The Shame Hot Potato

December 22, 2023
Joe and Brett explore a common pattern that underlies conflict dynamics in business, romance, and even geopolitics.

03:11 The Indicators of Shame 

8:59 How Shame Gets Passed Around 

13:35 Why People Continue to Pass Shame

Episode Intro: Welcome to the Art of Accomplishment, where we explore how deepening connection with ourselves and others leads to creating the life we want with enjoyment and ease. 

Brett: I'm Brett Kistler here today with my co host, Joe Hudson. Joe, a lot of times when we're diagnosing something that's going on in a team or we're seeing the dynamics happening in a group within a course, there will be some primary dynamic where there's some kind of conflict or maybe there's some trigger or some kind of argument or projections going around. there will often be an underlying secondary dynamic. often what seems to be going on there, we've come to call it the shame hot potato, and we haven't talked about that yet on the podcast directly. I'd love to do this episode on the shame hot potato.

Joe: Oh, I'd love that. Let's give credit where credit's due. I think that it's Tara who came up with that phrase, the shame hot potato. I would love that. I think that's so good because it's not just group dynamics where this happens. It's also in a lot of marriages. I was just talking to two folks in our community who are not yet married and got pregnant, and the whole thing was about the shame hot potato and how they are triggering each other. That just keeps this conflict going, going, going, going, going, going, and going.

Brett: Great, so let's define it. What would you define as the shame hot potato? What are the outlines of this dynamic?

Joe: Somebody wants to make somebody else ashamed or is defending themselves in such a way that puts shame on somebody, or the person just feels ashamed and hears whatever the other person is saying as shame. But they feel shame. They don't want to feel it. they try to hand it to the other person, which is something we do generally with a lot of emotions. somebody gets anxious and then they try to hand off their anxiety to people, or someone gets angry and they get angry at a lot of people. This would be like people trying to take their shame and make other people feel it.

You hear it all the time, especially nowadays in the news. you'll hear a lot of people saying they should be ashamed, and that would be the most explicit version of it. Most of the time it's far more implicit than that, but that's what we're talking about, the shame hot potato. One person tries to give it to the other, and then the other person tries to give it back, and they just go back and forth trying to and usually successfully inflicting shame on one another. Which doesn't solve shit, right?

Brett: This would be something underlying a lot of dynamics, where rather than looking for the solution, people are trying to figure out who's to blame or who got it wrong. That might be one pointer to this being an underlying factor.

03:11 Joe: So the indicators are blame that's being passed along. If people are focused on what the other person did or is doing instead of how they're creating their own reality, instead of understanding their own golden algorithm of how they're creating the situation, that's another big one. if you're in the same conflict with somebody for an extended period of time, like if your marriage has the same kind of fight or if your company has the same kind of problem over and over again, or if you're a country with the same problem over and over again, you're pretty much sure that you're in a shame hot potato. Because just as shame, in our shame episode, we talked about how that stagnates emotions, it stagnates fights, countries, politics and marriages as well. when you see that stagnation, you know shame, guilt, that kind of thing is involved.

Brett: Shame slows down the process as much in groups as it does in an individual. It's kind of what you're saying there.

Joe: Correct. That's right. That's another indicator that it's happening.

Brett: What are some specific examples of how this might show up in a company?

Joe: For example, a really easy one for a company is I was working with a venture capital company. Every time there was a mistake, there was so much energy put towards who is responsible for the mistake, like partially this person, partially that person. Everybody's just looking instead of oh, how do we make sure we don't make that mistake again and instead of what we can, learn here instead of how we fix it. It was who's to blame. That was the way that they processed mistakes. That would be a great example of a shame hot potato. Another one that you see a lot is if maybe marketing has a conflict with the technology side of the business or a product has a problem with the sales side of the business, there's that conflict. If you see that conflict happening over and over again, typically what it is is everybody's focused on what they don't have, what the other part of the team isn't giving them instead of being focused on their own resourcefulness. That's also a really good indicator that there's a shame hot potato happening where everyone's trying to defend oh, I'm not wrong, I'm not bad, but yet feeling wrong and bad. 

