Challenging the Anti-Shame Zeitgeist

Despite a culture organizing to oppose shaming, it remains inevitable. But it doesn't have to ruin lives.


In response to a spate of teen suicides last year, a number of celebrities (Anne Hathaway, Justin Timberlake, Ellen DeGeneres, among others) used their visibility to castigate people who bully others. When public figures denounce bullying, they draw attention to the power of shame: A victim's experience at the hands of a bully can be so excruciating that life becomes unendurable.

Bullying used to be more or less acceptable behavior, a part of "kids being kids," but in recent years our culture has grown increasingly intolerant of those who shame others for their differences. The recent celebrity crusade against bullying reflects this anti-shame zeitgeist, as does Lady Gaga's "Born This Way." As she often does, Gaga encourages her audience to embrace self-love and self-acceptance, particularly those who might have been bullied due to their sexual orientation or gender identity: "Don't hide yourself in regret; Just love yourself and you're set."

Noted shame-researcher Dr. Brené Brown similarly exhorts her audience to take arms against the shame that shuts them down. Her immense popularity points to the growing power of the anti-shame zeitgeist: her TED lecture "The Power of Vulnerability" has received nearly 10 million views, with hundreds of appreciative comments. Unlike most experts in the field, Brown doesn't address her readers as a distant authority, but rather as a comrades-in-arms: Everyone has shame. I have my own shame and here is how I fight back.

John Bradshaw initiated the modern conversation about shame with the publication of his classic Healing the Shame that Binds You in 1988. He viewed shame as a particularly toxic problem: shaming messages from parents, educators, and other important figures can destroy a growing child's sense of self-worth and lead to a host of mental disorders from alcoholism to depression. Bradshaw wanted to help his readers heal their inner child and escape the shackles of toxic shame. Since then, a great many authors have written books about how to heal, overcome, or escape from shame and develop self-esteem.

Everywhere we look, pride is on the march, and shame is on the run.

Andrew Solomon's powerful new book Far From the Tree is the most recent expression of this anti-shame zeitgeist. He details the often heroic efforts of parents to make sure their children don't suffer from the shame usually associated with a disability or sexual difference. He describes gay men and women, little people, deaf and blind people, transgendered individuals, and other groups who insist that their difference is not a disability or defect. Instead, they view their condition as an equal alternative to "normal," and nothing to be ashamed of. Solomon writes with passion and empathy about their struggles to develop feelings of self-worth by rejecting the shame of social stigma and embracing pride.

Gay Pride movements across the country most visibly embody this revolt against shame, but there are many disability pride movements as well. Little People of America, Inc. educates and advocates on behalf of those living with dwarfism, proclaiming their worth and value as members of society. Mainstreaming students with Down syndrome or autism reflects the belief that they should not be marginalized with "their own kind," as if they were defective, but included in the classroom with other children their own age. Emphasis is placed upon diversity -- variation within a broad spectrum -- rather than a shame-laden departure from the norm.

RTR2OG2Dinset.jpgNicky Loh/Reuters

The consensus within our culture is clear: shame is a uniquely destructive force, and one to be resisted. Movie stars, educators, pop icons, psychologists, and spokespeople for the pride movements will all tell you the same thing -- shame is the enemy. It drives those individuals who are different into the shadows. It causes us to hide our vulnerability, distancing us from those we love. It enforces conformity and stifles the creative or dissident individual. It kills the spirit.

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Writing nearly 150 years ago, Charles Darwin observed that shame reactions -- blushing, looking downward, generally averting the gaze, etc. -- were seen among cultures and civilizations the world over. Silvan Tomkins, the father of affect theory, identified shame as one of nine genetically encoded physical responses to expected stimuli. According to Tompkins, every single human being is pre-programmed to experience shame under certain conditions.

If shame is such a bad thing, why did evolution see fit to program it into our genes? Evolutionary psychologists and sociobiologists believe that guilt and shame evolved to promote stable social relationships. According to the Oxford Encyclopedia of Evolution, "conformity to cultural values, beliefs, and practices makes behavior predictable and allows for the advent of complex coordination and cooperation." While the anti-shame zeitgeist views conformity to norms as oppressive, support for a great many of our social norms and the shame that enforces them is virtually unanimous.

