Shame

Shame, she points out, is not the same as guilt. Guilt happens in response to an action or inaction. It is linked to an event, not a person. It can lead to shame, but handled well, it can be turned to positive, restorative outcomes. Shame is toxic. It is the difference between “sorry I did” and “sorry I am.”

Shame is not a Weapon. – Love Learning by Debra Kidd

Neuroscientist Sarah-Jayne Blakemore, one of the world’s leading experts on the adolescent brain, shows us that during adolescence, shame has a particularly powerful impact on the brain. Adolescents feel, even anticipate, embarrassment in more profound ways than adults. One sure fire way of making sure that you are neither heard nor respected by a child, is to embarrass them. That’s not a matter of choice. Shame will close down all other options for children other than the quest for survival. It puts them into full on fight or flight meltdown. And in that state of mind, you get nowhere. It may look like a child has complied. They blush beetroot and retreat. They sit quietly and go home. But the shame is sitting so presently in their minds, that they heard nothing, learned nothing and are harbouring now a deep seated sense of shame that may turn outwardly into anger, or inwardly into resentment. Or worse, it may morph into significant self loathing. None of these outcomes are good.


Adolescents are not like us. They will, one day – once all the pruning and shaping and hormonal pummelling is over – become like us. But right now, they are in the eye of a storm and a little empathy goes a very long way. Shaming goes a very long way in the opposite direction. Those of us who have spent many years in classrooms, usually learn that the quiet word, one to one, works way more effectively that shouting at them in public. The eye contact, little raised eyebrow, tap on the shoulder – the techniques that signal you’re watching and aware, but still allow them a route out of public denouncement, are often enough. And sometimes they’re not. Sometimes, the situation gets out of control. That’s when you model what it is to be an adult. Unflappable, firm, fair, kind and consistent. Paul Dix’s book on behaviour “When the Adults Change, Everything Changes” is excellent on this point. We are the adults. We have authority with equal responsibility. Shaming should not be part of a responsible adult’s repertoire. It’s a failure to default to it.

Shaming is sometimes seized upon by adults as an aversion technique – that is a technique designed to inflict a sense of consequence onto another person in response to their negative behaviour. It’s part of the crime and punishment toolkit – trials are usually public and criminals can be named, and shamed. This is considered a legitimate part of our legal process (whether you agree with it or not). But in adolescents, particularly powerful emotions are released linked to shame that can have extremely damaging effects on their mental health, leading in some cases to psychopathy. Part of this is down to the fact that children feel emotions more strongly than adults, largely because they lack the sense of proportion that comes with experience. Remember that first love? But it is also biological. Adolescents use their medial prefrontal cortex even when considering situations that might cause them embarrassment; adults do not do this. So even imagining embarrassment is deeply felt by adolescents which is why they’ll do anything to protect themselves from it – heading it off at the pass. The anticipation of shame is deeply experienced by adolescents in a way that it is not by adults.

Moreover, Dr Brene Brown at the University of Houston places shame on the opposite end of a continuum to empathy. What shame does, she claims, is interrupt our construction of positive relationships to others –  a crucial aspect of which is empathy. That disruption is damaging not only to ourselves but to our relationships with others and our future interactions. Shame, she points out, is not the same as guilt. Guilt happens in response to an action or inaction. It is linked to an event, not a person. It can lead to shame, but handled well, it can be turned to positive, restorative outcomes. Shame is toxic. It is the difference between “sorry I did” and “sorry I am.” Moreover she points to research that shows that shame is directly correlated to depression, self harm, suicide and addictive behaviours. Guilt, on the other hand, is not. Guilt allows us to put our hands up and apologise. I don’t know what came over me, I’m so sorry. Guilt is about restoration, recognition and responsibility. Shame is an albatross around our necks. So hanging a sign around the neck of a child is as concrete an example of intentional shame as you will find. Shame is crippling because it is linked profoundly to our sense of who we are.

When schools decide that they will default to shaming as a strategy for good behaviour, they place themselves onto the most volatile battlefield they can – what Brown calls “The Swampland of the Soul.” They can be seemingly winning that battle – they may force compliance from children. Perhaps even test results (especially if they kick the most resistant out of school altogether).  But as Sarah-Jayne Blakemore points out, adolescence opens up many windows to mental health problems. It is in this period of intense brain activity, where the hippocampus and limbic systems (linked to memory and emotion) are growing and grey matter is being pruned, that seeds are sown for future emotional health. Stings here can settle and grow. So can kindnesses. We need to tread with care and compassion.


It doesn’t take much. When you’re considering an action in your school or classroom, simply think about whether or not it is likely to cause shame. If it is, don’t do it. Rank ordering pupils, hanging signs around their necks, having lists of wrongdoers – these are all acts of shaming. There’s no justification for it. None at all.

Shame is not a Weapon. – Love Learning by Debra Kidd

Shame is not a weapon.

Shame is not a Weapon. – Love Learning by Debra Kidd

And that is what happens when you soak one child in shame and give permission to another to hate.

The closet can only stop you from being seen. It is not shame-proof.

Hannah Gadsby: Nanette

Shame cuts off connection and thrives on hiding.

Dyslexia is a particularly powerful form of shame, and it involves a lot of vulnerability.

Vulnerability can be defined as true courage.

Shame is a very lonely moment.

Reading disabilities often match in intensity the level of shame associated with incest.

Dyslexia is a perfect storm of shame.

1. Arrives at the time you are first being evaluated.

2. Made harsher by lack of explanation. Fail without context.

3. Reinforced by peers and institutions.

“Retard” is a bullet sent at a child when it gets said.

Guilt is feeling bad about something you did, something you can fix. Shame is feeling bad about who you are.

I knew I was going to be on a bad list. There was going to be a good list, and I was going to be on the bad list, maybe alone.

The shame of special education.

Choose strength not shame: Ben Foss at TEDxSonomaCounty – YouTube

One dyslexic friend of mine described his shame as “slow-drip trauma.” He felt unworthy and “not normal” every day. As an adult, he was treated for post-traumatic stress syndrome that was caused by his experiences in school.

Ninety percent of my injuries happened when I was in school and before I was talking about my dyslexia publicly. Hiding who you are can translate into self-harm. When I talk with my peers in the dyslexia movement, a majority of them had a specific plan for suicide when they were teenagers. I regularly meet dyslexic kids who cut themselves or worse when they were young. I am fine today, but the hiding left scars, figurative and literal, for many of us.

My friend Steve Walker, a very successful dyslexic entrepreneur, tells me all the time that you could not pay him enough money to go back to any type of school setting. He even says that he would sooner kill himself than go back to school. Yet in the same breath he will also say that you could not give him enough money to take away his dyslexia, because it is a part of who he is. Many times when I was in school or taking a standardized test, I rejected an accommodation because I was embarrassed and ashamed: I did not want to stand out, or I was frustrated that it would take too much effort to get permission to have my exam read aloud to me.

The Dyslexia Empowerment Plan: A Blueprint for Renewing Your Child’s Confidence and Love of Learning

Never forget that authenticity and vulnerability are revolutionary in every capacity. Shame is the antithesis of progress.

The Journey of Undoing: An open letter to who needs it — SITI Girl Miami

Further reading,

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Published by Ryan Boren

#ActuallyAutistic parent and retired tech worker. Equity literate education, respectfully connected parenting, passion-based learning, indie ed-tech, neurodiversity, social model of disability, design for real life, inclusion, open web, open source. he/they

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