AG 087: A Very Different View on Shame & Stigma

Episode Details

We often discuss the importance of language and the role of shame and stigma in addiction. However, it came to me today that this discussion is likely much more complex than we’ve considered in the past. In this episode, I share what I think is a very different view on shame and stigma.

Book Recommendation

The Four Agreements

By: Don Miguel Ruiz
In The Four Agreements, bestselling author don Miguel Ruiz reveals the source of self-limiting beliefs that rob us of joy and create needless suffering. Based on ancient Toltec wisdom, The Four Agreements offer a powerful code of conduct that can rapidly transform our lives to a new experience of freedom, true happiness, and love.

Full Episode Transcript

This is Episode 87 of the After Gambling Podcast. As you’ll hear at the start of this episode, I had no idea if I was going to post this when I recorded it to this platform. But, I think it’s the right decision. Today, we’re going to talk about shame, stigma, and an interesting thought that I had on the topic this week.


Hey there, everybody. This is Jamie. I am not sure where this podcast is going to end up, but I wanted to get it recorded today, October 14, 2021, because it was just kind of top of mind. It’s something that I’ve not really thought a lot about in the past, but it touches on a subject that has really kind of bothered me in the addiction world. In the recovery world, it’s kind of talking about shame and stigma.

Where I see this going south right now is that, too many times, shame and stigma are used as sort of the trump card to end all discussion. When there are some really good discussions or questions brought up, it’s like, “Hey, don’t shame me. Don’t apply any more stigma.” I understand that. As someone who’s experienced shame and stigma from an addiction, you don’t have to tell me what it feels like. I get it. I think we all understand what it feels like to be shamed or stigmatized. It goes against everything we want in life, which is to just have human connection, a basic human need, right? To be heard and understood.

So many times, I think shame and stigma are the outputs when we don’t feel heard. We don’t feel understood. We feel like an outcast. We feel like we’re different, unique, not like other people. Especially when we feel like other people are pushing us to the edges or just don’t see us in a positive light.

But anyways, and I’m not sure if this has anything to do with it, I was listening to the Joe Rogan and Dr. Sanjay Gupta podcast this morning, which was fantastic. I loved it. The only thing I didn’t like was his recap of it that he posted on CNN. I thought it was so good, but then at the end, I felt like he completely missed the boat. It seemed like he had a conversation where he felt that Joe had already made up his mind on it. It seemed like, man, after three hours, I completely didn’t see that as the case. Obviously, he was pushing back. From listening to Joe quite a bit, and I think Sanjay brought it up earlier in his article, it’s about having strong beliefs loosely held. That’s something I’ve talked about quite a bit as well. I like to have strong beliefs, but they’re loosely held. The moment that you come up with something that disproves it, or I think, “Wow, that’s a great point I never thought of,” or “You’re right, I always held this belief, and now that challenges it,” I’m going to be the first one to go get in line and start beating it up.

So, I love when ideas are questioned. It was kind of frustrating to see that he framed it as thinking that Joe had already made up his mind. That was his ultimate takeaway when it seemed like a great discussion where two people were just sharing their views and trying to understand how the other person thinks. When they didn’t understand the other side, they’d ask questions. Neither one really got resolution, which sets it up for a part two. But after three hours, it was a great three-hour conversation.

But anyways, I was listening to that. So, this may have some impact on this. But ultimately, just the fact that I guess it does, because I came away seeing that conversation go down in one way. It seemed like both of them had a similar view that it was a give and take. It was push and pull, but it was also open and curious. Both of them went into it with strong beliefs, but if one of the others, the other person, would have said something that was really hard to refute – and I think they both are going to walk away with things that they’re going to have to explore more, which I believe they will – that would lead to better, more important, and more interesting discussions the next time.

So, it was with that thought that we can have these discussions and come away from them with completely different views. That’s one of the things that was already sticking in my mind today. Then, I saw something about shame and stigma. I started thinking about those two things in a way that I had never really thought of before. Hence, why I went to Twitter to post something to get some feedback, and now I’m here doing this podcast recording. As I said, I have no idea where this is going to live because I do a podcast, and I don’t know if it’s relevant for the After Gambling Podcast audience. Maybe it is. Maybe that’s the ideal. But I know it doesn’t stop there. I believe this is something that would be better discussed as widely as possible across different channels.

