In the modern age, shame is often seen as an unmitigated bad. According to this popular view, all shame is negative and toxic and steps should be taken to avoid and rid oneself of it. My guest today, however, makes the contrarian case that some shame is actually necessary to develop a true sense of self.
His name is Joseph Burgo, he’s a clinical psychologist and the author of the book Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem. Today on the show Joseph and I discuss what exactly shame is, what it feels like, and the difference between toxic shame and productive shame. Joseph then walks us through the sources of shame and how childhood shame can mark us for life. We then discuss tactics we use to mask or avoid feelings of shame, how these masking behaviors can sometimes get in the way of us making progress in our lives, and more productive ways to engage with shame. Joseph then digs into the culture of online shaming and the dangers we face as a society when we shame men by pathologizing healthy masculine attributes like assertiveness, risk-taking, and competitiveness.
- What is shame? What do people usually mean when they talk about shame?
- Why do we feel shame?
- The difference between shame and guilt
- Is shame always bad?
- Toxic shame vs. helpful shame
- The sources of shame
- Can you overcome childhood traumas? How do those experiences manifest in adulthood?
- The strategies we use every day to cope with and avoid shame
- When those strategies help us and when they hurt us
- Men and shame — unique sources, strategies, denials, etc.
- How shame is becoming weaponized on social media
- Shame and masculinity
- How can we make sure we’re using shame in a positive way?
- How should we really view shame?
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- Healing the Shame That Binds You by John Bradshaw
- Far From the Tree by Andrew Solomon
- Why I Like When Other Men Make Me Feel Bad About Myself
- AoM series on honor
- The Narcissist You Know by Dr. Burgo
- “The Neurobiology of Secure Attachment”
- How to Close the Character Gap
- Your Son Isn’t Lazy — How to Empower Boys to Succeed
- Burgo’s article in the Washington Post
- “The He Hormone” by Andrew Sullivan
Connect With Joseph
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
Recorded on ClearCast.io
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Read the Transcript
Brett McKay: Welcome to another addition of the Art of Manliness podcast. In the modern age, shame is often seen as an unmitigated bad. According to this popular review, all shame is negative and toxic and steps should be taken to avoid and rid oneself of it. My guest today however makes the contrarian case that some shame is actually necessary to develop a true sense of self. His name is Joseph Burgo. He is a clinical psychologist and the author of Shame, Free Yourself, Find Joy and Build True Self Esteem. Today on the show Joseph and I discuss what exactly shame is, what it feels like, and the difference between toxic shame and productive shame. Joseph then walks us through the sources of shame and how childhood shame can mark us for life. We then discuss tactics we use to mask or avoid feelings of shame, how these masking behaviors can sometimes get in the way of us making progress in our lives, and more productive ways to engage with shame.
Joseph then digs into the culture of online shaming and the dangers we face as a society when we shame men by pathologizing healthy masculine attributes like assertiveness, risk taking, and competitiveness. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at AOM.is/shame. Joseph joins me now via Clearcast.io.
All right, Joseph Burgo, welcome to the show.
Joe Burgo: Thank you.
Brett McKay: So you are a psychotherapist, you’ve written several books, and your latest is called Shame, Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self Esteem. Now shame is a topic that’s gotten a lot of attention lately in the past few years, particularly online shaming, maybe we can get into that to a bit. But before we do, let’s talk, what is shame exactly because I think when people talk about shame, they might be talking about something else than what other people are talking about shame.
Joe Burgo: They’re usually talking about one type of shame. Shame turns out to be a whole family of emotions. They have similar basis in our physiological responses, in our biology. But shame can be a lot of different feelings. They all make us feel bad about ourselves. They make us self aware in some way that’s painful. So shame could be self consciousness, embarrassment, guilt, mortification, humiliation. It could be extreme or mild, it could be fleeting, or it could last for a long time. But all those shame feelings have that painful awareness of self in common.
Brett McKay: And this is something that even like Darwin noticed that all humans experience, even maybe some animals to a certain extent. There’s a certain sense of self consciousness that we share as humans.
Joe Burgo: Well, and if you look at the evolutionary reasons why we might have the ability to feel shame, it has survival value, there’s every reason to believe that other animals could experience shame too, even if they’re not self aware in the way that humans are.
Brett McKay: So what are those reasons … why do we have shame? Why is it a … it feels terrible but we feel it for a reason from an evolutionary … evolution theory would say, well we have … it’s there for a reason. So what’s the reason that we think it’s there.
