Shame and uncertainty

I watched that video of the interaction in Central Park between a man politely asking a woman to put her dog on a leash and her extraordinarily inappropriate and dangerous over-reaction and thought of one thing. Shame.

I watch videos of grown people throwing tantrums in grocery stores about being asked to wear a mask. In those I see two things. Frustration and Shame.

I watch the news and see police acting with extraordinary force against largely peaceful protesters and see…SHAME.

I’m speaking largely to my fellow white Americans here. We are in a shame spiral. Not that we are shameful, because I’m sure most of those cops, those people throwing fits, even that woman in Central Park, are probably reasonably OK people in most circumstances. People who know them best would probably say they would never imagine that they would act this way.

But the actions of so many of us these days reflect such deep feelings of shame and embarrassment. I know it’s hard to hear about Karens, of which I am demographically one one, and not feel shame. It’s caused me to think about my past actions and to experience intense regrets about times that I could have done more or done better. And it’s uncomfortable. It’s hard to tolerate or focus on for too long. But shame is different than the guilt that I feel when I think about my past thoughts and behaviors. Guilt is motivating. Shame feels hopeless.

I once saw Brené Brown give a lecture about shame and she said something that has stayed with me. She said “we are never more dangerous than when we are in shame.”

It’s totally true. When my kids fight in the backseat and I get mad at them, I’m annoyed at the sound of it, sure, but I’m mostly wondering where I went wrong that they can’t get alone (news flash for those wondering, siblings fight. As an only child I don’t have the practical experience to accept that out of hand as a given the way people who grew up scrapping with their brothers and sisters can). I’m feeling like a bad mother, I’m worried that if I was a better mother they wouldn’t be fighting.

I am not saying that just because these things are uncomfortable that we should not do them, or that we are unable to do them, or that worrying that we are not as good as we would like to think we are is a reason to look away from our actions (past, present, and future). I’m simply acknowledging the deep discomfort that comes with feeling that your actions aren’t always correct, right, moral, or just. It’s uncomfortable to think that you might be in the wrong – or have been in the wrong in the past. It’s uncomfortable to think that my reactions to my kid’s fighting in the back seat (read: yelling at them) were not good. They probably made the kids feel worried, anxious, and uncomfortable – certainly not my goal when I was engaging in them. I was mad, at the time, because their fighting made ME feel so inadequate and ashamed. It made me question myself as a mother and as a person. And then, later, my reaction compounded the questioning.

This absolutely does NOT justify the behaviors in those videos. The people in those videos are dangerous. But if we can acknowledge the reason they’re dangerous, then can start to address it. SHAME.

Once I realized my own shame, I was able to talk to myself about doing bad vs. being bad. I was able to turn that shame into something that is actually functional – guilt. I was able to apologize to my kids and to work to repair our relationship. To talk through how I reacted and how they would like me to react in the future.

As Brené Brown (again!) points out – Guilt is I DID a bad thing, Shame is I AM bad. If someone feels they’re being told that they are bad, no matter how bad the behavior, they’re not going to respond with a belief that they can ever fix it. If you are intrinsically bad, how can you ever be good? But if you DO bad things, you can improve. You can DO better.

So, fellow Karens. Can we please agree to tolerate the discomfort of feeling shame for long enough to realize that it’s actually guilt we feel? We need to work hard to DO better. None of us are born able to tolerate having things not go our way. But, Karens, we have to start learning – the way that BIPOC Americans have had to learn long before we have – that we don’t always get to do what we want when we want. We’ve had a long period of getting our way and it’s uncomfortable to acknowledge that we can’t and shouldn’t always get our way. That what we want might cause others pain. That how we instinctively react in situations might come from deeply, and often unconsciously, held prejudices and beliefs and that they are wrong. Our instincts are not always right because they are the product of our environment and our family and what we have been taught to fear and love. And, I hope we can all agree, our families are NOT always right.

We as a society have lost sight of what it means to be free. We have forgotten what it means to tolerate being uncomfortable. I write a lot about anxiety and the fear people feel with things are unsettled or unknown. People want certainty. We want resolution. But freedom IS uncertainty. We feel we cannot tolerate instability, change, shifting sands without drowning. Police want the certainty of an arrest completed, an investigation uninterrupted, discipline without question or interruption. Their thought, our action. The problem is that we, as a society, have given them the power to blow through interruption, introspection, doubt, and safety. We’ve given them the power to impose their will on anyone who disagrees or resists. It seems that lately the police feel that the consequences for disobeying any of their orders is death. We have made them that way by arming them and training them to treat citizens of this country as the enemy. But individuals with free will do not follow orders. They do not always make the right choices. And so we have consequences under the law. But I think we all agree that consequences have gotten out of whack when the police can murder a man for resisting arrest. Where a woman can threaten a man with deadly force for asking her to leash her dog.

The consequences for not wearing a mask is denial of entry. That is not, in any way equivalent, of the denial of right to live. There are consequences for exercising our individual autonomy and freedom – but I think everyone should be able to agree that autonomy stops where it hurts someone else. Wearing a mask is not about only hurting yourself. Choosing not to vaccinate your child (when you are able) is not only about hurting yourself. Consequences are appropriate to encourage the choice that benefits society. But death is not a consequence for choice. Or it should not be in a free society. Physical harm is not a consequence for choice in a free society.

Are consequences distressing? Sometimes, absolutely. But they can be tolerated.

We can tolerate the discomfort of not getting our way. Frustration is not pleasant, but we can cope with it by soothing ourselves after the fact (you’re in a grocery store, people, if the mask is unpleasant, buy some ice cream or a bottle of wine, go home and scream and then eat the ice cream – you’ll be ok). We can tolerate the discomfort of guilt. Feeling guilty is uncomfortable, but we can cope with it by doing better next time or making amends for previous times.

We have to work on our distress tolerance.

Published by alexm1008

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor practicing in Houston, Texas. I specialize in helping clients develop skills and strategies to feel more in control of their emotions and behaviors. I am also a wife and mother of two who loves to run and travel (particularly to Disney World with my kids and without).

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