So, I first just kind of read off the tweets. It’s probably the best way to start this. I posted these on the After Gambling Podcast Twitter handle. Let me just read through them:

“Interesting thought experiment: The same message can be delivered in the same tone, at the same time, to two individuals. Yet, they come away with vastly different interpretations. Why? My guess is it’s rooted in the stories each possesses prior to taking in the message. I believe this has application in how we address addiction, especially in discussions about shame and stigma. Is it possible that shame and stigma are better indicators of the stories (often false) inside the mind of the person struggling with addiction than they are an indicator that there is something wrong with the message being delivered? Seems possible, maybe even likely. The goal wouldn’t be blaming the person experiencing the shame and stigma, but rather better understanding it so it can be addressed effectively. Thoughts?”

Then I had one add-on tweet:

“Of course, there are obvious exceptions. And of course, there are examples where both things can be true, and corrections need to be made to the messaging as well as the receiving. This is most likely correct, in my opinion.”

Having gone through that once and reading through it, Twitter just doesn’t allow for deeper explanations, which is why I love long-format discussions. Unfortunately, I’m doing this solo, but I would love to have other people with strong beliefs, loosely held, and who are interested in this discussion to reach out so we can discuss these topics and explore them. Maybe there’s nothing here, just a random thought, but I think there is.

You have these messages that people often raise their hand and say, “Look, you can’t say that. It adds shame and stigma to my life.” Now, I don’t think there are people out there that do this intentionally. Sure, there are trolls on all social media platforms that try to intentionally inflict shame and stigma on people, but I believe that’s a small minority. A lot of times, when that “trump card” is played, if you talk to the person who said whatever they said, they had no intention of increasing shame and stigma. They might have done it unintentionally, but their messaging and their goal wasn’t that. And if they said that same thing to someone else who maybe didn’t have that background or those past stories, there wouldn’t be any shame and stigma. So, is this a messaging issue or a receiving issue? As I mentioned, it can be both. We can improve our messaging so it doesn’t increase shame and stigma. But the other side, which doesn’t get enough pushback, is the fact that people might be interpreting messages based on their own life experiences.

Again, this is not about adding shame or stigma to you or trying to corner you. It’s just to acknowledge that we all have unique life experiences. This is a broader topic that I strongly believe in. Ultimately, all our decisions, our views on life, happiness, all of it, come down to the hundreds of thousands or millions of stories we’ve collected over our lives. We decide which ones are true and which ones aren’t. The beliefs and values we hold close are based on these stories that influence our decisions. Whether we choose to go to church on Sunday, whether we go out to get food, order in, or cook our own food, the type of food we buy, the decisions we make regarding our spending, our work, our relationships – all these choices trace back to stories.

Every single one of us, all seven billion people on this planet, have a unique set of stories in their head. Take siblings, for instance. They might have many things in common because they were raised in the same environment. Yet, they can have completely different perspectives and life views. This difference arises because you cannot replicate the exact experience across individuals. Different classrooms, teachers, coaches, jobs – all shape the narratives in our heads.

This leads back to our main topic for the day: these experiences shape how we interpret things that are said. In some cases, because we’re on edge, embarrassed, or ashamed of something from our past, a particular message might increase shame and stigma for one person. In contrast, someone else with a different set of experiences might look at the same message and not find it shameful or stigmatizing at all.

Where this becomes intriguing is when we focus on language and its implications regarding shame and stigma. It’s commendable to aim for improvement in how we communicate, but we also need to recognize the limitations. We can’t predict how every individual will interpret a message. As a marketer, I grapple with this challenge. I aim to craft a narrative for a target audience that resonates with them and doesn’t upset or stigmatize them. But even with such tailored messaging, what works for one individual might not resonate with another.