Joe Burgo: The most recent studies say that it’s there to promote group unity and conformity with tribal values. So if you violate the expectations of the tribe and you put everybody at risk by your behavior, you’re going to be shunned. You’re going to be left out. And evolution gave us the ability to feel shame so that we would want to avoid that pain, right? So nobody wants to feel ashamed so you’re likely to conform to tribal values. You’re likely to cooperate with other members of your tribe and if you don’t then you’ll be shamed and that encourages you to behave differently next time. So it does have survival value because it promotes your chances of surviving and it promotes the tribe’s chances of surviving and triumphing over competing tribes.
Brett McKay: So shame is just that feeling that we did something wrong, right? It can be embarrassment and other types of emotions, being left out, etc. There’s also this talk that there’s a … I’ve read in different books on psychology when they’ve talked about shame, there’s a difference between shame and guilt. We’ll get started off, what did people typically say the difference between shame and guilt is and do you think there really is a difference?
Joe Burgo: Well the classic formulation was put forward by John Bradshaw, he wrote that book Healing the Shame that Binds You. There have been other people that’ve said the same thing, but he put it pretty succinctly. He said, “Guilt is about what you do, shame is about who you are.” I think that’s true in some limited way. I tend to look at it slightly differently. I see guilt as a member of the shame family and it’s about something specific and it’s less pervasive than other types of shame, but it still involves that bad feeling about yourself. It’s just specifically about something you did rather than something larger.
Brett McKay: So also when psychologists write books about shame or guilt, shame is typically framed as something completely negative, and you have to like get rid of completely. You made the case that no, that’s not necessarily the case. Shame can actually be useful in developing ourselves as individual.
Joe Burgo: That was the whole reason why I wrote this book because I’m kind of tired of it but also troubled by the narrative that shame is this uniformly bad thing. I think we live in a kind of … we’ve got an anti shame zeitgeist going on. It’s like nobody is going to make anybody else feel ashamed about anything. And you know that’s a really useful perspective when it comes to being a more inclusive society. People who have been excluded because they don’t conform to social norms and they’ve been subjected to shame. This is a topic that Andrew Solomon deals with in his book, Far From the Tree, Outliers. You know, I think we should be less shaming. We need to become more inclusive and make room for people who are hearing impaired or suffer from dwarfism or are autistic or handicapped in some other way.
But there are times when shame is not a destructive force, it’s telling us something about ourselves if we’ll listen to it. I think that we often feel shame when we disappoint the healthy expectations we hold for ourselves and when we behave in ways that betray our own values. If we do that, I think we ought to feel ashamed. I think shame can be useful in those cases if we don’t defend against it. In just the way that shaming in a tribal setting encourages you to behave in ways that support tribal values and help everybody, if you feel shame in relation to yourself, it might be a way of telling you you’re not conforming to your own values and you need to change.
Brett McKay: Right, and we’ve written about the concept of honor, sort of its a masculine virtue that you see across cultures. And sort of honor can equate to a sense of esteem, a sense of your place in your group or whatever it is. But like honor cannot exist without shame because you have to know … you’re not doing the thing that could bring you honor so you feel a sense of shame and that causes a course correction in your behavior.
Joe Burgo: Exactly. It’s interesting that a traditionally masculine virtue like honor doesn’t get a lot of respect these days. It’s usually linked to a kind of restrictive vindictive sort of code of behavior that causes men to behave in aggressive ways towards other men when they feel that their honor or reputation is challenged. So I see honor as a really good thing. That’s not the way it’s often approached these days.
Brett McKay: And so this whole idea of anti shame zeitgeist you talked about, it kind of explains all of social media. People don’t care about looking … being honorable, right? All they care about is attention and oftentimes the way you can get attention is just being as shameless as possible. You see just terrible things that people do online just to get that attention.
Joe Burgo: Exactly. And that was the subject of my last book, the Narcissist You Know, writing about the other side of shame which is narcissistic kind of behavior that often appears kind of shameless.
Brett McKay: And so another thing … so shame can be good. We’ll talk more about how we can use shame to create a true sense of self, true sense of esteem and honor in our lives. So that’s one misconception. But something else, whenever you read books about shame is that there’s different types of shame, there’s good shame and there’s toxic shame. Do you make that distinction in the way you think about shame?
Joe Burgo: I do. I find the idea of toxic shame, again that’s John Bradshaw’s idea, I find that really useful and it’s very much linked to a concept I use of core shame which we might talk about. But toxic shame is destructive because it’s not about something specific. It’s not pointing the way towards growth and improvement. It’s a total indictment of someone’s character as being essentially without value and unlovable. So that’s the destructive type of shame.
