A friend of mine has a hazy half-formed memory of being wheeled into a trauma room on a gurney. He’d just tried to end his life, and nearly succeeded. He remembers harsh lights above, voices and arms working all around him. Then someone cut off his clothes. And even from his suicidal, mostly unconscious state, he felt the warmth of humiliation wash over him.
That, friends, is shame.
Last month, I went on a weekend trip with my children. One morning at the continental breakfast bar, a stranger glared at my energetic preschoolers, rolled her eyes, turned to me, and said loudly, “Oh my God. Will you please control your children?”
That is not shame.
In the past few years, researchers such as Brené Brown have brought words like shame and vulnerability to the forefront of our culture. Dr. Brown has helped thousands of people (myself included) find richer, more meaningful lives through her work. Shame is real, and talking about it is important.
Unfortunately, we’ve turned the word into a punch line.
After the incident in the hotel lobby, I could easily have proclaimed that I was mom-shamed. I could have written tirades against intolerant people, and how their vitriol makes mothering harder. Even in the moment, I could have told her to stop shaming my children for acting like little kids. It would have fit our current use of the word. Only, it would have been a lie.
The woman beside the oatmeal did not shame me. She embarrassed me, yes. But I was not ashamed. Instead, that woman’s rudeness reminded me we are a pluralistic society, and we often interact with people whose values and ideas conflict with our own. In that moment, my children were out of line with the high value she placed on her calm, quiet breakfast (tell me about it, lady). At the same time, her eye rolling, harsh words, and rude tone conflicted with my personal values around being polite toward strangers. We had a conflict of values. My personhood was not on trial; I just had the unpleasant experience of interacting with a rude person.
But when my friend was on that gurney? When his unconscious mind triggered a physiological response because people could see his body? My friend was experiencing a deep, gut-wrenching, life-altering shame. When you feel humiliation even though you are completely incapacitated, you know you know your personhood is at stake, and it is time to deal with the shame you are carrying (thankfully, in the weeks after that moment, he did).
Shame is real. It thwarts, even devastates, lives. So let’s quit referring to every conflict as “shaming.” If someone cuts their eyes, cuts you down, even calls you out, more often than not, you’re experiencing a conflict of values, and you probably feel either embarrassed or angry. You’d rather slide through the floor vents than deal with the situation at hand as I did with my rambunctious kids that morning. When the dust settles, though, you are not incapacitated by that moment. Your day will go on. That’s not called shaming. It’s called life.