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Self-cruelty and shame aren’t just mean things to inflict upon yourself. 

As it turns out, they are also incredibly lousy motivational strategies. 

As catalysts or determinants of behavior, self-cruelty and shame never, ever work in the long term (even if they APPEAR to work in the short-term). 

Every single time I post about the subjects of self-cruelty and shame, I get pushback from people who claim that shame, in particular, actually IS an effective motivational strategy. 

Some people claim that what’s wrong with the world today is that not enough people experience shame. 

They claim that shame is the primary driving force that prevents a large number of people from doing bad or immoral things that they might otherwise do. 

In fact, there’s a growing segment of our culture that is really into shaming as a behavior modifier. We regularly see public shaming employed on social media as a tool to get people to change what they think, feel, and do…often with brutal (if frequently chaotic) results. 

That’s the sneaky thing about shame: in the short term, it can LOOK like it’s working. 

Human beings do respond to pressure. At first. For a minute. 

In behavioral psychology, we call this strategy “negative reinforcement:” attempting to influence behavior by introducing a painful stimulus (i.e., the shaming) and promising that we’ll remove the painful stimulus once the behavior is changed.

 (“Negative,” in this case, refers to the removal of something.)

The thing is, while the prospect of shame can certainly make a human being jump…the question I always come back to, is shame the kind of tool that can KEEP a human jumping consistently? 

Or even more importantly: is shame the kind of tool that can make a human WANT to jump, even if the prospect of ongoing shaming is removed? 

Not so much. 

If there’s something we’ve learned from countless studies of abused and neglected children, it’s that human beings who are habitually shamed psychologically and emotionally burn out. 

They go numb. They switch off. 

It’s a psychological defense against trauma called “dissociation.” And it’s way, way more widespread than you think it is. 

When we learn to dissociate as children, as a defense against a constant barrage of shame…we do not learn how to constructively cope with difficult emotions or situations. 

We learn to avoid, instead of problem-solve. 

We learn to react, instead of authentically respond. 

And, perhaps most importantly: children who dissociate tend to grow up to be adults who dissociate. 

That’s what shame, utilized over and over and over again as a tool of behavior modification, does to people. 

That is to say, shame doesn’t REALLY change behavior. Not in any meaningful sense. It just makes a person less able to effectively cope with reality, with stress, with conflict, and with life. 

We do not truly change when we are shamed. 

We change when we experience a shift in values. 

We change when we have more and better skills and tools to change. 

We change when we have the proper mentorship and support to change. 

People who want to use shame as a behavior modifier tend to want to do so because it’s easy. It doesn’t take a whole lot of creativity or energy. 

It’s an incredibly lazy strategy. 

And, like most lazy strategies, ultimately ineffective. 

If you’ve gotten in the habit of trying to change your own, or anybody else’s behavior, via shame— perhaps because that’s what you saw modeled growing up— push the pause button when you notice yourself doing it. 

Stop. 

Breathe. 

Think. 

Am I really changing anything with this? 

Or am I just crippling this person’s coping style going forward in life? 

If you can think to ask the question…the answer really will be apparent. 

 

Do you value the Doc’s work? If so, consider supporting him as he runs the Break the Cycle 200 mile relay run to fight human trafficking on June 27th and 28th. Every dollar counts!

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