Is Shaming Ever Helpful?
When I was in first grade, I wrote a journal entry about how I’d just learned about Santa Claus and about how babies are made in the same terrible week. I remember it was scrawled in gel pen with lots of all-caps words in unusually large print. And I remember that to my 7-year-old self, these shocking revelations seemed to destroy all of the magic and innocence my little-kid joy had been built on, only to replace them with the notion that every last one of the friendly moms and dads I saw at church every Sunday were actually just a bunch of lying sickos. Like any kid who’d previously been quite comfortable believing that a bearded, magical old man put gifts under our Christmas tree and that God simply sent babies to married people (and “bad girls”), I was devastated, and my journal entry was at least a decent reflection of that devastation.
I know this because a few years later, I went back and ripped that same journal entry to shreds.
I think I was in 4th or 5th grade when I tore those pages up, and deep embarrassment was what impelled me. Because (the general feeling went) what sort of moron would actually believe that flying reindeer exist and babies are just heaven-twinkled into moms’ bellies? The thought that evidence of my dramatic reaction to learning such basic facts of life might survive and be discovered was too much for my now suuuuper mature, finally enlightened ten-year-old self to bear. I was so disgusted that I’d once believed (what I considered to be) such childish and illogical things that I ended up destroying what could have eventually been a precious snapshot into my past.
I’m always sad when I think of the ignorance that led me to tear up that journal entry, but the truth is that I still do this kind of thing. More specifically, I still find myself feeling a lot of shame when I think back on some of the hurtful, misguided things I’ve said and done in the name of my faith and as I’ve struggled to cope with various spiritual and emotional growing pains.
Many of us have the definition of shame memorized by now (thanks, Brené!) as, roughly, the belief that one is fundamentally flawed and therefore not worthy of love or belonging (this is the definition I’m thinking of when referring to shame in this post). And whether it derives from profound sorrow (at the ways we may have harmed, mislead, or turned a blind eye to the pains of others) or pride (e.g., embarrassment at the thought of having been perceived by others as incompetent or oblivious), my take is that otherizing and shaming our past selves because of mistakes we’ve made—any of them—is problematic. And that it’s especially problematic if the goal is to help Mormonism be a more loving, inclusive place that can make space for, nurture, and even celebrate individuals’ moral and spiritual development.
That might sound incredibly obvious to an audience that often (and for good reason) advocates divorcing shame from things like sexual orientation or porn use or shoulder-baring, but what about shame and the sins or worldviews that this same audience is more likely to condemn? For example, do we shame ourselves for the times we may have made petty judgments based on things we now find trivial, for the ways we may have chastened others for expressing unorthodox beliefs or concerns, for the all-or-nothing/us vs. them thinking we may have espoused, or the racist, sexist, homophobic things we may have believed or even taught? And if so, at what cost?
For the record, the last thing I’m trying to do here is justify or minimize wrongdoing, discrimination, or abuse, and please know that I’m also not saying that we shouldn’t feel real remorse for or seek to rectify our mistakes. On the contrary, what I’m suggesting is that there’s a profound difference between “I am bad” and “What I did was bad,” and that in order to go with the latter—the one that can actually support real repentance and growth—it’s important, for instance, to acknowledge that all of us are and always have been motivated by a mixed bag of noble and ugly and everything-in-between incentives: desires to include and exclude, desires to uplift and cut down, desires to prioritize compassion and to protect our own comfort at any cost. What I’m interested in here, then, is not giving a pass to bad behavior but in truly allowing our sins to trouble us to the extent that real growth and stronger community can result. And it’s my opinion that shaming our past selves undermines these goals.
One reason for this is that the natural complement of “I used to be such a terrible, useless, brainless little sheeple” often seems to be “but now I know ALL THE THINGS and ah it’s great to be so morally superior.” Not only is the latter insufferable, this kind of thinking is antithetical to basic principles of the learning process: for instance, the truth that I am now and always will be wrong about stuff, and that learning is therefore a process I will always need to be humbly and deliberately engaging in.
