for belonging and recognition. It’s when we feel
shame or the fear of shame that we are more likely to engage in
self-destructive behaviors, to attack or humiliate others, or to stay quiet
when we see someone who needs our help.
Making the distinction between good and bad shame, and promoting
so-called good shame is like saying there’s “good starvation” and “bad
starvation” and that we need to address the obesity epidemic
with “good starvation.” Just like there’s no such thing as “good
starvation,” there’s no such thing as “good shame.”
The “good shame” that Reeves describes is actually a combination of
guilt and empathy. And, interestingly, there is actually significant research
on the important roles both guilt and empathy play in pro-social, positive
Is this just a case of semantics? No. We don’t refer to balanced,
healthy eating as “good starvation” because it’s confusing, inaccurate, and
misleading. It also obscures and confuses what we really need to do to move
toward positive social outcomes.
The majority of shame researchers agree that the difference between
shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between “I am bad” and “I
did something bad.” Shame is about who we are, and guilt is about our
When we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends to others,
or change a behavior that we don’t feel good about, guilt is most often the
motivator. Of course, you can shame someone into saying, “I’m sorry,” but it’s
rarely authentic. Guilt is as powerful as shame; it just doesn’t have the paralyzing
and debilitating impact that prevents shame from being an effective agent of
Empathy is the ability to put ourselves in someone else’s place in
order to understand what they are feeling. When we are empathetic, we can
listen and respond authentically to others, and we have the skills to consider
how our actions will impact others.
Again, why don’t we just refer to guilt and
empathy as “good shame”? Because it’s inaccurate. It clouds the fact that being
empathetic and communicating with others (colleagues, children, partners,
friends) without using shame requires most of us to develop new skills.
Labeling these skills “good shame” moves us away from the hard work of
understanding, identifying, and acquiring the knowledge we need to change.
Based on my own experiences with shame (we all have it) and what
I’ve learned about it as a researcher, I know the intense pain, isolation, and
fear it causes. I’m not proud to say this, but even with this knowledge, if I
thought shaming people would, in the long run, keep them safer and make the
world a better place, I might do it. As a parent and an observer of human
behavior, I can get extremely fearful, and that fear might allow me to overlook
the pain caused by shame if I thought it would ensure a better outcome.
Fortunately, I don’t have to wrestle with that moral dilemma because we know
that shame never works as a catalyst for healthy, lasting change.
Shame is at the core of violence, addiction, disengagement, and
fear. Shame is about anger and blame, not accountability and change. Meaningful
change means understanding the realities of these girls’ lives (and the boys
who get them pregnant) and working with them to cultivate educational
opportunities, hope, and support.
Reeves writes, “We need a sense of shame to live well together. For
those with liberal instincts, this is necessarily hard. But it is also
necessary.” I’m not sure what he means by “liberal instincts,” but what I do
know is that using shame as a tool when we are frustrated, angry, or desperate
to see behavior change in people is a much better example of the “it feels good
– do it” ethos than the teen pregnancy problem. We might feel justified in
belittling and humiliating people, but it makes the world a more dangerous
I’d love to know what you think. Respectful debate and discussion is always welcome!