Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Shame of Brené Brown


Normally, I would not comment on Brené Brown’s blog post on public shaming.

Were I to tell you how bad it really is I would risk looking disrespectful and uncharitable.

Yet, Brown, whose name I first heard a couple of days ago is a star on the TED circuit and claims to be speaking for the latest in psycho research on shame. This makes it more difficult to remain silent.

The truth is, if Brown’s essay had been written by a college sophomore it would be barely acceptable. Written by a college professor it is barely excusable.

Brown was especially agitated over the recent New York City subway campaign that has tried to stigmatize teen pregnancy. Our mayor recently put up a number of posters that try to discourage unmarried teenage girls from having babies. It has not threatened girls, but has asked them to take a cold hard look at the reality of teenage pregnancy.

Many people applauded the effort, myself included. Richard Reeves wrote an excellent column in the New York Times explaining how shame can be used to sanction bad behavior and to encourage good behavior.

Brown objected to what Reeves said, because, in her mind shame is bad.  It is all bad all of the time. It makes people feel bad; it makes them do bad things; it causes every kind of bad behavior.

Brown may call it science, but she is trafficking in mindless moral absolutes.

If she were consistent she would be promoting shamelessness, but that would require more thought than she has apparently put into the issue.

Of the two great emotional sanctions, shame and guilt, Brown clearly prefers guilt. She even believes that people change behavior because they feel guilty.

In her words:

The majority of shame researchers agree that the difference between shame and guilt is best understood as the difference between “I am bad” and “I did something bad.” Shame is about who we are, and guilt is about our behaviors.

When we apologize for something we’ve done, make amends to others, or change a behavior that we don’t feel good about, guilt is most often the motivator. Of course, you can shame someone into saying, “I’m sorry,” but it’s rarely authentic. Guilt is as powerful as shame; it just doesn’t have the paralyzing and debilitating impact that prevents shame from being an effective agent of meaningful change.  

Clearly, the majority of shame researchers should be looking for another line of work.

I apologize to those of you who have read this before, but apparently one needs to repeat oneself.

Guilt differs from shame because guilt involves breaking a law. True enough, guilt comes from bad behavior, but no one feels guilty about bad manners.

Guilt is a form of anxiety. It is the anticipation of physical punishment. When criminals are pronounced guilty and punished the punishment attenuates the guilt feelings. The punishment for crime is most often physical, as in incarceration.

Someone who wishes to palliate guilt might practice self-flagellation, or its moral equivalent: self-criticism.

You pay the debt of your guilt by being punished. Palliating your guilt does not involve changing your behavior.

It is fair to remark, because the point confuses everyone, that when a criminal is brought to trial he suffers both guilt and shame.

For his malefactions he is tried and incarcerated.

But, since a trial is a public spectacle, he will also experience shame.

Shame might attach to criminal behavior, but only in the sense that an embezzler, for example, has not only committed a crime; he has failed to fulfill a basic fiduciary responsibility.

If guilt is about committing crimes, shame is about failing to do one’s duty.

When a commanding general fails, he will feel shame, not guilt.  

Moral individuals have a sense of shame. They know when they have done something wrong and set out to correct it. They apologize and resign and pledge to improve their character.

When Japanese businessmen fail they offer shamefaced apologies. They are not apologizing for having broken a law. They are not going to be indicted, tried or incarcerated… unless their failure involves criminal behavior.

When someone apologizes he expresses regret for his actions, takes sole responsibility for his failure and vows to behave differently in the future. 

Since apology covers failure, not criminal activity, it requires an individual to adopt new and more constructive behaviors.

Embarrassment is a milder form of shame. You will feel embarrassed if discover that you have bad table manners. The embarrassment will cause you to rectify your table manners. You do so because you want to participate in a social ritual and promote dinner table harmony.

It is not a crime to slurp your soup or to use the wrong fork. You would not expect to be punished for doing so.

Take the example of a young woman who binge eats. Which would be more likely to induce her to change the behavior: her punishing herself for binging or her watching a video that shows what she looks like when she isr binging?

