Is it ever helpful for people to feel shame? No!
Very often, as loving parents or caring teachers, we unconsciously contribute to poor behaviour by shaming people who may have caused harm or done wrong. Our intention, of course, is to support the people in our care to do better, to teach the young people the difference between right and wrong, but to do this we must learn to separate the behaviour from the person, only then can we allow someone who has caused harm the opportunity to connect to their own values and goodness in order to do better in the future. Children, human beings, will ultimately become what they feel about their self. I often speak to my lovely niece and nephew about this, perhaps when helping them to make sense of hurtful comments form others; we realise that they may have ‘forgotten how to be kind’ and we explore how we can remind them of their loveliness, teach them to be this kindness once again. It is not by matching it with an ugly retort or by an angry accusation, but of course by modelling it. I believe this is as true for fifty year olds as it is for five year olds. Saying ‘you are a disgrace’ may be an obvious shaming declaration but there is also a world of difference between the statements ‘you are bold’ versus ‘that behaviour is bold”; the former is about the inner self while the latter us about the external action.
Shame is very deep, damaging and can have life-long consequences. It is corrosive to a positive sense of self, which is exactly what we need to know our goodness, to live it, to positively contribute to ourselves and our communities. Shame is highly correlated with violence, addiction, bullying and anger. Shame is far more likely to cause misbehaviour than to cure it yet the culture and punitive systems that we operate within often dictate and encourage shaming responses to such behaviour by shouting, criticising the person; or imposing punishments TO them that usually sponsor blind resentment instead of recognition of values, armoured defense instead of open reflection, and shame cycles instead of healing connections.
What do people do when they feel ashamed? We hide, we attack ourselves or others, we avoid, and most importantly we are disconnected form the part of us that believes we can change. Restorative Practice proposes the Compass of Shame to understand the impact of this feeling and how it may show up in our classrooms, living rooms or boardrooms. It is a helpful frame to consider when dealing with misbehaviour. It allowed the teachers in my action research study to not take students’ misbehaviour personally, to understand that it may very well be about the student’s sense of self. It allowed us to separate the act from the actor, the deed from the doer, and to open up new capacities of understanding and empathy. So, rather than perhaps limiting our understanding of a person by cementing them to a label by saying ‘He is such an X’ or ‘She is just Y’, this new consideration of the effects of shame allowed us to now refer to and explore their actions instead, emphatically considering what the unmet need might be, and then focussing on our circle of influence instead of a tiresome circle of concern (Covey 2004).
In Daring Greatly Brené Brown, who is a shame and vulnerability researcher, reminds us of what we may intrinsically know already; that shame corrodes the part of us that thinks we can change. So to shame someone into changing is like saying “you are horrible and worthless and incapable of change….. get better” (Brown, 2013). We must believe that we are capable of doing better in order to actuate that desire. It is also essential to understand that shame is also the only feeling that we must do something ourselves to transform. One of the reasons I am so passionate about the power of restorative practices is that it leads us down this path. My study outlined that a restorative response to students’ mis/shame-driven (Compass of Shame) behaviour had the power to offer new thoughts that sponsored new feelings which informed different actions.
RP is, above all else, a values-based philosophy and one of the key values is personal accountability. This involves giving people ownership of the problem and its resolution, encouraging them to reflect and listen to how people have been affected by their actions, inviting them to find solutions, or offering them new thoughts and feelings that can drive new intentions and actions. Despite some misconceptions to the contrary, this can be a lot more challenging and difficult to do than to merely passively receive an assigned punishments.
We know that guilt, as opposed to shame, occurs when we are connected to our values. It is when we hold what we have done or failed to do, up against who we want to or indeed believe we can be and it doesn’t feel good (Brown 2013). This is what inspires connection to our true selves, to our values, and to others; this is what motivates authentic apologies and a desire to make amends. It is my belief that, as human beings, we are all doing the best we can based on the way we see the world, on our current level of consciousness (Tolle 2005) and when we know better, we do better. The use of sanctions and imposing punishment “TO” (Vanderring 2010) others often dilutes the support for teachers and students to know and do better. It robs us of the opportunity to grow and make repairs, to consider and express how we feel, and potentially discover a new way to deal with such conflicts in the future. It is the living of our values, this restorative way of being, that improves our communication and ushers us towards respectful or even synergistic conversations (Covey 2013).
