For Shame

David Burn
4 min readJul 12, 2022

What’s happening in America today is a damn shame.

Photo by Stefan Stefancik from Pexels

Look left and people are ashamed to be Americans. Look right, and people have no shame. It’s a shame we’re not doing more to rid ourselves of shame.

Hell, maybe you shamed someone today? Maybe I’m shaming you now for having shamed someone. Even if you have not shamed anyone, of late, I’m certain that you’ve felt shame. We all do. Shame for what we look like. Shame for where we come from, or where we live. Shame for what we believe in. Shame for what we do not. There’s just so much shame to go around.

According to Psychology Today:

Shame doesn’t motivate prosocial behaviors; it fuels social withdrawal and low self-esteem.

My question is why are we relying on shaming when it fails to motivate people? One possible answer is no one’s working to motivate anyone. What looks and sounds like a cry for change, for awareness, is ultimately stripped of any power when it comes cloaked in language meant to shame.

Listen for It, then Reconstruct the Conversation

Here’s a quick way to alert yourself to shaming language. If the word “should” is uttered, pause and consider.

Putin should end the war in Ukraine.

The Supreme Court should recognize women’s rights.

The NRA, Fox News, and the GOP should all be put out of business at once.

Trump and his collaborators should be charged with sedition and made to face the consequences.

Kids should be able to go to school or a movie or a parade without being murdered by another nutcase with an AR-15.

People fleeing violence at home in Honduras or Guatemala or Mexico should be able to seek legal sanctuary in the United States.

Big money should have nothing to do with political fundraising. Corporations should be prevented from buying undue influence.

Also, you and I should lose weight, get a raise, mow the lawn, and so on.

Underlying each ‘should’ is a world of assumptions, beginning with the notion that opponents on an issue have shared values. They do not, which makes shaming pointless.

To stop the war in Ukraine, restore Roe v. Wade, or treat guns like cars, it takes leverage, plain and simple. Shaming provides no leverage, because the act of shaming another person or group of people is mostly theater, wherein the shamer is the entertainer and the entertained.

No One Ever Wins the Shame Game

I am concerned with shaming because it’s the wrong construct for personal and social change. To move people to consider another point of view, it’s best to meet them halfway and come to this middle place with no shame shields to protect you.

Sounds scary, doesn’t it? Thankfully, smart people have been diligently studying the impacts of shame on people and society for years. People like Brené Brown. Let’s hear from the good professor.

Brown says:

Shame, for women, is this web of unobtainable, conflicting, competing expectations about who we’re supposed to be.

And it’s a straight jacket.

For men, shame is not a bunch of competing, conflicting expectations. Shame is one. Do not be perceived as what?


And there we have it. Men do not want to appear to be weak. Under any circumstance. Ever.

And what makes a man feel weak? In her Ted Talk (referenced above), she gives more than a clue:

What do men in this country need to do to conform with male norms?

The answers were: always show emotional control, work is first, pursue status and violence.

I do not always show emotional control. That’s not who I am, and at times, it has cost me (friends, jobs, and self-respect). As for the other tenets of modern manhood, I have put work first and pursued status, and in some cases violence. It feels odd to speak of actual violence, but violence can come in many forms and I have failed to support people, and failed to be kind to people and do what’s right more than once.

I regret these personal and professional failures and when I dwell on the particulars of them, I feel embarrassed.

The Unbearable Sounds of Silence

Time heals all, but not when shame is hidden away in some kind of drawer.

Dr. Brown reminds us that “Shame needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment.”

We feed the shame beast with these offerings. We bury our shame deep where no one can see it or find it or ask about it. That’s how shame wins. But we can not let shame win.

To beat the rug of shame with a broom, a new vulnerability is necessary.

Dr. Brown says, “Vulnerability is our most accurate measurement of courage.” That’s not the definition that I grew up with, but I like where she’s coming from. She adds:

If we’re going to find our way back to each other, we have to understand and know empathy, because empathy’s the antidote to shame.

Empathy for others in their suffering and empathy for our own suffering.

We can feel anger and know the injustice of a thing and then move through it, acknowledge it, and get past it.

Letting go of ‘the drama we know’ is scary. It’s also how you let the river carry you to new shores.

David Burn writes poems, stories, news, advertising, and opinion. He lives in the Lost Pines of Central Texas with his wife, Darby, and dog, Lucy Spotted Tongue.

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