This dynamic around shame and stigma becomes frustrating because it seems like an insurmountable task. We can make general assumptions about a population, but there will always be individual outliers. The challenge is that a message that resonates with one person and guides them through a sales funnel might fall completely flat with someone else. That’s a significant part of the complexity surrounding the discourse on shame and stigma. It sets up a scenario where achieving a universally acceptable communication standard seems almost impossible.

And while we should always strive to improve and address challenges, even seemingly impossible ones, we must recognize the inherent limitations. Merely raising our hands and saying, “You can’t say that because it shames me or adds stigma to my life,” overlooks the two-fold nature of this issue. There’s the message being delivered, and there’s the person receiving it.

All of us experience shame and stigma about something. It’s upon us to understand the root of that shame and stigma and work towards a point where they no longer affect us. I’m a big fan of Mark Manson’s writings. One of his core messages is about the numerous uncontrollable aspects of life and the importance of not overly concerning ourselves with them. His best-selling book, “The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck,” encapsulates this ethos. It’s undoubtedly challenging, but as long as we deeply care about these interpretations and connect them to stories in our minds, it remains within our control to determine how we interpret external factors and link them to emotions leading to feelings of shame and stigma. No one else can do this for us. While trolls might pinpoint sensitive topics, if one truly doesn’t care, such comments shouldn’t provoke feelings of shame or stigma.

Using my own example, I’ve shared my gambling addiction story with almost anyone with an internet connection willing to listen. Over time and through a lot of work, I’ve reached a place where I’m comfortable with my past. If someone tries to shame me about it, I acknowledge it without feeling stigmatized. It doesn’t mean I’m unaffected, but I’ve empowered myself to be less vulnerable to such comments.

The crux of my argument is the importance of empowering people. It reminds me of the Serenity Prayer: “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” This is within our power to influence. We all play dual roles – sometimes we’re the messenger, and at other times, we’re the receiver. Acknowledging the complexities of both positions can lead to better understanding and improved communication.

My primary frustration stems from the prevalent use of shame and stigma as trump cards to shut down discussions. It’s a complex issue, and recognizing its dual-sided nature is crucial. This understanding shouldn’t absolve the messenger of their responsibility to convey their message thoughtfully and considerately. The principles from “The Four Agreements” by Don Miguel Ruiz come to mind, particularly the advice to “be impeccable with your word,” which essentially means being truthful and clear in your communication.

In essence, it boils down to age-old wisdom, perhaps what our grandparents and their grandparents would have advised – simply be kind to one another.

The reality is, the world isn’t going to cater to anyone. Even if we aimed to please everyone, given our diverse experiences and interpretations, it’s an impossible task. Even with just two people, their unique experiences and perspectives will lead them to interpret messages differently. Shame and stigma are complex topics, and while we should strive to improve our understanding and handling of them, it’s essential to recognize that it’s a dual-sided approach. We can enhance the messages we send, but it’s equally crucial to help individuals understand, dissect, and manage their reactions to these messages.

Therapists and support groups play a pivotal role in this. I’m part of a group where we men gather and discuss various topics. We challenge each other and hold each other accountable in a supportive environment. It underscores the importance of questioning our narratives and understanding our stories. By doing so, we can reduce feelings of shame and stigma. Hopefully, we can move beyond merely pointing fingers or using these feelings as shields or deflections.

It’s not exclusive to the gambling industry or addictions; the tactics of invoking shame and stigma are prevalent across different sectors and topics. But by discussing and understanding them better, we can pave the way for more constructive dialogues. I’m keen to hear feedback on this topic and see how this discussion evolves. I’ve always believed in the philosophy of “strong beliefs, loosely held.” While many might feel that shame and stigma are out of their control, it’s essential to recognize that this belief, like many others, can be revisited and refined.

I understand the sentiment because I’ve been there. It’s challenging to be upset with people who hold these views because I once held them too. It’s a part of personal growth, understanding oneself, and learning how the world operates. So, I invite everyone to share their thoughts on this topic. With the wonders of technology, like Zoom, we can discuss this from anywhere in the world. I’m eager to hear different perspectives because that’s how we grow and improve. Please reach out to me, whether on Twitter at @jamiesalsburg or via email. Let’s engage in this conversation and see where it leads. Thank you for spending these 20 minutes with me.