Facing Shame

By December 29, 2017blog posts

Do you ever say something and the words leave your mouth and you have no idea where they came from and you wished you could take them back but you can’t? Sometimes those words are negative but sometimes those words create space for others to hear whatever it is they need to hear. Words always have meaning and definition and context but sometimes the space between the words are more important. The form and the structure help to create the experience but it is the space that takes people to where they need to go.

What I have learned through my years of journaling and writing is that we grow because of disruptions. We grow because we hear something that we never heard before. No one ever said to Martin Luther King after his “I have a dream” speech that he wasn’t funny or articulate enough. His speech was an event. It was dangerous and beautiful an comforting and disturbing. The moment in time when you were invited to look deep into your own soul and take action.  The words had power and the words had space to allow those who heard it in the moment and those who have heard it since to be human.  Doubt, fear, anxiety, worry, anger, vengeance, revenge, joy, euphoria, peace, love, joy, transcendence, harmony – all of the spectrum of human experience – becomes normal.

Eventually you start to feel the collective humanity in other people’s words.  Grace, redemption, worrying less, forgiving more, being grounded and centred. All things that are required to flourish as a human, to walk though suffering with dignity, to find the newness in difficulties and frustrations, to do the right thing knowing there will be a cost.

The modern world is insane. Continually throwing at us millions of fragments that make no sense like  the advertising we are bombarded with that tells us that if we just had one more possession we would be happy, or if you just bought that thing all the questions would be answered.

There is power in creating space to remind yourself of all that is wonderful about being a human – to centre and ground yourself that you are here, that you matter and that you have a great gift to share with the world.

I am reminded of this passage from the bible (John 8:1-11)

Jesus returned to the Mount of Olives, but early the next morning he was back again at the Temple. A crowd soon gathered, and he sat down and taught them. As he was speaking, the teachers of religious law and the Pharisees brought a woman who had been caught in the act of adultery. They put her in front of the crowd.

“Teacher,” they said to Jesus, “this woman was caught in the act of adultery. The law of Moses says to stone her. What do you say?”

They were trying to trap him into saying something they could use against him, but Jesus stooped down and wrote in the dust with his finger. They kept demanding an answer, so he stood up again and said, “All right, but let the one who has never sinned throw the first stone!” Then he stooped down again and wrote in the dust.

When the accusers heard this, they slipped away one by one, beginning with the oldest, until only Jesus was left in the middle of the crowd with the woman.  Then Jesus stood up again and said to the woman, “Where are your accusers? Didn’t even one of them condemn you?”

“No, Lord,” she said.

And Jesus said, “Neither do I. Go and sin no more.”

But what did Jesus write on the ground?

It’s fun to write messages in the sand; it can also be cathartic. Some people take photos of their messages to send to friends; others may stand and watch as the waves take the message away, as though it never existed.

In this bible verse, a woman had been caught in adultery, and she was brought to Jesus. There was a group assembled and the Pharisees reminded Jesus that, according to Moses’ law, she should be stoned, but they wanted to know what he had to say.

Not once, but twice, Jesus stooped and wrote on the ground with his finger, and there is mysterious significance as to why John included this detail in the passage.

Some believe that he was writing the Pharisees names and possibly their sins. Others believe it was to demonstrate, as God did when he carved the Ten Commandments with his finger, that Jesus had the authority to issue new commandments.

We don’t know for sure what Jesus was writing, nor do we know who saw his message. It’s possible he’d written only one word: Forgiven. And whether that message was erased by Him or the wind, her sins were forgiven.

Sometimes, when other people behave badly (or when we think they do), it is just so tempting to try to shame them. It can feel good—like righting a wrong or putting someone in their place who deserves to be taken down a few notches. Public shaming has practically become a national pastime but what are the costs?

We’ve all seen it happen, over and over again. Maybe we’ve participated, or maybe we just took it all in from the sidelines. It goes like this: Someone does something wrong then the social media world descends in a hail of condemnation. Social media is so ablaze with the topic that traditional media outlets notice, too, and now the story appears in prestigious publications and on the TV news. The person who committed the bad behavior is totally and completely humiliated. They may lose their job, their reputation — and anything that ever approximated peace of mind.

Why do Twitter gangs become so vicious and so relentless? Is it because of the emotional contagion that spreads through crowds? Is it because the shamers are anonymous and not accountable? Could they actually be trying to do good, never realizing just how enduring the impact might be on those they shame? Is it because, instead of creating a democracy, social media has spawned echo chambers in which shamers get applauded and egged on?

When we deploy shame, we are utilizing an immensely powerful tool. It is coercive, borderless, increasing in speed and influence.  Hierarchies are being leveled out. The silenced are getting a voice. A shaming can be like a distorting mirror at a funfair, taking human nature and making it look monstrous.

