Please Stop Shaming for Social Justice

The outcome of the 2016 Presidential Election left many people stunned and saddened. Others may have seen this coming, but feel little consolation as they witness a nationwide spike in hate crimes and predict a rapid dismantling of the values and protections they hold dear.

In a recent post-election interview, Senator Elizabeth Warren said that we can’t just sit back and watch this happen. She said, “on these core issues about treating every single human being in this country with dignity — on that, we stand up and we fight back.”

And, I couldn’t agree more. Fight for what you believe in. Absolutely. I will continue to do that too. But, dear people, I implore you, if you truly want to convince others to change their viewpoint, then please put as much care into how you fight, as you put into what you fight for.

Please stop trying to change others by activating their shame.

I realize that shaming has become a widespread tactic in the fight for social justice, in large part because it seems like it works. Besides, isn’t it justified? Why not shame those who hold shameful beliefs or engage in shameful behaviors?

Because, in the long term, shaming doesn’t work. At best, it causes people to tune you out or dismiss you. At worst, it puts those who need our protection at significantly more risk.

Shame is such a destructive emotion that psychologists have built up an entire research area to study its effects. Shame does not convince anyone of anything. On the contrary, it causes people to get clenched around their beliefs and to hide them from others. It makes it nearly impossible for people to change their minds without losing face. It incites a kind of “limbic logic” — a reactive thinking style in which people build up (and start to believe) their own self-defensive distortions, while becoming increasingly impervious to more measured points of view.

And, most dangerously, shame seriously impairs our emotion regulation system, sometimes leading to all out shame reactivity, which spurs impulsive behavior and fuels rage. This is so well known in shame research circles that they call it “The Shame-Rage Cycle.”

Stand up to bigotry. Of course. Do what you can to keep each other safe. Report incidents locally, if possible, and/or to the ACLU. Get identifying information, detailed descriptions, license plate numbers. Volunteer, donate, talk to each other. Mindfully, privately, point out when someone has posted a “fact” from a “fake news” site.

Use whatever skillful social change strategies you have at your disposal, and do your best to invent creative, effective new ones. We absolutely need them now. But if you don’t want to inadvertently contribute to more hatred and violence, please stop your shaming tactics.

Shaming may temporarily suppress hateful crimes and views, but it absolutely does not reduce them. It feels powerful, righteous and effective in the moment. But I assure you, it is not helping your (our) social justice cause.

Polarization is Not the Path

The following post was written the morning after Election 2016:

Last night, many of us sat in stunned silence, aware of the magnitude of this result. Now, and in the weeks (months, years) ahead, we have to radically accept that this was caused. And, if we want to change the deeply distressing course that we’re on, we have to address the causes.

The divide in our country (in our world) is real and it’s not going away anytime soon. We cannot ignore misery and expect unity. We cannot destroy education and expect critical thinking. We cannot “unfriend” those we disagree with and assume they, and their kind, have gone away. We cannot read only the things that we already believe and assume that everyone out there thinks like us. We cannot shame anyone into adopting our social agenda, no matter how strongly we believe that it is right.

We have to listen to understand, not to refute. We have to work wisely (again, still) for what we value. We have to allow others to teach us. We have to look for the grain of validity in a bucket of stuff we vehemently disagree with. We have to allow others the respect and space to change their minds without losing face. We have to be willing to change ours. We have to own when we are wrong. We have to cultivate hope and compassion for all, no matter how downright exhausted and threatened we feel. We have to tolerate the deep distress of not knowing how much of our progress will be dismantled, where we will go from here.

I have no idea what will come, but I feel certain that, as reassuring as it might feel to devolve into an ever-increasing “us versus them” mentality, it’s a small planet. Separation is an illusion. It is all us. Further polarization is not the path.

Watching Too Much Mad Men

I started this blog because I’ve had enough of the advice that’s offered to stepmoms. And judging from the feedback I’ve gotten, a lot of other stepmoms have too.

Every week, there’s some new piece of advice that tells us to lower our expectations, mute our concerns, and resign ourselves to second-class status, in our own families, and in our own homes.

The authors usually imply that “good” stepmoms make these adjustments easily. So those of us who question whether they’re necessary, or even helpful, must be bad stepmoms indeed. And sadly, these judgments don’t just come from the experts. They come from all levels of society – sometimes even our families and fellow stepmoms too.

Maybe I’ve been watching too much Mad Men, but I think that the way stepmoms are treated today bears a striking resemblance to the way most women were treated in the 1960s. Although the women’s movement has increased the range of options for many, stepmoms are still frequently shamed when we try to move out of our behind-the-scenes roles.

I’ve spent a lot of my career exploring the impact of gender expectations on women. Before I went into private practice, I visited mothers in Uganda, taught psychology in Egypt, consulted in refugee camps, and advocated for changes in male-led institutions all over the world.

