[Listen to an audio version of this blog here.]
When I was a sophomore in college I took an elective class called the Sociology of Violence, and we spent all semester reading one book that couldn’t have been more than 300 pages. I wish I could remember the name of the book now, but the name isn't so important. What was important though, was that it was almost entirely about shame; how the most violent criminals were born into environments that caused them great shame at a very young age (trauma, abuse, poverty, hopelessness, et cetera). And how the worst criminals, the best criminals, don’t feel that sense of shame. We went on a class trip to a state prison where criminals were kept in concrete cages, and many were kept in isolation. One of the security guards told us there was never a moment of silence because the prisoners scream all night and all day. "They're going crazy," he said. I wondered how he didn't also.
I've thought about that professor, that class, and that field trip a million times over. Shame has been called our "most dreaded emotional experience." Brené Brown defines shame as "believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging—something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.” We have all probably felt this depth of shame at some point, even if it was fleeting. Shame in small doses can be positive. The lead researcher in one study explained, “the function of pain is to prevent us from damaging our own tissue. The function of shame is to prevent us from damaging our social relationships, or to motivate us to repair them.”
Our society, and societies throughout history, have used shame to express their values and re-enforce expectations for how people should treat each other. Shared expectations, enforced through shame, make it possible for humans to live together, cooperate, and thrive. Shame helps us define values, teach our children about acceptable behavior, and punish those who step outside our agreed upon social systems. But like anything, shame can be taken too far. The absence of shame results in psychopathy while too much shame results in recurring criminal behavior.
So, shame is both good and bad. The shame I learned about and saw in the prison was toxic shame, but the shame that teaches people how to act in a social structure is called productive shame.
Toxic vs. Productive Shame
Psychologist John Bradshaw, author of Healing the Shame that Binds You, writes that toxic shame is the pervasive sense that one is essentially unworthy and unlovable, usually the result of childhood trauma or sexual abuse. Brené Brown writes that toxic shame that is wrapped up in our society's obsession with perfection and the subsequent feelings of inadequacy that normally ensue. The problem with toxic shame is that it focuses on the person experiencing shame rather than the things that person did or specific traits they may have. This focus on the entire person can make people feel unworthy, unlovable, and too messed up to ever be rehabilitated back into society.
In contrast, productive shame focuses on discrete traits or behaviors rather than the entire person. Productive shame leaves room for improvement rather than making someone feel fundamentally worthless or irredeemably flawed. When we use productive shame to discipline a child, they know that what they did was bad, not that they themselves are bad. Sometimes, productive shame can be self-inflicted as well. If you feel enough shame for a particular behavior, such as smoking or binge eating, you might be inspired enough to change. The people who knowingly subject their bodies and minds to irreversible damaging behaviors are likely grappling with deeply ingrained toxic shame that may be rooted in any number of traumas.
Dr. Lisa Rivero M.A. writes that shame is the negative emotion that best predicts behavior change. Negative emotions such as guilt or regret were not as likely to inspire change. Why? Because we often feel the need to apologize when we feel guilty for hurting someone, but we're less likely to change the behavior that led to the apology. Productive shame forces people to identify a problem within themselves, thereby motivating them to take action.
But what about criminals? Research published in Psychological Science, a journal of the Association for Psychological Science found that, within three years of being released from jail, two out of every three inmates in the U.S. wind up behind bars again. The findings show that inmates who feel shame about their behaviors are the most likely to re-offend. Why? Because criminals have such a high degree of shame that they are usually not motivated to change. Their shame is toxic and involves a deeply painful feeling directed toward the self. This shame can lead to defensive responses: a denial of responsibility, the need to blame others, or aggression. And it stands to reason that the more shame a person feels, the stronger these defense mechanisms are. So while a normal, healthy person might be inspired to change due to feeling shame, those with the deepest, most painful shames are often stuck. There are ways to therapeutically address shame, but our criminal justice system is not designed to fix them.
If there is one thing I've learned through years of therapy and psychological treatment, is that the only way to really address shame is to face it. To name it, speak it, own it, and change. Even if you think that whatever you did is shameful beyond measure. Even if all of your defense mechanisms are activated. Shame will only birth more shame. The sad reality I saw in the sate prison was that most of the people there were living with shame that they didn't deserve to carry. Trauma and abuse and childhood neglect created humans so removed from social norms that they become criminals. We then lock them in dungeons where their shame only increases. In some ways, they are manifesting exactly what they were told they would become. Realizing this granted me empathy beyond measure. Shame isn't one size fits all, and if you're lucky enough to be able to read this, I hope you use your shame well.