Actually, girls who binge do feel guilty and do punish themselves: they induce vomiting. The result: they can binge again.

The shame that a girl will feel while watching herself binge is a far better deterrent than the self-punishment she will feel while vomiting.

Brown offers an example to illustrate what she means when she says that shaming people is very, very bad.

In her words:

A man shakes a bottle of pills in his wife’s face, “Look around you! Your pill-popping is destroying our family. Our son is failing out of school and our daughter is literally starving herself for attention. What's wrong with you?”

An exasperated husband is trying to get through to a wife who is out of control. He is saying, reasonably enough, that she needs to see what her habit has being to those who are near and dear to her.

Keep in mind, this man is trying to reach his wife through a drug-induced haze.

To Brown the man is in the wrong. Somehow, her addled moral sense has blinded her to the fact that the pill-taking wife is in the wrong and is destroying her family.

Brown is thus scrupulously non-judgmental, except when it comes to blaming the husband for his wife’s bad behavior.

She does not want to sanction the wife with bad feelings; she wants to sanction the husband for showing insufficient empathy. He does not feel her pain.

Do you think that the wife should feel ashamed of herself? Brown does not. Do you think that the husband is responsible for his wife’s pill popping because he is showing her insufficient empathy? Brown does.

I think it far more likely that the drug addict wife has been receiving too much empathy and understanding.  

If you don’t think that you are doing anything wrong, the chances are good that you will never think about changing what you are doing. If you are getting positive reinforcement via empathy you are likely to believe that you are not doing anything wrong.

Also, we live in a culture that prescribes pills for just about everything. How is this husband to counteract the message that the culture is sending if he does not, perhaps, raise his voice?

Will the wife in question try to numb her shame by taking more pills? Perhaps. But there is nothing about shaming that forces her to take pills.

The sad truth is that when psychologists tell people that the only way they can deal with shame is with pathological behavior it is leading them down precisely the wrong road.

You know and I know, and perhaps Brown knows, that the way to overcome shame is to improve your behavior. If a man feels embarrassed by his bad table manners he has a good alternative: good table manners.

If people mention that he is making a fool of himself they are doing him a favor.

But, if he follows what appears to be the latest psycho research he will double down on boorishness and denounce everyone for being judgmental.

Under normal circumstances guilt does not incite you to change your behavior: it can be dealt with by accepting your punishment. Also, note well that shame involves your public face while guilt aims at the state of your rather private soul.

If you have committed a sin you can confess and do penance in private. This allows you, strangely enough, to go forth and sin again.

At its best, guilt might inhibit your impulse to commit crimes or sins, but it does not, in itself, induce you to adopt new, positive constructive behaviors.

Take an example. From the time of Moses adultery has been forbidden. The Seventh Commandment is unambiguous.

And yet, throughout the course of Western Civilization people have happily committed adultery. In some cases adultery has been institutionalized in official mistresses, courtesans, concubines, favorites and courtly lovers.

Since most of this behavior took place with the context of Christian Europe we have good reason to suspect that adulterers were confessing their sins and receiving forgiveness.

Placing adultery with a guilt/penance system did nothing to deter adultery. It seems to have helped sustain the practice. After all, many people are attracted to something that is forbidden.

When some Western cultures wanted to lower the incidence of adultery they decided to stigmatize it. The practice is now identified by the infamous “scarlet letter.”

If, as is reasonable to believe, the guilt based approach produced more, better adultery and the shame-based approach reduced the amount of adultery, which was the more effective deterrent?

One needs to understand that when you destigmatize a behavior you get more of it. Destigmatize unmarried teenage motherhood, as we have been doing, and you get more unmarried teenage mothers. Destigmatize out-of-wedlock childbearing and you get more of it. Destigmatize divorce and you get more of it. Destigmatize teenage sexting and you get more of it. Destigmatize drug abuse and you get more of it.

America is awash in unwed teenage mothers and unwed millennial mothers because we followed the advice of psychologists and destigmatized the behavior. One appreciate Brown's interest in not shaming teenage mothers. She does not want them to feel bad, because, after all, nothing is worse than feeling bad.