Yet even with that history, I still feel brief moments of shame when the advice that’s given to “help” me invalidates my experience, reminds me that I’m “not the mother” (rest assured, I know that), or warns that if I cross the narrow boundaries that society has drawn for me, I may cause my family harm.

In those moments, I feel especially grateful for the support I’ve received from my husband, family and friends, who believe – as I do – that everyone benefits when we encourage each other to question the limits of our socially-sanctioned roles.

To be clear, I’m not opposed to any woman who wants to provide background support for her family. The whole point of the women’s movement was to allow for more choices. If you’re supporting your family from behind-the-scenes – and it’s working for you – keep doing what you’re doing. I respect your right to make your own choices and I hope you’ll respect my right to make mine.

In my case, I decided to pace myself slowly when our family was forming, because authentic relationships take time and I wanted to give the kids a chance to adjust. But I never agreed to stay in the background forever. I couldn’t sustain it – and it wouldn’t have fit my values if I could.

If I had stayed in the background, I might have reduced the kids’ discomfort in the short-term, but I might have also reinforced the fantasy that the divorce wasn’t permanent, or given them the impression that the life they enjoyed with their dad before I arrived was going to stay exactly the same.

My husband and I want to help the kids learn to adapt to change so they’ll become flexible, resilient adults. We can’t teach resilience through avoidance. The most direct route to resilience is by acknowledging and processing loss.

Even if we weren’t worried about how my actions might impact the kids’ ability to let go of the way things were, it’s not compassionate to ask me to stay in the background indefinitely. I believe that self-compassion is one of the most important skills we can teach our children. But compassion is not selective. We can’t teach the kids to have compassion for themselves, if we don’t offer compassion to all.

It’s time to rethink our eagerness to ask stepmoms to constrict their lives for the sake of the family. It’s not compassionate and it’s not sustainable. It’s like telling them that the only way they can be accepted, is if they promise not to breathe.

There’s a transaction between how society treats stepmoms and the chances that their relationships will succeed. At best, harmful societal messages add to stepmoms’ stress levels and take energy away from other priorities. At worst, they create real suffering and cause relationships to fail.

So instead of continuing to repeat the same old advice about how to be a “good” stepmom, as if nothing’s changed since the 1960s, maybe it’s time for a more updated view. Maybe it’s time to acknowledge that a lot of the advice that’s offered isn’t helpful. Some of it puts stepmoms in an untenable position. Some of it invalidates their feelings and causes them to feel judged or shamed. And some of it is a better reflection of our cultural assumptions about women, than it is about stepmoms at all.

We’ll know that we’ve grown as a society, when we encourage stepmoms to come out of the background and live their lives according to their values, instead of telling them to hide who they are.


Not What I Call “Close”

Most stepparents want a close relationship with their stepkids, but many don’t know how to get there, or if it’s even possible. So it’s not surprising that KJ Dell’ Antonia’s recent post “What Makes a Successful Stepfather?” was shared widely in the stepparent community.

Based on a study in the journal Social Work, Dell’ Antonia set out to tell us “what stepchildren think makes for a good relationship with their stepfather” and how mothers and stepfathers can “make that happen.”

At first I was delighted to see new stepfamily research in the mainstream media. A lot of current recommendations come from outdated findings, though it’s doubtful if they still apply. A new study from the kids’ point of view could give us the information we need to help today’s stepfamilies to form real and lasting bonds.

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Double-Edged Advice

The most important thing I ever learned in psychology came from my intro psych professor at the University of Michigan in 1985.

“Whatever else you learn in this class,” she said, pausing to gaze at each one of us, “remember that anything that has the potential to help, also has the potential to harm.”

I think about that caution almost daily, and as far as I can see, it’s still universally true.

The question of help versus harm is always with us. It comes up frequently in parenting advice in general, and stepfamily advice in particular – a double-edged advice of sorts – offered with the intention to help, but carrying a potential for harm.

For instance, the most common stepfamily advice helps families to reduce conflict and increase acceptance during the initial transition. But when these “peace keeping” strategies are used in an ongoing way, they interfere with the family’s ability to develop authentic relationships and strong family bonds. Continue reading

The Good-Enough Stepmom

Last night at dinner, my husband asked when I was going to share my first post. “When it reads like an essay from The New Yorker,” I said, half joking, half hoping he’d get distracted by more spicy green beans or chicken fried rice. He paused, sensing that I wasn’t eager for more input, and then added gently, “You know, Nancy… ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good.'”

I didn’t appreciate the reference (a loose translation of Voltaire) or his implication that perfectionism – a rigid attachment to an impossible standard – was getting in the way of my goal. He was right, of course, but I didn’t want to accept it, because it felt like a fatal flaw.

Eventually, I realized that getting stuck in perfectionism isn’t usually a big problem. It’s just one more unskillful behavior that tends to show up under stress. We’re all at risk for perfectionism when we care deeply about an outcome, are unsure of our abilities, and fear that someone would reject us, if we allowed them to see our flaws.

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