And it’s also contrary to a basic understanding of how humans make meaning throughout their lives. In his book applying human development models to faith transitions within Mormonism, Thomas Wirthlin McConkie explains that there are sequential, hierarchical stages that we must unavoidably pass through before other stages can emerge, and that one of those earlier yet crucial stages includes experiencing strong needs “to harmonize with the collective we belong to and to fit in,” to prioritize our “support [for] the authority and hierarchy that holds rules in place,” and to see truth as being strictly “inherited from the past.” McConkie also notes that researchers don’t yet understand why some people progress fairly rapidly through more complex stages in their lifetimes while others do not, but that “higher doesn’t equal better.“ Rather, people at more complex levels of development are just as likely to be “unintegrated, flawed, and unhappy” as anyone else (and in fact any stage can serve as a “healthy and vibrant station” from which to live out the rest of our lives).
Again, knowing that multiple factors (many of which we have little or no control over) contribute to our behavior doesn’t mean we shouldn’t feel remorse for past mistakes. But realizing that neither side of the “I used to be a complete waste of space but now I am just the wokest and greatest” attitude are accurate representations allows us to view our past mistakes and current progress in helpful ways–not with shame or superiority but with grace.
Another obvious reason not to otherize and shame our past selves is that “What kind of insipid fool must I have been to think that?” far too easily morphs into “What kind of insipid fool must YOU be to think that?” In other words, dehumanizing our past selves makes it easy (and can even lead us to believe that we have license) to dehumanize others we perceive as thinking or acting like we once did. And responses calculated to shame others are problematic not only because they are unkind, but because they just aren’t the least bit persuasive (how many times have you been mercilessly shamed into changing your opinion?). For the record, I am not saying that we shouldn’t speak-up, assertively defend our positions, and/or establish firm boundaries when people are acting like jerks. I am all for honest expressions of anger or frustration, for bucking injustice and agitating for change with boldness and compassion. What I’m suggesting is that when we choose to see others not as caricatures but as the complicated mess of experiences, biology, assumptions, and whatever else that they are, our response to that horribly insensitive Facebook post or short-sighted Sunday School comment or well-meaning but super unhelpful call-to-repentance email will be different. Our response will be different, too, when friends, family, or other church members hurt us or others we love in more profound ways. And while disagreement that acknowledges our shared humanity might not end up softening any hearts or changing anyone’s mind, it’s at least more likely to. At the very least, it’s far more likely to allow for personal healing and progress.
Lastly, another reason that shaming (ourselves or others) is problematic is that it weakens our ability to learn from mistakes–which is kind of the whole point. As a mom with plans to someday teach, I’m always (happily) bumping into stuff about growth mindset research (led by Dr. Carol Dweck), which among other things has profound things to say about shame and mistakes. The gist is that students excel when they view their mistakes not as negative reflections of fixed traits (“I’m not smart enough to learn this”) but as interesting platforms for learning—even opportunities to “grow their brains.” And because most of us are conditioned to internalize our mistakes and avoid challenges, instilling a growth mindset in students means (among other things) providing them with a safe learning environment where they feel that they can take risks, mess-up, and try on new ways of thinking. After all, people are far more likely to engage when they know they aren’t going to be punished or demeaned for not having (what we at least perceive to be) all the right answers, right? Clearly, these principles apply not just to parents and schoolteachers but to how we as fellow parishioners support growth in ourselves and others. When we as Mormons or post-Mormons project a fixed (rather than growth) mindset through our responses to others’ mistakes, for example, we may in fact be discouraging growth in the very same people we wish would be more supportive of our own.
As Mormons who embrace the idea of “continuing revelation” and view learning as a sacred and even eternal endeavor, it’s not just a nice gesture to avoid shaming ourselves and others but a logical and critical extension of the covenants we make at baptism: to love one another and to take on the name of Christ. If the goal is to contribute to a Mormonism that finds strength in diversity and joy in healthy development, my take is that we’ve got to wholly reject shame in favor of responses that acknowledge the shared humanity and infinite worth of all people–ourselves included.