Shame, It Doesn’t Work. An Interview with Krystine Batcho
Shame is a common thing to come across, and most of us have probably experienced it at one point or another. Whether its being shamed or shaming others the effects of this kind of behavior modifying can be severe. Krystine Batcho sat down with us to answer a few questions about the consequences of shaming others, how it can effect us and help understand why shame shouldn’t and can’t be justified as a way to change peoples behavior beneficially. Krystine Batcho is a Psychology PhD and a licensed psychologist. She teaches courses in learning, decision making and has done research on human-computer interaction. She has also done research on Nostalgia and developed the Nostalgia Inventory Test.
You talk about how shaming results in negative consequences, especially in bring a child up. Have you ever heard anyone say that shame is a valuable way of influencing behavior?
On the surface, shaming might be considered effective when it results in the shamed person eliminating or reducing an unwanted behavior. If a behavior is a high priority because it is very harmful (e.g., self-abuse, domestic violence), shaming might be considered useful if alternative efforts have failed. The justification for such thinking, though, is a “last resort” argument. Shaming always entails the possibility of unwanted side effects, such as the risk of depression, low self-esteem, and anxiety. Whenever possible, more constructive approaches should be tried first.
Do you think shaming as a tool for curbing behaviors is used because the people doing so believe it works well, or more because despite its negative effects it gets them the result they want?
In many cases, people who use shaming believe that it will work. However, people often use techniques that had been used on them, especially while they were growing up. Like other aversive methods (spanking, yelling, insults), shaming can be passed from one generation to the next; it can also be the result of role modeling from popular culture. People who shame others can be fooled into thinking it worked, when actually the person shamed has learned to hide the behavior or avoid engaging in the behavior in the presence of the one who shamed them. For example, someone who feels ashamed of their weight might start eating in private or with people other than the one who embarrassed them.
In some cases, shaming reduces the overt unwanted behavior, but the emotional damage suffered is not visible. If the person shaming someone could see the emotional hurt, he or she might realize that ultimately the shaming will be counterproductive in the long run. Finally, shaming is sometimes a way of venting frustration or anger, rather than an honest attempt to help someone change for the better.
Shame is dependent on others perception of ourselves, like you mentioned, and can be a quite a complex emotion. For those who care a lot about other’s opinions of themselves is it so straightforward as just shame that can influence their behavior; even if someone hasn’t specifically shamed them?
Shame does depend on how we expect others to evaluate and react to our behavior. People who have been made to feel ashamed (especially as children) are more likely to anticipate criticism from others in the future. Expectations are subjective and can be inaccurate. A person can be overly sensitive and falsely perceive social disapproval even when it isn’t present. It can inhibit a common behavior, such as singing along with a group of friends, or can obstruct an important behavior, such as taking a creative perspective on a scientific or artistic project. Shaming can promote hypersensitivity to social reaction and excessive self-criticism. When negative attitudes toward oneself are internalized, they can trigger a cycle of low self-esteem leading to pessimistic expectations that promote social anxiety.
Is it shaming that can cause someone to behave similarly to a group of people, even if that kind of behavior is something they do not enjoy, just to fit in and prevent social isolation? Or does this go further into anxiety and social acceptance?
People can go along with the crowd out of fear of being embarrassed. Not speaking out to defend a victim of bullying or actively joining in mockery or criticism are examples of behaviors that can be motivated by fear of being shamed. Individuals who can resist conformity need to have the strength of character that comes with positive self-esteem. People who feel loved for who they are will be less likely to sacrifice their own values in order to fit in with a certain social group.
You mentioned behaviors that are impossible to inhibit instead being pushed into secrecy, like cutting or bulimia. Could you clarify what goes on here for an individual to self-isolate the behavior to avoid intervention? Does the shame of the act only make it worse on the individual unable to prevent it?
