Scarlet letters & shame in a small town

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s classic, The Scarlet Letter, tells the story of a woman, Hester Prynne, chastised by a Puritan community after she is found guilty of infidelity. She is forced to wear a scarlet letter, “A” on her chest for ‘adultery’ and endures public judgement and shaming. While small-town America has generally moved beyond such extremes, we certainly can wear our own metaphorical scarlet letters and brand them on each other. Given the intimacy and interconnections of small towns, emotions can spread like contagions transforming a community’s energy. Joy, excitement, peace, strife, sadness, fear, and certainly shame.

scarlet letter

Many of us have felt burdened by the perceived mark of shame- our own scarlet letter. Be it financial woes, family drama, infidelity, illness, or simply choosing to live outside the bounds of what has been deemed acceptable. Many of us try to hide our scarlet letter through work, isolation, distraction, external appearances, and forced smiles among other efforts that altogether can make life downright exhausting. Afraid we will be found out, we rob ourselves of authenticity.

I work in two beautiful small towns. Sisters, Oregon on the eastside of the Cascade mountains and Silverton, Oregon on the westside of the mountains. Each is similar, but different and each with its own ideas of social idealism.

Sisters has this sort of cowboy-bohemian-earthy vibe. The town’s Old West theme is contrasted by vegan fare, yoga studios, and chic boutiques lining streets. Tourists are a mixed bunch donning their cowboy hats, outdoor gear, paisley prints, and California couture. On multiple occasions I have passed a local cowboy riding his horse downtown as I walk to the vegan smoothie bar across the street- so yeah, it is a special place.

Silverton, the garden-city of Oregon, has a quaint-Norman Rockwell-ag town-meets modernism sort of vibe. It is a place where families tracing back to the Oregon Trail hold strong to tradition while also attracting newcomers enchanted by its charm. While it does not yet have a vegan smoothie bar (at least as of last week), Silverton is a good mix of traditionalism sprinkled with just enough hipster to make it officially “cool”.

Shame is a funny thing. Each town seems to have their own rules about shame dictated by the uniqueness of its culture and social norms. Sisters & Silverton for example have certain criteria you may have to meet to be considered acceptable or ‘a local’. Your scarlet letter may be particularly painful in one town while it may be celebrated in another. Sometimes when so many people have the same scarlet letter, it becomes shameful to not have a scarlet letter. This can happen in cases of learned helplessness when forward mobility can seem unorthodox and even condescending.


If there is one thing I have learned in my work, it is that no one person is immune to shame and insecurity. Not the most successful, not the wealthiest, not the most popular- everybody has their burdens. Everybody has their struggles.

Sharing the Scarlet Letter: 5 Ways to Lessen the Burden

So assuming we all have our own scarlet letter how then can we lessen each other’s burden of shame and move towards acceptance and authenticity?

  1. Be wary of gossip– Small towns are notorious hot-beds for gossip. Gossip gives the illusion of pseudo-closeness and by being a participant, it can increase our own sense of hypervigilance and shame. It can leave a person feeling on edge, judged, and even shunned. Talking about somebody’s successes can promote positivity but gabbing about somebody’s trials is a disservice to everyone- you included.
  2. Give each other (and yourself) space to make mistakes– Or maybe I should just say let’s give each space to be human. We all f**k up once in a while and while there are certainly limits to our slip-ups, holding ourselves or each other to unrealistic standards of perfection or control is probably the biggest mistake we make. Try not to make assumptions and realize a person’s actions are part of a complex story.
  3. Be genuine– Formalities have their place, but how often do you really ask with true curiosity, “how are you?” By the same token, don’t be afraid to respond to such questions with genuine honesty. You may be surprised how this provides safety for others to open up with you as well.
  4. Shame vs guilt– This is an important distinction. Guilt means I did something bad. Shame means I am bad. Learn to acknowledge this in yourself and others. One action does not have to define your worth or value.
  5. Pieces of you– Remember that Jewel song, Pieces of You? Recognize that which you dislike in others is often secondary to what you dislike in yourself. Therefore, if you are feeling shameful you are probably more likely to “shame” others. Own your shame story, acknowledge the pain, and be weary of projecting it onto others.

Do you live in a small town? What have your experiences been with ‘Scarlet Letters’ & shame? Let’s challenge ourselves to stop the judgment and chastising. After all, we will all likely need help overcoming our own scarlet letter at some point.

Thank you as always for listening.

With gratitude,

2017-09-09 Audry VanHouweling Headshots (2 of 2)

Audry Van Houweling, PMHNP-BC, Owner of She Soars Psychiatry, Sisters & Silverton, Oregon

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