For example, many would agree that fathers who walk out on their families, neglect their offspring, and fail to make child support payments should feel ashamed. Shame is the appropriate emotion for those men to feel: if powerful enough, the experience of shame might help them to fulfill their obligations as fathers and members of society.

To take a more extreme example, adults having coercive sex with minor children are universally deplored in Western culture. We agree that acting on pedophilia is a shameful, abhorrent crime. Nobody would think of encouraging child molesters to organize a pride movement and defy the shame which society imposes upon them, even though they can't help their sexual urges. The social stigma attached to pedophilia helps to keep this deviant behavior in check. Shame can't stop it entirely, but does place a brake on behavior destructive to a well-functioning society.

Cultures differ in the behaviors they deem shameful; over time, individual cultures may change their minds about what should and should not be subject to shame. Not so long ago, for example, homosexuality largely hid in the shadows within Western culture; today, gay men and women can serve openly in the military, and legally marry in many countries as well as in a growing number of the United States. While the debate over the shamefulness of homosexuality has not been settled, we're clearly in transition.

In recent decades, Western attitudes toward a broad range of physical disabilities have also shifted, lessening the shame stigma they previously carried. Most liberal-minded people view this increasing tolerance for diversity as evidence of progress: Western civilization is becoming more enlightened and humane. This shift in tolerance levels depends upon our relative wealth, however, and upon confidence in our own personal safety. As citizens of a wealthy and powerful country, we have the luxury of deploying vast resources so that those individuals born with a genetic defect, or who are blind, deaf or autistic will suffer as little as possible from the consciousness of their difference.

To understand why I use the word luxury, imagine a less affluent country whose citizens are enduring material shortages and the rationing of food during a border war with its neighbor. Imagine that these people are hungry and frightened for their lives. Under those conditions, they would surely devote scarce resources to training their most able-bodied soldiers and fending off starvation rather than hiring extra teaching assistants in order to mainstream autistic children. Under the psychological pressure of wartime, many would become less tolerant of ambiguity and difference, less inclined to spend money in order to make disabled individuals feel better about themselves.

Today in the West, we have the luxury of supporting those who insist their deafness or dwarfism is a difference rather than a disability. We do what we can to alleviate their shame because we can afford it. In a nomadic culture, no one would pretend that being unable to hear the approach of a predator or enemy was anything other than a grave handicap. Being two or more feet shorter in stature than the average soldier and unable to run quickly puts you at a serious disadvantage during a siege. Except under the most peaceful, advanced conditions, much of what we today consider "diversity" would be viewed as major impediments to survival -- for the individual as well as the group.

In Far From the Tree, Solomon interviewed and wrote about many upper middle-class couples who devoted their lives and resources to making sure their disabled children would thrive. These parents did everything within their financial means to shield their offspring from shame and social stigma, to promote self-esteem, to make it possible for them to fulfill their potential. Emily and Charles Kingsley, for example, devoted their lives to an experimental program of early intervention when their son Jason was born with Down syndrome. This program involved continuous stimulation, especially of his sensory apparatus. "They talked to Jason day and night. They moved his limbs through stretches and exercises to improve his muscle tone." At the end of each exhausting day, Emily would cry herself to sleep.

Jason_and_hooper.jpgJason Kingsley with Mr. Hooper on Sesame Street

The results of their efforts were impressive. By the age of seven, Jason was able to read, count to ten in twelve languages, distinguish Bach from Mozart and other composers and communicate by Sign with deaf people. Emily, who worked as a writer on Sesame Street, arranged a regular guest spot on the show for Jason, thereby helping to promote tolerance for other disabled children. He appeared in a television special with Jane Pauley. Rather than growing up oppressed by a sense of his inferiority, Jason Kingsley appeared to have escaped the burden of shame.

