The core quality that determines a secure sense of self is a personal acceptance within our community. This sense of self commences at birth and the first significant ‘community’ is his or her parents. When a child experiences nothing but affection and positive attention during these early years they will feel as if they are the centre of the universe and that’s how it should be. But at about age one, when they can move about they start to develop their independence. At the same time they start to move independently and being curious can get themselves into some dangerous situations. When this happens, they are told no for the first time! Often the message will be delivered in a sharp, attention grabbing outburst. There is nothing wrong with this action; the parents just want to keep their child safe but the child will be rejected for the first time!
The sudden attention-grabbing effect is necessary to stop the child, to get them to stop what they are doing - to ‘freeze’. In reality they do this and for the first time they experience ‘rejection’. Of course, the parents were doing the right thing, keeping their child safe but the child’s sense of rejection is real and all rejection is at the heart of shame.
The child will continue to explore the world and they will continue to make mistakes. The parents will continue to ‘stop’ them and show them the ‘right’ way to behave. These mistakes expose the child’s incompetence and they will be embarrassed by what they have done. This feeling of rejection of the inappropriate behaviour we call healthy shame. The point is that this rejection is of inappropriate behaviour; it is not the rejection of the person.
As an adult we should experience shame whenever we act in a way that is not true to our character and when we fail to do this we become embarrassed. Because the shame is about what we have done, that feeling is healthy. Healthy shame protects us both from the exclusion from our group and helps us understand the frailties of others.
Kids don’t get the difference between the action and the performer and so functioning parents have to make sure the mistaken behaviour is separated from the value of the child. Soon the child will understand that difference and grow up capable of experiencing healthy shame.
However, children from abusive parents are rarely taught this distinction. When their child makes a mistake they are often physically punished and/or verbally abused for that mistake, it’s the child’s fault. And all too often the parents expect them to complete a task that is beyond their capabilities. At a sporting event you see kids being scorned because they did not win. When they inevitably fail they are subjected to abuse and rejection.
Young children are incapable of understanding they are not old enough or strong enough to complete some task set for them and when they do not come up to scratch the only conclusion is they are stupid, weak and useless just like dad said they were. This is the core of toxic shame, they have not made a mistake; they are the mistake.
Students with toxic shame take this debilitating belief into school. At any level learning consists of trial and error and so it is at school, there will be the inevitable errors. To healthy kids a mistake informs them that this is not the right way to solve a problem. For the child with toxic shame the mistake is confirmation that they are not the right person to be in the class. These students fear the inevitable negative evaluation about their work and the resulting stress suffered will make any real learning impossible. The inevitable failure reinforces their sense of shame, this toxic shame.
How you interact with the student, who suffers toxic shame will make a big difference. Understand that when a student is faced with a new, challenging task their self-talk will be something like:
- ‘I can’t do this ……’?
- ‘Everyone else will laugh at my ……’?
- ‘I hate this ……’?
The destructive teacher, who may well be trying to challenge the student, will make comments that only reinforce their toxic opinion of themselves. These teachers use terms like:
- ‘What do you think you’re doing’?
- ‘Is this your best work’?
- ‘Why did you do that’?
A better way for the teacher to encourage a child is with comments like:
- ‘How can we make this ….’?
- ‘What can we do to ……?
- ‘What will it look like if ……’?
Remember you are asking the children to try and that for them is very threatening but if you take a work in progress and use terms like those above you have not rejected their efforts and you have indicated to them that they can continue to improve. It takes a lot of small steps to complete any journey so be patient, they can overcome their most faulty of beliefs.
I used to say to students I worked with they are perfect. Of course, that got their attention but I explained that it is humans make mistakes. I’m human so I make mistakes therefore I am a perfect human – I’m perfectly imperfect, so are they and so are you.