What screams I'm ashamed

"We've got rid of our awareness of shame"

Finding a new way of dealing with shame: this is what Dr. Stephan Marks for almost 20 years. It is about nothing less than our human dignity. In the interview we find out what that has to do with recognition and belonging in school - for students we teachers

Whenever I said that I was preparing a conversation on the subject of "shame", it caused irritation. Do you get similar reactions?

Yes, quite often. It is also often mistaken for guilt. At the beginning of my training courses, many participants initially say that they actually have nothing to do with the topic. But that changes very quickly - within a few minutes it becomes clear what kind of shame is for a relevant topic. For schools, for example: It is the task of teachers to identify mistakes or misconduct. What do we do with it? It doesn't help to shame them, nor does it help to tell them: 'You don't need to be ashamed' - which, by the way, is a very common reaction. Is that how we deal with grief? Of course we can mourn. And I also believe that we humans should be ashamed of ourselves.

How do you observe this way of dealing with shame?

Let me give you an example: acquaintances of mine once reported that they visited their son with family. Over the course of this weekend, the grandchild starts hitting the grandmother until she says: 'Tobias, stop, you're hurting me.' Now the little one is ashamed, goes to grandfather and cuddles under his arm. He then says: 'You don't need to be ashamed'. We all know that this is of little help. Instead, the grandfather could convey an attitude that I would describe as: 'Tobias, I also know the shame and can therefore imagine how you feel now. I take you seriously with your feelings of shame. On the one hand, I will not trivialize it - and on the other hand, I will not shame, mock, or ridicule you. Welcome, here you can be with your shame. ‘We come to this attitude when we remove the taboo and acknowledge shame - and understand how it works.

So we got into the habit of pushing away shame?

Exactly. We come from a pedagogical tradition in which it has been customary for centuries to shame students, ridicule them and put them in the corner - so-called black pedagogy. There have been counter-movements for a few decades: non-violent pedagogy, for example, or peace pedagogy, the pedagogy of recognition, or even humanistic pedagogy. This, in turn, has led to the fact that young teachers in particular are now afraid of shaming students. Then errors or misconduct are no longer processed at all, but the next name is simply called.

You don't seem to see a solution in this.

Errors or misconduct by students must be named and dealt with. Doing this can trigger feelings of shame in students - teachers have to endure and accept this. However, on the condition not to be ashamed - but in a dignified, appreciative attitude. Then these are often the most important learning impulses. So the trick is to find a third way.

Let's take a step back: what exactly is shame?

First of all, it is a form of fear, triggered, for example, by a mistake that we have made. But shame is also an alarm signal. If the dignity is violated - both one's own and that of my counterpart, by the way - shame springs up like a seismograph reporting an earthquake. Shame is extremely painful, but it is also one of the most important social emotions because it regulates our interpersonal relationships. Human dignity is inviolable, this is how our Basic Law begins. And that is great. But if you ask around what human dignity is, you hardly get to hear more than that it is important. However, as long as the concept of human dignity is abstract, it has no consequences. That's why I try to translate human dignity into practice - and shame helps us because it is psychologically responsible for dignity. At the same time, not all shame is the same.

You mean there are different forms of shame?

I distinguish between four types of shame. It starts with not being seen as an individual, not being recognized in our uniqueness. Then we get cut: an interesting word that shows how painful it is to be passed over. What remains is the feeling of being nothing. 'I'm not adorable. I am the last shit. I don't exist. ‘

A second type of shame is about feelings that remain when something private or intimate comes out in public. It can be about physical nudity, but also about an intimate thought or wish that is made public and ridiculous - i.e. when our basic need for protection is violated.

Other feelings of shame arise when we have done something that is inappropriate or not viewed. 'What do others think of me, my family, my friends or classmates?' When we do something that seems wrong in the given context, we feel embarrassed. Behind this is our existential need for belonging. And a fourth form of shame occurs when I have violated my own values, have not remained true to myself and can no longer look in the eyes. In this pain, our need for integrity is violated.

From this you have developed the "room of dignity". What's it all about?

