The Great Healthy Shame Debate

Harriet Lerner, who wrote the excellent book, The Dance of Anger, was kind enough to read the manuscript for Beyond Bullying prior to publication. One of the points she took issue with was the idea of "healthy shaming." Shaming is never a good thing, she insisted.

I first came across the term in John Bradshaw's popular book, Healing the Shame that Binds You.

Just as there are two kinds of cholesterol, HDL (healthy) and LDL (toxic), so also are there two forms of shame: innate shame and toxic/life-destroying shame... The idea of shame as healthy seems foreign to English-speaking people because we have only one word for shame in English. To my knowledge, most other languages have at least two words for shame.

And he proceeds to list the two types of shame as they are labelled in other languages, pudeur and honte (French), scham and schande (German), etc. With all respect to Mr. Bradshaw, whose books have helped so many people find their way to sobriety, the fact that there are two forms for shame in other languages doesn't support the existence of good shame and bad shame. Pudeur refers to a sexual kind of shame, while honte refers to public disgrace. Neither feels good, although both could lead to an improvement in behavior. An example I use in my book is a young woman who tries to drive home after drinking too much, is arrested, spends the night in jail, and turns over a new leaf the next day. Such results are not uncommon. A night in the lock-up provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on one's behavior. 

The important question is not whether healthy shame or toxic shame exists linguistically but rather whether the shame is delivered in such a way that the person receiving it can benefit. In the case of a DUI, the officer (ideally) does his job without blaming or belittling the tipsy one. She doesn't need to defend herself because it is not an attack on her "self." She can manage the shame by changing her behavior in a positive way. 

John Braithwaite, a distinguished professor at the Australian National University, has written at length about healthy shaming, which he refers to as "reintegrative shaming." You can hear him talk about restorative justice and reintegrative shaming here.