Do you remember doing something bad as a kid and hearing your parents say something along the lines of “I’m not mad, I’m just disappointed?” I certainly do. I mean, those words could cut like a knife. But you can bet every time this happened, I never made the same mistake twice. And you want to know why? Shame.
I know we look at shame as a bad thing, and it’s no wonder. It can be ridiculously destructive, ruining our sense of self-esteem and leaving us feeling alienated from others for fear of not meeting their standards. But at the same time, it truly can be a good thing.
Shame － in the right amounts, at the right times － can drive us to do better.
Nobody wants to be the odd man out. Nobody wants to let down or receive disapproval from the people who matter most. All we want is to be reassured that we’re doing the right thing and can continue receiving the support we crave.
So, when we are not in those good graces, we know it’s time to change our tune. Shame, as it turns out, is both the perfect yardstick from which to measure our social standing and the ideal vehicle to foster personal growth.
Naturally, that’s not a new phenomenon. Far from it.
This kind of functional shame has been around as long as we have, historically rooted in highlighting fault for growth. Shaming someone was never meant as a punishment to shut them down. It was instead always meant with the intention to spark awareness when one was doing something unhealthy or against the fabric of socially acceptable behavior.
It was (and still is) a necessary component of transformation of the human condition. But we don’t always use it like this anymore.
Somewhere along the way, we forgot what it was originally meant to do.
Nowadays, we’ve re-framed shame to be something inherently negative and wrong, regarding it as something like the ugly stepbrother of discrimination. A once-necessity to bring about positive change has now been weaponized to cancel one another.
That has to stop.
After all, what good has canceling ever done us?
Sure, it ensures that problematic people no longer have to be in our line of sight. But that doesn’t really solve the problem, does it?
Those people are still there. They still have their messed-up ideals, they still go around acting in exactly the same, unacceptable ways as they did before. They didn’t learn anything. All they did was pick up their bullshit and move it elsewhere, to go make problems for the next unsuspecting person.
That’s not progress. That’s avoidance. And if we want to make the world a better place, we don’t have any time for that.
My proposition, then? Bring back shame as it was meant to be.
It doesn’t have to be hurtful and harmful. If we use it with purpose, with intention, it can genuinely be a force for good.
Shame can then do what it was meant to do: correct.
It can establish boundaries, put the proverbial foot down on what’s okay and what’s not, and let people know when they stray too far from the former. It can actively shape people － our society, even － into something better rather than merely giving up. It can change the trajectory of humanity, saving lives and improving the rest of ours all the while.