I think that's a really critical point, is that if you need to convince somebody that you're not wrong or you're not bad, it means you feel like you're wrong, and bad means you're in the shame. if somebody's said to me, you know you're a horrible fucking father, that would not create shame in me. There's nothing in me that feels like, oh, I'm a horrible fucking father. that wouldn't create shame in me. But if somebody said something that actually would trigger me, something that I actually believed about myself, then I would. There would be this need to defend myself typically. The important thing there is that if you actually believe the thing, then you'll think you need to defend it. If you don't believe it, you won't need to defend it. you have to buy into the shame to start really defending yourself. if someone said you are a horrible salesperson and you believed it, you'd be like, no, I'm not, let me explain blah blah blah blah, if there's some part of you that believed it, but if there is no part of you that believed it, you wouldn't need to do that.  You wouldn't immediately get defensive. You might explain yourself, but you wouldn't do it in any kind of defensive way, and so that's part of how the shame hot potato goes back and forth.

Brett: Yes, a couple pieces there. one, what you said about believing it, there could also be whether or not it actually bothers you. I could believe I'm a horrible violin player. if I'm at my first violin lesson, I'll be like, yeah, great, I'm a horrible violin player. I'm not going to defend that.

Joe: Yeah, very well said. Yes, that's right.

Brett: Another piece here is that you can use defensiveness as a breadcrumb back to this pattern. Wherever you see defensiveness in yourself or in a dynamic, that's where you can look for where the shame hot potato might be getting passed around.

Joe: That's right. That's exactly it. Yeah.

Brett: Okay, so you'd mentioned in countries earlier that this is a dynamic. How does this show up? How do you see this showing up in politics?

Joe: Look at any kind of political mess in the world, whether it's American politics or politics in the Middle East. If you look at it, it's a whole bunch of people feeling like somebody else is wrong and bad and it also indicates that they feel like they're wrong and bad. There's no way you can look at any two sides of politics or war and not see that. there is some way in which both sides are being defensive, both sides are ashamed, both sides are not acting in full alignment with who they are. Everybody's making some sort of compromises and it feels like shit. they're just passing the shame hot potato back and forth.

8:59 Brett: What are the mechanisms by which the shame hot potato gets passed around?

Joe: Externally, it's anger and removal of love. It's aggression or passive aggression is the other way to say it. Let's take a marriage as an example. one person typically gets angry, and one person typically removes love. Sometimes both do it. This is the way to feel ashamed. The interesting part of this is that on a nervous system level, often the only thing you have to do to make somebody feel like they're bad is get angry at them. It's not actually what you said. It's just like, oh, if I get angry at you, a lot of people immediately go, oh, what did I do wrong? Or if you remove love, they immediately go, oh, what did I do wrong on a nervous system level? That behavior going back and forth is just what passes the shame back and forth. if you see that happening, if you see the defensiveness and the blame happening, the anger, the passive aggressive, then that's the emotional and nervous system mechanism passing it back and forth. 

The intellectual mechanism of passing it back and forth is very much about trying to figure out who the fuck is wrong, trying to figure out who did it wrong. Almost all of YouTube's political diatribes are people making the case that the other side is wrong. How often do you see a political diatribe saying, oh, here's how we might be able to correct ourselves? it's just this constant defense. I remember this time in Tara´s and my marriage, where I had to come to the conclusion she's always right. Then, from her point of view, she is right. Her truth is right. It is something that I should seek to understand. Should is a strong word. But if I seek to understand how what she's saying is true for her, it is a completely different discussion than if I am trying to show her how she's mistaken.

Brett: Yeah, the latter does not work very well.

Joe: It does not work. People seem to repeat it, though, and they particularly repeat it because it's effective at passing on the shame. I've proven to you that you're wrong. The other person feels ashamed. somehow there's this surrogate of relief. There's like this kind of relief. It's like the kind of relief that a video game gives you. you can be out of it. But it never really actually heals the pattern. there's a lot of relationships. It's whoever can argue better is the right one instead of let me fully understand what makes you think you're right. You can fully understand what makes me think I'm right. together we can both learn how to grow and become better people from it. That's when you're not passing the shame hot potato. that's the intellectual side, the defensiveness trying to justify your behavior, argue for it.

