Opinion: The complexity and power of shame

By Mohan Dhall
Representative image // Photo by Caleb Woods on Unsplash

Shame is a potent emotion, capable of both burning and isolating individuals. It can leave them feeling cast aside and alone, with the potential to cause immense destruction. Yet, shame can also serve as a pivotal moment, a turning point where hidden truths come to light, and silent cries for help are finally heard and heeded. It’s a moment where individuals can align their lives with their deepest values. However, shame isn’t always externally imposed; it can stem from internal voices, personal standards, and a desire for growth. Understanding shame deeply is key to understanding ourselves as well as others.

Shame, at its core, involves the internalisation of values and the risks associated with deviating from them. From a young age, children absorb the values of their families and communities, learning what is expected of them. As they grow, they navigate the delicate balance between individuality and conformity, grappling with the pressure to fit in while staying true to themselves. In this process, shame can arise when they explore boundaries or take risks that others may not understand.

Schools and parents struggle to understand this when addressing the growing issue of sexting scams affecting vulnerable adolescents. Rather than disclose, the affected teenagers can self-harm as means of avoiding exposure. Much more insight and understanding needs to be brought to understanding shame so that adolescent behaviour can be better understood, risks managed, and support given if things take a darker turn. Adults need to understand the emotion of shame well in order to know why adolescents may not reach out when they are hurting, confused and afraid.

Misunderstandings and misinterpretations can also fuel shame, leaving individuals feeling exposed and embarrassed. Whether it’s unknowingly transgressing social norms or cultural expectations, the resulting shame can be deeply felt. Yet, shame isn’t always destructive; it can also be a catalyst for positive change.

In criminal law, for example, shame is recognised as a powerful tool for rehabilitation, encouraging offenders to take responsibility for their actions and make amends. Increasingly, governments are using the power of public shaming as a means of correcting behaviour that offends public values. “Name and shame” regimes in consumer law and in the construction sector are examples of how a focus on exposing shameful behaviour can be utilised as impetus for rehabilitation.

However, shame isn’t always constructive. In educational settings, children who feel like they don’t belong or who struggle with learning difficulties may experience debilitating shame. Many students will not take academic risks for fear of failure and the shame they feel this brings. Others will not reveal difficultly in understanding for fear of being exposed.

Overcoming these feelings requires empathy, understanding, and support from educators and peers alike. Even students who understand they have learning differences can feel shame after achieving academic success. The notion of ‘imposter syndrome’ is widely understood to stem from feelings of not being good enough and, in part, shame. Shame that excludes people from a sense of fully belonging. Ultimately, shame is a universal human experience, one that can either hinder or foster growth depending on how it’s acknowledged and addressed.

Shame can also arise from situations where a person has no control. A child whose parents are unemployed may feel shame. The parents may avoid the school being ashamed of their circumstances. Being embarrassed by ones’ parents may be universal experience for adolescents but feeling ashamed is not. Circumstances can exclude families, make children withdraw and avoid friendships for fear of exposure. This too needs understanding when schools wonder why parents do not get actively involved in the child’s education.

In a world where shame is often stigmatised and misunderstood, it’s crucial to recognise its complexity and power. By embracing vulnerability and empathy, we can create spaces where shame is met with compassion rather than condemnation. Only then can we truly harness the transformative potential of this profound emotion.

(The views expressed are those of the author’s. Mohan Dhall is a Lecturer in Education at UTS, the CEO of the Australian Tutoring Association (ATA) and the Global Professional Tutors Association (GPTA). He is also a Chartered Manager and Fellow of the Institute of Managers and Leaders)

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