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Jeff Bezos’s Reaction to a Blackmail Attempt Teaches Us the Power of Defusing Shame

A psychologist breaks down why his approach was so effective.

Photo credit: Jim Watson/Getty Images
Photo credit: Jim Watson/Getty Images

If you’ve ever felt all the blood in your body rush to your face in embarrassment, you’ll understand where science fiction writer Janet Morris was coming from when she wrote: “Humiliation sets armies marching, empires falling, breaks hearts and minds and souls.” The war that has broken out between Jeff Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post, and David Pecker, chairman of American Media Inc. (AMI), proves the keenness of Morris’s observation.

On February 8, Bezos wrote an explosive essay detailing how AMI’s National Enquirer attempted to blackmail him with personal photos and texts between him and girlfriend Lauren Sanchez, a former co-host of Fox’s Good Day L.A., if Bezos didn’t stop his investigation into how AMI obtained his texts, and publicly declare the Enquirer’s coverage of Bezos as not “politically motivated or influenced by political forces.” Even though the raunchy news outlet claimed to have a “below the belt selfie” of Bezos, as well as other sexually explicit images of him and Sanchez, Bezos walked right through the flames of shame for a larger cause. “Rather than capitulate to extortion and blackmail, I’ve decided to publish exactly what they sent me, despite the personal cost and embarrassment they threaten,” he wrote.

His bold approach to confronting potential humiliation head-on is extremely effective, says Alicia Clark, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and author of Hack Your Anxiety: How to Make Anxiety Work for You in Life, Love, and All That You Do. “He did an excellent job of taking control of the situation and not bowing to the threat of humiliation. He fought back,” she says.

The lessons learned from this bombshell news story will be increasingly important, says Clark, as an entire generation of young people, who grew up digital natives, experience the fallout of sharing personal photos, videos and comments, which can — and often do — haunt them long afterwards.

In fact, Scott Galloway, Ph.D., a professor of marketing at the NYU Stern School of Business, called the digitization of our private lives — especially as it concerns teens — a “public health crisis” on Live With Stephanie Ruhl on MSNBC. Along with educating our kids about the consequences of what they reveal online, Clark says we should teach them how to depersonalize an embarrassing digital experience and take control of how they feel about it. “If a peer is trying to shame them, it says more about their peer or the culture at their school than it does about them. It’s about showing them how they can make the experience less personal,” she says.

Clark offers four tips on how we can reclaim our power and footing when something humiliating threatens to throw us off balance.

Take control of the story

Like Bezos, we can quickly and succinctly take control of the narrative. Don’t let it fester into something that feels insurmountable. For example, if you accidentally sent a personal text to your boss instead of your partner, you can quickly respond that you’re sorry and note that your message was obviously meant for someone else. Clark suggests employing a “fake it till you make it” posture of composure even if you’re dying inside the next time you see your boss. Likewise, if you said something you regret to a coworker, you can swiftly apologize and take ownership of any wrongdoings.

Know that you get to decide how you feel

Clark emphatically points out that whatever might have happened, you get to decide how you feel about it. “You give it power,” she says. “We can’t feel bad about something unless we agree it’s bad. We get to decide if we’re adequate or not, if we’re ashamed or not.”

Use humor to defuse the drama

While Clark isn’t a huge fan of self-deprecation — “it’s a deft tool, but if used in excess people start to believe its self-disparaging narrative” — she’s all for using comedy to break up the tension. “If you can laugh at yourself or the situation, you allow other people to laugh without it being negative. It’s a brilliant thing that we all can do to defuse uncomfortable situations and conflicts,” she says.

Remember: You are not your mistake

Whatever misstep you made — trusting someone you shouldn’t have with personal selfies, or saying something off-color that ruffled feathers — acknowledge that you made a mistake and learn from it if the fault lies with you, Clark says, but stop yourself from a full-fledged assault on your value as a human being.

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