Updated: May 7, 2020
Discourse around privilege is heated these days, and many of us are confronting a new, and sometimes harsh, reality.
It's no longer easy to remain ignorant of others' suffering, often at the hands of groups you belong to...race, sex, religion, government, business, etc. You may suddenly realize your comfortable life was (in some ways) built at the expense of a lesser privileged group, and that brings up lots of emotions.
When it comes to privilege, what we sometimes describe as guilt is actually a different emotion: shame.
The emotion of guilt suggests you believe you've harmed someone and have lost their positive regard. It's a useful emotion, evolutionarily speaking. It's meant to help people mend and bond, to build community and safety. Guilt is designed to spur action. And like all emotions, guilt is meant to be temporary.
The problem arises when a negative emotion gets lodged in your system and you can't seem to digest it. Shame is the result of guilt that turns into pervasive self-judgement. Shame labels you unworthy, and its byproduct is often paralysis and anger.
Unfortunately, even discussing the topic of overcoming shame can trap people in a shame pit. The logic in your head might go something like this: "I don't deserve to overcome shame because I'm already so privileged." You might even believe your failure will somehow help someone else succeed. And with all the shaming in our politics and media, it's easy to get stuck in that mindset.
Getting stuck in the privilege-shame zone means living with the belief that shame is a path to improvement, but we know from research that this is inaccurate. Researcher and author Dr. Brené Brown writes: "I don’t believe shame is helpful or productive. In fact, I think shame is much more likely to be the source of destructive, hurtful behavior than the solution or cure. I think the fear of disconnection can make us dangerous."
Shame paralysis isn't neutral, it's harmful. It hurts you, your relationships, your work, your ability to positively contribute to a better society, and worse. It can become a self-indulgent cycle of avoidance. You don't want to feel the shame so you ignore it or even behave badly, which makes you feel more ashamed, and so on.
In short, shame squanders your privilege.
Privilege means having access to benefits that others do not. We have the option of using that privilege for the greater good. I believe it's a responsibility.
If you feel shame there's a good chance you give a shit. You have empathy and a desire to improve the world around you. But you need to convert that incapacitating shame into something useful. How?
Noticing, naming, and navigating your thoughts and emotions.
These aren't superpowers that some people have and others don't. They are resilience skills you can develop through practice and persistence. The human brain is flexible and can get stronger - you just gotta take it to the gym.
This is also something I help people with through individual coaching sessions.
Let me know if you have any questions or comments. I'm always happy to discuss!