2020 has been a crazy year to start off the new decade. Has anyone tried soaking it in rice? The US is watching COVID-19 spread like wildfire in the months that lead up to a presidential election in November. Public shaming has been raised to an entirely new level on social media. Let’s dig into where this is coming from and how we can confront it.
A very natural reaction when chaos is ensuing around us is fear. Fear of the unknown. Fear of things that are out of our control. We think, “Why is this happening to me?” Even more scary is the shame that this fear has led to. Shame occurs in our culture as a reaction to scarcity, or a state of being in short supply. In the case of coronavirus, scarcity means that we as individuals do not have enough resources to eradicate the virus. In the case of the election, it means that we as individuals do not have enough power to influence large-scale change. It often leads to absolute or “black and white” thinking:
“I am not a good enough citizen if I can’t socially distance myself during coronavirus.”
“I will not have enough money to retire if my taxes are raised.”
“I will not have enough money to buy a home if my student loans are never forgiven.”
All of these are valid concerns, and it is terrifying to be faced with a future in which our safety and security is threatened. Our brains, however, take these very understandable fears and initiate “attack or retreat mode” as a survival instinct. When we believe that we aren’t good enough or do not have enough, it leads to feeling out of control. It’s natural for our brains to grab that feeling, squeeze it into a tiny jar, and press the lid shut with Gorilla Glue. If the feeling isn’t suppressed, it often explodes in ways that are harmful to ourselves and others. This brings us to social media shaming.
Social media shaming is the act of using scarcity to make ourselves or others feel like we are not enough (intentionally or unwittingly). This often occurs because it allows us to feel as if we have control or answers in a circumstance that feels wildly out of control.
Every election season, the frequency of social media shaming grows rapidly. But the behaviors occurring since COVID-19 are alarmingly persistent and particularly cruel. This is how our feelings of shame can turn into shaming behaviors:
“If I cannot socially distance during the coronavirus, I am selfish.”
“I would care about housing affordability if you cared about my retirement.”
“I would care about your retirement if you cared about housing affordability.”
Shaming is a way for us to feel some control over the uncontrollable. The brain loves easy answers and hates unanswered questions. It is much easier to think in black-and-white terms than it is to sit with the grey space between. But the reality is that we have very little control over the outcomes of the coronavirus and the 2020 election. The small things we can do are follow the CDC recommendations and vote, and even these actions can lead to feelings of “not enough”-ness.
This may seem like an endless cycle, but, lucky for us, there are great strategies out there for grappling with feelings of shame. Unfortunately, it’s not a magic wand, and it does take some work. Here is an evidence-based practice, detailed in shame researcher Brené Brown’s book Rising Strong to counter our shaming instincts.
The Reckoning: The hardest part comes first—sitting with it. Feeling the shame and letting it wash over you is the first step to healing. It will feel very vulnerable because it will not be shielded by anger. When I feel shame, I want to muscle it away with every fiber of my being. But when I let it exist, I find it easier to act in ways that are much more aligned with my morals.
The Rumble: This step is about identifying the story you are telling yourself. Shame loves storytelling. When we cannot fathom the idea that we are being hurtful to our partners, we make up that they are flawed and we are perfect. We even do this in the reverse when we believe that others are perfect and we ourselves are flawed.
The Revolution: Finally, we can show up from a place of vulnerability. With our armor down, we can recognize our own flaws and encourage others to put down their armor as well. Showing up for each other in these uncertain times looks like, “I’m fearful because I can’t see my grandma in person, but I want to do everything in my power to keep her safe and healthy.” This is a very understandable fear and a very different conversation than “Everyone who is going out in public is a selfish bastard.”
This time is wild and chaotic, but it’s also the time for us to step up and do our best to be kind to ourselves and each other. The emotional work involved in this is hard but essential. It’s like baking a cake and forgetting to put the flour in. It’s important to mix the dry ingredients before the wet ingredients in order to create a soft, fluffy cake. Once you’ve forgotten the flour, you can add it later, but the cake will be tough and dense. You might still put a cake on the table, but you won’t have executed it in a way that shows your best baking skills.
As human beings, we naturally compensate for feelings of scarcity. It is a primal reaction to protect ourselves from feelings of fear, anger, and shame. But when we engage in shaming, it is harmful to ourselves and others. Finding and using the tools to improve our communication online will help us be better to ourselves and others. Unfortunately, we can’t just soak it in rice.