Brett McKay: So how is that related to your idea of core shame?
Joe Burgo: I worked with a lot of people over my career who had horrific childhoods and they were left with this feeling inside that there was something defective and ugly about them, unlovable. And that can be linked to toxic shame. The difference that I make is that sometimes that sense of core shame is telling you the truth about something. And this is a message nobody wants to hear and I get a lot of flack from it, is that sometimes your childhood can have been so damaging that it’s marked you for life. It doesn’t mean that you can’t grow, doesn’t mean that you can’t build self esteem, doesn’t mean you can’t feel good about yourself. But it might place some limits on what you can do, what you’re capable of. And that sense of being damaged by your past is what I call core shame.
Brett McKay: Okay. So like toxic shame, an example of that would be like you feel ashamed because you have some sort of disability. or some handicap. Because you have that you are unredeemable. Core shame you might have had just a horrific childhood where you didn’t have a disability but your parents treated you … not even your parents but it could just be someone treating you in such a way that you just feel defective as just to your being and that there’s no value in you as well.
Joe Burgo: More or less that’s right. But it’s interesting that you bring up the handicap because that’s the metaphor I use for core shame is let’s say you suffered from rickets when you were growing up, during the time when your bones, your skeleton was forming. Even if you correct your diet later on as an adult, you can’t change that. Having had rickets, a vitamin D deficiency, as a child growing up, it will mark you physically for life. And I say the same thing about certain kinds of emotional and psychological damage you experience when you’re growing up that it’s going to mark you for life. It doesn’t mean you can’t do things, it doesn’t mean you’re completely without value and utterly incapable of anything, but it might place limits on what you can do. So if I have some sort of physical handicap, that doesn’t mean I can’t go on and compete in the Special Olympics, it doesn’t mean I can’t do lots of things. But I might not be able to compete in the regular Olympics. I know people don’t like hearing this, I just think it’s better to be honest about the way our pasts, or physiological pasts, our psychological pasts can place limits on our future. It’s better to take those limitations into account rather than pretending there are no limitations and then failing and feeling more shame if you see what I mean.
Brett McKay: No, I get what you’re saying. I’ve seen that happen in the lives of a lot of people, even my own life, where you don’t take into account your own limitations and you go, you reach for the stars, you can be whatever you want to be. But that can’t … sometimes it not in the cards for you for whatever reason. It doesn’t mean you can’t have a good flourishing life, but sometimes you have to work within those limitations, those confines you’ve been given in life and you can have a really, really good life even doing that.
Joe Burgo: You can and it’s hard in this environment, in the kind of social media world where everybody is posting about their fabulous lives and we’re bombarded with images of celebrities and wealthy athletes and these people who appear to have it all and don’t have any limitations. It’s hard to accept your own limitations when the messaging you get is like you’re saying, reach for the stars, you can do anything.
Brett McKay: Have you noticed that issue coming up more and more amongst people you work with, this idea of like this increasing sense that there’s no limits? Like they believe that and so they live their lives like that but they come to realization that no, there are limits and they’re just frustrated. Have you noticed that sort of anxiety or frustration because of that sort of idea that’s out there that there are no limits in life?
Joe Burgo: I certainly have noticed that in the people I know, my acquaintances, my friends, just the people I come into contact with. The people who come to me for therapy usually come because they’ve got a lot of shame, they know that’s what I work with so they’re not in that same group. Although the creation of this ideal self that you’re supposed to attain is something that shows up in people that I work with, particularly people who have narcissistic issues. They want to believe that they can create this … they can become this ideal person and that’s the anecdote to that shame they feel at base.
Brett McKay: Well let’s talk about some of the sources of shame. Are the sources of shame the same for core shame and sort of everyday shame or are there differences between those types?
Joe Burgo: I think they’re all the same and you know in the book I came up with these categories of experience to help people understand when and why we might feel shame, just to sort of … just useful labels. I call them the shame paradigms. So I think they’re pretty intuitive. We feel bad about ourselves when our love is unrequited, so whenever we like somebody who doesn’t love us back, whenever we want to be friends with somebody who doesn’t want to be friends with us. That’s one obvious source of shame. We also feel shame when we’re left out, when there’s some kind of group that we want to belong to but they don’t let us in. When we see on Facebook that all of our friends are getting together without us, the famous fear of missing out is really about the fear of being excluded and feeling the shame of being on the outside.
