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We have all experienced it. We have inflicted it on ourselves or others. Subtle and not-so-subtle shaming, blaming and self-righteous ostracizing undermine social justice work.
Here are 10 reasons to shift the shame-and-blame-game:
1) Shame and blame is experienced by our reptilian brain–our “flight or fight” brain–as a threat. When you shame yourself or allow others to shame you, your body is plunged into survival mode, accompanied by a blast of cortisol. The brain on shame responds automatically with defensive behaviors such as arguing, lashing out, passivity/paralysis, appeasing (being a “doormat”), avoiding responsibility or “spacing out.”
2) Shame undermines the qualities that inspire us to engage in social justice action, including the empathy and sense of interconnectedness http://letstalkmovementbuilding.org/forget-empathy-time-radical-connection/ that enable us to take responsibility, and the courage and confidence to take action.
3) Shame creates tunnel vision and absolutist thought patterns that stunt our ability to process nuance and complexity. With complex social problems to face, can our communities afford these creativity-droughts?
4) When blame is a habit, there is no end to it—because we will always find something–or someone–new to blame.
5) We become what we practice. The more we blame others, the more blame becomes our “go-to.” Do we want our group to take on a bitter, resentful persona?
6) If we allow blaming communication norms to thrive in our communities, sooner or later each one of us will be targeted by blame. These endless pointing fingers fragment and breakdown our alliances.
7) In a blame-shame climate, we can become so fearful of being “called out” or ostracized that we cannot acknowledge our ability to misuse power or make mistakes. We can become so defended that no one can teach or correct us.
8) Blame is a victim’s mood; blaming dis-empowers the blamer. Blaming thoughts are a clear indication that our energy is focused outside ourselves. Our attention is on what others are doing or not doing: “Look at what they are doing to us!” “If only they would change, then we could do what we need to do.” When our group places most of our attention on others, we abandon our collective power, and take on a victim identity.
9) Oppression produces shame, and this shame acts like a virus. Once we have internalized oppression and become “infected” with shame, it’s all too common to spread that shame to others through self-righteous attacks. When we attack others, we become vectors of oppression-driven shame.
10) My psychology of unlearning racism dissertation research revealed shame as the core obstacle that prevents white people from engaging in racial justice work. Shame likely obstructs other privileged groups in a similar way.
Antidotes to Shame & Blame
Let’s say our community or social justice group decides to take these habitual shame and blame pitfalls seriously. Changing old habits is possible when we are focused and persistent. With that in mind, what can we do?
1) We can take back that energy we habitually focus on the “other,” and use it for our own healing. We can practice stepping into our power and taking responsibility. We can imagine gathering up all our focus into the here and now, and then ask ourselves, what do we want to create? Then we can focus and re-focus on that!
2) We can do something else with our (rightful) anger about oppression. We can channel that energy into fierce love for ourselves, each other and the world we want to create. Instead of triggering each other’s “fight and flight” brains, we can wake up each other’s creative brains and courageous hearts.
3) We can start creating a compassionate and just world right now. We can practice treating all beings with compassion and respect, now.
4) We can set clear intentions before we offer our analysis of the blind spots of cis people, white people, able-bodied people, men, or straight people, etc.. What is our message? Who is our audience? Are we trying to motivate cis people, white people, etc. to engage in social justice work? We can habitually check our communications for any subtle shaming and blaming that could sabotage our intentions.
5) We can set a clear intention for our community healing work. Do we want to empower our beloved community by breaking silence about oppression, expressing feelings, and naming shared experiences? We can make sure we do not default to a climate of blame/victimhood by giving away our attention to privileged groups. We can make a collective commitment to focus on generating our healing and speaking our truth.
6) Refuse to be a vector for oppression! We can decide to break the vicious cycle of oppression-driven shame. When we are tempted to blame others, we can practice turning that attention inward. What needs to be loved and healed in us? Which of our strengths need to be nurtured? When we lovingly attend to building our own power, we are practicing liberation.
Thanks to Connie Burke, Valerie Batts, J. Elena Featherston, Victor Lewis, Visions Inc., Steven Wineman, Laura van Dernoot Lipsky for education and inspiration.