I often hear complaints from Asian American that roughly go like this: “I’m a victim of low self-esteem because of how my Asian immigrant parents shamed me during my childhood. The way forward is to resent my parents and their shaming tactics and to avoid shaming experiences in the future.”
According to American's society’s leading shame popularizer, Brene Brown, shame is the "intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” It’s not that this definition is 100% incorrect rather that it’s incomplete, vague, and subjective. It focuses only on the individual’s emotional experience of shame.
Before shame became public emotional enemy #1, there were Asians. Eastern cultures have been centered around honor and shame for thousands of years. While it's likely that most Westerners have a different understanding of shame, the consequences for this knowledge gap are more severe for those who are bicultural. Misunderstanding shame is particularly painful to Asian Americans because it results in cognitive dissonance. Because honor and shame is the bedrock of Eastern cultures, to demonize shame means demonizing our heritage. The result is internal conflict and self-hatred.
To break out of that cycle means having a fuller picture of what shame is. Here are three ways Asian Americans misunderstand shame and how we can experience freedom from lies about our cultural heritage and identity:
1) We evaluate shame from a Western moral framework: I define shame as the exposure of a person's misalignment with another party’s stated values. This misalignment can be illusory and yet it’s always explicit to both parties. Take the example of a public rape accusation that is eventually proven false. The alleged rapist’s reputation suffers regardless of what actually happened. The natural byproduct is hiding and alienation. It is the opposite of honor, the act of doing something in support of relationship. Against Brene Brown’s definition, shame is not inherently about feelings of worth but rupture of relationship.
One of the most poignant experiences of childhood shame was when my dad would lecture me about how difficult his upbringing was compared to my life of luxury and ease. He sold me on the classic immigrant narrative of hard work, poverty, and suffering. When I brought home bad grades, he would subject me to a couple days of silent treatment. I felt worthless and had this constant nagging sense of always having to prove myself. My dad, before becoming a Christian in my teen years, operated out of a system of performance and was simply imparting the values he lived by. My poor grades naturally caused a relational rift because they revealed my system of performance was dysfunctional. Shame signaled that my behavior was out of sync with my dad’s values.
It’s the same experience when a mom warns her toddler son not to eat from the cookie jar, leave the kitchen for a few minutes only to return, and find her child caught red-handed with his fist stuck in said jar. The child’s red-faced embarrassment is the experience of shame. It’s the relational rift caused by the boy’s keen awareness that he just did what he fully knows he wasn’t supposed to do.
In Jonathan Haidt’s book, The Righteous Mind, he talks about the value system of affluent and educated Westerners in industrialized democracies (i.e. white people in the US and Western Europe). If you’re an Asian American college graduate, you fit this mold and I am no exception. In Haidt’s moral foundations theory, there are five pillars of morality. Because American culture prizes autonomy and personal fulfillment, many educated Asian Americans are trained to found their moral reasoning only in terms of the first two pillars - care and fairness.
Doing no harm, compassion, caring, kindness, alleviate suffering
Justice according to shared rules, equity, trustworthiness
Fidelity, loyalty to a group/tribe, patriotism
Respect, hierarchy, dominance/submission, obedience
Sacredness, taboo, temperance, chastity, triggered by disgust
Non-Western cultures emphasize all five moral pillars. Loyalty, authority, and sanctity do not have immediate benefits to individuals but they do benefit a group’s morality and cohesion. Shame intensifies according to the severity of the transgression (loyalty/sanctity) and the authority of the offended party. Having served in both Asian and non-Asian ministry contexts, I’ve noticed a broad difference in that Asians tend to exhibit stronger moral behavior than non-Asians (vs. white people). Two examples include a lower rate of pre-marital sex and divorce. I attribute this largely to the motivating effects of shame in the Asian community. Because Asian culture view sex and marriage as sacred, shame is more intense in these areas. Asians fear family disgrace as shame defines the boundaries of acceptable behavior for inclusion and belonging. The experience of shame promotes harmony, conformity, and social cohesion. Thus, shame’s benefits accrue to the group and are not focused on an individual’s emotional life.
2) We believe shame is inherently individualistic: In Genesis 2, the narrator tells us Adam and Eve are placed in the garden and are naked but experience no shame. Later, the couple eats from the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil. In doing so, their eyes are opened and they experience shame. They put on fig leaves to cover their nakedness before each other. It is the exposure of something lacking before another person. When God appears, even though they are no longer naked, Adam and Eve choose to hide among the trees. Fig leaves are not enough to cover the relational rift caused by their action. The misalignment between God’s values and their behavior has been exposed and the experience is painful.