So unrequited love, exclusion. The third one is unwanted exposure. I think everybody gets that when you embarrass yourself in public when you make a mistake that’s called out, when you appear unfavorably for whatever reason, that makes you feel bad about yourself. And then the final one is one you and I had been talking about already, disappointed expectation. When we have some hope for ourself for ambition or expectation and we fall short of it, it makes us feel bad about ourselves. That one, as we were saying, could also be a message to us that maybe you didn’t try hard enough, maybe you need to work harder, maybe you need to rethink your approach. It can be a message rather than just a painful feeling.
Brett McKay: Can those other sources of shame like unrequited love, exclusion, unwanted exposure … can those … so you know disappointed expectations, that can help guide your life and help you improve. But can those other sources of shame sort of change the way you do things so things work out better for you?
Joe Burgo: I think so. If you look at unwanted exposure, sometimes the unwanted exposure that embarrasses us is the result of our own choices, like maybe I shouldn’t have that other glass of wine at that party because then I became a little too garrulous and said some things I regretted the next day. Maybe I need to be more cautious. If you’re feeling the shame of exclusion, it might lead you to choose other groups to look elsewhere for a sense of belonging. It’s important to belong, we all need to belong somewhere and if you’re persistently on the outside of a group, maybe it’s because you’re choosing the wrong group. Those are some examples.
Brett McKay: And then unrequited love, it might be something … maybe I’m doing something that’s … I’m turning people off for whatever reason.
Joe Burgo: Or maybe you’re going after people who are inappropriate for you. Maybe you have some idealized view of yourself that doesn’t comport with the way other people see you. I’m not sure but people do fall in love with people who just aren’t right for them.
Brett McKay: Oh yeah, that happens all the time. It’s a source of frustration for a lot of people. So we talked a little bit about early childhood and you believe that sometimes things can happen in your early childhood that can just affect you for the rest of your life. And you can … you’re never going to be able to get rid of it but you can work with those limitations. I imagine like the shame of unrequited love, just having a parent that as a child just doesn’t really love you. That can be a big source of core shame in a person’s life.
Joe Burgo: Absolutely. And the sad science shows that children who grow up with parents who don’t love them, their brains are different. There’s interesting MRI studies out of UCLA, a guy named Alan Shore, and he talks about, and shows, the brain scans of children who grew up in normal, relatively normal, environments and those who grew up in really deficient ones. And they show that their brains are smaller, they have fewer neural connections between the neurons. They’re just visibly different. And because brains have critical periods for formation meaning that there’s a critical period when you need certain conditions for a brain to develop normally, if you go through that critical period and you don’t get the conditions you need like that kind of loving devotion in the first year of life, you can’t make up for it entirely in later life.
There’s a lot of talk about neuroplasticity these days and the brain is capable of rewiring itself and making new connections and growing to some degree. But if neuroplasticity were infinite, then having a traumatic brain injury wouldn’t matter, right? You’d just reheal. And it’s kind of the same way when I talk about the neural deficits of people who grow up in grossly deficient environments with parents who did not bond with them in a loving way, they are likely to be marked by that for life. It doesn’t mean that they can’t grow and compensate, but it’s going to be within the limits imposed by their early experience.
Brett McKay: How does that early experience manifest itself later on as adults?
Joe Burgo: Well, all sorts of ways. If you grow up with this sense of core defect or unworthiness, it’s often an unbearable experience. It’s just too painful to feel that way, to acknowledge that you feel that way. So you tend to develop a set of defenses against recognizing that truth about yourself, and a lot of them are narcissistic in nature. Rather than feeling that your damaged or defective in some way, you instead insist to the people that you know, to the world at large, that you’re in fact a superior person, you’re better than other people, so you become a narcissist. That’s a very common way that it shows up.
Brett McKay: So we’re talking about core shame. I think some people who are listening have experienced that core shame, they just weren’t loved as a kid, they had some sort of traumatic experience where they just feel defective. But we can experience these types of shame on a day to day basis, in fact we probably do multiple times a day, right? We’ve all probably today already had some moment of unwanted exposure, maybe you passed gas when it wasn’t really a good time to pass gas, maybe a friend turned you down when you wanted to go hang out. Are there defenses that we put up just for this day to day shame that kind of get in the way of us progressing as people?
