Is shame good? An examination of whether we need to stop shame shaming.

It's good to feel ashamed once in a while; it means you care what other people think. Also: morning people, Victoria's Secret, waffles vs. enlightenment, and more.

This is the Rubesletter from Matt Ruby, comedianwriter, and the creator of Vooza. Sign up to get it in your inbox weekly.

These days, shame is a villain. Point out our nation’s obesity epidemic and you’ve committed the sin of body shaming. Criticize someone for sleeping around and you’re slut shaming. Heck, I’m kinda surprised Greta Thunberg doesn’t get called out for eco shaming the rest of us. “Don’t tell me how to treat the planet. These wildfires are beautiful just the way they are!”

But have we considered that shame [looks left, looks right, whispers] might actually be good for us? Aren’t there times when we should be ashamed? Can’t it serve as a helpful call to action?

Take Greta. We all know she’s right. We should feel ashamed about destroying the planet and strive to change our behavior. I’m glad she’s out there lecturing us about the ice caps and staring down politicians.

Fat shaming? Yeah, you shouldn’t sweat it if your body doesn’t meet some ridiculous standard. But obesity is a raging problem in this country that needs to be discussed more, not less. It’s not cruel to point out 40% of U.S. adults and nearly 20% of children are obese. The average adult weighs 15 pounds more than 20 years ago and it’s going to break our health care system. 78% of people hospitalized for Covid were overweight, yet this correlation was rarely mentioned until it was time to prioritize vaccines. “You’re obese and that could cause all kinds of health issues.” Before Covid: “Stop body shaming me!” After Covid: “Exactly, that means I’m next in line for the vaxx, right?”

Then there’s slut shaming (“when someone is shamed for being sexually provocative or promiscuous, or being perceived as not having control over their sexual behaviors,” according to Dr. Janet Brito). Of course it’s bad when societal views make people (ok, typically women and girls) feel unworthy, bad about their sexuality, or filled with self-doubt. However, a therapist once lectured me about casual sex and how many who engage in it are merely using sex as way to mask trauma and cover up deeper wounds. Was she slut shaming too? Or was she offering mindful advice about how to approach dating and relationships? 

I get why we want to block out and silence shame, but it seems childish to ignore the guidance shame can offer.

Cringeography

At this point, the reader should know I’m personally filled with shame. Just my childhood memories alone are a fountain of cringe.

I’m ashamed of how I used to fake injuries when I was a kid, especially when playing soccer. Okay, I wouldn’t 100% fake it; it’d usually start with a real kick in the shin or whatever. But then, I’d crumple in a heap like a Euro leaguer trying to draw a penalty kick and the crocodile tears would start rolling. Concerned adults would gather around me, ask if I was okay, and help me off the field. Within 10 minutes or so, there’d be a miraculous “recovery” and I’d be back on the field, running around. Me thoughts on it now: What a lame drama queen. Suck it up.

Another time, I was at summer camp playing Capture the Flag and was knocked over by another kid. I lay on the ground writhing and crying. Eventually, they called an ambulance to come take me to the hospital. What a crock. Was I hurt? Sure. Seriously injured? Nah. By the time we got on the highway, I realized the whole thing had gone way too far. I don’t even think they brought me inside the hospital. “Damn crybaby,” I think now. Bile rises up in my throat just thinking about it.

Want more? You cruel shame vampire. Fine, there’s the body stuff: As a toddler, I went to the bathroom on a plane and couldn’t reach the toilet paper and walked back up the aisle with my pants at my ankles to ask my dad to help while the entire plane laughed at me. In 7th grade, a classmate told the teacher she didn’t want to sit next to me because I smelled bad and the whole class erupted in laughter. Another time, my [redacted, I just can’t share it – maybe I’ll start a shame Patreon where my biggest fans can hear about my biggest failures].