But about the time he turned 8, his intellectual development came to a halt and his peer group passed him by. He was sent home from sleep-away camp because the other children found his indiscriminate hugs to be off-putting. In soccer, he couldn't keep track of the team on which he played. More and more, he found himself to be an outsider:

One night when Emily was tucking him into bed, he said, "I hate this face. Can you find a store where we can get me a new face, a normal face?" Another night he said, "I'm so sick and tired of this Down syndrome business. When is it going to go away?"

Despite his parents' heroic efforts to stimulate and educate him, despite his appearances on television, Jason had come face to face with shame. He accurately perceived the ways in which he differed from typical children and felt bad about himself as a result.

I'm not suggesting that he should have felt that way; only pointing out that he did.

Solomon's research on dwarfism showed that little people who grow up with average-sized parents have much lower self-esteem than those whose parents are little themselves. He concludes that parents with dwarfism are likely to be more empathic and attuned to the particular challenges their children face. No doubt those children also benefit from a family environment where short stature is the norm. Children with dwarfism who have average-sized parents live with the constant visual reminder of their difference, the ways in which they are "not normal."

For similar reasons, parents of disabled children have found socializing in groups with others who share the condition to be enormously important for building self-esteem. It's easier to feel better about yourself surrounded by people who resemble you than always to be the shortest person in the room by far. In earlier, less tolerant times, homosexuals found relief from shame and social stigma within their own subculture, a society where a different "norm" prevailed. Those whose hearing is impaired have built a thriving community, a separate Deaf culture where signing and not the spoken word is the normal way to communicate.

While the efforts of all the parents in Solomon's book to promote healthy self-esteem in their children are worthy and admirable, here is the unfortunate reality: those afflicted with a major disability will inevitably experience a sense of shame for the ways in which they are different, regardless of whether they have been shunned or actively shamed by their peers. Shame spontaneously arises from the perception of unfavorable difference, whether or not society inflicts it upon the person.

Shame springs from the knowledge that your development didn't unfold as might have been expected under normal conditions.

The current anti-shame zeitgeist enlarges the boundaries of what is considered normal. Same-sex marriage with children reared by two men or two women -- once unthinkable -- is a mainstream idea for the younger generation. As a society, we're changing our minds and deciding that having sex and building a family with a person of your own gender should carry no shame. A major reason for this change is the growing perception that gay men and women are not so different after all: they want a loving and stable partnership with another person, they want to settle down and raise a family, just as heterosexuals do. As we close the gap, and de-emphasize difference, we remove the source of shame.

With its emphasis on diversity rather than difference, the anti-shame zeitgeist tries to accomplish the same thing for a broad range of people whose disability or difference has traditionally placed them outside the norm. The parents described in Solomon's book do their utmost to bridge the gap between normal and abnormal, to help their children escape the shame of being "other." This is undoubtedly a good thing, but on some important level, no matter what we do, children with achondroplasia (the most common cause of dwarfism) will perceive just how much they are different and feel badly about it to some degree.

I am not saying that people with disabilities ought to feel shame, or that I consider it a good thing that they do. I am saying that they inevitably will. It's more a biological kind of shame than a social one, arising from the awareness that typical, expectable development has gone awry. A secure, affluent society such as ours -- and devoted parents with the means to do so -- can marshal their resources to substantially mitigate that shame, but will never fully erase it.

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As a psychotherapist, I've worked with many men and women crippled by shame. Most of them did not have mothers or fathers who shamed, abused, or humiliated them in the ways described by John Bradshaw. Instead, they by and large came from parents who struggled with major depression, alcoholism, or even psychosis, who failed in the most basic ways to provide a safe and loving environment. In other words, my clients did not have the sort of childhood most of us would consider "normal," not even in the very broadest sense of the word.

The British psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott held that we human beings are born with a set of inbuilt expectations for how the environment should respond to our needs. He called this genetic inheritance a "blueprint for normality." When our parents respond appropriately, in keeping with that blueprint, they instill in us a sense of safety in our world and lay the foundation for strong self-esteem. When they fail in pervasive ways to meet those expectations, we're unable to develop normally; instead of the beginnings of self-esteem, we're left with the conviction that we are damaged. On the most fundamental level, we feel ugly and defective.

Instead of pride, shame takes root at our core.