Yet, the ads are not directed to unmarried  teenage mothers; they are directed at potential teenage mothers. I suspect that the current crop of unmarried teenage mothers is receive far too much empathy and understanding. Could that be the reason that they are doing it more than once? Could that be the reason that now in America, in a country where we no longer judge anyone's behavior, an obscenely large number of children are being born out of wedlock, to women who are not teenagers.

24 comments:

Sam L. said...

Is not teenage mothers, it is unmarried teenage mothers

Nick said...

"She does not want them to feel bad, because, after all, nothing is worse than feeling bad."

Of course, being a pregnant teen or teen mother, you are likely to feel very bad about a number of things. The distinction for Brown probably is that she is not responsible for those bad feelings. That's life as a teen mother and we need to throw another government program at it after the fact.

On the other hand, shaming teens as a preventative measure? Well, now you have directly caused some suffering, so you are a bad person.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thanks Sam and Nick... I have corrected the text and added the "unmarried" qualifier where needed.

David Foster said...

The distinction between Shame and Guilt was a primary theme of The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, a 1946 study of Japanese society by anthropologist Ruth Benedict. Her usage of the terms was that a Shame society is one in which people are motivated by fear of social disapproval, whereas a Guilt society is one in which people are driven by their own internalized values.

The book (whose writing was US-government funded) was of course influenced by the fact that the U.S. was at war with Japan while it was being written; among other things, in-person interviews in Japan were obviously impossible.


Bobbye said...

David,

Shame is cultural, while guilt is individual. The West has decided that multiculturalism is the way to go. Since all cultues (or lack of culture) are equally valid, shame is inappropriate always. Shame is what kept Gays in the closet. Shame is why Japanese men who fail kill themslves. I'm sure anyone can think of many examples of shameing that is personally disagreeable. Eric Holder believes gun owners should be shamed in the same way we shame smokers. I personally don't want to live in a Shame Society.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I wrote about Ruth Benedict in my book Saving Face, which contains a more extensive discussion of the difference between shame and guilt and between shame cultures and guilt cultures.

Anonymous said...

I may write more on this later. I agree with your distinction about guilt and shame, Stuart, and I think it's important. I also think that people who want to eliminate shame are silly because it is a distinctive form of human behavior. It's like wanting to eliminate laughter. When someone like Brene Brown becomes absolutist on this point, she becomes, well... absolutist. And that doesn't work very well, does it?

At the same time, I do want to say something about Brene Brown. She came onto the TED scene after her talk on "The Power of Vulnerability." If you haven't seen it, I encourage you to. I believe it is excellent. Yet it seems like Brown's success may have produced some hubris in the form of absolutism here. Her professional career has gained steam, and her perspective has evolved. It seems it has evolved in an unfortunate way on this point. But I still content that her "Vulnerability" talk was excellent, and I recommend it to my clients as a way to access breakthrough levels of courage and relationship.

But this absolutist take on shame is odd.

Tip

Stuart Schneiderman said...

I hope you're right about her talk on Vulnerability, and it makes sense that her success would have gone to her head. Unfortunately, she claims that her opinions are those of her profession.

Anonymous said...

I first watch Brown on TED. it
was an nspiring talk by itself. Went on and watch videos interviews of Brown on Oprah's " super soul Sunday" and found myself wondering: is that the same person I listened to on TED. Made me question her credibility. Stumbled upon this blog which I find is the other voice needed iin the discussion.
The organization called Witness puts video cameras in people's hands to give them the opportunity to record human righst abuse around the world with the aim of bringing shame onto government that violate those rights. What's wrong with that?
Shame has been used with religious zeal for too long and probably cause more damage than none. I believe that this is what brown and some people are retaliating against but the fact of the matter is that shame can be put to good use in some circumstances.

Anonymous said...

I am in the process of reading all of Brene Brown's books, and agree her ted Talk is amazingly good.
She has done extensive research, and speaks to the heart of the shame issue, deep unworthiness.

