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Guilt And Shame and Bullies

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StellaSep 12, 2018

Before we start, let us look at this lovely tweet from a person seeking to laugh at themselves and also to inspire others not to give up. I am HORRIBLE at math, I love it but I get confused easily, or distracted..anyway, this made me smile:

My background in teaching young people and adult learners has given me strong opinions on shame and bullying. These two are often interlinked and interspersed with guilt. I want to talk about why I do not think that shame is useful in changing behavior. I will also look at why I think it is useful to think more about integrity and to have an awareness of self, of humility.

Tangney and Dearing (2002) discussed guilt as being due to fluctuating internal reasons such as not having made sufficient effort in a task. Whereas shame is due to more constant internal reasons: such as I am worthless or stupid.

We could define this as guilt being a bad feeling related to having caused something to someone else, or to a bad action. But this can also be a private emotion.

Shame is public, known. It is unpleasant and stems from a sense of being something- “I am useless/I am unqualified/ I am ugly”

In a classroom it is easy to make students of any age ashamed of a mistake, or a lack of understanding. It is something that we are trained to avoid. We learn that positive negative positive is the way to correct. For example: That was a great essay, you need to work on your structure, but you have good ideas.

We also learn that motivation is a key factor in adopting sound long term learning habits and general self discipline. You might put a student’s name on a “warning”board but the emphasis should be that they can move back up not continue to slide down.

Showing a person that you believe they can succeed is really important. They will trust you and feel safe showing you weaknesses. Conversely, embarrassing someone or being unfair and critical may reinforce negative beliefs and outcomes. It also means you will not be shown the weaknesses.

Now this is where integrity and humility are important. Some of the most inspirational people are the ones who disclose their past failures, challenges and shortcomings. None of us are beyond reproach. In revealing how we deal with failure or error,we serve as an important example to others. Shaming people while pretending to be beyond fault is unhelpful. It means people will hide further issues and will not adopt long term good practice.

So before reading any further, you may want to listen to or read these talk transcripts.

This is a lovely talk on being wrong.

This is a beautiful talk on vulnerability.

So my message – and I am for once trying to be concise- is that we have to be vulnerable, humble and open in order for others to do the same.

We cannot criticize or shame people for behavior if we are not at some level, accepting our own failings.

If we want to create change, to inspire people to act differently, we must be a voice that they can trust.

So to all those who say shaming works. It does not. It simply means that the action or behavior you shame becomes hidden.


Because the people making the mistakes do not feel that they have a safe space to ask for help or advice.

Because the very people who need the help are the ones being shamed- despite not being the ones who always caused the issues. How many organizations do you know where employees are embarrassed by C-suite actions? But it was not the fault of individual employees that the CEO did or said something. Yet society piles onto employees of that org and laughs at them. I have friends who work for some organizations that have “toxic”reputations . They have to endure people holding them accountable for actions they had no control over. Yet other friends have adoration and respect because their company has deep hidden issues but seems perfect from the outside. My point here is just as you should be kind to an individual as we all have our struggles : you can also never judge an organization by the “public face”.

A low level example of this is young people being banned from messaging apps by parents and schools. They were told messaging was bad for them and wrong. So they collaborated via shared Google docs instead. To a casual observer, they were following rules and APPEARED to be compliant. No one wanted to do the necessary: work with them to educate them on safe messaging. It is easy to yell NO! It is far more time consuming to actually help.

I think we could make more progress if instead of shame, we used common sense. If we thought about the long term impact that we want to have. Do we want to help or do we just want to be bullies? Do we shame to show our own knowledge or do we want to truly help? I see people get frustrated with repeated failures and shortcomings in their sectors. I hear people say empathy is overused and overrated. Yet can we not admit our own failures or see where we could stumble in the future? Before pointing out a failure, have you shown your own humility? Are you doing it to make yourself look strong and others weak?

For sure, the school bully may make their victims strong long term. At a cost however. It may make some bystanders happy to see someone humiliated. Bullies often have whole gangs who slap them on the back and say congrats, you are so strong. Yet the measure of our success is in our lasting impact not our credited acts. It is in the people who learn from us, who can approach us and ask questions. Your impact is mostly unknown to you: and truly helpful people never seek that validation, never know or hear of their influence. I say this from the perspective of someone who regularly gets quietly asked to help a person because they were laughed out of town by “experts”. These are often people who are in real danger. It makes me deeply sad that adults can behave in ways that they would not tolerate in children. As a teacher I spent hours each day resolving issues where parents and students were distraught about the humiliation or shame brought about by a bully or peer group. As adults we throw shame and shade like confetti at a wedding and then stand back proud of our actions.

I am no expert. I am not perfect. I have made mistakes and I will for sure make them again. But I look up to those who are kind, who seek impact. I will continue to call out unkindness even if it makes people uncomfortable. You should too. Because humans are fallible not stupid and have feelings and are not made of steel. Because we all want progress and hope. Be the lighthouse not the steamroller?

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