For those with a major disability, shame inevitably arises when a person's physical development departs dramatically from what is normal for the species. Children damaged by their early environment intuitively understand that their own psychological development hasn't unfolded as might normally have been expected; as a result, they feel core shame. Men and women who don't behave in ways that society expects them to do will (usually) feel shame.

In other words, whether its origins are of a physical, psychological or social nature, shame is the result of disappointed expectations.

My profession promotes the use of cognitive-behavioral techniques and affirmations to combat shame. In keeping with the current zeitgeist, shame is viewed as an enemy; clients in psychotherapy learn ways to fight back, to break the hold of shame, to persuade themselves that they are whole and beautiful. John Bradshaw believes we can heal from shame and recover our "true self," an intact and healthy Inner Child.

I believe shame is inevitable. I believe that individuals afflicted with core shame will never become the people they might have been had their mothers and fathers done a good-enough job of parenting. I believe that enormous growth and authentic self-esteem is nonetheless possible.

One of my clients, Nicole, came from a family background with psychosis on both sides. As a teenager, her sister attempted suicide. Her deeply troubled brother lived at the fringe of society, doing menial jobs, sleeping in his van. When she came to me at the age of 18, Nicole was deeply depressed, with occasional manic flights into grandiosity. She suffered from mild auditory and visual hallucinations; she cut herself with razor blades. She often felt persecuted by songs that would get stuck in her head, endlessly repeating and making sleep almost impossible for days on end. To anyone who met her, she seemed frankly disturbed.

After many, many years of intensive psychotherapy (and without the aid of psychiatric medication), Nicole has grown dramatically. She eventually managed to put herself through college, build a career, marry another professional, and have children. If you met her today, she might strike you as a bit eccentric but not disturbed. By most people's standards, she's an accomplished and successful woman. As long as she respects her limits, Nicole functions at a fairly high level.

But she does have important limits. If she takes on too much or life becomes too stressful, she might begin to see spiders moving at the periphery of her vision. A song might get stuck in her head and keep her up half the night. At very bad moments, she might feel as if she's in danger of falling apart. If she takes care of herself, however -- doesn't pretend that she's superwoman or convince herself she's "just normal" like everyone else -- Nicole can do much, much more than anyone might have expected from that deeply troubled teenager who first came to me.

Nicole lives with core shame, the legacy of dramatically bad parenting. She also feels proud of herself for all the hard work she has done, her bravery in facing psychological pain, and all that she has managed to accomplish. Remaining in touch with shame helps her to make good choices about what she can and cannot do. Shame keeps her humble and prevents her from taking triumphant flight into grandiose denial of who she is. Shame helps her to respect her limitations so that she can undertake the possible and continue building self-esteem.

In the years leading up to her son's eighth birthday, Emily Kingsley believed "that she had licked [Down syndrome]; she lived in triumph." After Jason turned 8 and his intellectual development came to a halt, Emily "began to realize all the things he couldn't do and would never be able to do." In 1987, she wrote a modern fable called "Welcome to Holland," well-known to anyone in the disability world. In this fable, she analogizes the experience of having a disabled child instead of a normal one to the disappointment you might feel if you imagined you were flying on vacation to Italy and landed in Holland instead:

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy ... and they're all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life, you will say, "Yes, that's where I was supposed to go. That's what I had planned."

And the pain of that will never, ever, ever, ever go away ... because the loss of that dream is a very, very significant loss.

But ... if you spend the rest of your life mourning the fact that you didn't get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things ... about Holland.

I think about living with shame in the same terms. There's a very real and abiding pain that comes from knowing your childhood has damaged you significant ways. Don't pretend otherwise, don't ignore shame; but don't dwell on the pain of it, either. Bearing with shame doesn't mean we can't grow and develop, have satisfying relationships, or find a career that we love. Even with core shame, we can live a meaningful and satisfying life.

In extreme cases, I have patients who feel that their shame is all but a death sentence. It is not; shame is not the enemy. Shame is an often painful fact of life that defines the gap between expectation and reality, but at the same time enables us to make the most of what's actually possible.