As a published author and expert on shame, the presidential election left me reeling. After witnessing a shame-slinging campaign, my candidate lost, so I am tempted to throw shame around too. I have labels in my head when I think of our newly elected president, but I also know that throwing shame just gets some of it back on me.
Many democrats, shocked by the outcome, are categorizing Trump voters as stupid, white, right-wing Christians, bigots, misogynists, racists, etc. Any labels we choose, simply deny the personhood of others. We can easily become like kids on a playground playing that old game of cooties, we tap each other and pass the shame around. If we stay in shame the divides will deepen.
I feel plenty of shame that my candidate lost. I am ashamed that I didn’t phone bank, and that I call myself a Christian (though my progressive thinking is so obviously superior!). I feel ashamed that I didn’t speak out more in the face of Trump’s objectification of women, and vilification of immigrants. When I visited my family in Georgia a month ago, I remained silent—avoiding conflict in order to foster connection. This shame is so uncomfortable it debilitates me rather than call me to opposite action.
Psychologically, shame and blame are at opposite ends of one emotional spectrum. When we don’t want to feel ashamed about our actions or feelings, we flip over the emotion and attack others with blame. I repeatedly observed this pattern with both presidential candidates. Rather than own up to their feelings of inadequacy or shame, they launched into blame. Donald Trump did this during the campaign. He turned against the women who said that he had sexually assaulted them, lashed out at the media, frequently looking for other people to blame. Hillary Clinton did this after the election. She placed blame on the F.B.I. director for his unnecessary press release about additional emails.
To heal the nation, we have to get a handle on shame and disguised opposite, blame. Social media pundits have recently taken some responsibility for the election. The editor of a major newspaper empire recently said he’d gotten this election wrong, and he admitted it. This is the humility that defeats shame and blame, the attitude in which people can work together, and can listen to different perspectives.
The capacity for self-reflection and shame recognition is essential to psychological health. Without it, psychologists say, we foster psychopathology. A psychopath (note a label here) is a person who lacks empathy. A person with a narcissistic structure to their personality will deny their repressed shame under a mask of grandiosity. On any side of the political aisle, disowned shame is nothing but trouble. We can just wait and see how the shame/blame game leaves us all in danger, or we can name it, refuse to participate in it, and call our leader to act with humility and self-reflection from here on out.