Jon Ronson joined 12 Americans—strangers—in a circle in a conference room at a Chicago Marriott. In the middle of the circle sat Brad Blanton, the leader of a shame-eradication workshop. He invited the members of the group, one by one, to share something they didn’t want the others to know. As a psychotherapist, Blanton was dismayed by how many lived their lives afraid of what others thought of them, and he’d pioneered a technique called “Radical Honesty” to help people be more honest with one another and feel less shame about their innermost thoughts. When people internalize shame, Blanton reasoned, it only grows and festers.
Brad Blanton’s shame eradication workshop—which encouraged participants to reject shame entirely and focus only on being unapologetically honest about their most embarrassing thoughts and feelings—was aimed at breaking cycles of shame and silence, training people not to feel shame about what others might think. By instead being radically vulnerable with one another and choosing to remove shame from the equation, Blanton’s workshop participants could learn to stop the cyclical nature of shame and trauma.
As people shared their secrets, one woman confessed to selling drugs on the sly, a man confessed to using lucid dreams to rape women, and another woman admitted to a toxic relationship with her partner. Blanton put people, one by one, in the Hot Seat—an empty chair—and interrogated them about what they’d say and do if they were being totally honest about solving the problems in their lives, then urged each of them to hold themselves accountable to making big changes and eradicating shame. Blanton told Ronson during a break in the session that he wanted his workshop members to confront the uncomfortable, air their resentments, and be honest in every part of their lives.
This passage continues to show that no matter how shameful the workshop participants’ secrets were, they were encouraged to share them and own them no matter the feedback they’d face from the rest of the group. The workshop, then, wasn’t just about getting people to admit shameful things. It was about getting them to work at ignoring the consequences of shameful thoughts or actions entirely. This is no doubt a radical approach and one that raises major questions about shame’s somewhat productive role in disincentivizing evil, immoral, or dangerous behavior.
Throughout the first day of the workshop, Ronson was harboring a shameful secret of his own. After agreeing to disguise himself as a woman and walk around in public for a day for an article, he’d chickened out—and the incident was creating conflict with his editor, who insisted he go out on a limb for the “fun” feature. Up in his hotel room, Ronson realized he’d let his “terror of humiliation” close a door for him.
Simply observing the workshop forced Ronson to reckon with his own humiliating secrets, and to question why he felt shame about various things in his life. By reorganizing people’s ideas about the usefulness of shame, the workshop was forcing its participants to reconsider their relationships to the feeling of humiliation.
Ronson reflected on the work of a Texas-based professor of evolutionary psychology, David Buss, who was shaken by an intense fight between two of his married friends at a party and inspired to ask a sample size of 5,000 people if they’d ever fantasized about killing someone. 91% of men and 84% of women admitted that they had experienced at least one vivid fantasy of murdering another person—often in very violent ways. All of the murderous fantasies, Buss found, were rooted in the desire to eradicate shame. His experiment showed him that the fear of humiliation—or the festering of an internalized shame—can lead to agony and even violence. Thinking about this study, Ronson resolved to go downstairs the next day and be radically honest.
This passage illustrates another way in which shame is harmful: it can lead to cruel and violent retaliation. When people feel humiliated, they can sometimes scramble to erase that feeling—and sometimes, that can involve fantasizing about erasing the person or thing that caused them their humiliation. This is dangerous, and so Blanton’s workshop suddenly seems all the more radical in its approach to exterminating shame and all of the potentially violent outcomes that come with it.
But the next day, when Blanton asked Ronson to get in the Hot Seat, Ronson suddenly declared that he didn’t feel he needed to speak about his shame. The other radically honest members of the group excoriated him for refusing, calling him names and talking about the resentment his decision inspired. Ronson began feeling rageful and resentful, and Blanton told him that he deserved to. After lunch, Ronson returned to the workshop but still didn’t take the hot seat. He kept in touch with the members of his workshop via email for a time, and he enjoyed reading their tales of practicing Radical Honesty in real life. Though Radical Honesty hadn’t been a successful tack for Ronson to take, he was amazed to see how it had worked for others.
Ronson’s quick pivot from a passionate rejection of shame back to his old ways of hiding anything shameful is used to humorous effect here. But it also illustrates how pervasive shame is, and how difficult it is to unlearn. Radical Honesty is just one way of rejecting learned responses to feelings of shame—but since this one didn’t work for him, Ronson knew that there had to be other ways that people sought to mitigate the effects of shame and humiliation on their day-to-day lives.