How Shame-Breaking Is Contagious

How Shame-Breaking Is Contagious May 11, 2023

Maybe you’ve been in a group of people when the conversation takes a turn. Someone says something a little unexpected. A little personal. A little vulnerable.

And the rest of the group has a decision to make: Will we meet the person who chose to be vulnerable in that place? Or will we leave them hanging? Will we move right on to talk about something that seems more comfortable—or even mock or shame them for what they shared?

Vulnerability Was Never Meant to Be Calculated…

When I was in college, I was a student small group leader with a campus Christian fellowship group. 

One time, I invited a group of students I was leading to share something about how their week had been. I went first, and I talked honestly about how the week had been for me. I had just broken up with my boyfriend. So I shared that with the group. 

I didn’t really think too much about it. It was clearly the biggest thing that happened in my life that week. So it made sense to share. 

After the small group meeting, I asked a co-leader, who was on staff with the campus fellowship, if he had any feedback for me on how the meeting went in general. He said he thought it was a good thing that I shared so vulnerably about what was going on in my life, because it set a good example for others to share at that level too.

I wasn’t sure how to feel about this. Because my intention in sharing was not to set an example. I wasn’t thinking, I’d better share something that sounds real and raw, because I want to influence the students I’m leading to do the same.

There was nothing calculated like that. And I don’t think there should be.

…But Vulnerability Does Inspire Vulnerability

Looking back, to the extent that leaders in that fellowship group were encouraged to share vulnerable things solely or primarily in order to influence others to share vulnerable things, I totally hate it. 

And yet. I know it’s true that groups often look to their leaders to model what kinds of things are or aren’t acceptable to say in that space. People often look to other people in general to determine how much to say. What to say. How candid to be.

I look back with some nostalgia on my younger days, when I would share things like that with a group of people I didn’t necessarily know very well yet. I trusted people implicitly.

I didn’t know how to answer a question about my week without saying what was really going on. There’s some real vulnerability in that. And some real beauty. 

And if this vulnerability also inspired vulnerability in others, that’s a good thing.

Courage is Contagious

Rebecca Solnit’s reflections on silence and speech from her essay collection The Mother of All Questions (Haymarket Books, 2017) have stuck with me:

“Silence and shame are contagious; so are courage and speech. Even now, when women begin to speak of their experience, others step forward to bolster the earlier speaker and to share their own experience. A brick is knocked loose, another one; a dam breaks, the waters rush forth. In the 1970s and 1980s, women talking about being molested as children and harassed and assaulted as adults had a huge practical impact. Laws and the enforcement of laws shifted. But these stories were also an assault on the impunity of authority, an authority that had often been indistinguishable from patriarchy. These stories said that authority was not necessarily to be trusted; that power was liable to be abused” (p. 63).

illustrate floodgates as a metaphor for breaking shame
Open those floodgates / Photo by Rahul Pabolu on Unsplash

I appreciate the connection Solnit makes between open, honest, courageous speech and political change.

People should never be manipulated or shamed into speaking more openly than they want to speak. But, when freely chosen, vulnerable self-revelation of the truth of our lives and experiences is powerful. Especially when these lives and experiences have been silenced, ignored, marginalized, undervalued.

The floodgates are opened. And that is a good thing.

It goes beyond building trust and openness (like in a Christian small group setting), although that too is important and good. It extends into the political realm. It shifts public opinion. It can shift laws. 

And—connecting to some of my previous posts on religious authority—a flood of ordinary people, and especially marginalized people, speaking up about their experiences can raise a broader set of questions about authority and power. Questions that are very much worth asking.

So, while it can’t (or shouldn’t be) calculated for an emotionally manipulative purpose, our free choices to share vulnerably carry immense power. 

We can work to create spaces that feel—and really are—safe for honest reflection. And, as more and more people speak their truth, we can knock loose the bricks that build the systems that keep us silent.

We can contribute to the dismantling of systems of shame. And our shame-breaking is contagious.

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