So what can move us from shame to empathy? Once again, it is the power of vulnerability that moves us from each end of this spectrum. It is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change (Brown 2013). The vulnerability to share authentically instead of attacking; holding the intention to connect instead of raging, even though we may then be no longer sure what the response may be; having the courage to seek the best in others rather than being comfortably certain of their limiting label.
What do you see in this picture? How do you know? …………
A parrot? ……….. the colour, the beak, the tail….
But what if I invited you to see the dancer? Can you now see the arm wrapped around the white face and the outstretched leg? The point is that once we have decided that it is a parrot that is all we see. We must seek and then find the dancer within ourselves and others; often, if we change the way we look at things, the things we look at change. RP offers this transformative power. I believe that we need to, when dealing with shame, be vulnerable enough to treat people with their potential and not just their past in mind. This is where the light gets in, it is the path to connection and change. This growth mind-set has genuinely brought me much happiness by bringing out the best in me and others.
RP offers an explicit language and practices to facilitate such connection, understanding and transforming power. Restorative statements that might say “I am hurt or I feel embarrassed by what happened/ because I need X/Y/Z” instead of using language that blames and attacks, such as “How dare you do that, who do you think you are? You are a disgrace! You ought to be ashamed of yourself”. The restorative questions also allow us to listen to and transform shame. They create empathy and connection by asking “who has been affected by what happened and in what way?” and they promote active listening and personal accountability-“what needs to happen next?” These questions separate the person from the behaviour, seek to understand before being understood (Covey, 2005), honour values in action, and offer the opportunity to transform shame.
This isn’t just for the heavy examples of shame scenarios that may spring to mind. This restorative mind-set (Hopkins 2008) and way of being informs how we engage, speak, listen and share all day every day. An everyday light example occurred yesterday when my gorgeous six year old niece scribbled on my white jacket with her green marker. I was reading with her lovely little brother at the time and not giving her the attention she wanted. I was a bit shocked and paused before I responded in order to support myself to support her. I guess I could have given out to her, “you’re a bold girl for doing that”, maybe shouted or put her into the hall for a while, or perhaps punish her by ignoring or deliberately excluding her from the games to ‘teach her a lesson’. But what would that response achieve? What ‘lesson’ would that teach her? It would merely compound the feelings of isolation or disconnection that she was already feeling, that drove this action in the first place. If her lovely heart felt full and secure in that moment she wouldn’t have done it.
So now, what is my intention? It is to support her to be and know her best self, to help her fill her heart back with love. I knew I wanted to be calm and kind in order to illustrate what I want to teach her; after all if we are not modelling what we teach, we are teaching something else (Hopkins 2008). So I use the restorative questions to help me scaffold a conversation with her. I ask her what happened? At first she says she doesn’t know. I soften my tone to support her to be honest, I explain my intention (this is key for buy in) that I want us to try to be open and fix the situation. She then says she was upset. I ask her what happened to make her upset and she says that it was in her tummy. When I ask her what she was thinking, she says that I wouldn’t want to play with her anymore. I ask her what she thinks now? Is that true? (Byron Katie); I want to develop her capacity to question her thoughts, a wonderful gift I am only learning in my thirties. She says no, it’s not true and she knows because I laugh with her a lot and often ask to play with her. I reassure her of this too, I remind her of the joy I feel when we play together. I ask her what she could have done instead of using the marker and she says that she could have asked to join in with her brother and I. I agree that would be a great idea, that we would have loved that. When I ask her what needs to happen next? She apologises and tries to clean my jacket with a wipe (ineffectively btw 🙂 ), she then suggests a game for the three of us to play – and all is well in our worlds. In this very simple example we connected, she was empowered by transforming how she felt and found her own solutions. This interaction was a long term investment, developing her shame resilience and cultivating important life skills. The questions allowed me to focus on our circle of influence by addressing her unmet need – filling her heart back up with the loving thoughts that were missing. A simple shift from fear to love (ACIM).
The restorative language and intention allow us to transform shame and open up new possibilities that reside in love and connection.