In an area of ​​dignity we all experience recognition, protection, belonging and integrity. This is an extremely complex task for teachers. For example, some students seem to be primarily interested in being seen: they keep telling me again and again. The danger is that the more we call them on, the more we call them, they may fall out of their class. What might help these students, however, would be more belonging: while dodgeball promotes exclusion, for example, working in changing small groups can strengthen belonging. In a classroom of dignity, students feel: 'I see you in your uniqueness. I won't make a fool of you, I respect your need for protection and I won't marginalize you - even if you got a six in math. You are one of them. ‘That's what I mean by recognition, which is often trivialized as praise. That is also important, but recognition is much more than that.

What if school doesn't function as a “space of dignity”?

We once observed soccer training in physical education here in Freiburg, and the following scene occurred: A student plays a bad pass, is laughed at and the next moment brutally kicks a classmate in the bones. That means he jumps out of shame into violence. If something like this happens again and again in class, it can become the secret curriculum of this class: Over time, young people learn to replace feelings of shame with verbal or physical violence, for example. And not only in the acute situation: Over time, this can become a chronic strategy to generally avoid feelings of shame in life - because the shame is so painful and everything else is less unbearable.

That couldn't sound more serious.

When we experience too much shame, there is a risk of falling into a flood of shame. Then the ego drowns in feelings of shame - literally: In traumatic shame, the same brain regions are active as in drowning people. Brain researchers have also observed that in a state of massive shame the reptilian brain takes over - then it's all about survival: 'fight, flight or hide'.

What does this mean for teachers?

Some behaviors of students or parents - such as coolness, arrogance, snotty answers, macho behavior, contempt or bullying - can be 'masks' behind which our counterpart tries to protect himself from existential hardship, a downright fear of survival: that is traumatic shame . 'Everything else, but don't feel ashamed'.

Getting rid of shame from students can make life hell for teachers. And the other way around is also true. In one of my first advanced training courses for teachers, an older teacher answered after the introduction: 'Well, Dr. Marks, when I heard about the topic of this training, I was quite skeptical ‘- understandable. And then he said: 'I only just realized how much I suffered as a student from the shame of my teachers, that I had repeated the same thing on my students as a teacher over the decades.' It was as quiet as a mouse. However, as soon as we consciously deal with shame, there are completely new ways of shaping interpersonal relationships.

These are high demands on teachers.

That's exactly the point. I am sure all teachers start with a desire to do better and not to embarrass, embarrass or ridicule students. But when the stress comes, the framework conditions are not right, teachers are also slapped as 'lazy sacks' by society, if you have to advocate a failed education policy - and then also turned on by students or treated like air, despite the effort to design good teaching: That makes it very difficult to stick to yourself. And then it can be that, as a teacher, I slide into the flood of shame myself and the reptilian brain takes over the direction. As a result, a school lesson fails and I am ashamed, because “I never wanted to be a teacher like that”.

What can help in such situations?

Supervision, for example - and an appreciative team. I know teachers to whom something like this happens: a school lesson is thrown into the sand. When you tell colleagues about it, they get to hear: 'I don't even know what you've got - has never happened to me'. This shows that too much shame makes you lonely and deprived of solidarity. This is how a college breaks: everyone just does their thing and the doors are closed. That is why it is important that a college or team is a space of dignity, where I can be with my feelings of shame and find understanding and support.

Dr. Marks, what problems could we solve with more awareness of shame?

It could help to decisively improve our interpersonal climate. I find it horrific how we often deal with each other - arrogance, devaluation, contempt, bullying: We have massive problems in schools, in many companies, in social interaction. Shame is the Social affect: Understanding it enables us to deal with one another with dignity. And then dignity would no longer be an abstract concept in our Basic Law.

Thank you for the interview!


Natalia Bronny conducted the interview

Dr. Stephan Marks is a social scientist, supervisor and non-fiction author. He has been giving lectures and training courses on the subject of human dignity and shame for many years. He addresses these to "people who work with people" - be it in school, social work, counseling, therapy, pastoral care, the police, prison labor and many others. In 2020 his work "Scham - die tabooierte Emotion" was published in the 9th edition, revised by Patmos Verlag. You can find out more at www.menschenwuerde-scham.de.