by Koren Eloul
Shame isn’t what you feel when trip, then blush and look around to make sure no one saw; that’s embarrassment. Shame isn’t what you feel when you take a second helping in the lunch line when you know that in doing so there may not be enough for that lady way back at the end; that’s guilt. Shame, for our purposes here, is the way that the actions you have (or have not) taken and the experiences you have (or have not) received have informed your sense of who you are in a negative way, one that connects deeply to the core of your sense of identity. Shame is the feeling that makes you want to curl in on yourself and hide deeply away from sight; the desire to become invisible, even to yourself, because looking too closely at the source of that shame is too painful to bear, and the thought of others seeing it is nearly unthinkable. It is the calling into question the very story of oneself as decent, capable person. Because the stakes feel so high and the feelings are so powerful, it is not uncommon for people to live with their shame in the background for most, if not all, of their lives rather than bring it out into the light. We may catch glimpses of it operating from the periphery in side-glances, and we turn away just as quickly in disgust and fear, allowing it to continue to influence our thoughts, emotions and actions.
I am speaking about this from direct experience. When I was in my early twenties, I harmed someone economically. I knew in my heart it was wrong and yet couldn’t overcome my own selfishness and the fear I had around doing the right thing and facing potential consequences. I carried that shame for years, developing a story that reversed the blame and made myself out to be the victim because I could not stand to tell others the truth and show them, and myself, that the person of integrity I saw myself to be had failed to live up to his values when the going got tough. When I finally received the opportunity to speak the wholeness of that truth, seven years later at a training to bring Restorative Justice to people in prison, I was shocked at how overwhelming the experience was, calling forth long-dormant (but never healed) feelings of inadequacy, regret, sadness and, of course, shame. I was just as shocked at how free I felt after; how a great hidden-but-palpable weight had suddenly vanished; how empowered I felt. That experience has led to many since, until I finally feel that my storehouse has mostly been emptied to the extent that I can now try to help others in the same way I was helped; by witnessing non-judgmentally and with compassion while others speak their unspoken truths. In the Guiding Rage Into Power (GRIP) Program, and many others, they say Hurt people, hurt people. Healed people, heal people. To me, shame is a sign of deep hurt.
To close, I wish to mention again that my purpose in writing this introduction to toxic shame isn’t to present a deep analysis or a silver bullet to eliminating it; my purpose is to simply bring up its existence as a barrier, both to ourselves and our students, as a topic of further conversation. My deepest hope is that it may serve as a prompt; for ourselves to look both more deeply and honestly into our own places of shame and continue to seek healing and growth with the understanding that the work that we do on ourselves directly impacts how we are able to show up for our students (and everyone else in our lives), and to see our students’ behavioral/performance issues from this lens to grant additional patience and compassion for their internal struggles (of which we only are usually only granted superficial access).
If you'd like to explore this topic further, check out the following recommendations.
Article: Why Toxic Shame Is Not “Normal” Shame – And Why It Matters
This article extends the exploration of the topic, including symptoms of toxic shame.
BOOK: Healing the Shame That Binds You by John Bradshaw
Video: Listening to shame: bRENE BROWN
Please share any thoughts or comments about this topic in the comment section!