Unlearning Shame

How We Can Reject Self-Blame Culture and Reclaim Our Power

About the Book

Learn to identify—and combat—Systemic Shame, the feeling of self-hatred and disempowerment that comes from living in a society that blames individuals for systemic problems, with this invaluable resource from the social psychologist and author of Unmasking Autism.

“Stop doomscrolling and read this book. You’ll feel better, I promise.”—Celeste Headlee, journalist and bestselling author

Systemic Shame is the socially engineered self-loathing that says we are solely to blame for our circumstances. It tells us that poverty is remedied by hard-working people pulling themselves up by their bootstraps, that marginalized people are personally responsible for solving the problem of their own oppression, and that massive global crises like climate change can be solved with individual action. Feeling overwhelmed? That’s your problem, too. The more we try and ultimately fail to live up to impossible societal standards of moral goodness, the more shame we feel—and the more we retreat into isolation and despair.

Social psychologist Dr. Devon Price knows firsthand the destructive effects of Systemic Shame; he experienced shame and self-hatred as he grappled with his transgender identity, feeling as if his suffering was caused by his own actions rather than systems like cissexism. And it doesn’t just end with internal feelings of anguish. It causes us to judge other people the same way we fear being judged, which blocks us from seeking out the acceptance and support we need and discourages us from trying to improve our communities and our relationships.

In Unlearning Shame, Dr. Price explores how we can deal with those hard emotions more effectively, tackling the societal shame we’ve absorbed and directed at ourselves. He introduces the antidote to Systemic Shame: expansive recognition, an awareness of one’s position in the larger social world and the knowledge that our battles are only won when they are shared. He provides a suite of exercises and resources designed to combat Systemic Shame on a personal, interpersonal, and global level through rebuilding trust in yourself, in others, and in our shared future.

By offering a roadmap to healing and a toolkit of actionable items, Unlearning Shame helps us reject hopelessness and achieve sustainable change and personal growth.
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Praise for Unlearning Shame

“With the authentic voice I’ve grown to expect from Devon, he raises an issue that could not be more timely. This book articulates a feeling that has lurked in the dark corners of so many minds and brings it into the light where it can be faced, embraced, and, ultimately, healed. Stop doomscrolling and read this book. You’ll feel better, I promise.”—Celeste Headlee, journalist and bestselling author
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Unlearning Shame

Chapter 1

Understanding Systemic Shame

Ellen is a single mom living with a teen daughter, Jenna, just outside of Boston. For the past five years, Ellen has worked in grant writing, helping to raise funds for an organization that serves teenagers with mental health issues. In her free time, which she doesn’t have a lot of, Ellen also volunteers as a content writer for the organization’s blog and social media pages. On a typical evening she’s up late into the night, double-checking grant applications for formatting errors, taking breaks to edit the organization’s latest Instagram posts. Then she rolls over in bed with an alarm set for six in the morning, so she can take meetings with foundations and get her daughter off to school.

“I do all of this because I don’t ever want to fail another kid,” she says to me tearfully. She’s referring to her daughter Jenna’s experience with self-harm.

About a year and a half after Ellen got divorced, she found out her daughter had started cutting and burning herself. Ellen’s still not sure how long it went on before she found out. It was a neighbor who first noticed injuries on Jenna’s body. In the ensuing years—filled with therapeutic appointments, psychological assessments, mental health retreats, family meetings, and doctor visits—Ellen felt ashamed for not noticing more quickly. And she’s coped with that shame by throwing herself into nonprofit work.

“I have to do all that I can to save other children from depression and pain,” Ellen says to me. “In every client [the organization] served, I saw Jenna, but with even less support than Jenna has.”

The long hours and volunteer gigs didn’t bring Ellen and Jenna any closer. In fact, Ellen’s work stress only made it easier for Jenna to pull away. Ellen says that she spiraled into self-recrimination every single time she caught Jenna self-harming again, which didn’t make Jenna feel any better either. Ellen could only escape her worst feelings by burying herself in her work. But it turned out trying to save all other children from self-harm was impossible and did not “make up” for the harm Ellen felt responsible for.

“It has been an endless cycle,” Ellen says. “Trying to escape how awful I feel about what’s happened, but only making it worse.” But finally, she tells me, she’s ready for this cycle to stop. She wants to stop acting like Jenna’s scars are too painful to look at. She wants to stop wrecking her own life with dreams of undoing the past. And most of all, she wants herself and her daughter to both be able to put down their shame, if only for one moment, so that they can be close again.

Shame and the Search for a Symbol

In early 2022, TikTok was overrun with videos about a man users called “West Elm Caleb.” Several New York–based women had posted videos to the platform talking about disappointing dates they’d had with a charming, super affectionate guy who’d make them personalized playlists, shower them in compliments and attention, and then ghost them after having sex. Comparing details in the comments, these women quickly realized they’d all been played by the same guy—a man named Caleb who worked at West Elm.