Some shame-filled memories are buried so deep, they rarely come to the surface. Here’s one: I was held at knifepoint in middle school by a high school kid who had grabbed his dad’s hunting knife. I was playing near the school with some friends and he just came over, grabbed me in a chokehold, and held the knife to my throat as his crew laughed. I just cried and said, “Please don’t hurt me.” My friends also pleaded for mercy. Eventually, he just let me go, laughed, and disappeared into the woods. 

More: I’m ashamed of things I both did to my parents and things they did to me. My dad wouldn’t talk to me for months when I was in high school because I was such a brat. He also used to smell my hands before dinner to make sure I had washed them. Hello OCD handwashing for the rest of my life! My mom once asked if I wanted to go see an art movie she starred in when she was young (it was being shown at an art theater downtown). I asked, “Do I have to go?” She just looked down and said no. What a crappy son. On the other hand, when I was 9, I asked my mom if she thought I was good looking. She eyed me carefully and replied, “Maybe after you get braces.” I consider this now and think, “So that’s where you get it from, Matt.”

I’m also ashamed of how I was bullied and bullying I did. Weight issues? Sure. I was so ashamed of my skinny body in high school that I’d eat 4-5 meals a day, drink 5,000 calorie shakes, and lift weights constantly. (Didn’t matter, I was still skinny as a shadow.) I also was afraid to talk to girls – or pretty much anyone. Fast forward to adulthood and my shame umbrella covers selfish behavior, general laziness, the ways I’ve behaved in relationships, the things that turn me on, etc. (Let’s just say my MSNBC brain is constantly ashamed of my FOX News crotch.)

And presumably there are things I’m doing right now that I don’t realize will make me feel shame in the future. In the moment, our minds have a way of working around shame; it only seems to arrive with hindsight, like a seven second delay applied to our entire lives.

Actually, I’m not even sure if shame is the right word for all of this. It feels more like a stew of shame, embarrassment, guilt, regret, and self-flagellation. Over time, I’ve been able to manage it all better – and even gain motivation from it. I’ve learned that being compassionate with yourself is crucial (and also elemental if you want to be compassionate to others). Also, I’m less of a monster than I used to me. It’s one of the advantages of aging; you’re too tired to be truly terrible. And you start to realize almost none of the things you feel ashamed about really matter to anyone else. They’re all consumed by their own shame, not yours.

Shame vs. guilt

There are evolutionary reasons for shame too. According to Joseph Burgo, author of Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem, shame helped us survive when we were in small tribes and living a community-based lifestyle. This “good” shame helped us from an evolutionary perspective because it promoted social cohesion. Living in small tribes, our survival depended on cooperating with those around us. Tribal expectations for behavior became very important; if you violated the rules, you would be shunned (and possibly banished). Shame served as a way of defining and enforcing communal values and encouraging group cooperation. One could even argue it’s healthy to feel ashamed every once in a while; it means you care what other people think.

But given this context, it’s no wonder shame feels anathema to us in the West. It’s a sign of the diminishing amount of community in our lives. Our tribes are now online; whatever our values, we can find a community that tells us we’re right. It’s the Age of the Individual and our personal preferences matter more than what the group thinks. Living your life in order to fit in? That’s for suckers. Maybe in the East that still flies. But around here, we’ve replaced “you should respect your elders” with “OK Boomer.”

Gender and shame

Brené Brown has a popular Ted Talk about vulnerability where she discusses how shame is gendered. For women, shame is built from a web of unobtainable and/or conflicting expectations. You're supposed to have a career, be a great mom/wife, clean the house, do that thing to your face that makes you look like you’re a cast member on the Friends reunion, etc. Trying (and failing) to make it all work is what leads to much of the shame women experience.

For men, shame doesn’t come from competing expectations though. Instead, one simple thing is at the root of it: being perceived as weak. I think back to my faux injuries, my body issues, the knife incident, and the mocking I endured. At the base of all of that shame: I felt weak and unmanly.