Brett: Yeah, both sides seeing the other can only happen if both sides are in agreement that none of them are wrong, that there's just more awareness that can be brought to the situation, or that it's not bad to be incorrect or that they need to be right.

Joe: Yeah, it doesn't require both sides. I wouldn't suggest being married to somebody who can't get there. I think that the whole thing about marriage is wanting to grow and learn together, but in a political conversation or a business conversation, if the shame hot potato is going back and forth, it only requires one person to stop it.

Brett: You can just drop the hot potato.

Joe: Drop the hot potato. feel the shame. Process the emotions that are underneath it and listen to the person, see what's true for them, what's going on, ask VIEW questions, and be impartial. that can solve a hot potato inside of an organization or a marriage all the time.

13:35 Brett: Why doesn't this happen more often? What makes? What makes the game of hot potato continue?

Joe: Part of it is just a lack of awareness. when I was working with this couple this weekend, one of the things that I noticed is they just weren't aware and they were even intellectually saying it. I would say it to them, and they weren't aware of it. it wasn't until I got to a point where I was having them do this experiment, which is just look at one another and say there's nothing in me that wants you to feel ashamed or bad right now. That was the confrontation needed for them to actually really see it, to really feel it. The first was like, wait, I don't feel comfortable saying that. So, you do want them to feel ashamed? What's that getting you right there is that aspect of it. then the second aspect, which I think is for them to be able to say it in a way that felt good, is they realized that they had to give themselves that same grace, that same gentleness. Oftentimes the thing that's stopping people is their own feeling of shame. If I'm going to feel shame, then you should feel shame. That's the subconscious thought process there. the first one is to really get in touch with, oh, do I really want this person to feel ashamed? emotionally, there might be a, like, yeah, I do. When you really sit with it, you realize anytime someone feels ashamed, they just repeat the pattern. it's a horrible thing to want people to feel, to feel all the pain and grief underneath that. That's amazing. But then you also have to get in touch with the fact that you're feeling that shame, and it's very hard to give somebody else the gentleness and grace that you're not giving yourself.

Brett: On the intellectual side, it's easy to be like, I don't need to want myself to be in shame. But on a subconscious level, when we've been patterned and conditioned to believe that shame will actually make us safe and protect us from attack, how do you stop this process when that's the subconscious process that's going every time? You're not just literally consciously remembering this at the moment.

Joe: Yeah, it's just feel what's underneath the shame. It's always feel what's underneath the shame. it's not just the shame. If I feel shame, I'll be protected from future attack. The shame right now is protecting me from an emotion I don't want to feel, whether that's attack or whether that's grief or whether that's anger, but it's protecting you from an emotion in this moment. if you feel what's underneath, then you have movement again, then you have the lack of stagnation again. That's the real critical piece to be on the emotional level is to really to feel it. on the intellectual level, it's really a deconstruction of the right and wrong piece. There's this thing and it happened with the couple and it's happened in many companies I've worked in too where it's a little bit beyond right and wrong, good and bad. Essentially there's something wrong with me. 

I'll give you a really good example. If you can see that, there's not something inherently wrong with you and that is like a great relief of the shame. Somebody gets angry at one of their kids, and there's another parent, the kid could do the same thing. Let's say the kid spills milk. One parent gets angry, and one parent doesn't. The kid hasn't essentially done anything wrong. But they're going to feel wrong if their parent gets angry. They're not going to feel wrong if their parent doesn't get angry. if you look at anything that you've done, there's somebody on this planet that's going to have understanding for that. Who's going to have gentleness for that? there's some world in which you never deserve the punishment. There's some world in which you're not essentially wrong. If you can see that, oh yeah, I made a mistake, but that doesn't mean I'm bad. It doesn't mean I didn't have good intentions underneath. It doesn't mean that I'm not trying. If you can give yourself that level of relief. I'm not saying that you don't want to fix it. I'm not saying that you don't want to take action to understand yourself more clearly and to not repeat patterns that are destructive. I'm not saying any of that. I'm just saying that essence of I'm bad, I'm wrong because I did this. If you can see through that intellectually, through deconstruction, that offers a tremendous amount of relief from the shame hot potato. great leaders do this all the time. they'll say we're not going to spend any time figuring out who's to blame. we're going to spend time figuring out how to make sure this doesn't happen again. That is the way that a leader would do it, or by saying the whole thing is my responsibility. I'm the leader. I take full responsibility. Now, how are we going to fix it? somebody who can show that I can take responsibility for this and I don't have to be ashamed in the taking of responsibility. I can be wrong and I don't need to take on any kind of shame. That's another. That's the kind of leader we really want to follow. The buck stops here. Who was it? Eisenhower. Truman. I can't remember. I'm the one responsible. That shows people that this isn't about shame. This is just about taking responsibility.

