5 Steps For Dealing With Shaming Behavior

5 Steps For Dealing With Shaming Behavior

Lately I have been shocked at running in to the use of shaming techniques as a means of getting business done. It's not new. You've seen it many times and so have I. It's standing out for me at the moment because I normally have the luxury of working mainly with people who don't use it as a dominant way of getting things done.

"Shame arises when one's 'defects' are exposed to others, and results from the negative evaluation (whether real or imagined) of others."   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shame

So much of the shame we feel (and most do feel it) we generate for ourselves. I want to focus today though on what to do when others are trying to use shame as leverage on us.

For external shaming to work, part of us must agree with our accuser.

This is not a topic we can talk about today without referencing Brené Brown. If you haven't already done so at least 139 times, please go to TED.com and check out her two videos - one on Vulnerability and one on Shame.

So what does it look and sound like when someone is trying to shame us? I think in order to create a good defense we need to be able to know it when we see it.

When others are trying to use shame for leverage it comes out in a few common ways:

  • It can be body language that implies you are stupid or less than (even if what they are actually saying doesn't line up with this)
  • It can be the use of sarcasm as a means of implying that your feeling or idea doesn't make sense
  • Sometimes it comes out as a question but with inflection to insinuate that they can't believe you are entertaining that idea

Do you see the theme here? They are judging you and your idea and trying to get you to defer to them and their idea being better. Usually shaming is passive aggressive too, meaning contradictory messages so that the person has 'plausible deniability' in their own mind.

Dr. Brown says that “Shame is the gremlin that says ‘uh-uh, you’re not good enough.’” It is the leverage that people can try to use to get us to second guess our opinions, to try to get us to take different actions in order to get their approval or to let them have their way.

I'm curious about how we can gain the skills to be that voice of empathy and understanding for ourself. Other healthy people reassuring us is fantastic but they are not always immediately available.

1.The first defense against someone else's shaming is to notice that it's happening and see it for what it is. Usually, for me, the first thing I notice is feeling gross in the conversation - I might be getting defensive like I need to justify my position or I might just be feeling stupid.

2. Once I realize that the other person is using shaming techniques I have a choice of what to do during or after the conversation. If I'm not too overwhelmed in the moment I try to reflect back to the person what seems to be going on. (Most people are using shaming because they have been shamed and are not even aware that they are doing it.) This might sound something like "it seems that you really don't like my idea and that you think your idea is better". This sometimes stops people in their tracks and lets you call a spade a spade. 

3. If I can't intervene in the moment I still need to process what happened soon after. I like to make notes on what the other person said and what their body language was saying to me. I then go ahead and write about what I was feeling as a result of the interaction. Where it goes next depends on how much I internalized the shame. It could be either "I felt like he thought I was stupid to have that idea" or, with my own baggage, "I feel stupid for having that idea".

4. Some self-care in the form of giving myself some empathy and understanding is powerful. E.g. "Marilyn, your idea has some really valid points to it and it is not okay for someone to try to make you feel stupid for having a different idea from them." 

5. Lastly, I take time to reflect on where I want that relationship to go in the future and what kind of honest conversation I am willing to have with that person about how we will and will not be communicating in the future, if we are to have an ongoing relationship. (This doesn't always have to happen but if the shaming and/or the relationship are significant enough, then strategy is critical.)

Humbly I want to add how easy it is, for me too, to pass shaming on to others around us when we have been shamed. Without consciously meaning to I still catch myself communicating in ways that lift my ideas above those of others. I hate that in myself and see this writing as a great way to remind myself to watch both my words and my body language and always be willing to own up to my shaming behavior.

Where have you let shame have too much weight in your life?

Until next time,


This "Marilyn's Musings" blogpost that was originally written in 2016.

Marilyn Orr, MA, CEC, PCC is an Executive and Leadership Coach with Capacity Building Coaching, holding her Professional Certified Coach designation with the International Coach Federation.

Marilyn provides professional coaching for executive and business leaders, mentor coaching for coaches, and leadership development support in the form of coaching skills training and soft-skills development.

Marilyn is author of everyday resiliency workbook “How Absorbent Are Your Shocks?”, available on Amazon. Subscribe to “Marilyn’s Musings” twice monthly blogposts for more leadership and professional development content.

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