Brown also explores the difference between guilt and shame. According to Brown, shame is a focus on self while guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad,” guilt is “I did something bad.” It’s the difference between being a mistake and making a mistake. The former is highly correlated with addiction, depression, violence, aggression, suicide, eating disorders, etc. It can feel like there’s no path back. But the latter allows room for growth and recovery. It focuses on specific events/behaviors instead of the self.

Shame as motivator

Shame is a powerful motivator for self-change. My youthful body issues have led to me working out three times a week and eating healthy throughout my adulthood. That’s good, right? When it came time to wash hands obsessively due to Covid, let’s just say I was prepared. My previous behavior in relationships has led me to reevaluate my actions and be a better boyfriend. I’m thankful for a lot of what shame has brought to my life.

Another way to think of shame: It lives in the gap between who we want to be and who are are. And that can be a wake-up call to close that gap:

Shame is an important but ultimately only the first step toward personality growth. Dr. Cheryl Ackerman explains that only when shame and guilt occur in relation to who we know we want to or should be—our evolving understanding of our ideal self—rather than in response to the judgment of others, do they "take on a development role." The conflict for such a person is one of an internal hierarchy, based on "a vision of who she should be based on internal reflection and consciousness." Any shame we feel is shame for ourselves based on who we know we should be rather than external expectations. We can work past this shame by striving to live our lives more closely to our own ideals so as to reduce the inner conflict.

Or as Brené Brown puts it: “The ability to hold something we've done or failed to do up against who we want to be is incredibly adaptive. It's uncomfortable, but it's adaptive."

Revisiting shame

It’s also a good idea to check in on your shame. I was reconsidering the injury faking recently: What drives a kid to do that? Why does a child start literally crying out for attention? How come I acted that way mostly at soccer games, the one time a week I got to spend alone time with my dad? Sounds a lot like a kid who feels like he’s not getting enough attention at home and needs to fill a hole. And wait a minute, that feeling might be the seed of why I’ve spent decades performing onstage in order to get attention from strangers. Yikes. Maybe most of my creative output is based on shame. 1) I crave attention yet 2) I don’t want the shame that comes from begging for it so 3) I make stuff people like in order to get that good feeling without that bad feeling.

And then there’s that time I was held at knifepoint. Why did that create shame in my head? That wasn’t my fault; I didn’t do anything wrong. I wasn’t a wimp who should be embarrassed, I was some little kid who endured a knife at his throat for no good reason. I don’t want to tell that younger version of myself to use those feelings of shame as a motivator, I want to tell him it’s not his fault. There’s shame you need to own and then there’s shame that should be examined, processed, and let go.

And revisiting all this, it’s odd how little pride, the opposite of shame, arises. Thinking about my childhood yields an endless stream of shame-inducing incidents, yet I hardly remember anything from that period that makes me proud. All that seems to have evaporated (if it ever existed). Shame seems to have a much longer shelf life than pride.

That reminds me. I’m also ashamed of all the spices I keep in my spice rack yet never use. I know what I should do with them; I should either use them in a recipe or throw ‘em out. Alas, chances are they’ll probably just sit there.

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Video: Night owls vs. morning people

I’m a night owl and I don’t like morning people. That makes for some, um, strange bedfellows…


Quickies

Tech’d up

🌀 Y'know how all these online experts are always touting “community” and finding your “niche target audience” and all that? At some point, we're gonna realize no one did this better than the Insane Clown Posse. Harvard Business Review should be doing a case study on Juggalos.

🌀 People worry too much about their ideas being stolen and not enough about their ideas sucking.

🌀 Login security questions feel like they're personally attacking me lately...”What’s your wife’s middle name?” I'm not married. “What’s the name of your first child?” No kids. “What's going on with your hairline?” Um, that just seems irrelevant.

🌀 Twitter is like the modern day freak show but instead of a sword swallower or a bearded lady you get to engage in political debates with people who are mentally ill.

🌀 Always funny when podcasters are OUTSIDERS speaking TRUTH TO POWER and then shift to their ad reads where they're selling underwear, brain pills, and some wellness flavor-of-the-week snake oil.

