Brene Brown’s great at times, but that doesn’t keep her immune from ignorance and this includes her definition of shame. I gag a little bit every time one of my friends shares her definition of shame. So to make me gag just a little more, let’s put her definition of shame up here:
“I believe that guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values and feeling psychological discomfort. I define shame as the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
Now again, her stuff on vulnerability is great.
But this definition of shame is bad, bad teaching.
How do you make course corrections in honor / shame societies if shame is always illegitimate?
And this isn’t a question for just Africa or Asia. This is a question for a social media saturated Western world that thrives on shaming one another. She has a piece of it — as someone who studied this for years, how could she not? — but she has only tested her piece in Western psychological settings. I guarantee that if she ventured deeper into honor / shame cultures, she would see a different dynamic at work.
Guilt and shame are both adaptive and helpful.
Guilt and shame are both painful and unhelpful.
It simply depends on whether or not they’re justified. If guilt or shame is justified, then it helps us. If guilt or shame is unjustified, then it hurts us. And sometimes, it can only help us so far, which means we need both forgiveness, reconciliation, and restoration to bring us back.
She was right in part about guilt: guilt is what we feel about ourselves when we do something wrong. Innocence is the opposite of that. We feel guilt when we do something evil, regardless of whether or not anyone knows.
That means guilt and innocence are interior feelings: right and wrong as applied to one’s self.
But shame’s more than simply feeling unworthy of love. That’s where she’s wrong. Shame is what we feel about others when we do something wrong. Honor is the opposite of that. We feel shame when we do something evil and people find out about it.
Guilt deals with the position and posture of our soul as relates to the inherent beauty and goodness and truth of all that is unseen.
Shame deals with the position and posture of our soul as relates to the inherent beauty and goodness and truth of all that is seen.
In the ideal situation, someone who murders feels both guilt and shame — guilt because they have a conscience and shame because the community around them affirms that conscience. And in the ideal situation, someone who heals or gives birth to another person feels both innocence and honor — innocence because they gave life and honor because the community around them affirms that life.
Of course, this doesn’t always happen.
Innocent men get wrongly accused of murder.
Guilty men go free.
Honorable men get shamed by the public for doing the right thing.
Shameful men get honored by the public for doing the wrong thing.
We get it wrong all the time. Which makes us guilty of shaming the wrong people and ashamed of our injustices. In general, both are self-corrective. But when we get it wrong — when we get shamed for doing the right thing or honored for doing the wrong thing, when we get falsely accused or wrongfully set free — it compounds the whole situation and leads to a slow decay in ourselves and in society.
The only way we can ever thrive is to do good in the teeth of wrongful convictions. To live honorably in the teeth of a culture that shames us when we do good. And even if one or two of us can do it, that’s insufficient to save the whole world. Much as I love Brene Brown, you can’t psychoanalyze your way out of shame and guilt. You and I need help from someone who doesn’t have any.
To clarify this, I made a slideshow that explains the nuanced difference between honor and shame cultures, guilt and innocence cultures, and fear verses power culture.