Joe Burgo: Absolutely. It’s one of the major messages in this book that the strategies for dealing with shame that I describe in my clients who suffered more from core shame are just a more intense version of strategies that we all use for coping with inevitable shame that comes up really every day in our life. So the clinical cases in the middle of the book are divided into these three strategies, the strategy for avoiding shame, strategies for denying shame, and strategies for controlling shame. And there are chapters in the book that describe those in everyday life, so avoiding shame in everyday life. Well, if I don’t want to feel the shame of being excluded, I might avoid going to a party where I don’t kn ow anybody. And that’s kind of understandable. That’s not pathologic. That’s sort of like why expose yourself to something potentially painful if you don’t have to. I mean, you might also want to go because you could meet some new people but it isn’t pathologic to want to avoid it.
Another example I give is lots of people do not like to be on stage because they’re concerned about embarrassing themselves or appearing unfavorable in some way. And there’s nothing wrong with saying, “You know what? I don’t want to be an actor. I don’t want to be on stage. I’d rather not do that.” We think about … whether or not we know it, we think about the potential for a shame experience all the time. We’re anticipating it. So say there’s somebody new that you’d like to invite out, a potential new friend or possible date. So you’re likely to be concerned with whether or not you’re going to be rejected, your love will be unrequited. So you think about how to approach that person. You might try and put it forward casually like it’s no big deal, or you just thought about it, “Hey, you want to get together for lunch next week?” Whatever. You don’t want to feel the shame of unrequited love or exclusion. That’s normal. Everybody does that, I think we’re all doing it all the time.
I think that strategies for denying shame are also pretty common. I talk about them more in terms of narcissistic traits in the case studies. But, you know, think back on a fight you might have had with a romantic partner. Say he or she criticized you for something, faulted you for something. I think most people have a tendency to react defensively when they’re criticized in that case. Initially they might say, “Well what about what you did?” They might blame the other person or try and turn tables or make excuses for themselves or even become indignant that you dared to criticize me for forgetting the dry cleaning when you never empty the dishwasher. These are kinds of things that we all do and hopefully we cool down and we are able to say, “Oh yeah, you had a point, I’m really sorry about that.” Those are kind of normal strategies.
Controlling shame strategies, self deprecating humor. It somehow feels a lot better to make a joke at our own expense than to hear somebody else make that joke or to expose something about us. I think that’s a healthy thing in a way, I think it’s a healthy sign to be able to laugh at yourself as long as it doesn’t verge into kind of savage self hatred which is more what I talk about in the case studies. So those are ways that we all avoid, deny, and control shame in our everyday life. They’re healthy, normal, and not pathological as long as they’re sort of temporary strategies.
Brett McKay: Yeah, the avoid shame, I think that’s where you had the case study of how a shame coping strategy can become detrimental. The young man who basically wasn’t doing anything, he was basically just checked out of life, wasn’t going to college, was living at home. He was seeing you because his parents were making him. We’ve had other psychologists on the show talking about this tendency for young men to check out. And a lot of it … the reason they check out, they just want to avoid the shame of failure. Especially in this world where it’s hyper competitive. If you don’t get the right SAT score, you don’t go to the right college, basically … the idea’s out there that you’re hosed, your life is just ruined. Well that’s not the case. They think that and so avoid that shame they’re just like, “I’m just going to stay home and play video games.”
Joe Burgo: Right. So the so called slacker personality is basically organized around avoiding shame. It doesn’t look that way, it looks like they just don’t have any ambition, but that’s not really the issue.
Brett McKay: And then that idea of controlling shame, self deprecating humor can be healthy but then it can verge into an extreme form of self pity where you just … instead of letting other people say where you’re falling short, you go ahead and just lay it on, “Well, I’m such a terrible this, I’m a failure, I’m this,” and that’s just self pity.
Joe Burgo: Right, and it’s very destructive but what isn’t obvious about it is it’s a strategy for dealing with shame. You’re in control of it. You’re never going to allow anybody else the opportunity to shame you because you’re there first.
Brett McKay: But then it holds you back because people don’t like being around … people don’t like being around Eeyores. It’s like nobody …
Joe Burgo: No, they do not.
Brett McKay: And so they actually just sort of … it’s like a vicious cycle where people just continue to exclude you because you’re just not pleasant to be around.
Joe Burgo: Leading you to feel even more sorry for yourself.
Brett McKay: Right. Right. That’s what I notice with a lot of these case studies, there’s just tons of tons of vicious cycles that are going on with these individuals.
