My 18-year old daughter tested positive for COVID-19 last month.
She hung out with a friend who was unknowingly sick a couple of weeks before she started showing signs of having the coronavirus herself. She also works in retail, so there’s no real way of knowing how she got sick. Either way, I am glad to report that she is recovering well and didn’t have a severe case like so many others.
But during a scary time in my life – having my daughter sick with a fairly unknown virus – I wasn’t just consumed with taking care of her, I also was consumed with shaming from some of those close to me.
The shaming was covert.
I told a friend that it was inevitable because my daughter is at a higher risk working in retail. My friend responded, “No, it isn’t. If I had an adult child, I would have strict boundaries. I would want to know where my children were.” Another one said, “I told you. This was why I didn’t want to see you.”
Even now, it still stresses me out to think about this.
I was so upset about my daughter being sick, and when I called to inform others about it, the response I received was fear-based shaming instead of empathy and support. And, yes, my friends told me they didn’t mean it that way.
What is shame?
Dr. Brené Brown, a social worker researcher, defines shame as:
“The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging – something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
Our brains want to be right. We are always looking for evidence to be right. If you have a negative thought, such as “I’m a horrible person,” and then you do something bad, your brain tells you “I told you.” When someone else tells you “I told you,” it can reiterate to yourself that you are a horrible person, too, even if their intent wasn’t to say you are a horrible person.
(That’s why therapists often refer to Cognitive Behavior Therapy, where you work on reframing your thoughts. How you frame a thought in your mind is an important part of mental health)
Do you even realize you are shaming someone?
I understand how difficult it is right now to not judge others who aren’t following the recommended guidelines. But judgement is shaming behavior.
How many times have you caught yourself thinking or saying, “Why would they go to a bar? Don’t they know better?” or “Why did they have a big family gathering for Father’s Day?” or “Why did they allow their children to go to camp?”
I’m raising my hand over here because I’ve caught myself doing it, too. After this shaming happened to me, I thought “Whoa! I don’t know what someone else’s circumstances are. They shouldn’t be ashamed of their choices.”
But do we want to be right or do we want to be happy and content in our relationships? How does pointing a finger at young people, bars, big gatherings, government reduce your fear?
It goes back to the old adage – Think before you speak.
I’ve heard time and time again how people are scared to tell others that they tested positive for COVID-19. Why are they scared and how can we, as a society, change that?
Shame comes from fear.
There is a fear cycle that we go through in our interpersonal relationships that can perpetuate shame. If the cycle isn’t stopped, your relationship spirals in decline.
The cycle goes like this:
- We have a fear – “I am afraid of getting sick from COVID-19.”
- We place blame – What you say: “I can’t believe you went to that backyard party with your friends.”
- We shame them – “I told you that you would get sick if you didn’t stay home.”
It could save you and your relationship if you don’t state the obvious in the moment, as it can be perceived as shaming.
“Empathy is the antidote to shame,” – Dr. Brené Brown
So can we agree to stop shaming each other? It doesn’t solve anything. It doesn’t make my daughter healthier. It doesn’t make you safer.
If we all showed empathy for one another instead of shame during this unprecedented time, then people wouldn’t be afraid to let others know when they have been exposed. Research shows that contact tracing of those exposed to COVID-19 has been effective in slowing down the virus.
If you provide an open form of communication for others to tell you when they have been exposed to COVID-19, you will be safer and your relationship will be stronger. Let’s stop the cycle of shaming together by practicing proper responses to someone telling you they tested positive for COVID-19.
Here is a bonus reminder for you:
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