By Dayna Mason

The unclear definition of “outdoor activities” and “essential” purchases in Washington state’s “Stay Home – Stay Healthy” order has led some people to define these for others.  For example, is going for a drive in the mountains an acceptable outdoor activity? Or is that trip to the grocery store to buy ice cream essential?

Social media conversations that I’ve observed indicate not only do some believe these activities are not essential but that at least one person believes doing them is “callous, immature and reckless.”

So, where’s the harm in shaming people for what we believe is their bad behavior?

“Sally” – a story

Sally had 3 months “clean.” Until today.

Sally’s been on her own since running away from the abuse of her latest stepfather when she was 13 years old. Today is her 30th birthday. Last year she celebrated in a vacant lot in a state of heroin-induced euphoria with the men she’d traded “favors” for her latest “fix.” This year, she was looking forward to sharing both turning the big 3-0 and partying sober for the first time with her new recovery family.

COVID-19 changed everything.

In the weeks following the stay-at-home order, it has taken all of Sally’s strength to stay sober. The part-time job that she loved is not essential and her recovery meetings no longer take place at the church. The group meets online, but Sally doesn’t have a computer or a smartphone. Also, her new friends can no longer give her rides (Luckily, there is a grocery store less than a mile from her house.)

Sally has no family. She lost track of them long ago. Her friends in recovery have been her lifeline. She has been home alone for 3 weeks.

Since recovery, ice cream has become a kind of “security blanket” when she feels the urge to “use.” She opens the freezer and is reminded that she finished off the last container of Chocolate Decadence two nights ago while doing her Narcotics Anonymous “step work.” She calls her sponsor. No answer.

It figures I’m all alone on my birthday. Why would anyone want to be with me anyway?

She walks the 8 blocks to the grocery and navigates the one-way signs that now direct foot traffic in the store, which takes her past the coolers of beer on her way to the ice cream. Her feet slow their pace and her body pauses in front of cases of temptation.  She thinks, No. Be strong, and forces herself to continue to the ice cream freezer.

Standing in line, holding her pint of frozen security, she beams, Wow. I did it, I resisted.

“You know ice cream is not essential,” says a woman in front of her in line with a cart of groceries. “That’s reckless and selfish of you to jeopardize others’ lives just so you can have ice cream.”

Sally’s resolve fades. That was selfish of me. I don’t deserve a birthday. She places the ice cream on a shelf nearby, leaves the store and makes her way to the place where she can get a real fix to forget she was ever born.

The truth is, ice cream was “essential” for Sally.

Impact of shaming others

Shaming is a form of social control. Compliance by humiliation. When a person violates the norms of society, other people criticize or ostracize that person. Prior to a more formal legal system, shaming was a means of keeping public order. There was even a word in the English language that is no longer in use, “shamefast,” which meant to be “restrained by shame.”

In the 18th century, leaders began evaluating the importance of dignity. Benjamin Rush, a doctor and one of our lesser known founding fathers, wrote in an essay that “Ignominy (Public shaming) is universally acknowledged to be a worse punishment than death.”  But it wasn’t until the 1950s that the “dunce cap” was discontinued in American schools as a form of punishment for slow learners and modern, less traumatizing forms of discipline were implemented.

Research in psychology has determined that shame is not good for us because it attacks who we are instead of our behavior. It demoralizes us and makes us feel like we are bad people which can cause us to retaliate or be driven to suicide—neither of which is the behavior that the shaming is intended to elicit.

Judging others shows us who we are, not who they are

We all judge. Judgment is essential for good decision making. But when we silently or openly criticize someone based on nothing but our perception, we get a glimpse of our own limitations or perceived weaknesses. In other words, our motivation for criticizing others is often rooted in our desire to feel better about ourselves. For example, when we complain about someone’s lack of discipline to stay at home, we may think, At least I care enough to stay at home and not risk the health of others. But beneath this comparison to demonstrate our superiority, we may be avoiding our own feelings of failure with discipline in our diet or exercise routine.

When we’re feeling insecure or scared, we are even more likely to assign negative meaning to others’ actions to help us feel better. But, judging someone doesn’t define who they are; it defines who we are.

The more compassion we have for others, the more compassion we’ll have for ourselves, which ultimately makes us feel better.

Kindness, respect and compassion are good for all

Deep down most of us know that judging others isn’t a good practice and we don’t trust or enjoy being around people who do it frequently. We understand that it’s impossible to know the full story behind what motivates another person. We also know what it feels like to be misunderstood.

So rather than shaming people for not staying at home the way we think they should, let’s focus on the majority who are doing their best in this crisis. In addition to all those still working to provide our essential services, according to Governor Inslee, “Washingtonians have reduced their usual contact with one another by an estimated 80 percent.”

That’s a lot of people doing their best.

Let’s do what we can with our own lives and make sure that our behavior lines up with what we value and show kindness, compassion and respect towards others. It’s just as easy to assume the best about people, as to assume the worst, and feels better too.

My good friend, Diane Pechacek says, “No one has to earn my respect. I respect, because I’m a respectful person. They have to earn my admiration. But respect flows out of who I am.”

This is a difficult time for all of us. Rather than judge each other based on incomplete evidence of wrongdoing, let’s focus on the obvious majority of us doing our very best and extend grace (courteous goodwill) to those we don’t understand.

We are not all “in the same boat.” We are in the same storm.



Brene Brown on Shame (Video)


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Dayna Mason is a Bestselling Author and Freelance Writer. Enthusiastic seeker of truth, appreciative of extravagant love and fascinated by the outcomes of creative minds.