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Destructive shame vs. Prosocial shame: What's the difference and why does it matter?

When it comes to dealing with our flaws and frailties that can lead to or result in compulsive overconsumption, shame can be a tricky concept. Shame can provide the impetus to stop the behavior but also the means for perpetuating it. How do we reconcile this paradox?

Let's start with a look at shame. What is it? The psychological literature today identifies it as an emotion distinct from guilt. The thinking is that shame makes us feel bad about ourselves as people, whereas guilt makes us feel bad about our actions while preserving a positive sense of self. So a distinct line is drawn between shame as a maladaptive emotion and guilt as an adaptive emotion.

However, the shame-guilt dichotomy seems to come up lacking since experientially, shame and guilt are almost identical. Yes, I might be able to distinguish self-loathing from "being a good person who did something wrong," but in that moment of realization that I've blown it, all I feel is one emotion: regret mixed with fear of punishment that may take the form of abandonment as in being scorned, cast out, shunned, or canceled. So there is a coalescing of shame and guilt that delivers a one-two gut punch that can lay us out. We've all experienced some level of this, haven't we?

Yet the shame-guilt dichotomy does tap into something real. It could be that the difference is not how we experience the emotion, but how others respond to our fall. If others condemn, reject, or cast us out, we may enter into a cycle that intensifies the emotional experience of shame that can set the stage for us to continue, and perhaps at an intensified level, the behavior that led to feeling this way in the first place. Dr. Anna Lembke, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine and chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic as well as author of the bestseller, Dopamine Nation: Finding Balance in the Age of Indulgence, calls this destructive shame. Please note that much of what is addressed in this essay is a distillation of the insights Dr. Lembke provides in this most helpful book, which I heartily recommend for those interested to learn more about the relationship between addictive behavior and brain chemistry.

To the contrary, if others respond by holding us closer by expressing compassion, mercy, and empathy, and then attempt to help by providing guidance or simply offering the gift of non-judgmental presence, we enter a very different cycle. Dr. Lembke refers to this cycle as prosocial shame. Prosocial shame mitigates the grueling emotional experience of shame and can help us stop or reduce the flawed behavior.

It starts with patiently listening to and becoming acquainted with someone's story instead of distancing ourselves or dismissively waving them off. What are the forces that played a part in shaping the wounded person I see before me? This isn't about making excuses or not holding ourselves and others accountable for our actions. However, ignoring the fact that some life experiences can have a dominating effect on mindset and what coping mechanisms are put to use can be a huge blindspot that can lead to further damage to relationships and even to self.

Animosity, judgment, and contempt evaporate in the warmth of compassion and empathy. When you make the effort and take the time to understand someone, the result will almost always be a more caring attitude toward him or her. And remember, we will be on both sides of this exchange at various times in our lives, which is why we can and must apply empathy. Empathy is one of the pillars of reconciliation and healing.

Getting caught in the cycle of destructive shame often leads to the sort of isolation that is an outgrowth and even contributes to an amplification of this state. And this can fuel ongoing consumption of what it is (substances or behaviors) that put us into the tailspin. It looks like this: Overconsumption leads to shame, which leads to social isolation due to the fears of abandonment or lying to avoid being shunned, both of which can lead to further isolation. This contributes to ongoing consumption as the cycle carries on as we continue engaging in the behavior that, as stated earlier, can be a form of or at least connected to a coping mechanism.

The goal is to be a person who stays on the right side of the shame equation by extending mercy, empathy, compassion, and guidance to the best of our ability to those in our lives who are struggling. Once again, we're all going to be on the other side of this equation and needing someone else to do this for us at some point. Yes, not all will fall into patterns of addiction to substances such as drugs, alcohol, or tobacco, or destructive behaviors such as binge-and-purge eating, gambling, porn, or gaming several hours a day, but not a single one of us will avoid the need for someone to extend mercy, forgiveness, compassion, and counsel at some point because of something we do, say, or don't do or say. This idea that we are all flawed, capable of epic failures, and in need of forgiveness is one of the most important elements of prosocial shame. And it's an important element of simply living well, isn't it?

"Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy." (Matthew 5:7)

"So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them..." (Matthew 7:12)

Another one of the main ideas behind prosocial shame is that shame is useful and important for thriving since without it, our lives would descend into chaos. Shame is a sort of guardrail that can keep us from veering off course into self-destructive, anti-social behaviors. So dispensing with it altogether isn't wise.

The key in all of this is to apply compassionate, merciful, and empathetic accountability to others and self with a view toward a horizon of redemption and restoration. And this cannot be accomplished unless and until we are willing to practice radical honesty, both with ourselves when we are struggling and with those in our lives who are in a battle. Without this the effort will be hampered at best, futile at worst. Radical honesty promotes awareness, enhances intimacy, and fosters a positive growth mindset.

"Whoever conceals his transgressions will not prosper, but he who confesses and forsakes them will obtain mercy." (Proverbs 28:13)

"Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed..." (James 5:16)

Admitting your faults, and your need for help and guidance can lead to healing. Humble yourself by submitting to another's comforting and helping hand. And when someone comes to you desperate for help and guidance, humble yourself by admitting that you know what it feels like to need forgiveness and help because you have your own set of challenges. Then love your neighbor as you love yourself and be an agent for change in his or her life. You will be changed as well.

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