A social media takedown campaign unfolded. Random users attempted to track down Caleb’s address and contact his employer to get him fired. Images of his face and his LinkedIn profile were broadcast across social media for anyone to view. Thousands of videos were posted under the WestElmCaleb hashtag, fantasizing about him receiving retribution for his shady behavior, analyzing his actions and messages for signs of emotional abuse, and providing women with tips for how to identify “love-bombing” manipulators like him. Within a month, the WestElmCaleb hashtag accrued more than 85 million views.

By most standards, the worst thing West Elm Caleb was accused of doing was sending one woman an unsolicited nude photograph. The rest of his actions, as his former dates describe them, sound like pretty typical albeit douchey dating app behavior. Caleb sent multiple women the exact same Spotify playlist, telling each one he’d made it just for them. He told women he wasn’t on the dating apps that much, though it’s clear he was matching and hooking up with people all over town. He presented as affectionate and genuinely interested in his targets—but after having sex, he’d never message again. These are all actions well-deserving of an eye roll from across the bar or a roasting at a party. Yet Caleb morphed from an ordinary asshole into a gaslighting, love-bombing abuser in TikTok’s eyes.

In a video essay analyzing the saga, the internet culture YouTuber Sarah Z speculated about why TikTok users went after Caleb with such fervor: She says he became the symbolic face of larger social problems like sexism, objectification, and dishonesty on dating apps.

“He’s made into this icon,” Sarah says, “a sort of representation of every other guy like him. You might not have been able to personally get any kind of remorse out of the [word censored in video] who ghosted you after weeks of seeing each other, but you can humiliate this Caleb guy.”

Caleb at West Elm is by all accounts a tall, conventionally attractive white guy with a cushy job in furniture design. Given all the privileges he holds in society, he’s hardly the poster boy for what experiencing Systemic Shame typically looks like. Yet he is an individual who has been personally and publicly held responsible for a societal issue that’s far larger than him. And in the reactions of his former sexual partners and the internet sleuths who hate him, we see the far-reaching effects of lives lived under sexism and shame.

West Elm Caleb played with the expectations and romantic hopes of numerous young women, some of them women of color. The first social media user to publicly put him on blast, Mimi Shou, specifically set out to warn other Asian women about him. The majority of social media observers who participated in the West Elm Caleb saga online were women who mentioned past experiences with their own “Calebs” or who said the desire to “protect” other women from men was the motive behind their actions.

When you have repeatedly experienced a pattern of mistreatment, or you’ve been victimized by systems of oppression like sexism, it feels really good to find a suitable symbol of all that to attack. It makes your suffering, however large and amorphous, suddenly seem tangible. And psychological research shows that most humans have a powerful desire to take abstract concepts (like objectification, or sexism) and transform them into terms that are more manageable and concrete.

Construal Level Theory is a theory in social psychology, which states that there is a massive psychological difference between thinking about our values in distant or big-picture terms (sometimes called abstract construal) and thinking about those same values in a short-term, practical way (often called concrete construal). Research into Construal Level Theory has found that when you translate a scarily vague, abstract goal (like “fighting sexism”) into a far more concrete, small-scale solution (like “taking an implicit sexism test online”), people find it quite appealing and soothing. Focusing on individual behavior makes big systemic issues feel more controllable. Taking action can make you feel powerful, especially when all you’ve known is abstract powerlessness. That sometimes holds even when the action is small or relatively meaningless in the long term.

When looked at from a Construal Level Theory perspective, the reactions of the women who publicly dogpiled West Elm Caleb make emotional sense. An individual woman might not be able to fix the culture that trains so many men to lie to her and ghost her, but by personalizing and shaming the actions of one random asshole, she can feel like she is doing something to discourage bad behavior. And while being unceremoniously dumped on a dating app doesn’t really count as “abuse,” we do know that abuse victims often find it healing to provide support to other survivors and prevent future mistreatment. So if you’ve experienced a lifetime of objectifying slights, it might be tempting to project your wounds onto all of West Elm Caleb’s exes and see yourself and them as part of some broader feminist community. This even though, as Sarah Z points out in her video, “women aren’t collectively benefiting from any of this.” Attacking one guy and getting him fired doesn’t change the culture. It doesn’t give women the economic power or social support they need to escape from the people most likely to abuse them—typically, men they are related to, live with, or work for. The only ones profiting from all this fervent posting is TikTok and its many advertisers.

About the Author

Devon Price, PhD
Devon Price, PhD, is a social psychologist, professor, author, and proud Autistic person. His research has appeared in journals such as the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, and the Journal of Positive Psychology. Devon’s writing has appeared in outlets such as the Financial Times, HuffPost, Slate, Jacobin, Business Insider, LitHub, and on PBS and NPR. He lives in Chicago, where he serves as an assistant professor at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Continuing and Professional Studies. More by Devon Price, PhD
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