The ability to integrate our ‘self’ into our community is perhaps the most important skill an individual has. All emotions are just a communication from our ‘self’ of how we are satisfying our needs. When our behaviour is rejected by others we experience a particular emotion, shame which confirms the importance of belonging. The fact that people take their own lives bears witness to the power of the underlying dynamic of rejection.
Shame is an emotion that we all experience at times. It's a feeling of embarrassment, self-consciousness, or guilt that can arise when we perceive ourselves to have fallen short of our own or others' expectations. This is referred to as healthy shame, it is a signal that what we are doing is likely to lead to rejection. It is a natural and necessary emotion that arises when we recognize that we have done something wrong or hurtful to ourselves or others. It can motivate us to take responsibility for our actions, make amends, and strive to do better in the future
Healthy shame also reinforces our humanity. When teaching at a school for highly dysfunctional adolescents I used to claim I was a perfect human. Of course, that got the reaction I wanted and so I followed up with the fact that no one could be perfect and so, not being perfect I was a perfect individual. I used this because we are not and can never be perfect, we will do things that hurt others. Not because we want to—we just make mistakes.
This healthy shame also allows us to understand the imperfection of others, they will do things to us that are hurtful and will make us want to push them away. It is much easier to forgive them if we accept the imperfection in ourselves. If we never experience shame, then we are either God or the Devil. We are either divine or totally corrupt.
This is healthy shame and protects us from abusing our community and promotes our empathy for others, helps us be more tolerant of their mistakes.
The ability to recognise that our actions influence our acceptance or rejection from others is not instinctive. Parents have to teach children through providing feedback when they behave in a manner others find repulsive and/or teaching them a better way to get their needs met. Another important teaching device is to model the correct methods of satisfying their needs but not in a way that mistreats others. More importantly they make the real distinction between the mistaken behaviour and the child, that is the child made a mistake they are not a mistake.
Young children are incapable of understanding they are not old enough or strong enough to complete some task set for them. An example is asking a child to drink milk from a cup before they have the motor skill for such a challenge. They will fail and, when this happens the child should be comforted and patiently taught to perform this act. However, children from abusive parents are rarely taught this distinction. Young children are incapable of understanding they are not old enough or strong enough to complete some task set for them and when they make a mistake, like spilling the milk they are often verbally abused and in some cases physically punished. They can only conclude that they are stupid, weak and useless; it’s their fault! Toxic shame is not shame over what they have done; it is shame over what they are.
Children 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 unavoidable 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.
In a vain attempt to hide their shame from the world, these children develop behaviours that will protect them. From about the age of three, they learn to manipulate others. They develop an inner dialogue, a self-talk that takes on a self-destructive tenor as illustrated below:
- “Just give in. It’s easier than getting into an argument.”
- “You have to do what that person wants or there will be trouble.”
- “It doesn’t matter. It’s not important anyway.”
- “You should …”
- “You shouldn’t …”
- “You better …”
This self-talk, this belief system, combined with the feelings that come from deep in the mind, form a potent force in decisions about how to act. The feelings are powerful and almost automatic, particularly in times of stress.
Teachers play an important role in creating a safe and supportive learning environment for their students, including those who may be struggling with toxic shame. The following will help:
- Build positive relationships: Students who experience toxic shame may have difficulty trusting others and may feel like they are unworthy of love and acceptance. By building positive relationships and showing them that they are valued and accepted for who they are; they are not their behaviour.
- Encourage success with your language, in previous Newsletters (Newsletter 76 -The Impact of language on Behaviour - 4th February 2019 and Newsletter 77 - 100 Ways to say “Well Done’ - 11 February 2019) offers plenty of techniques.
- Students with toxic shame will have a negative self-image and struggle with self-awareness. Teachers can encourage self-reflection by asking open-ended questions, providing opportunities for self-assessment, and helping students to identify their strengths and areas for growth.
- Teachers can help by emphasizing and celebrating students' strengths and progress, and by providing specific feedback that highlights their accomplishments.
These strategies are just another way of expressing our underpinning philosophy; provide all the students with a safe and secure environment that is structured, expectations are understood and positive professional relationships are fostered.