Let me suggest a different poster for NYC campaign. An unmarried father, with the shadow of his baby's mother behind him. Shouldn't he be making better choices too? Why is the mother, who has her badge of shame right in front of her, the only one responsible?

Anonymous said...

This article is ripe with logical fallacies. You make an abundance of assumptions about how people would feel in situations you yourself have never been in. I also feel you changed a lot of the definitions of guilt and shame and interchanged them throughout your article, and you seemed to miss the whole point of her research. The point is that shame (believing you are inherently bad) may be a normal reaction but is ineffective in creating change. Believing you are inherently good and that you made a mistake is more empowering because it eliminates the hopelessness that one feels when they believe they are a bad person and nothing can change that. I found this article incredibly irresponsible.

Anonymous said...

Guilt is feeling bad for something that you have done because of your morals.
Shame is feeling bad because it is socially inappropriate and you are judged by others.
Morals depends on the individuals while societal norms depend on the society

Spharion said...

I've just watched Brown's TED talk and I had never heard of her. I hated it, and Stuart's text apply very well to it. People don't simply decide to be resilient towards vulnerability, people are conditioned to that or to the opposite; there are loads of literature on how you make or break that kind of psychological fortitude; she abuses the word "research" as to make it seem her feel good words have scientific backing. It sounds like anything but.

Munisah Al Behairy said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Munisah Al Behairy said...

I find nothing in Brown's Ted talk that would motivate me to recommend it. She seems to be functioning as an entertainer, an inspirational speaker, whatever her credentials may be. No one would disagree with the assertion that a course of action ought not be avoided solely on the grounds of the difficulties it might present. That's far from a "willingness to fail." Setbacks are acceptable as part of a process- but then that's adversity we're talking about and not some imaginary willingness to fail. It's a cost/benefit analysis. (I'm guessing Bill Gates might be willing to risk losing millions of dollars but not willing to risk losing everything he's got- or his life- unlike Mr. Jobs. One doesn't risk what one can't afford to lose. Would Mr. Jobs defend his choices now?) Also I think we can agree that we all have both strengths and weaknesses- no one is "perfect" in the sense of having only strengths and no weaknesses. That's not much comfort though to those whose distance from perfection is clearly greater than those to whom they compare themselves. I disagree with her rejection of shame as a valid response to certain circumstances also: Sometimes shame is entirely appropriate, depending on what's causing it. As for vulnerability: It is weakness. That's what it means, a susceptibility to harm resulting from a lack of strength in a given area. Again, we need to be willing to expose ourselves to some level of difficulty in our lives, be willing to struggle and even be willing to be unable to complete a task- but that's not the same thing as embracing some re-defined vulnerability (or willingness to fail.) One can struggle and one can even fail while remaining unharmed: "Invulnerable" in the sense of not experiencing difficulty or even defeat as debilitating or painful, rather as part of a process, part of life. It's always been a good idea to be alert and responsive to incoming data- but that doesn't require re-defining vulnerability as an asset. That's just paying attention. Finally, we all need to emphasize those things in our lives that are positive and let go of the things that are negative. Don't feel shame or otherwise suffer because you aren't as beautiful or as wealthy as those you admire. Instead be happy because you have good friends, hobbies you enjoy, access to a variety of high quality foods that you like cooking and eating. Be grateful for and delight in your strengths, don't dwell on your weaknesses. I see no reason at this time to accept Ms. Brown's definitions of shame, vulnerability or failure. She doesn't appear to be saying anything new. Thank you.

bobonlyknows said...

I have read several of Brown's books and watched her speak. I have never once felt that she has or is trying to make any "wrong" behavior "okay". She is just explaining that OWNING our actions can help us heal. That is what counseling is about, isn't it. Rooting out, facing, obviously "not doing it again" and finding peace.
This is so subjective that to think anyone has the definitive answer is arrogant. I have never felt that she is say she is 100%.
I think too many are taking what she is saying and making it too black and white.
I see in this blog and from some of the comments here, there are some pretty perfect people in our world that I was unaware of.
I guess I hang out with the wrong crowd.

adobogirl said...

