A few years ago I moved rather abruptly from Boston to Austin. I was sorting through the pieces of a breakup so rough that I hadn’t even told most of the people in my life I’d left Massachusetts. – Oops. One of those people, my friend Darcy, wrote me a couple letters that summer (yes, people DO still send snail mail!). She called and texted a few times, too.
Apparently, I never responded. A few months later, she texted again – this time to ask if I was mad at her. “Hey Holly, I haven’t heard from you in a while and just wanted to see if I did something to upset you?” I apparently never responded?!?! I was mortified. Choppy waves of nausea rose and fell in my stomach, heat surged into my cheeks, this growing desire… no, need… totransform into an ostrich so I could run and hide and bury my head in the sand just absolutely flooded me. Because after several months, phone calls, letters, and texts, I finally realized I had never responded, and the only word to truly describe the feelings in my stomach and face and desire to ostrich the situation entirely is…
I may not be a terrific cartoonist, and you may never have ignored a friend for4 months, but odds are pretty high that you know the feeling of shame. In fact, if you’re human, (you are human, right?) research has shown that everyone experiences shame.
Shame and Research
We ALL have shame. After years of researching shame and vulnerability, Dr. Brené Brown concludes that “shame is universal and one of the most primitive human emotions that we experience.” Whew! At least I’m not alone! AND at least I know I’m human (as if I needed any confirmation?).
But why am I writing about my experience of shame? Isn’t this a blog about education?
In over a decade of volunteering in classrooms, teaching remedial reading, coaching new teachers, working in district leadership across campuses, experiencing college first-hand as a student, and now coaching my phenomenal students at PelotonU, I have finally realized just how true Brown’s research is.
Shame is universal. Shame does not discriminate.
Shame and Education
In fact, in adult and higher education classrooms, we can encounter a lifetime’s worth of shame, because “shame rarely originates in the adult or higher education classroom or in the moment of learning. All of us bring early childhood shaming experiences” (Walker, 2017). Shame undeniably affects ALL students to some extent and drastically influences the thoughts and behaviors of some adult students, sometimes contributing to dropping out of school. If we’re serious about coaching students to success, we must intentionally learn more about how to help our students confront and navigate shame.
We could all use some affirmation that we are not alone in feeling shame – especially if we’ve experienced shame at school before. Though PelotonU students might be 18 or 55, might be grandparents or dating their first partner, native English speakers or newcomers to the US, all of them bring some shame around school. Common past experiences of PelotonU students include struggling to balance school with work and family responsibilities, feelings of not fitting in, needing to withdraw from school, failing classes, and unsuccessfully attempting school one or more times. Other frequent shame experiences for students may appear less directly related at first, but are deeply intertwined with school, such as not wanting to be perceived as a disorganized person, or not feeling important enough to share their ideas with the world.
Shame in Action
One of my amazing students, Heather (she underestimates how amazing she is!), has shared how difficult it still feels to continue working on schoolwork, even after a year of being successful at PelotonU. She has not been able to forget her previous college experiences, when she felt like she failed because she ended up withdrawing. She wasn’t able to balance working full-time with evening classes; it was difficult to keep up with the coursework while also finding time in her schedule for the tutoring she needed. She felt like she’d let herself down, but more than that, like she had let down their family and friends. Those feelings are hard to shake, even though there is a plethora of evidence for how she has been kicking butt in school the past year. “If I don’t meet my own goal for myself for the week, I feel like a failure all over again and I don’t want to look at myself in the mirror or admit to you that I didn’t meet that goal, even if it was because I was really sick! I can’t forget about everything negative in school before now, no matter how hard I try…”
Digging deep into what shame is, what can trigger it, how it can manifest physically and emotionally, and how to persevere through it are CRITICAL to helping all students succeed (and as an added bonus, these things apply to all other humans, too).
The great news is that there IS plenty of evidence for how shame-resilient folks are able to control shame, and anyone can learn how!
I’m excited to share some of the things I’ve learned in my exploration of shame, not only for my students but with my students (and selfishly feeling satisfaction that everything is applicable to me, too).
Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: Let go of who you think you’re supposed to be... Center City, MN: Hazelden.
Walker, J. (2017). Shame and transformation in the theory and practice of adult learning and education. Journal of Transformative Education, 15(4), 357-374.