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You Should Be...Guilty! How to Break the Cycle of Shame

I see the destructive cycle of shame almost every day as a child therapist. Example: One of my young clients was traumatized by a bullying incident at school. In therapy, he’s been playing out a typical scenario for kids with this experience, pretend games where he is the one who humiliates his victim -- me. This is the negative cycle shaming creates. Feeling ashamed is so unbearable, we try to get rid of it any way we can, and one way to do that is to be the “shamer” instead of the “shamee.” Fortunately, this child is in therapy, and he’s not playing this game in real life. Many do. I imagine the playground bully who humiliated my client was struggling to offload his own shame, creating more bullies in his wake.

Children, of course, are not the only carriers of the shame virus. Teachers can also be a part of the cycle. Recently, I’ve visited an elementary school where shaming was officially sanctioned and practiced in every classroom as a method of discipline. This was horrifying to me, but the teachers were proud of what they were doing. It’s true that you can effectively cow children into submission with shaming, thereby creating a truly silent classroom. But, at what price?

Guilt and shame are both unpleasant emotions which arise when we have made a social error. They are quite different, though, in their effects. Shame is the powerful feeling that our mistakes mean that we are dirty and bad. Guilt, on the other hand, is about our actions, not who we are. We can handle guilt by making amends. There’s nothing we can do about being a horrible awful person, though… except perhaps to continue to act horribly, since apparently that’s our nature. Or, to pretend we didn’t do it, and blame others. Or, shame other people, convincing ourselves that at least we’re not as bad as they are.

Part of the solution, whichever side of the shaming cycle one is on at the moment, is to have some compassion. A child (or adult) who cannot take responsibility for his behavior may actually be taking too much responsibility in his heart of hearts and unable to stand the pain of the shame he’s feeling. I often tell parents to treat childish misbehavior as mistakes, easily rectified, not as indications of their characters. Let go of insisting that kids take responsibility verbally. Instead, try to move them from shame into guilt.

Give them a chance to make amends. Atonement leads to a self-definition of being a kind of hero, the polar opposite of shame, with its self-definition of worthlessness.

So, how do I work with kids who have been traumatized by humiliation? Sometimes, I’ll say, in my pretend voice in the context of play, “You just threw some poop at me! Too bad! I can just wash it off.” Sometimes, I’ll get into deep philosophical discussions with 8-year-olds about old movies. Darth Vader was once Anakin Skywalker, a nice kid who wanted to save the world.

People aren’t either good or bad. We’re all human. We’re all doing our best. And, sometimes, we all make mistakes. When we learn from our mistakes, make amends and try in the future to be consistently kind to others, even when it’s hard, then we have nothing to be ashamed of. J

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