When People Use Subtle Shaming Behaviour

These are things you’ll probably be far more willing to notice in other people – those little moments where a sly dig or put-down makes you feel like shit. But make no mistake – when you’re feeling shamed, you’ll be doing some of these too. And therein lies the rub – those annoying people? They come from a place of shame too.

Isn’t it really annoying when someone takes some little moment and runs with it as a shaming event?

“Wow, really, you don’t know that? Everyone knows that!”

“You haven’t seen that movie? What? Everyone’s seen that movie!”

“What do you mean you don’t know about all the eastern war politics happening right now, don’t you care what happens in the world?”

“Oh my God you buy own-brand [insert food stuff here], I would never buy that stuff!”

“I had Pearl Tapioca with Island Creek oysters and white sturgeon caviar, oh it was divine, you should try it some time.”

“Oh my friend Alex, he’s so intelligent, you know, like really intelligent. Really nice guy too, one of the nicest people I know. Don’t have a bad word to say about him”.

(These last two are a bit more subtle, but more often than not such tactics are used as shaming behaviour because they could make you feel lesser, or lacking).

Or when someone explains something within an area of their expertise, but glosses over an important bit with “as you already know…” (when its not at all obvious that you would). If you do summon the courage to say “actually, no I don’t know that” they might reply with something like “Really? I thought everyone knew that?”

(What’s probably happening in that little moment is that the “expert” carries a shame fear of “not knowing enough” which is why they feel the need to be such a smarty pants anyway – your “not knowing” then triggers them to shame you in the way that they fear feeling shame themselves. This all happens unconsciously, automatically, and instantly, many many times a day. A non-shame way of dealing with it would be to just say “OK so how it works is…” and then just explain it for you).

Sheesh, didn’t you already know that?

Why people love to shame others

We get brought up to have specific shame triggers – ways that we don’t want to be seen by people, because we associate those perceptions with shame.

For example:

Being seen as ignorant (fearing not knowing enough).

Being seen as unattractive (fearing not being beautiful enough).

Being seen as stupid (fearing not being intelligent enough).

Being seen as boring (fearing not being interesting enough).

Being seen as a failure (fearing not being successful enough).

Every single one of these examples are extremely common. The avoidance of associated shame and defense mechanisms which can develop from a fairly young age, can easily propel a person well into the realm of over-compensation.

So, the fear of not knowing enough leads a person to become vastly academic, identifying with their knowledge.

The fear of not being attractive enough leads a person to become reliant on makeup, surgery, and “never able to leave the house without looking perfect”. 

The fear of being stupid can lead a person to all kinds of academic or trivial success pursuits – sometimes with a broad range.

To be interesting enough, a person may delve into all kinds of wacky, crazy pursuits, and pack in as much travelling as they can. A travelling experience isn’t so much for the goal of opening their mind to new cultures and experiences, but to milk the opportunity later to prove how interesting their life is.

The fear of being a failure can lead a person to becoming extremely successful – or hold them back to the point where failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy leading to feelings of inadequacy and shame.

But here’s the thing. 

Those over-compensations are never enough. Its staggering how many academics secretly feel ignorant. How many “beautiful” people hate their bodies and feel awkward. How many high-achievers don’t feel good enough, and aren’t really able to relax or enjoy their rewards. How many people with all their crazy, wacky stories secretly find their lives unfulfilling and empty.

Really, its a common thing.

So they still carry those fears, those feelings of threat, those shame triggers inside.

So what happens?

Well of course, they naturally become experts at spotting those shame-identities in other people.

Shaming behaviour becomes an easy way for a person to further reinforce how they want to see themselves, and push away how they don’t want to be seen.

The academic who can zero in immediately on someones ignorance and slyly use it against them.

The high-achiever who enjoys one-upping you on things, or boasting about all the various meetings, projects or involvements they have going on.

The girl who tells you that she wouldn’t be seen dead wearing that (something she knows you wear yourself).

The traveler who ignores the places you have been, but can’t believe you haven’t been to south east Asia yet. You haven’t lived!

Shame creates shame! Its the vicious circle of shame.

When people don’t even realize they’re shaming you

Whilst these are specific examples, general feelings of “not being good enough” are shared by everyone to some degree.

So its also common for people to reinforce their feelings of being “good enough” whilst pushing away feelings of “not being good enough” by using shaming behaviour.

These little tactics could be done totally on purpose, in which case you could assertively call someone out on it. For example, if someone is being overtly bullying, or putting you down unfairly.

The more common shaming tactics though are often driven so automatically, that the person doesn’t even realize the shame that lies behind it, or the shaming effect it would have on you.

What to do about it

It can get really messy trying to be assertive about it. If you tell them that they’re shaming, they won’t have a clue what you’re talking about, and then suddenly back-pedal, trivialize the situation, and further their cause by making you out to be some over-sensitive “problem” person. Shame creates more shame, and this situation can quickly escalate into a nasty vicious cycle with no productive outcome.

The best thing to do, if you feel like you’ve been shame triggered, is to first suss out whether what they’ve said is reasonable. It could just be that the shame trigger is circumstantial, and not intentional.

For example, imagine if someone felt shame for not having been able to have a child by a certain age. Hearing someone talking about getting pregnant might be a shame trigger – but that doesn’t mean that the pregnant woman was trying to shame. Its just one of those unfortunate things. On the other hand, depending on the situation, she might get the feeling that it was intentional – maybe the pregnant woman is jealous of her hierarchy at work for example, and enjoys trying to “out-do” her.

