I like to be articulate.  Sometimes I will read a post I’ve written and agonise over whether I’ve used the right word.  “I said I was disappointed, but is disgusted a more appropriate word?  Or disenfranchised, maybe?  Displeased, disturbed, disempowered?”.  It’s really pleasing when I find precisely the right word to use in a situation.

One word that’s used a lot in the mummy world is Shame.  When I see people talk about shame, especially as a verb, I wonder if they have considered the literal meaning of it, and whether that’s the best word to use in their situation.

Shame is a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused with the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour.  To shame someone is to willfully take steps that lead to someone feeling ashamed of themselves.  I don’t believe you can actually make someone feel shame, because the feeling relates to something they have already done.  I can’t see how anyone who wilfully tries to remind you of shameful feelings could have good intentions.  But for the most part, shaming is being called out against virtual strangers online, who would have no idea about your past.

When you’re upset and fumbling for words, I get why “shame” is an easy grab.  I know I find it in the front of my mind a lot, because it’s used so frequently around me.  But try digging deeper and see if there are other words that might fit your feelings more accurately.  Some suggestions I can think of besides shame are embarrassment, sadness, regret and inferiority.  You’ll note that none of these suggestions are normally used as verbs.  You see, I suspect the popularity of the word “shame” is because we can claim it was inflicted upon us.  If I accuse you of shaming me, I’m passing the burden of responsibility for my feelings onto you.

Robert Plutchik's Wheel of Emotion is a great tool to help you name your feelings
Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion is a great tool to help you name your feelings

If we are going to enter into discussions of emotive issues over the internet, we need to own our feelings and take responsibility for them.  Recently I commented that breastfeeding without fuss sets a positive example to those around us, and was accused of shaming parents who choose to bottle feed.  I am guessing that comment may have come from someone who was very hurt about a breastfeeding journey that didn’t go as planned, but come on.  My opinion did not create that hurt, it was already there.  I couldn’t reasonably have predicted that anyone would draw that conclusion from my words.

I am not trying to nitpick, but it’s important.  If we don’t use the right words to describe the way we feel, it’s damn near impossible for the other person to understand what we mean.  And that’s the whole foundation of communication, right? A message is conveyed, and the message is received.  If as much as 93% of face to face communication relies on non-verbal cues, imagine how much the impact of a not-completely-correct word is compounded when you’re in a discussion on Facebook!

If we are to have open and frank discussions about sensitive issues, we can’t shut it down every time someone feels confronted.  And if we simply cry out that we’ve been shamed, we can’t expect people to understand why we are upset.  When we converse frankly and from the heart, the lines of communication open and we can move beyond our initial pain and closer towards our goal of mutual understanding.

Do you love Robert Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotion?


Join the Conversation


  1. True.
    I couldn’t breastfeed my first two kids and I felt really frustrated, angry and sad about it and when people would say “breast was best”. It felt like they were rubbing it in that I wasn’t doing the best thing for my babies when I was trying my best. I was jelous and resentful of people that could breastfeed. I tried so hard and wanted to breastfeed so badly and it felt it was unfair that they could and I couldn’t.
    I agree “shamed” isn’t the best word. Just by saying “breast is best” isn’t shaming mothers like you said the hurt and the feelings of shame are already there.

    1. Thanks for your commment Jacinta, I appreciate it. I’m sorry your journey didn’t go the way you wanted. Although Breastfeeding is my passion, I know it’s just one of many aspects of parenting. I hope you have found that perspective as time has passed x

  2. I think you are right Lauren. I forever feel like I’m navigating a minefield.. I don’t want to upset anyone but I do want to share my experiences. I feel if we start from the premise that nobody is out there to intentionally hurt someone else it is a good start for online conversations.

    1. I agree Eva! Stating your aim can help people look at a situation objectively

  3. When it comes to feeding, there seems to be nothing more sensitive. Saying “I did it this way” doesn’t mean any other way is wrong, yet that is often the interpretation and that mentality doesn’t really apply to anything else. Odd!

    1. The only other situation I can think of that’s treated this way is birth – yet another highly sensitive, strictly personal decision that applies almost solely to women, and that is often affected by a series of factors inside and outside of our control. Again, the outcome affects the health of our children.

      Us women carry quite a burden!

  4. I feel the same about the word guilt… Like I don’t believe someone can make you “feel guilty”. Guilt is something we already have and someone else can only trigger it. Plus guilting as a verb is awkward. Which is where I think “shaming” comes in handy. It describes the behaviour, not necessarily the feeling. For example – slut shaming. I’ve been slut shamed, but I certainly don’t feel ashamed of my body, sexuality, clothing, etc. But that is absolutely the intent. Hence why “shameless” is an insult generally directed towards women. Shame is something that our culture does try to inflict on women.

    THAT SAID when people have a conversation about breastfeeding and the intent is to share information about breastfeeding, promote, support, celebrate, protect etc and people accuse you of shaming them for formula feeding, then I think that’s the guilt thing. Not to say I also haven’t seen people actively trying to shame women for not breastfeeding (or shaming women for breastfeeding). Which I think does contribute to this massive shitstorm. When women are so often shamed for what we do – or don’t do – with our bodies I think we’re all just a bit of a hair trigger.

    1. I agree, it’s a sensitive issue. Thank you for your comments

  5. That wheel of emotion is amazing. I could even find that super handy when talking to my kids about emotions.

    1. I have it stuck to my fridge and find it very useful for myself. It’s hard to organise your thoughts and feelings without first identifying exactly what it is you feel

  6. I’ve noticed in the last few years, that it’s bad to drop in on a friend. Well most friends anyway. There’s lots of apologising about the state of their house and sometimes an awkwardness about not having something to offer with a cup of tea. I know I can be guilty of the same thing, but at the same time, I hope when people come to visit me, it’s not just about checking out how tidy my home is. When did we get so caught up with perfection and appearing to have everything right? That’s what’s at the bottom of all this shaming, trying to make ourselves feel better by calling others out. But who knows what’s really going on in their lives…

    1. I think you’re on the money Rachel! I believe the act of shaming someone says much more about the shamer rather than the shamee

  7. Very thought provoking post. The emotion wheel is fantastic. I was reading something recently about shame and guilt. Shame is a focus on self and guilt is a focus on behaviour and invariably people who can seperate their behaviour from their emotion do better. An example might be you have a big presentation to do and need to be at work early to prepare and be organised, but you go out with mates have a huge night, sleep through your alarm don’t get to work early but in time for the presentation. The shame would say I am a stupid, useless person, why would anyone trust a loser like me with a presentation like this. The guilt would say what a stupid thing to do go out late last night so I didn’t get here early, won’t do that again.
    Going to print out the wheel I think to help with communications in our family!

    1. Thank you for your thoughts Cat! I have a colour print of the wheel stuck to my fridge

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