It’s time to bring back shame, and save me from your sickness
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Ordinarily, I’m the last person to think that people should feel more shame.
So strong was my feeling, for most of my life, that I was more feral than other people, that I once made a psychologist laugh with my ham-fisted attempt at self-acceptance.
“We certainly do learn from negative evaluation by others, when you feel like you’re being judged by others,” says clinical psychologist Tamara Cavenett.Credit: iStock
“Maybe… maybe I’m enough, just the way I am,” I said. My chest puffed with the dawning realisation. Finally – finally! – I was standing on the peak of self-assurance mountain after having scrambled over chasms of insecurity and waded through rivers of suspicion that everyone else was smarter, cleaner and less awkward.
“Maybe you’re enough?” the psychologist replied.
We both burst into chuckles.
And yet, I now find myself wishing that those around me felt just a little bit worse about themselves. Specifically, with about how gross they might be.
This was spurred on by something I overheard at a pharmacy this morning.
“Do you have one that tests for both COVID and the flu?” said the woman standing in front of me. In her cropped sailor-cut jeans, she looked the picture of health. She explained she was buying the tests for her husband.
As I took one massive step backwards, away from her, the woman continued chatting with the pharmacist’s assistant. “We’ve got one of those before, but we just can’t remember where we bought it,” she said, her voice full of vim and vigour.
She wasn’t wearing a mask.
Masks were everywhere at the height of COVID restrictions.Credit: Louise Kennerley
Now, in my mind, if you suspect someone in your house might have COVID-19, or another nasty virus, the least you can do is to cover your mouth and nose when you’re in a public place.
You might think your respiratory system is as pristine as your crisp white shirt. That every droplet you exhale is as pure as filtered water from an Icelandic glacier. But, for all you know, you might be harbouring an actual plague.
“Don’t you think you’d wear a mask, if you thought someone in your house might have COVID?” I said, to the pharmacist, after the woman left the pharmacy.
“This is the second time this morning,” the pharmacist said, with wide eyes, about customers rocking up, maskless, to buy COVID tests on behalf of people in their house who were crook. The pharmacist was wearing a mask. “People are complacent,” she said, before sighing.
The pharmacist and I aren’t the only ones wishing others worried more about spreading their germs around.
“It is just insane,” says Professor Bruce Thompson, head of the Melbourne School of Health Science, adding that he sees people without masks “coughing and spluttering” in public, and not infrequently.
“There’s still people going to hospital with it [COVID-19],” he says. “There’s a number of deaths that’s happened with COVID over the last month.” (Thirty-six people in NSW died of the virus in the first week of April, and about 28 people died in Victoria in the same period.) “At the end of the day, it’s a nasty virus.”
And every time one person transmits the virus to another person, the chance of that virus mutating into another variant, against which our current vaccines are less effective, increases, says Thompson.
“And then on top of that, it’s pretty concerning, a few weeks ago, when numbers [of reported COVID cases] started increasing… You know, that’s the thing that’s going to undermine our health care network. We’re not designed still to have COVID in the health care network routinely. You don’t just employ another 40,000 nurses,” he says.
“If people could just learn,” says Thompson, adding that he urges people who suspect they or anyone in their house might be sick, to wear masks in public places, and work from home if possible and if they’re up to it. “You don’t want to give bugs to people, even if you have RSV [respiratory syncytial virus], or others. You’d think they’d learn that it’s not hard.”
You just might save a life. Or, at the very least, spare yourself from a random character assassination behind your back.
Not that shaming is actually advised, says Adelaide-based clinical psychologist Tamara Cavenett.
“So, regret is an emotion really shown to cause learning,” she says. But shaming does not. Because it leads people to think there’s something fundamentally wrong with them. “That’s when it starts to get really deep and tricky. You might potentially lose the learning lesson because you either block from the shame, or your coping mechanisms to deal with shame are not as helpful.”
So, the next time any of us feel misused by another, we might want to consider telling them, with compassion, that their behaviour makes us feel unsafe.
“Not many people walk through this world deliberately trying to upset and bother other people,” says Cavenett. “But in terms of other people, we certainly do learn from negative evaluation by others, when you feel like you’re being judged by others. One of the greatest human needs is acceptance by other people.”
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