With so many challenging events that have been happening lately, there is a great struggle with change for many people. One of the common ways we see this manifest now is the struggle we see around people having to wear protective masks. Many of the responses to this new question of “wear it or not wear it?” center around the three emotions of guilt, blame, and shame. Whether it is the situation of wearing a mask, someone cheating in a relationship, or accidentally letting the dog out, the most prevalently used response is to guilt, to blame, or to shame individuals as a way to encourage change, but also to express a reaction to the actions that they have taken. One thing to be more aware of is that this is a tool that is very specialized and highly overused.
While guilt, blame, and shame (GBS) collectively represent a mechanism that does result in change, it doesn’t really resolve the problem. Its use offers a temporary fix because often when we really look at the outcome of using GBS, it is just a shift in behavior that results in fear, going to greater lengths to hide the behavior, and/or generating distance in the relationship.
So we have to start looking at how and why we are using GBS as a tool, and how it changes the relationship, not just for the individuals involved, but for the situation that led to it. For the most part, the effect GBS has is dependent on the relationship(s) between the individuals involved. If there is only a weak or non-existent relationship, the use of GBS is not necessarily effective, as we see right now, with the struggle to either encourage or discourage the wearing of masks. Looking at many of the social media or news reports about mask usage, we see people not wearing masks or reacting badly when they are asked to. In many of these cases, they are reacting from a place of anger and fear. Ultimately, this builds resentment, which makes it harder for the social pressure of GBS to be as effective. The individual receiving GBS has even more reason not to have any connection, let alone seek support from those around them. This makes it even more likely that, as this crisis continues with COVID-19, they are going to be unwilling to wear masks.
When we look at the individual relationships we have in our own families, and especially with our children who are still learning how to be in the world and don’t really understand the words guilt, blame, or shame, they first learn the emotional energy that comes with the connection to those words. That emotional relationship will also translate to how they deal with it as adults. So the usage of GBS, especially when dealing with our children, has a long-term effect on their ability to function as adults. GBS can be useful in a specific moment to call attention to a situation. After that moment has passed, there is a need for discussion and deeper awareness about why this situation occurred so that the focus can be based on responding and love. This is when we actually have lasting, positive change. When w