Without a doubt, shame is one hell of a drug — one we’ve used since at least biblical times in our perpetual attempts to make people change their behavior. It’s totally legal. It’s easy to distribute. And it only costs a fraction of our soul.
Light it up!
And are we ever. Has anyone else noticed how enthusiastically we’re injecting shame into our response to COVID-19?
We’re like Santa with his list; we know who’s been naughty and who’s been nice. *raises eyebrows* “Oh, wow. Cute pic of your large, unmasked gathering,” we say.
Or, “Look at that scared sheep wearing a mask,” we sneer, for exactly the opposite reason.
And it’s no holds barred if someone actually tests positive.
We are quick with our character assessments, and we’ve made the stakes very (pardon the continued pun) high.
It turns out, others are noticing, including KUER’s Caroline Ballard.
My wife heard and shared with me Ballard’s interview with Gretchen Case about the long intertwined history of shame and illness.
Case runs the medical ethics and humanities program at the University of Utah, and spoke to the ways we’ve conflated sickness and immorality throughout time.
I loved the piece and wanted to know more, so I snagged my own interview with Case and one of her two co-authors of their recent article, “Shame,” Dr. Karly A. Pippitt.
The two helped me understand shame in relation to its more casual cousins guilt and judgment.
“The big difference,” Case explained, “is that shame goes beyond the guilt of making a singular bad choice. Instead, because of your assessment of what you’ve done — or even someone else’s assessment — it becomes part of who you are. The resulting feeling is that if you have failed, then you are a failure. That’s shame.”
So, we’re not talking about the self slap on the wrist for making a boo-boo; we’re talking about the deep sense of character failure we assign to our most important shortcomings. It’s the head-hanging, shoulder-curling, value-questioning self loathing.
And, friends, we are shaming around COVID-19 like it’s our job.
But this behavior isn’t new. Case remembers learning about a verse in the Bible (Leviticus 13:45) that says how people with leprosy had to make themselves publicly known with a disheveled appearance and by screaming continually that they’re “unclean.” (!)
She said that even things like cancer weren’t talked about often until the latter part of the 20th century — not to mention our less-than-compassionate response to people with HIV/AIDS. And obesity. And mental health.
The list goes on.
We’ve connected illness to immorality for a very long time.
I’m wondering why. Is it serving us?
Pippitt noted that when, say, a smoker gets lung cancer, there’s already an incredible amount of regret and guilt that follows. Any external shame doesn’t seem to aid in that person’s healing nor catalyze any long-term lifestyle changes.
“In fact, shame actually drives people underground,” Pippitt said. “And it makes them less likely to access the health care they might need when they need it most.”
In this pandemic, she explained that this can result in late (if any) testing and subsequent caution, perhaps less medical intervention before things get too bad or maybe even something worse.
I’m no epidemiologist, but it seems to me like shame might be a comorbidity factor — a coexisting condition that makes a person less likely to survive something like the coronavirus.
Case, Pippitt and their co-author Benjamin R. Lewis noted in their paper that research has shown how shame affects medical providers specifically. It leads to burnout, mental health challenges and even suicide.
Doesn’t it seem like shame itself might be lethal?
So why are we doing this drug with such reckless abandon?
The answer is because it can feel good.
“We are in a moment of deep uncertainty,” Case said, “unlike any other time any of us have previously experienced. And one way to manage that uncertainty is to say, ‘It can’t possibly be me or something I have to do — it must be on someone else.’”
Shaming, she said, is a way of redirecting our own fear.
That’s understandable as a survival tactic (and I’m glad for that gentle assessment, since even though I’m no shame junkie, I’ve definitely dabbled), but if we know the result can be deadly, it might be worth seeking out new ways to manage our fear.
These researchers suggest, and I believe them, that what might serve us all is to assume everyone has the best of intentions. Some people will prove otherwise, but if we start with the notion that people are good and mean well, it actually saves us the pain of our disdain for them.
The pendulum effect might be that when we make a habit of looking for the best in others, we begin to assume that’s what they’re seeking in us. And given that others’ perceptions are often the drivers of our own personal shame, this could actually be a lifesaving technique all around.
That’s not to say we can eradicate or become completely sober of shame, which is a pretty deeply entrenched human experience at this point. But maybe we don’t have to be so beholden to it.
“Shame is not going to cease being part of the human condition, unfortunately,” Case said. “It’s just not. So, it’s our job to figure out how we’re going to recognize and manage it.”
And in this moment in a raging pandemic, that may be our best immediate antidote.
Marina Gomberg is a communications professional and lives in Salt Lake City with her wife, Elenor Gomberg, and their son, Harvey. You can reach Marina at firstname.lastname@example.org.