Thursday, April 14, 2011

Lesson #12: No One Opens Their Mind Or Heart When They Feel Shamed Or Judged

Truth is, in my twenties I was referred to as a "hothead" on more than one occasion.  I had a tendency  to inappropriately express righteous indignation and outrage about social injustice in classrooms and internship settings.  I used liberal left-wing rhetoric as a vehicle for expressing the anger that I had buried throughout my childhood.  I could easily present "evidence" as why the object of my attack was a hypocritical homophobic racist sexist bigot. However, in retrospect I can see I accomplished nothing except to make my opponent's argument stronger, and to demonstrate that I was the one who was being close minded and rigid.

This is because no one opens their minds or hearts when they feel shamed or judged.  In a debate, in a protest, in a meeting, or in a classroom, condemning another person only puts them on the defense, and thereby strengthens their resistance against you.  You sabotage your own position when you try to use embarrassment or humiliation to get another person to change.  It only results in them fighting back harder, and deepening their original stance.  That's all well and good if your intent is to make enemies and create opposition.  But if you have an investment in helping others and trying to make the world a better place than how you found it, then remembering this lesson may go a long way to help.

I was on the receiving end of this in the mid 90s while living with a friend in San Francisco.  We had worked together at The Patio Cafe and created a very strong bond, so we decided it would be fun to live together.  Once we moved in, the friendship completely fell apart, as I found that basic activities such as being considerate and respectful of privacy were not part of his recipe of the ideal homelife. When I opposed constant noise and disruptions, he angrily called me "selfish."  He knew that I thought "selfish" was the worst description for any good little liberal, and the shame I experienced hearing that from someone close to me burned deeply.  However, I quickly turned it around and said to myself, "Fine, if he thinks I'm selfish then I'm going to be the most selfish son-of-a-bitch he's ever known."  I cut off all communication with him, became more intolerant of his insolence, completely ignored his wants and needs, and the friendship was dead after that.  His shaming only made me increase the behavior he was intolerant of, and vice-versa.  

I think of that situation today as democrats and republicans go head-to-head in heated budget negotiations.  How much name calling is going on? How much attack? How much harder is everyone making this painful process by blaming and shaming each other?  How much easier could it be if everyone learned techniques for effective communication and conflict resolution?

Motivational Interviewing (MI) is a wonderful technique that I use in personal and professional settings to cut through resistance and find solutions that are satisfactory.   It fundamentally lies in respecting the person sitting across from you and finding commonalities in order to collaboratively work on skill building and compassionately resolving conflicts.  It entails letting go of the illusion that there is any "right" way that things "should" be done, and instead reframes the situation as, "how do we do get through this together?" I have found that demonstrating authentic respect and dignity for other people, even those whose values are different from mine, goes a long way toward impacting positive and effective change.

I admit that using tools like MI involve more patience and minfulness.  When you set forward to change the world with integrity instead of being a "hothead", you may not get as much attention, nor the adrenaline high.  But in my forty years I have learned that I am a lot more effective as an activist and as a healer when I withdraw my mental bow and arrow. 

Damon L. Jacobs is a Licensed Marriage Family Therapist seeing individuals and couples in New York City. He specializes in issues related to addiction, ageism, bullying, caretaking fatigue, grief and loss, gay/lesbian issues, stress management, depression, as well as couples in non-traditional arrangements. He is the author of "Absolutely Should-less: The Secret to Living the Stress-Free Life You Deserve." To have him speak with your group, or to schedule a counseling visit, call 347-227-7707, or email at

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

And it is in insight such as this where peace originates. It's been a good day today for that kind of resonance... Keep up the good work!