Brett: Yeah, and one thing I'm curious about here is if you if you do the intellectual deconstruction on the belief system of that I'm bad or wrong, but it still exists somewhere deep, somatically, then my taking responsibility for it could still be done in a subtly shamey way that I might not see. What do I do about that? Let's say I've done something that I, on some deep moral level, legitimately believe is wrong. I've stolen something or I've hurt somebody intentionally. intellectually, I'm like, OK, I'm not bad and wrong, but every fiber in my being feels wrong about it. What do you do in that kind of situation?

Joe: Yeah, it's a great question. Again, the most important thing is to feel the emotion that's underneath that. If you've done something that you really feel is essentially bad, so a way that you don't want to be, then there's probably a tremendous amount of grief there and probably a tremendous amount of helplessness. if you feel that grief and helplessness, then the behavior is far more likely to stop than if you feel shame. I know I've said it before on the podcast, but shame is the lock that holds the chains of bad habits in place. if you get into a shame cycle, it's a stagnation and you're more likely to repeat that behavior and not feel the emotions that are underneath, and that's going to make a significant difference. If you think about it as a kid, if you tell a kid they're naughty all the time, they're going to start behaving naughty. If you tell a kid they're dumb all the time, they're going to behave dumb. Same if you do it to yourself, if you label yourself that way. Whether it's true or not true is somewhat irrelevant. What's relevant is what's effective. 

We all know that companies that are constantly blaming one another are less effective than companies where everybody takes responsibility. It is the same thing with us. if we're constantly blaming ourselves, we are less effective than if we take responsibility in a non shameful way. It is very upright, very empowered. The other thing about it is when somebody says the buck stops here or when somebody says no, I'm not going to defend myself around that, that's like, I won't be defensive. Then it's a deeply empowering act. It's scary to do at the moment because you're like, Oh my God, someone's going to take advantage of me. when you do it, you realize if you don't defend yourself, nobody can attack you. 

I think it's the Zen who have the thing of if you're being attacked by a sword, be the ocean. there's no defense in the ocean. they can whack away at it. They'll just tire themselves out. As you know, I've been on Twitter for the last couple months, actually me on Twitter instead of just having some dormant account. One of my favorite parts about Twitter is that occasionally I get crazy attacked and I'm like, oh wow. I'm like, oh, how do I be undefended here? oftentimes I can laugh. Yeah, there's some guy named like MC Lurk Face or something like that. He was trolling me and I was like oh wow, and then I could just laugh. there's something really sweet about that for me in social media. it is a perpetual exercise about how to be non defended in my approach.

Brett: I think a big part of the journey here is getting down to the nuance of when I'm feeling what's underneath the shame. How do I notice if there's still a little bit of shame in it? Because somebody could receive whatever attack on Twitter or X and they can laugh and the laugh could be defensive. The laugh could be like over the top, like power over the other person. The laugh could be just like laughing at the way that I was wrong or arrogant.

Joe: Yeah, that's great. If you don't feel empowered and invigorated, then you're still in it. You're still in the shame.

Brett: Yeah, another piece here is, feeling, perhaps the grief that's underneath the shame. somewhere in there I'm not also feeling empowerment.

Joe: If the process doesn't lead you to empowerment.

Brett: Yeah, if the process doesn't lead to empowerment. there could also be a fear of feeling empowerment too. If I feel empowerment, I should instead feel shame to block that because that might have been something that was conditioned in me.

Joe: That happens. Not a lot.

Brett: Or a display of it.