Joe Burgo: As they often say in psychoanalytic therapy, it’s not the original problem that’s causing you trouble, it’s your defenses against it. That’s what in your way. And in my work with my clients, I’m always trying to help them see their defensive strategies for coping with shame and how they’re getting in the way of them doing the very things that would make them feel better about themselves.
Brett McKay: Well let’s talk about shame in men because you talk about this a bit in the book. I thought it was interesting you started off … or you mentioned somewhere in the book that when … right now you do online video sessions, right? So someone’s at the computer, they’re at their computer, but before that you did in person, right, where someone would lay on a couch and you guys would talk. When you were doing the in person, you mentioned that it was like 60 percent women, 40 percent men. But then when you started doing the online, it flipped. Now 60 percent of your clients are men and 40 percent of the clients are women. And you kind of made the observation that might be related to a man’s sense of shame. What do you think’s going on there?
Joe Burgo: Well, you know the whole cultural conversation about expectations for men that they’re supposed to be self reliant, stoic, they’re supposed to be able to solve their own problems. They’re not supposed to need help. So admitting that you have psychological issues and you need help from somebody else is looked down upon, it’s considered unmanly, even more so in other cultures than our own. I mean, we’re relatively liberal minded in that respect. But if you look at other cultures, I think it’s much more intense and it’s interesting that I’ve had a number of men in my practice from other cultures, they were English speaking but they were perhaps from India, the country India, where getting help from a psychotherapist would be … admitting that would be suicide in a way.
Brett McKay: And in your experience in work with men, where do you see the biggest source of shame for men? Is it unrequited love, unwanted exposure, disappointed expectations, or is it just all over the place?
Joe Burgo: It is all over the place and I think that’s … I think that’s born out by the distribution of the cases I talk about in the book. There’s men in each section. There are men who have problems avoiding shame, there are men who deny shame, and there are men who control shame. So I think it pretty much runs the gamut these days.
Brett McKay: So men are also handling shame in pretty much all different ways, either avoiding it … we just talked about an example of a lot of young men dropping out simply as a way to avoid it. How do you see men trying to deny shame? Where do you see that? How does that manifest itself?
Joe Burgo: Well, it shows up in narcissistic kind of behaviors, but also ones that can be like hyper masculinized if you know what I mean. There are normal traits that are associated with masculinity throughout our history, assertiveness, aggressiveness, competitiveness. Those can be hyper masculinized. Like somebody who’s like too competitive, somebody who has to constantly win at everything and is bent on destroying the competition, that’s a very narcissistic strategy for denying shame and inflicting it on other people.
Brett McKay: And how do you see men controlling shame? How do they tend to do that?
Joe Burgo: You know, those are the less obvious examples because, you know, self deprecation, self pity, and self hatred are not really socially acceptable for men. Men aren’t supposed to behave that way. So you don’t see that very much. Those are the people who would probably come to me. The hyper competitive narcissistic men who are denying shame are the ones who would never come for therapy. And avoiding shame, I think that’s pretty much everywhere.
Brett McKay: For sure. Well so we talked … I mentioned earlier that there’s been a lot of talk about shame lately, particularly online shaming. You see this happening a lot where people are basically just eviscerated on Twitter or Facebook or social media and they’re just shamed. And some people say, “Well that’s a good thing,” because these people are changing their behavior and it’s helping them sort of steer … course direct them. You wrote earlier in an article in the Washington Post that yes, it can be, but you’re seeing a trend where shame is becoming weaponized and it’s actually becoming more destructive as opposed to helpful. Talk a little bit about that.
Joe Burgo: So there’s actually a long history of the use of shame to promote social values that are shared. So being put in the stocks, for instance, or the scarlet letter. There are many, many examples from the Greeks onward of cultures using shame as a way of enforcing their values. That can be a bad thing but it can be a good thing if it promotes more socially acceptable behavior. In order to do that, it has to hold out the possibility of redemption. It has to be you should feel ashamed of this and your shaming experience is going to have this duration and we expect you to make amends and then change your behavior. That’s the only way shame is ever effective.
The problem nowadays is that shame isn’t used in that way. Shame is used for a vindictive kind of revenge and there’s no chance of redemption and reintegration back into society. Sometimes that’s appropriate. Like for Harvey Weinstein, let’s say, that’s probably really appropriate. He’s beyond redemption. He shows no remorse and no sense that he has anything to make up for. But other people, their careers have been destroyed, their lives ruined, and they really weren’t given a chance to try and make up for it. I think that’s destructive. I think we’ve gone too far. But that’s the way things work, isn’t it? There’s all this behavior being described as toxic masculinity and it was toxic in a lot of ways. And it’s being called out now and men are being publicly shamed. That’s a good thing but it’s also been excessive and the pendulum will probably swing back at some point and land somewhere in the middle.
