In our infancy, our rate of learning is exponential, and our rate of failure is also significant. We try to stand, we lose our balance and try again. We take our first steps, we fall down and have another go. In our younger years, we trip and fall, and although we might initially get upset from the shock or physical pain, we will make another attempt. And, if we have a secure attachment with our caregivers, they delight in these attempts and we delight in them.
So, when does failure go from a natural part of learning to something we avoid and are scared of? And how does shame affect our relationship with failure?
Researcher Carol Dweck (2007) believes that people have a tendency to hold one of two mindsets in different areas of their lives: ‘fixed’ or ‘growth.’ A ‘fixed’ mindset corresponds with the belief that abilities are set in stone, and that people are born with a set amount of intelligence. Whereas a ‘growth’ mindset hinges on the principle that talent and intelligence can be grown and developed, therefore effort and determination are an essential factor in experiencing success.
Praise and the link to growth mindset
Part of Dweck’s research about mindset involved studying the impact of praising the person, the product or the process.
Among other things, these studies found that students who were given ‘person’ or ‘product’ praise, for example, being praised for their intelligence or for a perfect test score, were more like to demonstrate a fixed mindset – they believed that their ability had an innate, fixed capacity. However, students who were given ‘process’ praise, for example, being praised for effort, tended to demonstrate a growth mindset – the belief that skills and knowledge can change through effort and learning.
Unhealthy shame can arise when we criticise the person instead of the behaviour (Hanson, 2019). However, where praise is only given, or withheld, on the premise of achieving an end goal, shame can also ensue. The external labelling becomes internalised as ‘I am stupid’ or ‘I am a failure’.
The Impact of Shame
Shame can be a natural and healthy part of development. But are there levels of shame that can impact our self-esteem, which in turn affects our mindset?
Author and clinical psychologist Dr Joseph Burgo (2018) explains that interpersonal joy is crucial during a child’s first year of life in order for their brain to develop normally. However, children also need to encounter mildly shaming experiences in the second and third years of life in order to continue normal neurological development. For example, ‘Daddy is talking to Aunty Mel right now, please don’t interrupt’ or ‘Wait your turn.’
Children who experience mild feelings of shame learn how to control their impulses and develop an understanding that their needs aren’t always paramount, that other people matter and that we need to take their needs into account as well.
Although children who don’t experience joyful expressions of love from their caregivers can develop narcissistic tendencies as a defence mechanism against core shame, so too can children who are corrected too harshly or who are humiliated by their caregivers. They may learn to avoid encounters with other people or develop perfectionistic tendencies in order to avoid any correction that involves shaming. Frequent experiences of shame can be linked to chronically low self-esteem (Elison, Garofalo & Velotti, 2014).
This avoidance of shame can manifest itself in being overly shy, experiencing social anxiety or even becoming a shut-in and avoiding the world around us. People who try to avoid rejection to avoid shame can develop feelings of unworthiness, which could lead to a fear of relationships. Avoiding shame can also lead to the suppression of emotions (Garofalo et. al., 2016).
Shame and the link to growth mindset
If we know from Dweck and Burgo that non-stop praise and encouragement does not relate to healthy self-esteem, how can we, as educators, promote a positive sense of self and encourage the development of a growth mindset?
Create a supportive classroom environment
As Brené Brown (2017) states: ‘Vulnerability is our most accurate measure of courage. Tell me how vulnerable someone is willing to be, and I’ll tell you how brave they’re willing to be.’ Creating a classroom environment in which students can be vulnerable, can be open to mistakes, can be brave, helps to place them in a position where failure doesn’t carry the same sense of shame that it could otherwise. Rather than trying to be cool and in control, students can explore, innovate and feel free to be vulnerable – even celebrating failure as a necessary part of learning.
Establish positive relationships
Self-esteem is not simply about the relationship with the self. Our self-concept is actually a social construct and we define our own identity through our relationships with significant others. The health of these interpersonal relationships is vital, as is the reciprocated joy experienced by students with their caregivers and teachers.
Brown (2017) states that 85 per cent of people she has interviewed for her research can recall something that happened at school that was so shaming it changed how they perceived themselves as learners. Students look to teachers for validation and reassurance, so it’s imperative that our reaction to students’ failure does not induce embarrassment and shame but, instead, encourages students to see failure is a natural part of the learning continuum.
Praise the process
Dweck’s (2007) research on praise emphasises how vital it is that we, as teachers, encourage students for their perseverance, use of strategies and improvement rather than for how ‘intelligent’ they are. We should delight in their efforts while supporting students with strategies to improve their understanding. This supports students’ development of positive self-esteem while also encouraging them to develop resilience by persisting in the face of difficulty.
When it comes to praise, Kohn (2006) suggests alternatives such as:
- describing what you see, rather than evaluating it,
- explaining the impact of the child’s actions on others, and
- asking, instead of judging.
Researcher and social psychologist Kristin Neff (2003) found, among other things, that self-compassion can act as an antidote to self-criticism, which is a common trait for those who experience intense shame. Self-compassion also involves exploring our common humanity – in this case, acknowledging that everyone experiences failure. Teaching your students how to speak to themselves as they would to a good friend, responding to themselves with love, care and concern, is a powerful antidote to the pervasive feeling of shame.
Dealing with Shame
Finally, when it comes to our own experiences of shame, Brown (2015) encourages us to learn to realise how we experience shame, to recognise our triggers and to identify the truth about what’s actually happening. In short, we need to confront the ‘story’ we are telling ourselves in order to make sense of the situation. By sharing this story with others in a way that brings the situation, and your interpretation of it, to light, we will often find that the truth is of the matter is something different altogether.
Although some forms of shame are toxic, shame is actually an inevitable part of everyday life. By the same token, so is failure. Shaming experiences and failure both give us a chance to learn something about ourselves. By simply ignoring or resisting this feeling, we are passing up an opportunity for growth.
Brown, B. (2015). Rising Strong. Penguin Random House, UK.
Burgo, J. (2018). Shame: Free Yourself, Find Joy, and Build True Self-Esteem, Pan Macmillan Australia.
Dweck, C. (2007). Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. Random House.
Elison, J., Garofalo, C. & Velotti, P. (2014). Shame and aggression: Theoretical considerations. Aggression and Violent Behavior, 19, 447–453.
(Editors) ‘Embrace the Uncool: Brené Brown on Overcoming Shame’ (2017) https://heleo.com/conversation-embrace-the-uncool-brene-brown-on-overcoming-shame/12402/
Garofalo, C., Bottazzi, F. & Caretti, V. (2016). Faces of shame: Implications for self-esteem, emotion regulation, aggression, and well-being. Journal of Psychology, 151(2).
Kohn, A. (2006). Unconditional Parenting: Moving from Rewards and Punishments to Love and Reason. Atria Books.
Neff, K. (2003). Self-Compassion: An Alternative Conceptualization of a Healthy Attitude Toward Oneself. Self and Identity, 2(2), 85–101.
Brown, B. (2015). Rising Strong. Penguin Random House, UK.
Aimee is the Product Manager at the Institute of Positive Education. She is responsible for crafting the Institute's Positive Education Enhanced Curriculum (PEEC) from ELC – 12. An experienced teacher and writer since 2005, Aimee has taught in both primary and secondary contexts, and has written content for a variety of government and non-government agencies. She is passionate about supporting teachers and ensuring the wellbeing of children, both in our schools and around the globe.