The shaming process is brutal.  We are living in a country that venerates redemption and second chances but we become convinced that the tragedy has no happy ending even though every step prepares you for the next, especially when you do not think so. Public shaming destroys souls, brutalizes everyone, the onlookers included, dehumanizing them as much as the person being shamed.

Lives are being ruined. And for what? Social media drama? With social media, we have  created a stage for constant artificial high drama. Every day a new person emerges as a magnificent hero or a sickening villain. It is all very sweeping. There is a rush that is overpowering us almost like when you shoot a gun and the power of it sends you recoiling violently backwards. If shaming worked, if prison worked, then it would work. But it doesn’t work.

A lot of people move around in life chronically ashamed of how they look, or how they feel, or what they said, or what they did. Shame grows when we internalize shame. We care deeply about things that seem totally inconsequential to other people.  We carry around a basket of perceived humiliations that actually mean nothing. We are a mass of vulnerabilities and we rarely know what will trigger them.

A public shaming is a conflict between the person trying to write their own story and society trying to write a different story.  One story tries to overwrite the other. And so to survive you have to own your story – or you have to write a third story. You have to resist reacting to the story that has been forced upon you while you find a way to respect the other stories but if  you believe them, it will crush you.

In Dante’s inferno, the lowest circle of hell was a region not of flames, but of ice – absolute coldness.  It may be somewhat paradoxical to refer to shame as a ‘feeling’ for while shame is initially painful, constant shaming leads to a deadening of feeling. Shame, like cold, is, in essence, the absence of warmth. And when it reaches overwhelming intensity, shame is experienced as a feeling of numbness and deadness.

Psychologists remind anxiety sufferers that “what if” worries are irrational. If you find yourself thinking, What if I get hit by a bus? The “what if” is evidence that nothing bad actually happened. It is just thoughts swirling frantically around.  But for me, the “what if” worry – “What if my employer googles me?” was extremely plausible.

In my anxiety there was nothing to hold on to. The worst case scenario was a likely one. I spent years nervous to apply for a job or even get into a relationship.  As I was never sure how to address it. I was conflicted on whether to disclose it because I knew it was just a mouse click away.  The question haunted me.  Should I tell them? It never felt right.  People who get to know me know that I am not that Google result and I wanted to give others the opportunity to know me before I say to them ‘This is what you will get if you Google me.’

For me the worst thing, the thing that made me feel most helpless, was the lack of control.  The Google results are just there, eternal, crushing. There came a day when I realized that I was ashamed of everything and at a certain point I realized that if I was open with the world about the things that embarrassed me they no longer held any weight.  I felt set free.

As soon as the victim steps out of the pact by refusing to feel ashamed the whole thing crumbles. We are living in a very puritanical time.  If I can help one person feel less isolated and alone because of what they did or what was done to them, then I will be a success. But I know I  have already reached more people than that. The reality is that I do not need to prove anything to anyone – a statement so profound considering how social media is all about everybody proving things to one another.

Social media gives a voice to the voiceless – its egalitarianism is its greatest quality but unfortunately there is the natural impulse to make sure your neighbour is doing the right thing. A desire to be compassionate that leads people to commit the profoundly uncompassionate act of tearing apart another human who is unable to explain their reasons of their motive.

I am reminded of a story I was told about a man being on a beach in Scotland while a flock of terns singled him out – circling above him for a while and then began to dive-bomb, picking at his head. After running back to the road, shrieking and waving his arms in the air he was told that he was probably too close to their eggs and that he should have been aware of their nests. But the problem was – he had no idea where the nests were in the first place. Shamings have become the reflex response to practically any behaviour that people do not like.

If we could simply drop the burden of our own judgments, we could see with clarity and then compassion would be possible.  Moral outrage is the opposite – it only divides and separates us.  Moral outrage doesn’t lead to solutions – it keeps us from them.  It keeps us from moving forward toward a fuller, more compassionate response to members of our community who belong to us, no matter what they have done.

Social media can actually change the world for the better. It can be exciting and dynamic but to do it we will have to leave the shamers’ behind. In order for things to be born – we need things to die.


Kevin T. Cahill is an award winning sales professional and consultant specializing in the art of managing change and achieving great results. As the founder of The Change Revolution, this international best selling author and speaker inspires men and women alike. As someone who has mastered the art of resilience and hope, Kevin’s philosophy as a clarity builder is strategic and results driven. Kevin’s passion is to equip individuals and organizations with a renewed sense of clarity and excitement, knowing that positive change will bring about positive gains. His exciting creation The Change Revolution offers a winning blueprint for navigating through change and achieving success.

Speaking inquiries email bookings@kevintcahill.com or call 519-836-7989.


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