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Shame fuels resistance

Updated: Feb 1, 2022

Although I've taken countless courses in Psychology, I haven't had much training in therapeutic Psychology. My interests and exposure had been more scientific / academic.

There is, however, one particular course in Therapeutic Psychology which I've taken in my fourth year which was focused on the Psychodynamic Therapeutic Approach. Within this course there was one catchy line which stuck with me over the past decade: "Shame fuels resistance."

In short, I've learnt that as a therapist (which I'm not ... at least yet) it's always good practice to steer well clear of shaming a client. We might not always be intentional about shaming others, we could, quite unwittingly, be perpetrators of shame. Apart from the moral aspects of shaming another there's also a more practical obstacle which shame brings into human relationships: the more shame, the more resistance.

As a teacher, I've seen this play out in the classroom. Some students may present with problematic behaviour e.g. being disruptive or consistently tardy etc. and in my attempts to restore discipline in the classroom I might - not intentionally - shame the student. I might be tempted to 'make an example' of the student, or label them as a 'latecomer' or keep the spotlight just a little bit too long on the student which might be embarrassing for them. Or, I might - in my impatience and anger - have said something publically which has brought shame on them. I've made many mistakes in my teaching career, but this one has taken me on a quite a journey.

The more shame I've brought on a student, through my well-intentioned disciplinary actions, the more the student resisted me and the more I've had to up the ante. This usually started a proverbial vicious circle and I'd end up losing rapport with the student and their behaviour usually becomes more disruptive, dismissive and disrespectful.

Upon reflection, I've learnt that I had played a role in the student's active (or passive) resistance. Not only had I lost rapport with the student, but I'd also lost their respect and all of this because I'd acted in a manner which has brought shame on the student. Fixing this is hard, and sometimes, nigh unto impossible (I pray that it's not).

Even after years of intentional focus, not to say or do something which might bring public shame on someone else, I still put my foot in my mouth and unintentionally shame others. I'm feeling particularly courageous, so I'll provide a recent example.

A particular worker, under my leadership, has recently taken on toilet cleaning duties (a duty which I often fulfil quite happily in my organisation - no shame in that). But when I had learned (actually received a complaint) that a particular ladies toilet had run out of toilet paper and has not been adequately supplied I shamed the worker. Instead of taking him aside, away from the gaze of my colleagues and our superiors, I've asked him (unfortunately in front of others), "Why do you only act now that supplies have run out and not beforehand?" Of course my head was on the line with my superiors, but it was wrong of me to confront this colleague in front of others. I could've spared him the shame and could've opted to have this difficult conversation in private.

I shouldn't be surprised when others lose their goodwill towards me or become less open or trusting towards me if I'm still a perpetrator of shame. I'm of the opinion that others want to be seen as good, competent and worthy. Shaming provides the opposite message. I'm still on a journey, but I'm ever-conscious of how shame fuels resistance in others.


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