It’s interesting there’s been a big debate about Al Franken and the way he was shamed and forced to resign, and people are now starting to express some regret about that, even people who shamed him at that time and thought he needed to resign. There’s a sense that maybe the punishment exceeded the crime. So public shaming is a good thing as long as the punishment does fit the crime and it’s not about character assassination and the vindictive destruction of someone’s life.
Brett McKay: You also talked about particularly shame towards men, certain behaviors from men probably should be shamed. But there are certain behaviors that are just innate in men, right? Sort of aggressiveness, assertiveness, it’s sort of hardwired in a lot of men. And when you shame them for that, there’s no possibility for redemption, that’s like part of who they are, right? So they’re just like, “Why you shaming me for just being me?”
Joe Burgo: Well right. That is … there are people who will argue that shaming men for being that way is a good thing because by using shame in that way, we’re going to change them essentially … we’re going to change their nature so that they will become more empathic, more emotionally sensitive, more in fact like women. And there has been a trend since the 1960s and second wave feminism that’s trying to create a gender neutral society. And this expectation is everywhere that men and women should express the same set of positive character traits, everything is culturally mediated, and there’s no basic difference. I don’t believe that’s true. And the science doesn’t bear that out.
The traits, the classically masculine and feminine traits, were selected over millennia by evolutionary pressures to lead to certain traits being encoded in our DNA, ones that led to greater sexual reproduction and survival. And you know those traits evolved over hundreds of thousands of years and they are expressed in our DNA, particularly in the operation of our hormonal system. And you can’t shame that out of existence, all you can do by expecting men and women to be the same is you can make men feel even more shame and either go into hiding or, as one writer I like put it, masculinity goes underground and then comes out in even uglier kinds of expression, kind of twisted by the shame and resentment about being humiliated for being who one is. I think that says something about our current political and cultural moment.
Brett McKay: I think that that was Camille Paglia that said something, masculinity goes underground and sort of manifest itself in uglier fashions than what we had originally.
Joe Burgo: Yeah, the person I was thinking of at that moment is a conservative writer Andrew Sullivan.
Brett McKay: Okay, yeah.
Joe Burgo: He wrote a really great article 16 or 17 years ago called The He Hormone. He suffers from low testosterone from having been on anti retrovirals for many, many years. So he has to self inject with synthetic testosterone and he talks about what it does to him and links it up to the whole evolutionary history of men and why these are innate masculine traits that you can’t change by societal expectation. What I say and what I’m arguing in the next book I’m writing is that it’s like a computer. Evolution has bequeathed to us this computer with preinstalled operating system. That’s in our DNA, it’s in our hormones. And we can’t change that quickly. But there’s also the cultural software that is able to inhibit, encourage, or redirect the expression of these traits. And we have some flexibility there. So I think a lot of what’s going on now in the conversation about toxic masculinity is a very positive thing if we view it as how can we inhibit certain really destructive expressions of masculinity while encouraging other positive expressions of masculinity rather than trying to make everybody gender neutral.
Brett McKay: Yeah. The analogy that I like is that masculinity is like electricity and cultures create cultures of men that sort of harness that energy. If there’s no electricity, there’s no like conduit for it, it becomes very destructive, right? It just kind of goes all over the place. But if you provide it some sort of wire and direct it, it can actually be really powerful.
Joe Burgo: I like that analogy.
Brett McKay: And I think what’s going on is people just want to get rid of that difference completely between men and women instead of accepting, okay here’s how men are because of biology, how can we shape that energy that they have and direct it towards something more positive? That’d be a more useful way to use shame instead of just trying to eliminate men completely or masculinity completely.
Joe Burgo: I couldn’t have said it any better. That’s exactly what I think.
Brett McKay: Okay, I’m glad we’re on the same page. So let’s … we’ve talked about sources of shame and we’ve talked about ways that we manage shame on a day to day basis, but how can we make sure that we’re getting the message that shame is trying to send us so that we can use that to become better? Because that can be hard, right? You’re feeling bad about yourself because you got excluded or you didn’t get the job you wanted. It’s very easy to say, “Well, they’re a bunch of bums. They’re missing out on something great,” instead of saying, “Is there something that I did that excludes me.” So how can you listen to the message shame is trying to send you?
