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7 Lessons Monica Lewinsky Can Teach Us About Shame

Feb 27, 2018

Yes. I’m talking about THAT Monica Lewinsky.

 

The woman whose name dominated the news in 1998, as the world learned of the sexual relationship she had from 1995 to 1997 with then-President Bill Clinton. I was a teenager then, but I remember the way this story dominated the news.

You might remember the ways jokes about Lewinsky dominated the monologues of Jay Leno and David Letterman. The scandal ultimately led to a presidential impeachment and a final legacy on President Clinton in the eyes of many people.

Lewinsky ultimately stepped out of public life for a season. But she reemerged a few years ago with an interview in Vanity Fair and a TED talk, sharing about the power of shame and a culture of humiliation online.

In her TED talk, she noted, “Overnight, I went from being a completely private figure to a publicly humiliated one worldwide. I was patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously.”

 

An Expert on the Impact of Shame and Humiliation

As I’ve been writing recently about the dangers of insecurity and the power it has in shaping our identity and as I recently gave a message at my church on shame (which struck a major chord), I rewatched Lewinsky’s talk and was reminded of the valuable perspective she offers.

Now for those who want to write off her perspective because of her poor choices and bad judgment, she’s not running from those words. Near the beginning of her TED talk, she says, “Not a day goes by that I’m not reminded of my mistake, and I regret that mistake deeply.”

(She recently released an essay for Vanity Fair where she shares she’s now reprocessing her experience in light of the #MeToo movement. She explores the power dynamics at play in that piece.)

To be clear, I’m not here to endorse or recommend Monica Lewinsky to you, but I do think her perspective in this talk is worth engaging and processing. If you don’t agree with everything she says, that’s fine – keep reading. None of us agree with everything someone else says. Even my wife doesn’t agree with all of my sermons and blogs.

We don’t have to agree and align with people to learn from them.

And I believe there are (at least) 7 lessons we can learn from Monica Lewinsky about shame.

 

7 Lessons Monica Lewinsky Can Teach Us About Shame

1. Empathy changes a conversation.

After owning her mistake at the beginning of her talk (which stole ammunition from those who would be wondering if she was going to excuse her behavior), she made an effort to connect with her audience.

“Can I see a show of hands of anyone here who didn’t make a mistake or do something they regretted at 22? Yep. That’s what I thought. So like me, at 22, a few of you may have also taken wrong turns and fallen in love with the wrong person, maybe even your boss. Unlike me, though, your boss probably wasn’t the president of the United States of America.”

This empathetic moment of connection changed the rest of the conversation.

An empathy exchange changes everything.

 

2. Humiliation is possible only when you dehumanize someone.

Humiliation is not concerned with someone understanding what they did was wrong, apologizing for it, and changing their behavior.

One dictionary defines humiliation as “the abasement of pride, which creates mortification or leads to a state of being humbled or reduced to lowliness or submission. It is an emotion felt by a person whose social status, either by force or willingly, has just decreased.”

This is exactly how Lewinsky described her treatment.

“Now, I admit I made mistakes, especially wearing that beret. But the attention and judgment that I received, not the story, but that I personally received, was unprecedented. I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, and, of course, that woman. I was seen by many but actually known by few. And I get it: it was easy to forget that “that woman” was dimensional, had a soul, and was once unbroken.”

Humiliation leads to someone transitioning from a real person to simply a character in a story.

 

3. We don’t think enough about the family of those we shame.

One side of Lewinsky’s story I never considered was her family. She has a mom and dad, just like me. Lewinsky describes the way her parents felt later when a young man took his own life because of social media shaming.

“(My mom) was gutted with pain in a way that I just couldn’t quite understand, and then eventually I realized she was reliving 1998, reliving a time when she sat by my bed every night, reliving a time when she made me shower with the bathroom door open, and reliving a time when both of my parents feared that I would be humiliated to death, literally.”

I never even considered that this shame and humiliation could push Lewinsky to suicidal thoughts. I doubt many others did either.

 

4. Cyberbullying is transforming our life online, especially for the next generation.

Lewinsky shared about an epidemic of cyberbullying. And not just her experience, she brought modern data points too.

“ChildLine, a U.K. nonprofit that’s focused on helping young people on various issues, released a staggering statistic late last year: From 2012 to 2013, there was an 87 percent increase in calls and emails related to cyberbullying. A meta-analysis (of this data) done out of the Netherlands showed that for the first time, cyberbullying was leading to suicidal ideations more significantly than offline bullying.”

 

5. Humiliation is the worst – literally.

Most of us know the highs of happiness and the lows of anger. Consider these words from Lewinsky in light of that experience.

“And you know what shocked me, although it shouldn’t have, was other research last year that determined humiliation was a more intensely felt emotion than either happiness or even anger… There is a very personal price to public humiliation, and the growth of the Internet has jacked up that price.”

 

6. Empathy transforms shame.

What can we do in situations like these? What can we do in places where shame is pervasive?

We can show empathy. Empathy transforms us in ways judgment and condemnation cannot. Lewinsky explored this too.

“Online, we’ve got a compassion deficit, an empathy crisis. Researcher Brené Brown said, ‘Shame can’t survive empathy.’ Shame cannot survive empathy. I’ve seen some very dark days in my life, and it was the compassion and empathy from my family, friends, professionals, and sometimes even strangers that saved me. Even empathy from one person can make a difference.”

When someone comes alongside us instead of jumping on top of us, or when we come alongside someone else instead of piling on, the experience of shame radically transforms.

 

7. Our perspective changes when we walking a mile in someone else’s headline.

I cannot imagine being in Lewinsky’s shoes in 1998 or any day since. While I’d like to believe I’d make different choices if I was given the chance, I can’t know for sure what I would do.

Regardless, I cannot imagine handling the shame and humiliation she faced as a recent college graduate. At 22, I would have been wiped out myself. Wouldn’t you have too?

Near the end of her talk, Lewinsky noted,

“The Internet is the superhighway for the id, but online, showing empathy to others benefits us all and helps create a safer and better world. We need to communicate online with compassion, consume news with compassion, and click with compassion. Just imagine walking a mile in someone else’s headline.”

Regardless your opinion of Bill and Hillary Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, or this situation which dominated our nation’s focus for a long time in late-90s, I hope you’ll check out Lewinsky’s TED talk and reflect on her words. I believe we can all learn something from her.

 

What We Need Today

Our world needs a lot less shame and humiliation and a lot more compassion and empathy. Tomorrow, we might be the person who needs compassion and empathy. Doesn’t someone else need that kind of response from us today?

 

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