“You should be ashamed of yourself!”

“You should be ashamed of yourself!”

Have you ever heard this statement?  Was it directed at you?  Or at someone else?  How did you feel when you heard it, in either context?

Here is a section of the Wikipedia definition of “shame” (highlights are mine):

shame may stem from volitional action or simply self-regard; no action by the shamed being is required: simply existing is enough. Both the comparison and standards are enabled by socialization. Though usually considered an emotion, shame may also variously be considered an affect, cognition, state, or condition.

For clarity, I’ll put the highlighted parts together:

Shame may stem from self-regard; no action by the shamed being is required: simply existing is enough.  Both the comparison and standards are enabled by socialization.  Shame may be considered a state, or condition.

The meaning is different than embarrassment or guilt.  Here’s an effective aphorism I heard in 12 Step meetings: “You feel guilty because you made a mistake; you feel ashamed because you are a mistake.”

Tragically, this dreadful phrase is often spoken to little children, who are still assembling and developing their mind and sense of self; so, this is absolutely the worst time to say it to anyone (though I don’t feel it should be said to anyone, anytime).  Just see the results: it’s a common enough feature in the stories of addicts that the Fellowship developed an orienting, informative saying about it.

Look at the statement.  First, it’s negative criticism, meaning criticism without indication of what is wrong or how to correct it.  Second, the speaker assumes a morally superior position respecting the person they’re addressing, to put themselves in the position of being able to pass judgment on them.  Also, this phrase has a “should” in it, a typical indicator that a moral judgment is being passed.  Finally, it suggests that the speaker has prescient powers to know what other people should do next.

Of course, people who say this hurtful phrase are rarely conscious of these elements or even of what they’re doing and saying.  They may say it because it was said to them, unaware that they are hurting someone perceived as weaker or less developed because they were hurt that way themselves, when they were small or weak.  It is a common component in the avalanche of unconscious generational wounding that rolls down through the ages via family dynamics.

But it may be one of the most devastating.  Perfection isn’t the human condition, but it’s tragic how often people strive to hold themselves to this impossible standard.  In my case, it was inflicted upon me by my parents.  Humans commonly learn by making mistakes; the hope is that one makes a mistake only once or a few times before learning not to make it again.  Criticizing someone for making a mistake is valuable when the criticism is meant to point out how the mistake was made and to teach a right way of doing that act.  If this feature is absent, then it’s not criticism but chastisement: it’s only meant to make someone feel badly.

When primary adults in a child’s life say this phrase to children, the child doesn’t have context to understand that adults may be mistaken or behaving inappropriately; they arrive at the inevitable self-judgment that they must be bad, “less than,” unlovable and so forth because to children, adults are like gods.  A child exposed to such behavior arrives at a suite of feelings and attitudes that inform the child that it doesn’t measure up.  These beliefs, attitudes, and self-images are woven into the warp and woof of the child’s world by the time it develops a sense of identity; so, their identity includes the certainty that “I am a loser,” “I am unloved and unlovable,” etc. along with “I have two legs,” “my name is__.”  As a result, later in life this child has no healthy “factory default” setting to which they can strive to return.

Criticism helps one to learn what they’re doing wrong and find a way to correct their actions.  Shaming hurts, harms, poisons and paralyzes, with no redeeming features.  It is an evil to be avoided.