The gift of shame’s pain is that it's rooted in connectedness. Adam and Eve hide not because they want to exit Eden but because they recognize a rift in their relationship with God has been introduced. Shame is a necessary byproduct of the Fall. It is the recognition we have done something to violate a relationship. Thus, shame is inherently relational. Fear of shame indicates our concern for how our values are perceived by others. When someone is shameless, it means they’re acting without regard to others’ opinions. More explicitly, to function shamelessly is to disregard a community’s values. A sociopath is defined by his/her inability to experience shame. After all, it is a dangerous child who, after being warned, is caught with his hand in the cookie jar and feels no remorse.
Thus, shame is not so much about the individual but the family and tribe. Eastern cultures smallest unit of organization (upon which boundaries are drawn) is the family unit, not the individual. Therefore, disgrace is often not designed to reflect not on the individual but on the group. This makes the burden bearable. It is, rather, the Western fixation on the private experience of shame that becomes unbearable. After all, shame has been around a long time but without the skyrocketing rates of anxiety, loneliness, depression, and suicide now common among teens and young adults. In the Ancient Near East, a blind man might live in disgrace as an outcast and yet retain a defined role in the community as a beggar. Perhaps what’s truly toxic is the modern segregation of the individual from the community. It is the privatizing of shame that kills.
Finally, since shame is communal, there are instances where shame should be sought out in order to benefit a community. Again, this is not about the emotional experience of shame but the exposure of a value misalignment. As noted above in my childhood experience, just because one is subject to shame doesn’t mean the disgraced person acted wrongly. Jesus’ teaching and miracles consistently subverted religious convention and as a result, he suffered disgrace from the Jewish religious leadership. He chose shame as a means to expose the Pharisees’ corrupt value system. His crucifixion was the pinnacle of shame - to be condemned, beaten, and humiliated as a charlatan, criminal, and heretic. Jesus undoubtedly suffered shame and the ultimate end of his suffering was to heal and cover the relational rift caused by humanity’s tragic misalignment with God’s values.
3) We prioritize personal emotional fulfillment as the highest value: Michelle Yeoh’s character in CRA says it well “You Americans only care about happiness”. In a recent talk to a group of pastors, Pastor Tim Keller said our culture catechizes children into several maxims, one of them being: “Do whatever makes you happy.” We’re surrounded by these messages emphasizing our personal emotional fulfillment.
Brene Brown’s definition is no exception. Fixation on feeling flawed or worthless makes anyone a potential “shamer” and any situation potentially “shaming” purely based on one’s emotional experience. Therefore, if I experience discomfort and connect the pain with thoughts of worthlessness, then I’m experiencing shame or have been shamed. It’s irrelevant whether I’ve actually done something evil or how closely my pain is calibrated to the circumstances and values gap. Its existence is predicated on one’s experience of being shamed rather than a violation of a person’s or community’s values.
During a recent vacation, my wife and I visited an African American Baptist church in New Orleans. I wore shorts to the service. I did not witness a single person wearing shorts and almost all the men wore suits. No one made any negative comments me but I felt embarrassed because of my exposed lower legs. I felt some pangs of worthlessness as I chastised myself: “You see yourself as a culturally-sensitive pastor, you should have known better!” However, I quickly recovered by laughing at myself, focused on learning and meeting new people, and made a mental note to always pack a decent pair of pants for vacation.
On the other hand, if I were to hold this church community responsible for my emotional discomfort, I could blame them for “shaming” me. That’s exactly what we Asian Americans do with our heritage. We choose to resent our inherently shame-based culture. We blame our childhood discomfort on our parents’ coercion of values. We hate how unworthy others “make” us feel. This results in an ironic downward spiral of worthlessness because as we fixate on our personal emotional satisfaction, we are increasingly ashamed of our shame-based culture. If we can surrender the idol of autonomy and emotional satisfaction, it can go a long way in appreciating shame’s benefits to belonging and community.
In regards to childhood shaming experiences, it's important to recognize the gift of honoring one's parents. Perhaps our culture's preoccupation with self, fueled by social media technology, is the key ingredient in making shame toxic. Perhaps the way forward is to recognize the temptation of shame is to hide but the gift of shame is in recognizing it's not just about you.