Compassion Reduces Shame

Compassion must be a superpower for it even helps to reduce shame. How does it work?

Shaming by others relies on authority, a kind of power, to make it stick. Without authority, we cannot take it seriously. Imagine your 4-year-old telling you in a tantrum that you are a “bad parent.” It slides right off your back because the child is upset and is no source of wisdom about parenting. If your neighbor tells you the same thing then it hurts. The trouble is that without an obvious deficit (e.g. developmental age) or stressor, we accord anybody a great deal of authority by default. We do take take them seriously, perhaps too seriously.

An overly simple but very useful rule of thumb is that if anybody is over-reacting, obviously upset or critical with any hint of cruelty, then they have been triggered into painful emotions relating to current or past stressors that have little or nothing to do with the immediate circumstances and even less to do with you. When someone is shaming you in anger they are not exposing you; they are using you to cope with their own shame, thus saying much more about themselves than about you.

Angry (& Wounded) Bird

But we don’t see what is behind the angry face and cruel tone. We assume they speak from reason, awareness, social expertise and hence, authority. Their words, tone and gestures sound and look unambiguous. So the shame sticks and we cannot recover from it, because unlike healthy shame there is no obvious, minor fix.

Reflecting upon these injuries to self-esteem, whether from the day before or back in childhood, we have to take a second look at the other’s authority. Were they truly reasonable, aware and expert or were they wounded, hurting, and overwhelmed? If we look for the underlying pain, we can develop compassion. Or perhaps when we sense compassion, then we’ve surely seen the pain. Either way, this compassion will drain the authority from all of the shaming. They may have authority in better moments but once triggered their wounds prevented any connection with authority. “They know not what they do,” as the prophet said.

A wounded person cannot hurt you if you can see and feel their wound.