Cultivating Change


I heard a activist being interviewed on some newscast the other day. He was convinced that in order to make people change their behavior you had to shame them about what they were doing. Nobody else seemed to notice the fallacy, but it struck me strongly that shame was the wrong emotion to be cultivating. Guilt could be a productive emotion to encourage. Compassion for others might be worth seeking. But shame? Of all the emotions that encourage change, shame is the least effective.

Shame is a debilitating emotion. When I am in a place of shame, I feel like I enter a type of tunnel. I go back to being a small child. Paralysis, remorse and fear engulf me. And when fear engulfs me, I’m more likely to react angrily and defensively than compassionately. If you want me to change the way I do something, you have to get me into a place of feeling safe. And I suspect that shame is not so different in other people either. Brene’ Brown has made a career of studying it and putting data to the effects of shame on people. It is not a motivating emotion.


I’ve been doing a 30-day yoga challenge with Yoga with Adrienne since New Year’s. This morning’s practice urged me to soften. The practice put me in some fairly uncomfortable positions, but gently allowed me to soften into the shape. If I don’t fight the ache…. if I don’t struggle against the tightness in my body…. if I soften into the pose, my body accepts it. With acceptance amid the softening, I can change.

Our culture seems to believe that pushing and screaming will create change. Kids are beat and shamed by their parents. Teachers hurl insults to shame kids into submission. Bosses scream and rant in attempt to scare workers into performing. What we’ve created is a culture that is angry and scared with limited skills in connecting with other people. Conflict is “handled” by screaming insults at others and then further shaming them when they don’t hear it gracefully. The result is a society that is riddled with addictions of all kinds, a government that is self-imploding and a media landscape that is not appropriate for children.

New behaviors for people are like seedlings. And, if we are all honest with ourselves, change is very, very hard. When a seed is planted that I need to change, I have to create an atmosphere where I can feel safe in changing. I also have to feel confident that I can. If I’m in the midst of shame storm, I don’t think I’m capable of anything. Change is uncomfortable, and I always fail a few times if not a hundred. With each attempt, I need to feel supported and hold myself accountable to keep trying. I can’t water a seedling with a firehose.


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