Sunday, March 21, 2021

36. No One Opens Their Mind Or Heart When They Feel Shamed Or Attacked

The COVID19 pandemic has revealed the very best and the very worst of human instincts and social behaviors.  In my fifty years I have never firsthand witnessed such incredible acts of bravery by emergency medical providers, essential workers, supportive volunteers, and diligent scientists.  But I have also never seen such aggressive and hostile actions enacted publicly under the guise of moral indignation and public-health policing.  I have never watched so many individuals inappropriately mismanage their trauma by using shame and humiliation to publicly denigrate other individuals.  As a therapist in New York City I hear the experiences from people on the receiving end of these strategies who were not only living with the trauma of COVID19, but also the horror of being scrutinized by strangers on electronic platforms.  In the end, the criticisms did nothing to change people’s behaviors, they only served to drive the actions underground.  The gatherings still happened, the dates still occurred, the group sex was in full swing in New York City and surrounding areas - it was just more hidden and covert, and still is today.  

This is because no one opens their minds or hearts or changes their behavior when they feel shamed or attacked. In a debate, in a protest, in a meeting, or in a classroom, on social media, condemning another person puts them on the defense, and thereby strengthens their resistance. You sabotage your own position when you try to use embarrassment or humiliation to get another person to change. It typically results in them fighting back harder, deepening their original stance, and driving their actions underground.  That’s all well and good if your intent is to make enemies and increase opposition. But if you have a true investment in helping others and reducing harmful behaviors, then it calls upon utilizing a different skill set. 

I can definitely relate to mismanaging trauma and rage.  In my twenties I was referred to as a "hothead" on more than one occasion. I had a tendency to inappropriately express righteous indignation and outrage about social injustice in classrooms and internship settings. I used left-wing rhetoric as a vehicle for expressing the anger that I had not been permitted to express throughout my childhood. I could easily and acceptably “call out” the object of my attack as a hypocritical homophobic racist sexist bigot.  However, in retrospect I can see I accomplished very little except to make my opponent's argument stronger, and to demonstrate that I was the one who was being intolerant and rigid. 

I was regularly on the receiving end of hostile condemnation in the mid 1990s while living with a friend in San Francisco. We had worked together at The Patio Cafe and created a very strong bond, so we decided it would be fun to live together. Once we moved in, the friendship completely fell apart, as I found that basic activities such as being considerate and respectful of privacy were not part of his recipe of the ideal home life. When I opposed constant noise and physical disruptions, he angrily called me "selfish."

He knew the term "selfish" would illicit great fear and guilt in me.  However, I quickly turned it around and said, "Fine, if he thinks I'm selfish then I'm going to be the most selfish diva bitch he's ever known." I cut off all communication with him, became more intolerant of his insolence, completely ignored his wants and needs, made our living environment hostile, and the relationship was dead after that. His shaming only resulted in me increasing the behaviors he was intolerant of, and vice-versa.  Sadly I have seen similar dynamics play out in friendships and families regularly this past year.

So — do you just accept and enable potentially dangerous decisions?  No, quite the opposite. 

Motivational Interviewing (MI) is an evidence-based intervention that I use in personal and professional settings to reduce resistance and increase healthier solutions. It fundamentally lies in respecting another human and finding commonalities in order to collaboratively work on skill building and beneficial decisions. It entails letting go of the illusion that there is any "right" way that things "should" be done, and instead reframes the situation as, "how do we thrive together?" It focuses more on the process of the conversation than the results with the emphasis on long-term change versus short-term conformity.  I have found that demonstrating authentic respect and dignity for other individuals, even those whose values are different from mine, goes a long way toward impacting advantageous change and adherence to new behavioral patterns such as mask wearing.  

Sadly most of the cultural discourse I see reflects the opposite.  The norm seems to be "Take a position and dig in further." This leads very little room for listening, learning, reflecting, changing.  This standard results in people cementing their position, destroying relationships with people who think differently, then creating rigid communities with like-minded individuals, which can ultimately lead to tragic consequences.  

I admit that using tools like MI involves more patience and compassion.  It is not a quick-fix, it is not as easy as typing insults and name-calling in 160 characters or less.   When you set forward to change the world with integrity instead of attack, you may not get as much attention, as many “likes”, nor the same dopamine gratification. But in my fifty years I have learned that I can be a lot more effective as a catalyst for sustainable behavioral changes when I withdraw my bow and arrow and approach from humane communication and collaboration.   I understand this is not the intent for some, but I'm not sure how our democracy is going to sustain itself if people continue to react and argue this way in the future.  We can do better. 

 Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist helping individuals and couples enjoy life with peace, purpose, and pleasure. His books "Absolutely Should-less" and "Rational Relating" help people experience connection with joy, serenity, and meaning. His work has been featured on CNN Health, The New York Times, MSNBC, USA Today and more. He can be reached at or 347-227-7707

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