🌀 We freak out about video cameras everywhere, but the biggest purveyor of the surveillance state is people who take screenshots of group chats. The CIA ain't got nothing on a group of women coordinating a baby shower.

🌀 My sister's cat drinks better water than I drink. The cat gets reverse osmosis water from a fountain. I drink from a Brita that's had the same filter since 2007.

🌀 So much on social media is taken out of context. Just found out the full Hemingway quote is "For sale: baby shoes, never worn. (My wife bought the exact same pair the day before.)"

🌀 Lockdown revealed the dirty little secret of workplaces: They give us somewhere else to go. We may not need to be there, but we need to go somewhere.

Misc

🌀 As soon as you get herbs home, take the rubber band off 'em so they can breathe. This is the plant version of coming home and taking your bra off.

🌀 Millennials hate the boomers and boomers hate the millennials and I just wanna say: Whoa whoa whoa, I’m Gen X…and we hate both of you.

🌀 Good for Victoria’s Secret for rebranding. The lesson: It’s not fair to expect women to look like models. Instead we should expect them to look like world class athletes.

🌀 In my day, we used to refer to mental health disorders as “it factor.”

🌀 Jewish space lasers means there must be...JEWISH ASTRONAUTS...(that's how the pitch for my new sitcom Star Jews begins).

🌀 Are mime reverse interpreters are a thing? Some guy in the corner of the screen explaining, “He's trapped in a box. Still trapped. I don't think he can escape! Wait, someone threw him a rope. He's pulling on the rope. Still pulling..."

🌀 Whenever people tell me long distance relationships are tough it reminds me of when actors complain about having to gain weight for a role. "Oh, you get to see each other once every two months, have sex all weekend, and then go on with your lives? Must be TOUGH."

🌀 Life is a game of inches:
Leggo my eggo = waffles
Leggo my ego = enlightenment


5-spotted

1) Anne Lamott Answers Your Questions.

I think the single best line of advice I ever heard on being a parent, a writer, a seeker, an anything, is something the great E. L. Doctorow said years and years ago, that writing is like driving at night with the headlights on: you can only see a little ways in front of you but you can make the whole journey this way. This may not be verbatim, but for me it has rung true in every area of my life.

2) Andy Richter zings Chelsea Handler. Evoked memories of Norm’s classic riff on Carrot Top that aired on Conan years ago.

Also: So long (for now), Conan. (Feels like we’re giving this guy a eulogy every decade yet he never actually goes anywhere so maybe I should just be saying, “Keep on truckin’.”)

3) Really enjoyed this podcast with Mike Birbiglia and Sarah Silverman talking shop. If you think too much about comedy (🙋‍♂️), this is a good listen.

4) Ha Ha Zen: Finding parallels between modern-day stand-up comedians and Zen masters of the past. “If there really is truth in comedy, maybe there must also be comedy in truth.”

Many Zen masters would probably be stand-up comics today…Like Zen monks, stand-up comics have their own professional periods of itinerancy, their own mentoring networks, inside jokes, and a kind of certifying transmission based on their first appearance on a late-night talk show or Saturday Night Live season. For comedians and monks alike, the process of studying human nature, gathering material, and perfecting their lines is a lifelong practice and way of being in the world. They both also learn from the masters and then overturn that received knowledge, subverting expectations and articulating their own idiosyncratic take on reality. And monks drank a lot of tea back then, which is kind of equivalent to today’s consumption of coffee.

5) How the Web Became Unreadable. A picture is worth 1,000 paywalls.


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About the Rubesletter: Weekly musings from a standup comedian and startup veteran. If you like my comedy or writing, if you dig tech, politics, art, wellness, & pop culture, if you enjoy smart/nuanced takes & hate BS, if you’d like me to turn you on to other people making cool stuff, then subscribe.

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My latest standup special is free on YouTube. And you can stream my standup albums “Feels Like Matt Ruby” and “Hot Flashes” too.