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Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Observations on shame: The Shame Tipping Point

I previously discussed in the "The Shame Cycle", the idea of shame operating in a vicious cycle or keeping us in a rut.  In "Shame and codependence", I discussed how shame can keep us in unhealthy relationships and/or can keep us making poor choices.  In this blog I wanted to go in a slightly different direction and expand a little bit upon what happens when shame reaches a crossroads.

I will first touch on/revisit the consequences of shame that hasn't reached a crossroad. At least as I have seen or come to appreciate it.
  • Poor decisions are often made based on shame, especially hidden shame.  I've heard of couples in which the spouse--usually the husband--gets his wife a new ring, a new car, a fancy vacation, redone room or something similar in an unusual or unusually timed way.  In a sense, it is a compensation for a shame that isn't spoken of.  In some cases, it is an 'understood' payoff, in some cases it is hopeful inoculation against consequences should the shame be discovered.  Often times it is a poor financial choice that wouldn't be done in a more level-headed setting.
  • Taking credit (shame-wise) for something which one shouldn't to overcompensate for known or unknown shame.  Known shame is like a poison that is purposely being bled out.  It can cause us to 'own up' to too much wrong in an attempt to bleed the poison out faster.  For example, taking sole blame for the family vacation that has gone awry can show how 'contrite' we are.  On the other hand, unknown shame is a poison that needs doesn't have an obvious outlet, especially if the unknown shame is too devastating.  The hidden outlet can end up being false humility or taking blame where not due. For example, Rep. Foley couldn't own up to his inappropriate behavior with underage pages.  So, he became the Chairman of the House Caucus on Missing and Exploited Children.  This allowed him to feel better about himself by absolving or bleed out some of his shame for his destructive (and hidden) issues without having to own up to them.  In  a sense if he helped many other children, he could atone for or bleed out the poison of his own behavior.
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But, to move back to the point at hand, often times shame reaches a crossroads or as I call it a "Shame Tipping Point" in which the dynamics of the shaming relationship or situation change dramatically.  From what I see, the "Shame Tipping Point" ultimately is a "Fight or Flight" response.  Before I go further with this I want to make a disclaimer or two:
  • Some harm or injury to others is so profound--such as murder/child molesting--that it is understood that the offending party has little right to expect the offended party will ever lift the weight of shame from them.
  • Flight, while it can be a self-protective tool, isn't necessarily the right or proper tool, especially if amends are proper to make or the consequences of 'flight' or too devastating.

So, let's take the "fight" response.  Say you've made poor choices along the way that have caused harm to others.  A natural response is to feel shame about it and to act 'hangdog' around the person(s) you've harmed.  There is of course value in showing contriteness and taking steps to make amends.  However, in many cases, the injured party takes it too far.  The injured party continues to use shame as a club to beat down or to extract a pound of flesh and/or concessions from the injuring party.  For example, if I bullied a sibling as a kid, yet realized as I matured how wrong that was and made attempts to make amends for it, it is realistic to expect that my sibling would eventually be forgiving.  However, as we know many times in these cases, the sibling realizes the power in holding the guilt/shame over the head of his/her 'childhood tormentor'.   The sibling will often use continually try to pay back or stick it to his/her 'tormentor' and hold them down in shame.  In other words, the sibling will actively work on shaming his/her 'childhood tormentor' At some point, if the "Shame Tipping Point" is reached, the former 'tormentor' will be pushed too far and realize that he or she is now the 'tormented'.  Once he or she realizes this, they probably will never again accept the dynamics of the relationship.  At this point, the former 'tormentor' will have regained his/her self-respect and will accept whatever consequences of taking his or her power back.

Now, let's take the 'flight' response.  Ultimately, 'flight' can either mean running away from the shameful circumstance/relationship or in worse case scenario, 'checking out' or taking his or her life.  Unfortunately, I believe for my brother Bill, he was living with unchecked 'shame demons' and he took his own life.  For the sake of discussion, I believe most of his 'shame demons' were largely not of his own making, but instead things done to or around him.  Also, I believe he was living with mostly 'illegitimate' shame--that is shame that wasn't his to accept.  But, try and tell someone in that situation that they are off in their thinking.  It's like trying drive halfway across the country in one day.  While it is not always an impossible task, most of the time you end up short of the result you are trying for.  In any case, most of the time, the flight "Shame Tipping Point" results in the other party falling into major if not total retreat.  Rightly or wrongly, when you press someone's shame button too often or too hard, the sting or hurt of the shaming instead of pushing them to change, pushes them to make themselves scarce.  The shamed person may 'deserve' the shaming--such as when they are not doing their part to help take care of an aging parent--but just because they 'deserve' it, doesn't mean they are ready to face up to it.  If they really aren't ready to face the reason for their shame, then it is more likely that they will retreat or take flight from the messenger who delivers the shaming message.

I'm not totally sure what the point of this blog was.  Perhaps it was help people see their role in uncomfortable (and potentially) shameful behaviors, situations or relationships.  If I help one person to step out of the shame cycle, to see that blindly accepting a shaming is wrong, I feel I will have succeeded with the blog.  If I help a party to understand or see the flight response in another and adjust accordingly, I will have succeeded.  After all, a famous hymnal doesn't express that "Shame is the Victory", but instead says "Faith is the Victory (that overcomes the world)".