Joe Burgo: Well it for sure depends on the nature of that shaming message. It’s pretty hard to listen to a shaming message that’s cruel or that makes you feel completely worthless. So it depends on how people deliver the shaming message or how it comes across. But then I think, and what I’m trying to help people do with this book, is to look at the ways you tend to defend against shame because we all do it, right? We all try to defend against shame because we don’t want to feel it. And if you can know yourself well, if you can recognize the ways that you tend to make excuses for yourself, blame other people, get indignant when someone shames you, then you can say okay, well wait a minute. Wait a minute. That’s defensive. Take a step back. What’s the truth here? What is valuable? What can I take out of that shaming experience that can work to my advantage? Because often it points the way towards building self esteem in a better way.
It’s like it’s saying, “You know, you wanted to succeed but you didn’t do it in the best way possible. You feel ashamed of the way you behaved so maybe you need to think about that.” And it will tell you, “You didn’t work hard enough or you didn’t focus enough on this particular idea, or you need to develop strengths in this area if you really want to succeed.” And that way you have a better chance of doing the very things that will build self esteem and make you feel better about yourself. If you’re constantly warding off shame or denying it or defending against it, you tend to make the same mistakes over and over again because you haven’t learned the lesson.
Brett McKay: Is the hardest part recognizing how you deny shame?
Joe Burgo: Oh, I think so. I mean, how many people really know themselves and the ways that they defend against all sorts of things? I mean, one of the things that seems to be true is that we’re much better at observing defensiveness in other people than we are at recognizing it in our own selves, don’t you think?
Brett McKay: Oh yeah, no. I’m terrible at it, recognizing it in myself. But then I catch myself and then I feel like an idiot.
Joe Burgo: Well, there you go. Don’t feel too much like an idiot. Just say, “Oh, you know, there I am. That’s what I do. I typically do that. I tend to get defensive about something or I tend to defend in this way. I’m going to be on the lookout for that now.”
Brett McKay: What do you do? So instead of getting defensive, what would be a better response to like that feeling of shamed, hey I messed up, you caught yourself, I’m not going to go down that path where I started getting defensive. What would be the better step?
Joe Burgo: It’s to view it as a learning experience. And even though they don’t use this particular word, there is a lot of conversation about failure experiences, the value of failure experiences and learning from failures, the whole start-up culture accepts that failure is to be expected and the only real shame is in not learning from it. I look at failure as a shame experience. It makes you feel bad about yourself because you’ve disappointed an expectation you hold for yourself. So that’s the whole way I’m trying to reframe the conversation about shame in my book is rather than looking at shame as this bad thing that we need to get rid of, it’s to look at it as an opportunity to learn.
Brett McKay: Well, Joseph, where can people go to learn more about the book and your work?
Joe Burgo: The book is available everywhere. It’s available on Amazon, I don’t know where your audience is but it has a publisher in England and it’ll be available in other languages as well. But it’s pretty much everywhere. I think Amazon is the easiest place to find it because newly published books have a short shelf life and they have to go away to make way for other new books coming out. I have a website called After Psychotherapy which I’ve been blogging about shame and narcissism for years. And I also have a blog on Psychology Today called, coincidentally, Shame in which I blog about shame, lately more on the broader cultural level in politics and what’s going on in our culture. So there’s a lot of stuff out there. Google my name and you’ll find it.
Brett McKay: Fantastic. Joseph Burgo. Thanks for your time, it’s been a pleasure.
Joe Burgo: It was a pleasure, thank you.
Brett McKay: My guest today was Joseph Burgo. He’s the author of the book Shame, Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self Esteem. It’s available on Amazon.com and bookstores everywhere. You can find more information about Joseph’s work at his website at Josephburgo.com. Also check out our show notes at aom.is/shame where you can find links to resources, where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well that wraps up another addition of the AOM podcast. If you’d like to listen to ad-free new episodes of the Art of Manliness, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. You can sign up for Stitcher Premium and get a free trial by going to Stitcherpremium.com, use promo code Manliness, then you download the Stitcher app for IOS or Android and you start enjoying the ad-free Art of Manliness experience. If you haven’t done so already, I’d appreciate it if you’d take one minute to give us a review on I-Tunes or Stitcher, it helps out a lot. And if you’ve done that already, thank you. Please consider sharing this show with a friend or family member who you think would get something out of it. As always, thank you for the continued support and until next time, this is Brett McKay reminding you to not only listen to the AOM podcast, but put what you’ve heard into action.