By Sandra Macke-Piper, MSC|CPA|LPC
Around 10:15pm there was a knock at my front door. Hesitantly I cracked the door open. It was dark and I was the only one home at the time. Fortunately, it turned to be a neighbor and not someone planning a home invasion. The neighbor on my front stoop was in her house robe which immediately caused me some concern. I figured whatever was going on must be serious.
After greeting her she told me my dogs were waking her up in the morning and keeping her up at night because of their barking. I apologized and said I was unaware their barking had bothered anyone but would make sure it did not happen again. Then she added it was waking up her kids in the morning and they were not happy about it. I thought to myself, “Aren’t your kids in high school?”. It was a random thought and did not matter. My dogs definitely should not be waking up my neighbors unless their house is on fire. Thus I kept the thought to myself.
Again, I apologized and attempted to reassure her it would not happen again. I thanked her for letting me know. Undeterred by my apology and promise to fix things, she continued. My puppy, who I have had for two months, was evidently bothering a lot of the neighbors. According to this neighbor, they had formed a Sandy-is-a-bad-neighbor committee and had been talking about me behind my back. This woman, the one at my door, was the only member who possessed the necessary bravery to tell me to my face what a horrible neighbor I had been. Then she said she did not want to be the kind of neighbor who complained for no reason. I assured her I understood her frustration, thanked her sincerely for telling me and reiterated the problem would be addressed immediately.
I am not certain what she heard me say but she pressed on. She felt the need to point out people are sleeping in the morning and I could not just leave my dog outside to bark. At this point I told her I do let my two puppies out in the morning and then go to the bathroom. Then I let them back in to feed them. She said she thought it was the little one that had a particularly piercing bark and I just could not do that. I agreed and said one of the puppies rarely barked but the other one had a very high-pitched bark. Once more I assured my neighbor, of more than a decade, I did not want to be a bad neighbor and would definitely address the situation. She tacked on at the end, she wanted to let me know how horrible the barking had been for her and her family and that the barking could not continue.
My initial genuine appreciation of her telling me was starting to give way a bit. Beat a dead horse much was a phrase running through my brain at the end. But most of what was going through my head was just how genuinely bad I felt about causing my neighbors distress.
When I awoke the next morning, I took my dogs out and stayed out with them, making certain they did not bark. At all. Operation No Barking was in effect at my house. I talked with both of my children about the importance of not waking the neighbors. What I did not say was, if we all didn’t work together to get the problem addressed, the dogs would have to go.
What I have been feeling all day is shame. Not guilt. Shame. Because I am a bad person and a bad neighbor and all of my neighbors apparently think so. Am I really? Logically the answer is no. I have worked to improve my major fixer upper property for the past two decades. Some of the improvements I do for myself. Most of the time, however, I think about how I am giving my neighbors one less potential reason to dislike me. Also, I do not have loud parties. I do not have a meth lab in my house. I do not drink or do drugs, park old beat-up cars in my front yard, litter, fail to mow my lawn, scream at my kids or any number of things that might actually be the behavior of someone who truly does not care about their neighbors. In spite of telling myself these things all day, I am still stuck in shame. Not guilt which is “I did something bad or wrong” but shame which is “I am bad or wrong”. Why?
Shame is an interesting emotion. It trips us up and we can get stuck in it. Brene Brown, the leading researcher in the area of shame says, “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change”. She also says, “We live in a world where most people still subscribe to the belief that shame is a good tool for keeping people in line. Not only is this wrong, but it’s dangerous.”
In the incident described and its aftermath, both of these are demonstrated. My neighbor was not gracious. After clearly and genuinely expressing regret and promising to fix the situation, she proceeded to try and shame me, telling me my that people were talking about me, stating obvious things like people sleep in the morning, and impressing upon me just how inconsiderate I had been. She did not allow my sincere apology to dissuade her from her mission of making me feel as bad as possible.
The other thing is, and I need to own this, I allowed it to get under my skin. Mostly due to early family of origin messages where I learned if anyone was upset with me, it was my fault--even if it wasn’t. There was no room for error; no such thing as a mistake. If someone is angry with me it is because I am an inconsiderate, low-class, lout.
My neighbor has her own stuff. She is not a bad person. Something in her, perhaps her own place of shame, made it so she could not let in my regret and apology. Maybe she has had to overcome a place where she did not have a voice and, in learning to find it, has gone overboard. Because she does not expect to be heard, she has not learned to listen when someone does hear her. I don’t know.
What I do know is I feel like avoiding my neighbors and selling my house. You see the shame I feel is causing me to be less of a good neighbor. At the moment, I am less likely to smile and wave and more likely to keep to myself. Less likely to watch my neighbor’s homes and report possible irregularities. What if I get it wrong? Will the bad-neighbor committee be reconvened? I will get over it. But Brene Brown makes a good point when she talks about the danger of shaming people. Those who practice it may end up suffering because of the unintended consequences it produces.
Another danger is what happens if we get stuck in shame for too long. Shame hijacks our brains, taking the rest of our emotions hostage. We feel vulnerable and afraid. The emotion most likely to emerge from this morass is anger. But going from shame to anger, without stopping at logic and reason (hard to do when feeling exposed and vulnerable) is like running from a hungry lion and then deciding to stop and kick it in the face. We are likely to end up on it’s dinner table anyway. In other words, shame shuts down our higher order brain function, making it harder to think through a subsequent action. If we behave irrationally and angrily, to combat it, we may end up feeling worse than ever.
My response to my current feeling of shame has been to expose it; share it with others. Brene said for shame to grow it needs secrecy, silence and judgment. I’ve certainly covered all of those and now am trying the opposite. Recently I did read about a simpler solution. A study from the Journal of Consumer Psychology said drinking something cold might help. If writing this blog doesn’t work, I picked up a bag of ice on my way home.