Updated: Jul 3, 2019
Recently I got a text telling me I should be ashamed of myself, followed by the sender's "why." They had overheard a conversation I had with someone else and didn't like what I said. Getting that text was like taking a bullet.
And for a little while, it worked. I was ashamed of myself -- that deep roiling feeling in the pit of my stomach that maybe I was really a bad person and should go crawl under my bed.
And then I had a revelation. What good is it for me to be ashamed of myself? Who does that help? Does it restore any of my relationships? Does it motivate me to make amends? Does it motivate me to be better? Does it heal a hurt I might have caused in the person I was talking to? Does it make my accuser feel better?
No. None of those things result from shame. Shame makes me want to hide, not apologize, self-harm (even in just the form of overeating something that will make me feel sick), get angry, be defensive, self-protect and put up a facade. And finally, never risk having a real conversation in that person's presence again, because what if I get it wrong?
It turns out my reactions to being told to be ashamed are well-documented and researched, most recently and notably by author and sociologist Brene Brown, who is teaching anyone who will listen that shame will make us cease to be vulnerable and authentic and cost us all the relationships that matter. Because shame doesn't say, "You did something bad and should apologize." It says, "You are something bad and you should give up on the real you."
One of Brown's most well-known quotes on losing authenticity because of shame:
If you trade your authenticity for safety, you may experience the following: anxiety, depression, eating disorders, addiction, rage, blame, resentment, and inexplicable grief.
Dug, the dog in Up!, my favorite animated movie of all time, says it this way: "I do not like this cone of shame."
You know the Cone of Shame, that ridiculous plastic thing that gets put on a dog or cat after surgery, rendering them incapable of scratching the wound, but also incapable of scratching any other itch, licking their owner's face, or getting cuddled with any kind of convenience.
The metaphorical Cone of Shame works the same way on humans. Literally, in a Super Bowl commercial last month for Mexican Avocados, a woman was put in one (they called it the "penalty cone") and therefore couldn't eat her guacamole. Tragic. (Please watch it. It's sooooo funny. https://www.ispot.tv/ad/IS1W/avocados-from-mexico-super-bowl-2019-top-dog-featuring-kristin-chenoweth)
Worse, wearing the Cone of Shame blocks us from giving and receiving love in the most necessary ways: In the giving and receiving of grace, forgiveness, and understanding. God knew it was critical that we feel appropriate guilt rather than shame if we were going to be in relationship with him. Which is why he sent Jesus, and told us through Paul that "there is no condemnation for those of us who are in Christ."
So the next time someone tells you -- outright or in an implication -- "You should be ashamed of yourself," even if that someone is a voice inside your head, get free, girl. Own your mistake if you made one. Make amends. Ask for forgiveness (as I did from the person I was talking to). But under no circumstances should you put on the Cone. No one ever got loved that way.