A friend tried to persuade me to join the Landmark Forum – again. If you’ve never heard of it, it’s a slightly controversial, group coaching organisation.
The first time he invited me in 2012, I went along to the introductory evening in the spirit of curiosity. I left quite convinced that it wasn’t for me. So I declined subsequent invitations on the understanding that it was nothing personal.
Until yesterday…when I experienced his invitation as shaming.
I have a problem with shame.
It reminded me of the times someone tried to force me to do something (or buy something) that I didn’t really want.
What do I mean by that? Essentially, the experience of being told that there is something not OK with me/my life when I haven’t asked for their opinion [and the person giving me their unsolicited opinion telling me that they can help me fix it if I would just do what they say or buy the thing they’re selling].
This can happen at individual, group, organisational or societal level…
Now, I’m a flawed, imperfect and evolving person and it’s all a matter of individual perspective - I can’t know what this person is really up to and to some extent it doesn’t matter.
But I do know that the Landmark Forum incorporates Attack Therapy, which involves beating the ego out of you so you can wake up. It seems to work if you’re an arrogant, ignorant so-and-so or a person with a fundamentally positive self-image; but dangerous if you have mental health issues, low self-esteem or florid imposter syndrome; and then there’s a whole grey area in between. As a doctor, I’m aware of indications and contraindications of interventions but organisations like the Landmark are unregulated from a mental health point of view.
By way of distinction, shaming is different to guilt tripping. The implication with the latter is that something you did or said i.e. a modifiable behaviour is not OK. Shame is much more toxic to your healthy sense of self because it implies there’s something fundamentally wrong with being you. It develops at a different stage of childhood. Here’s a previous Wise Wednesdays on the distinction or see the video below.
There’s also a difference between helping someone to overcome their blocks or identify their blindspots when they’ve asked you to, and using psychological tactics for your own, self-assigned agenda.
Let’s be clear. If you’re someone who has a sense of empathy and cares about just one other living being in the world, it’s not OK for anyone to shame you.
Not a boss. Not a parent. Not a partner and certainly not someone who’s trying to sell you something.
There are other ways of getting along and confronting difficulties in the world. We’re just not taught them.
Shaming is not the way.
As a child, I was shamed for speaking up and challenging adults when they were talking nonsense (yep, I was that kind of kid). One primary school teacher in particular had a hard time because he got his history and science facts wrong. I didn’t know I was hurting his pride or embarrassing him, I was just a kid. So he just shamed me in front of the classroom for being “mad”.
As I progressed in my education and career, I noticed that the switched-on, spritely, spontaneous kid started to fade out, almost in direct proportion to the accolades and professional status.
Was I becoming institutionalised? I don’t know. What I do know is that I started having episodes of suicidal ideation in my early 30s, and I walked around feeling a lot of shame about who I was.
Sadly, I was sinking deeper as I didn’t feel I could talk to anyone. It felt shameful to have these thoughts with my “success” and I didn’t have the vocabulary to articulate what was going on. Emotional intelligence training up to that point in 20+ years of education was pretty much zero.
That’s when I decided to seek serious help. To this day I haven’t used alcohol, drugs or medication but I have invested in getting psychological and emotional support.
In hindsight, like psychiatrist and author Oliver James describes, perhaps I’d become another victim of the epidemic of individualism and alienation in western, capitalist society. I traded in childhood innocence, wild wonder and truthfulness for a cosy western life where I had to perform all the time.
So I don’t take shaming lightly.
If I do nothing else in this lifetime, I’d be happy contributing my efforts to fighting the epidemic of shame that’s heaped on people by toxic cultures that drive us to overwork, overgive and overconsume.
It’s not a small agenda. I've started with myself, my clients and my community of readers and supporters. Raising an army of courage to face the shaming inner-voice and external sources of it is an important element of my coaching approach and I love seeing people break out of toxic situations and behaviours.
Manipulation works but less so if the person is aware of it happening and has tools to get out.
So let’s start by outing a few manipulation tactics.
If you feel a little confused or that something’s off, try and be a calm detective and enquire into whether one of three things is happening. These are not all obviously shaming but if you’ve experienced them, you’ll notice that they have the effect of making you doubt your better judgement which then causes you to react and do things that are not in your best interest.
Bullying: this is the use of brute psychological force, putting you in the subservient position with overt or covert threats of harm, name calling, and public shaming.
Playing the victim: this will push your people-pleaser buttons and guilt trip you to do more than you can or want.
Dangling carrots: this is subtle because it’s woven with societal programming of what’s valuable in life. It includes promising promotions, riches untold, recognition, respect and validating accolades that will give you eternal happiness…The underlying manipulation is the implication that something is missing from your life (anyone with imposter syndrome or a chronic sense of not being OK will know what I’m talking about); and of course, whoever is doing the dangling will position themselves as being able to help you get the thing and fill the gap…
In a way psychological manipulation is good news. In the past, rulers used physical violence and dogmatic religious institutions to control their populations. Today, politicians and big corporations can just manipulate your subconscious and shame you a little. I guess things are getting better all the time.
Have a good week,
A powerful tool against the epidemic of manipulation is clean communication. Learn more at the Leaders Circle at Harley Street next week. We’ll look at strategies for presentations, negotiation and conflict resolution.
n.b. Having shared some of the material on communication last week on the online version of the Leaders Circle, I have a feeling the in-person version is going to be even better. Feedback included: “Absolutely brilliant” which is always nice to know!
Here’s a slide one of the communication tools we used.
Email me if you have any questions firstname.lastname@example.org