Joe: Yeah, good catch. Yeah, at the end of the day, you can. You don't have to worry about it too much because you can just act on the shame that you can sense. the more you act on that, the more you sense the shame. Shame is an incredibly stagnating and shitty feeling.

Brett: You mean not acting it out, but you mean like loving the shame, inquiring and seeing what's beneath it.

Joe: Yeah, exactly. If you give the attention to the shame, then you just become more and more sensitive to it and it becomes more and more unacceptable for yourself or others. when I see somebody else in shame, for me, it's like oh no. if I'm interacting with somebody and I see their shame, I know this is going to be dramatic. there's nothing in me that wants anybody to be ashamed. I don't want to stop. If they feel ashamed, that's their role. That's what they need to do and get through whatever they're getting through. The idea of I want you to be ashamed because somehow I think that's going to stop something, look at what human beings do and you know that they feel ashamed if they do some of the crazy stuff that human beings do. Not unless you're maybe one of those few sociopaths. You can't not feel ashamed doing it. It's why people who do some of the most horrific stuff have to be high or drunk all the time. If you look at what wars do to people, heroin all the time. We have this feeling of shame in us and it perpetuates the whole thing instead of feeling the grief underneath it. If I took a war situation and I could snap my fingers and everybody could fully feel the grief and the anger and the helplessness of that war, everybody top to bottom of both sides of the war, the war would be done. It'd be over. It's the fact that everybody can't do that and they're in shame that perpetuates the whole thing. That's true with a marriage or in a company. I guess that's another way to look at it is if you're in a war with yourself, if you're in a war in your marriage, if you're in a war in the company like that, that's an indicator of shame.

Brett: It's not the way we've talked about this before. We're taking the conflict and bringing it internally to yourself, rather than being in integrity with yourself and then showing up in a way that cannot maintain the shitty dynamic. Something has to change.

Joe: Yeah, that's right. The other thing that's really important in my experience is I've gone through a couple stages in my life where the only thing I could do is be non defended. The only thing that I could do is just every day show up and say I'm sorry or I accept full responsibility. I'll take on all of the blame and shame from you. I won't take it on. I won't give it to myself. But I'll take all of that on and to me, that has been like the biggest gift of my life as far as an emotional process of my kids, my wife, obviously bigger gifts, but as far as an emotional process has been a gigantic gift for me. it erodes away. We're all narcissistic on some level, but it erodes away our narcissism so quickly because it requires us to feel. If we do that, we have to feel all the stuff. narcissism to a large part is just not feeling feelings on the emotional level. On the intellectual level, it's very much about each of our narcissism, the way that we put ourselves above others, quietly or outright.

Brett: I could see that being exactly the way this is done, too. Somebody could be coming from the Savior, I'm going to take on everyone's shame. I'm going to process it. I'm going to be the one who's better here. How do you do it the way you just described, not this other?

Joe: What you just did is you took all the emotion out of your voice to be able to maintain that role. I'm going to be the one controlling my emotional state. It's the opposite of that. It is feeling all the pain, the helplessness. I love the metaphor of Jesus in this particular way because he didn't just get on the cross and say why have you forsaken me. He felt the pain. it wasn't just like I'm great. This is no problem. We're all going to be in the Kingdom of God today. It was like he felt all of that struggle and the result in that metaphor is that there is a death of the personality and the sense of self dies through that process. That undefended process is the one of the quickest ways I know to burn through our false sense of self.

Brett: Yeah, death after death after death until eventually the capacity begins to emerge to allow somebody to be wrong on the Internet. I stole that from a tweet, so.

Joe: Can you repeat that? That was so good.

Brett: Yeah, life is just ego death after ego death. Each time we're wearing away our rough spots and our edges until eventually the capacity begins to emerge to allow somebody to be wrong on the Internet.

Joe: Exactly. Or in the marriage. Or in business. Or in politics. Yeah, that's it. Awesome.

Brett: Yeah. Thank you, Joe.

Joe: Thank you, Brett. What a wonderful podcast.

Brett: Thanks. Thanks for listening to The Art of Accomplishment. If you enjoyed what you heard today, please subscribe and rate us in your podcast app. We'd love your feedback, so feel free to send us questions or comments. You can reach out to us, join our newsletter, or check out our courses at

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