Why Shame Doesn’t Work [...]

Shaming people seems like it should work — won’t people change if it helps them avoid the pain of feeling shame? But as researcher Brené Brown points out, shame does the opposite, because it pushes us inside of ourselves:

Here’s the rub:

Shame diminishes our capacity for empathy.

Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.

You can’t depend on empathetic connection to make a campaign effective, then crush the needed empathy with shame.

Researchers June Tangney and Ronda Dearing, authors of Shame and Guilt, explain that feelings of shame are so painful that it pulls the focus to our own survival, not the experiences of others.

Example: 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?”

Does the shame of what she’s doing to her family lead her to get help, or does it lead her to slink away and get high? After-school specials tell us she gets help. Data say she gets high. In fact, new research shows that some addiction may be born of shame and that shame leads to relapse rather than relapse prevention. (Source)

An alternative to shame is guilt, which is good. Shame tells you you are a bad person; guilt tells you you did something bad. We can, of course, tell people they did bad things, and we can ask people to change. But we need to — as Catholics would say — separate the sin from the sinner. As Brown points out, to not do so is almost certainly making things worse:

Reeves writes, “We need a sense of shame to live well together. For those with liberal instincts, this is necessarily hard. But it is also necessary.” I’m not sure what he means by “liberal instincts,” but what I do know is that using shame as a tool when we are frustrated, angry, or desperate to see behavior change in people is a much better example of the “it feels good – do it” ethos than the teen pregnancy problem [he claims to address]. We might feel justified in belittling and humiliating people, but it makes the world a more dangerous place.


Reintegrative Shaming attempts to point out bad behavior while giving the offender a clear route back into community acceptance.