Sunday, September 22, 2013

Shame, Guilt and Fear are Poor Teachers and Motivators

I recently posted a comment on a friend's Facebook status that "shame and guilt are poor teachers and motivators" and since I wrote that I added fear and I realized how often we use shame, guilt and fear thinking they are the most effective ways to get people to change their lives, change their behavior and do and be the things we think they should be doing and being.  We believe that these are the most effective tools to use with children and then we extend it to the most vulnerable - the poor, the marginalized, those in prison.  We love shame, guilt and fear and in fact one will often hear comments about the lack of these particular qualities in today's children. That children are too coddled and they need to have the "fear of God put into them." Think about that for a minute:  we need to "put the fear of God into" a person, a vulnerable child.  Just a tad inconsistent with the message of God's unconditional, all forgiving, love or the notion that "God is love."  It is either one or the other - it can't be both.

I encourage you to think about the role fear, shame and guilt have played in your life. Now I am not talking here about the guilt one feels when one has genuinely hurt another person and wants to make amends. Guilt is a part of that process. It is not that all guilt, all fear, or all shame are bad - it is that when they are the only ways we think someone can change or learn that we run into trouble.  How many things have you avoided out of fear, shame or guilt?  I can't go talk to that person - I am just too embarrassed, I feel guilty, it has been too long.  So instead of guilt giving us the impetus to heal a relationship, it becomes a barrier.  So we continue to avoid it.  People have died not speaking to another person, or reconciling with one they loved because guilt or fear or shame have kept them from reaching out.  How awful is that?  How sad is that?

What about things like body image? We love to fat shame. When we see clothing stores refusing to stock larger size clothing or stories like this

promoting a vision of average size women and  the response is that they are promoting obesity.  As someone who has been labeled fat and shamed literally her entire life, I will personally testify that shaming someone into your vision of their body never works.  It actually results in the opposite affect - the more shame and guilt and disgust one feels for one's own flesh leads to negative behavior either through over-eating and under-exercising or by starving oneself.  Yet over and over again we see people looking to shame as the ultimate tool for promoting "healthy bodies."

Some of the worst cases of shame, fear and guilt come when it comes to those who are unemployed, receiving public assistance of any kind, the poor.  When I mention the word poor what other words come to mind? Are they hard working, industrious, innovative, ingenious?  Because to be working class or poor in this country requires that you be all those things.  Often people are working more than one job, they are spending time looking to stretch every single dime of their food dollars (read some of the accounts of those who have taken the SNAP challenge), they are going hungry so their children won't, and they are dealing not with praise but with disdain and scorn.  Because if your image of the working class and poor is coming from newspaper, popular culture or politicians the answer would be no. The words that come to mind are lazy, parasitical, unmotivated, and the list goes on.  We hear about people receiving SNAP buying high-price steaks, gaming the system.  Over and over, someone, knows someone who doesn't really need financial assistance or disability but is receiving it.  It motivates the humiliating, intrusive interviews for assistance that assume the very worst. It even permeates our faith communities, where even there assistance is given with the assurance that we would never just give a person cash directly or help a person more than once.  Now some of that is trying to make a small pot of money stretch as far as one can - particularly in an economy that has been in the state ours has been in really a very long time yet it also perpetuates the assumption that poor people are likely to scam faith communities.  It motivates legislation like not allowing people to feed the homeless in public parks or requiring drug testing before receiving assistance.  The assumption over and over again is that people would rather just be given a hand out rather than earning an adequate pay check with health care, retirement and be self-sufficient.  So we use the tactics of shame and guilt. We think surely if we shame them enough they will cease to be poor or if not that, they will at least stop asking for help.

I grew up on stories in my family about welfare recipients having more babies just so they could stay on assistance or get more.  Stories of food stamps going to buy expensive food.  I grew up believing that the poor were lazy and unwilling to work.  Of course as the middle class has eroded and the paths out of poverty have become fewer and far between, more middle class people have slipped into poverty.  The statistics tell a grim story.  Literally millions of people in this very rich country are experiencing hunger, economic insecurity and coming closer and closer to the dreaded label of poor. Yet we somehow are led to believe that all these millions of people are looking to deceive the system.  We would rather believe that they all don't want to work and they could have a job if they just looked harder rather than admit that our entire economic system works for only about 5% of the population.  Shame, fear and guilt are powerful but they don't create positive change.  In fact the more we shame people, make them feel guilty and instill fear, the less able people are to find that better job, be motivated to go back to school, learn a new skill, network with people who might be able to give them a job.  Job seeking is work, hard work and those who have done know that you need inner confidence, hope and drive to keep seeking, to keep trying in the face of rejection.  Fear, guilt and shame will only provide more barriers, making people less able to help themselves.

I could turn to many other examples in education, health care, our criminal justice system and over and over we would see that we continue to believe that shame, guilt and fear are the best teachers and motivators. Yet over and over we see their failure.  True motivation and effective teachers are those that offer praise and constructive feedback.  The best teachers do not just pass you along not believing you can do any better (and they make sure you know that) or yell and publicly shame you.  The best teachers will keep finding ways to teach you, show you until you get it  My best teachers are the ones that inspired me to do my best. My best example of this was in graduate school.  My second reader for my final project was the one who first encouraged me to get an MTS instead of an MA, was the hardest critic of my papers but always available to read a draft and give feedback, and looked at me when I was doubting I could finish and said "Margaret, you can do this."  That meant the world. I did finish.

The reason my coach has been so powerful is because he believes in me. He asks me each time we talk what success to celebrate from the last week. Let me tell you having someone celebrate your success with you, even if it is a small one, can keep you going.  It can give you the strength to reach beyond what you thought you could do.  Fear, guilt and shame will never do that. Fear, guilt and shame will put you in a box and make sure you never venture beyond it.  They can only keep you locked in fear - they can't free you.

I actually find in my life that it is not until I clear the guilt, the shame and the fear away that I can actually do what needs to be done. Take the deep breath, face whatever it is and do my best.  Over and over again in both the Hebrew and Christian scripture, God's messenger's or God's first words are "Don't be Afraid." Maybe we need to take those words to heart and offer support, love and the reminder to those struggling "Don't be Afraid."  Maybe we need to celebrate their success (no matter how small) with them and to stop critiquing and berating them for the mistakes of the past.  Maybe we need to keep believing in them, the way God keeps believing in us.  It is not that we don't get more than we can handle in this life, that is not God's promise, God's promise is that God will always be there, no matter what happens.  God will always take us back, take us in, loves us and forgives us. Wouldn't be wonderful if God's people modeled that in our world? Now that is reason to hope, that is a reason to change!

What are your best motivators and teachers?  How have shame, fear and guilt kept you from leading a full life?  What have you put off out of shame or guilt? What would make it possible for you to live your most authentic life?  Who are the people in your life that you can count on to be there for you?