The ad campaign has targeted in half of the teenage pregnancy puzzle. Not once did you mention an ad campaign stigmatizing unwed teenage fathers. It takes two to make a child, yet one party is targeted with a stigma ray?

Regardless what your opinion is of Brene Brown, if you support lowering teenage pregnancy and births then the focus should have been the many factors that play into why teenagers have sex: lack of education, lack of focus for self-future, pleasure, biology, acceptance, etc. If we target the root of why teenagers chose to have sex and unprotected sex then I can say that would have a more lasting impact on lowering numbers.

Aside from the negative approach, how about ads focusing on teenagers actualizing their potential? How about ads saying you're worthy of a bright future? How about ads promoting selfish academic/career ambition as opposed to feel peer pressured into having sex?

It's not so much the topic of shame/guilt that I have an issue with, its more so the way you endorse bullying just one party into changing their behavior.

adobogirl said...

The ad campaign has targeted in half of the teenage pregnancy puzzle. Not once did you mention an ad campaign stigmatizing unwed teenage fathers. It takes two to make a child, yet one party is targeted with a stigma ray?

Regardless what your opinion is of Brene Brown, if you support lowering teenage pregnancy and births then the focus should have been the many factors that play into why teenagers have sex: lack of education, lack of focus for self-future, pleasure, biology, acceptance, etc. If we target the root of why teenagers chose to have sex and unprotected sex then I can say that would have a more lasting impact on lowering numbers.

Aside from the negative approach, how about ads focusing on teenagers actualizing their potential? How about ads saying you're worthy of a bright future? How about ads promoting selfish academic/career ambition as opposed to feel peer pressured into having sex?

It's not so much the topic of shame/guilt that I have an issue with, its more so the way you endorse bullying just one party into changing their behavior.

adobogirl said...

The ad campaign has targeted in half of the teenage pregnancy puzzle. Not once did you mention an ad campaign stigmatizing unwed teenage fathers. It takes two to make a child, yet one party is targeted with a stigma ray?

Regardless what your opinion is of Brene Brown, if you support lowering teenage pregnancy and births then the focus should have been the many factors that play into why teenagers have sex: lack of education, lack of focus for self-future, pleasure, biology, acceptance, etc. If we target the root of why teenagers chose to have sex and unprotected sex then I can say that would have a more lasting impact on lowering numbers.

Aside from the negative approach, how about ads focusing on teenagers actualizing their potential? How about ads saying you're worthy of a bright future? How about ads promoting selfish academic/career ambition as opposed to feel peer pressured into having sex?

It's not so much the topic of shame/guilt that I have an issue with, its more so the way you endorse bullying just one party into changing their behavior.

Anonymous said...

I am so glad someone is not just drinking the kool-aid. I am a psychologist and never really got into Brene Brown, but my ex-husband, a psychiatrist, was all about it. I suspect he used the concept to justify his sexual perpetration of his/our clients (a fact I was unaware of for years). Shame is not always a bad thing.

David Sickmiller said...

This was a very interesting criticism of Brene Brown, and I enjoyed reading it. However, one of the last sentences runs into a problem with reality: "America is awash in unwed teenage mothers and unwed millennial mothers because we followed the advice of psychologists and destigmatized the behavior."

Teen pregnancy rates in America have declined by half in the past two decades -- between 1990 and 2010, the pregnancy rate dropped from 116.9 to 57.4 pregnancies per 1,000 teen girls. It would seem that whatever we've been doing has been working alright.

Stuart Schneiderman said...

Thank you... I appreciate the correction. Of course, there are still far too many of both, to say nothing of there still being far too many divorces... even though the percentage has been declining.

Anonymous said...

There is tons of personal interpretation and bias,including American bias in this criticism...and also tons of unfounded arrogance. She has done research and at least had something to substantiate her findings, controlled for culture, race, religion etc. This is bunch of skewed view arguments.

Anonymous said...

I feel very sorry for you Stuart. I wish you well and hope you can find the courage to take a more open and curious approach to gain a better understanding of the concepts Brown offers and how they apply to building and supporting better communities.