Shaming a person for behavior he or she believes they can’t stop increases anxiety, which is already associated with the behavior. The stress of the risk of being “caught” and suffer even greater shame is very counterproductive. The individual can become more and more secretive to avoid the added emotional pain of shame. The fear of shame can also reduce the person’s willingness to reach out for social support, advice, and treatment.
Shaming based on unchangeable aspects of a person appear to be especially harmful. Even if shame successfully prevents the behavior is it ever a reasonable way to approach any situation?
Feeling ashamed of aspects of oneself that cannot be changed, such as physical attributes (e.g., height, race), is especially painful. Not only can the individual do nothing to avoid the shame, but the social disapproval is directed at dimensions of the person’s identity. In such cases, shaming is a rejection not only of a particular behavior, but of the person him or herself. The same dynamic is present when the shaming is directed at a behavior that cannot be changed (e.g., the result of a disorder or brain process). A person who fears embarrassment if an unwanted behavior should occur in public (e.g., a seizure) can begin to avoid social situations or public settings. Imagine how disruptive and unfair such self-isolation can be. A college student with epilepsy might drop out of school or an employee might give up career aspirations.
Internalizing shame seems to fuel the development of social anxiety and depression. Even if the shame is unintentional, are there ways to prevent it from taking root in the long term?
More research is needed to identify effective ways of preventing shaming from being internalized. Research on related issues, such as learned helplessness, suggests that cognitive-behavioral strategies can be productive. Learning to think differently about which behaviors or traits can be controlled can help a person distinguish between self and behavior or attributes. We are so much more than one of our behaviors or physical traits.
It is important, too, not to allow our worth to be determined by another person’s opinion. Exploring how much we mean to those we love and those who love us provides a more complete understanding of social approval and acceptance. For example, remembering that we are able to love people who have some behaviors we disapprove of can clarify the distinction between a behavior and the whole person.
Much of the talk about shame in your article is around parents and children. Is shaming any less effective if it’s one adult to another?
Shaming can affect people at any age. Research on shaming children is important, because children are dependent on adults, want to please them, and have not yet learned how to defend themselves from criticism. The impact of emotional consequences of shaming can last into adulthood, as people acquire the basics of social relationships during childhood. For those children who internalize shaming, the influence on their self-image can become part of the foundation for their adult social behaviors.
Children can be “immunized” against possible future shaming by enhancing their healthy self-esteem and assuring that they learn how to control events in their lives. Shaming can affect adults powerfully as well. The extent to which an adult is adversely affected depends upon a person’s resilience, social support system, and the relationship in which the shaming occurs. One way to think about differences in the impact is to consider how important the source of shaming is. To feel shamed by someone we love, trust, and depend on has a much greater effect than feeling shamed by someone less meaningful to us.
How important do you think it is to address any feelings of shame in a relationship? Is it best to bring these moments up or confront them as they happen and work on better ways to address similar situations in the future?
If an incidence of shaming is a rare, non-substantial occurrence, it is unlikely to result in lasting hurt. In fact, it might be the sort of thing a couple will laugh about later. Recurring shaming, the kind that has become typical, can damage a relationship. Discussing the emotional impact of intentional or unintentional shaming honestly is important to keep the relationship healthy. A shamed person can come to resent his or her partner, as the relationship comes to cause more anxiety than joy.
Is something more akin to constructive criticism a better way of addressing bad behaviours, or situations where behavior drifts the wrong way?
A healthy principle in modifying behavior is to draw attention to and reward desirable behavior. Saying, “When you told me I looked nice in that outfit, it made me so happy,” or “I love how you encourage and support me” are examples of constructive reactions to a compliment. Whereas, responding to a shaming comment with, “A real man would never talk to me that way,” is not instructive, but retaliatory. To return a personal attack with another personal attack is counterproductive, serving only to increase emotional hurt. When feelings of disappointment, resentment, and depression accumulate, a relationship can lose the positive dimensions that are central to remaining healthy.