If you think that someone definitely is trying to shame you, consciously or unconsciously, a reasonable response might be to ask “are you trying to make me feel bad about myself?”

Asking this as a question avoids any accusations, and gives the person a safe “out” to explain further. It might also give them something to think about afterwards – how what they said or did could cause someone to feel bad about themselves.

It also doesn’t resort to shaming in itself – its just a question which offers a solution for both people.

Of course, if the person responded with “of course I’m not trying to make you feel bad about yourself, don’t be stupid” then you might want to disagree!

More Examples

You love the examples don’t you? It lets you get your head around it all whilst finding neat little life moments to relate to.

Pointing out someones mistakes – everyone makes mistakes, what’s the point in rubbing someone’s nose in it? It can be like a compulsion – no mistake can go unnoticed! If you don’t want them to repeat the mistake then its totally reasonable, but a lot of the time I feel its just for the sake of it (from a fear of making mistakes and being imperfect).

Correcting pointless trivial details that really don’t matter – I’ve noticed the internet is rife with this, in fact I recently saw it explained as a law! Cunningham’s Law states “the best way to get the right answer on the Internet is not to ask a question, it’s to post the wrong answer.”

Using conformity to isolate you – making you feel that you’re the only one who does something, or thinks or feels a certain way. “Everyone else….” Often the person won’t even have a grasp of, or any evidence that everyone thinks the way that they do – they’re just assuming (another way to make themselves feel better about whatever it is that they’re fearing).

Using laughter, sarcasm or humor to trivialize something which is clearly important to you – when someone suddenly laughs to gain dominance over the situation, trying to further isolate and trivialize your anger, shame or frustration.

Picking out irrelevant details of something you’re saying, whilst ignoring the meaning of what you’re putting across – this is like ignoring you, which can make you feel misunderstood or confused. Your problems aren’t important enough, you aren’t important enough to care about or listen to. E.g. “My housemate just got back from Thailand and I’m finding it really claustrophobic” – “Oh I’ve been to Thailand, I really loved it, there was this one time where…” and so on.

Using others around to make you feel stupid – this could be pulling someone else in to a discussion, or something more subtle. I used to hate it at work meetings, if I suggested an idea, the person who I was talking to would look around at other people’s faces. I always found this a really weak, and annoying trait – its like they have to see what other people think before delivering their own opinion. More often then not a group-think resistance would develop just because its easier, and more power-mongery for the person to then bash your idea. Its especially worse in situations where no individual person can offer a logical rationale against your suggestion – but just relies on the overall weight of the group instead to quash you. Also – I hate it when the eye contact thing gets so bad that even whilst a person is talking to me, they’re looking at someone else, as if needing to read their face for constant validation and support. Such situations are perfectly ripe for a “would you mind looking at me whilst talking to me please?” response.

Purposefully talking about things in a way so that you won’t understand – which could either be using industry jargon, missing out important points, speaking quickly, not allowing time for things to digest, or just speaking at a level that’s beyond your context of understanding. I experienced this many times when on a graduate scheme with a company. If the person I was “shadowing” felt at all threatened by various fears, then they would make my learning as difficult as possible by purposefully trying to make me feel stupid.

Talking about things knowingly related to your shame triggers – if you’re alone and having trouble building lasting relationships for example, then a friend may talk and talk about niggly relationship issues they’re having, without a (conscious) thought of how it might make you feel. Or you recently lost your job, and they talk about how annoying it is going to meetings all the time. Or you’re ashamed of being overweight, and someone complains about a pinch of fat that they can grab on their waist.

I’m sick to death of it!

I used to get really pissed off with moments like these. I felt like I was always fighting this internal battle – worried about what people thought, and trying to fend off all the little shame attacks that people seem to enjoy throwing about.

Then I thought fuck it.

Its not my shame, its theirs. I don’t have to absorb anything at all. Its got nothing to do with me.

So I don’t know something, so what. I know plenty of other things.

So I haven’t been somewhere. So what, I’ve been plenty of other places.

So I’m not wealthy or highly accomplished, I’m not a professor, doctor, lawyer or a CEO – so what, I can still do good, I can still find happiness.

It was a liberating decision to make.

Now I feel far more neutral in a situation, rather than feeling threatened. I can look out for shaming behaviours, more out of curiosity to see who has shame issues around me, and what their shame triggers likely are. Then I can choose to just be aware of it, or have a daring conversation about it.

Less fear, more choices – it can’t be a bad thing!

Can you think of anymore?

If you have any more examples of shaming behaviours, then let us know! Share your story.



Leave a comment
  • I have been exposed to subtle shaming from a work colleague who i thought was also a friend.

    I have done alot of research and have now confirmed my belief, being, that he has painful issues to deal with himself.
    It must be hell inside his head.

    My recent retaliation only hurt myself as I am not a person who picks on or points out other peoples mistakes or weaknesses. I felt guilty about my final reaction to many put-downs, throughout many weeks at work.

    Thank you for your post. You are very human-wise. I have learnt a great deal about myself, also, through this research.

  • I believe it’s an unconscious and often not a way to feel powerful over others because they had their”s taken away by parents

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