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FREW Consultants Group        
Monday, September 18 2017

Vacuous Shame

In a recent Newsletter (3rd July 2017) I addressed the issue of toxic shame.  I pointed out a sense of shame is underpinned by the pain that is associated with social rejection.  In healthy individuals rejection is always linked to their behaviour.  That is when they act in a way that goes against their ethical status they will feel they have betrayed themselves but any repercussions from their community is linked to their behaviour not their sense of themselves.  Hence this ‘rejection’ is referred to as healthy shame, shame about what we did.

To summarize the previous work, toxic shame is the belief that children and adults have about their sense of self and how that impacts on their lives.  They don’t make mistakes they are mistakes.  When they do something wrong its because they are wrong.  This is in opposition to healthy shame where you are ashamed of the mistake but retain your positive sense of self.

I have always felt this model failed to describe a final type of shame or in fact the lack of any sense of shame.  This sense of or lack of shame is closely associated with the over-indulged and narcissistic child I discussed in a previous newsletter (23rd May 2017).  However, I believe there is a slight difference in this lack of shame, which I have called vacuous shame and narcissism.  In the latter case the child has a feeling of entitlement or superiority over others in their community while vacuous shame is a case where the child has not been taught to socially share with others.

Another quality of vacuous shame is that it is not a sense experienced by the person in regards to their behaviour but it is others who project shame onto their behaviour.  The impact of the inappropriate behaviour that is experienced by others is closely tied to manners.

‘Manners’ is behaving in a way we expect is appropriate for a given social situation and this expectation is governed by social norms.  For example if we are going into a room and I get to the door first I expect that I will hold the door open for you.  However, if I just opened the door and walked straight in and worse let it slam in your face I would predict you to consider my behaviour the height of bad manners and that I was quite shameless.  How we go through a door has a cultural expectancy and when we fail to abide by that we offend our culture.

I have chosen the term vacuous adopting the definition of that word as showing lack of thought or content because people have to know the expectations of our culture before they really can be considered offensive.  I believe in today’s world children are taught a different set of norms and expectations than has been the case for their parents.  In modern, western society we have adopted a model for our community that is based on competition.  We see this in the work place, in schools and particularly in our popular media. 

The way to succeed is to win, to get there first.  To not win makes you feel like a failure or a point of ridicule.  Look at the type of humour that drives the modern ‘sit coms’ on TV.  The classic scenario is that the child is smarter than the mother, the mother is smarter than the father and the dog is smarter than everyone.  We are expected to laugh at the mistakes made by the very people who should be teaching us manners.

Before the ‘60’s manners were taught in schools as were their close partner proverbs.  The proverbs gave reason for social behaviour and underpinned the behaviour that enriched life for everyone, good manners.  Proverbs were even used in IQ tests.  Undoubtedly, the principal proverb, one that supports all successful societies and religions is ‘do unto others as you would have them do unto you’ – the golden rule. 

This is in opposition to the maxim for the competitive world ‘do unto others before they do it to you’.  Manners, and proverbs are of little value to the competitive world in themselves but they are so important in social cohesion, a quality that is lacking in our modern society.

So let’s finish with that term vacuous shame.  When I see a young person push in on an elderly citizen I see that as being shameful but does that young person understand the impact of their behaviour?  They can’t know this; they can’t experience shame unless they have been taught it.  And it is obvious for too many of our students the lessons of manners is not being taught in the home, in the media nor other social institutions so the real shame of their behaviour must lie with those who have failed to teach them. 

‘Manners’ is no part of modern school curriculum, after all we are competitive but unless we do teach manners we are the ones who should feel the shame.

Finally two quotes that should be considered:

Quote 1:         

‘Children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in the place of exercise.  Children are now tyrants, not servants of their households.  They no longer rise when elders enter the room.  They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up the dainties at the table, cross their legs and tyrannize their teachers’.                  Socrates

 Quote 2:      

 ‘I am not a cranky old man’             Frew

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John R Frew
Marcia J Vallance

ABN 64 372 518 772


The principals of the company have had long careers in education with a combined total of eighty-one years service.  After starting as mainstream teachers they both moved into careers in providing support for students with severe behaviours.

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