In light of the Government’s open consultation around transforming children and young people’s mental health provision there has never been a better time for us to understand what gets in the way of our positive mental heath.
‘Being well’ means we are likely to feel positive about ourselves, feel and express a range of emotions, feel engaged with the world around us, adapt and manage in times of uncertainty, cope with the stresses of everyday life, and build good relationships with the people around us.
At the heart of my work with adults is exploring how childhood shame messages affect the way they live, lead and work, today. Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, has spent the past sixteen years studying courage, vulnerability, empathy, and shame. Her definition of shame is that is is ‘the universal, painful human experience of believing we are flawed and unworthy of love and belonging’. We all have the capacity to feel, express and inflict shame on others. Strong feelings of shame trigger the sympathetic nervous system and causing a fight, flight or freeze reaction. It’s hard to talk about. Even the word ‘shame’ can make us have a physical reaction to it.
I’ll use a made-up story to show how we might understand shame, guilt, humiliation and embarrassment, and why it’s useful to understand the difference when working with young people.
Imagine a child or young person comes home from school or college, having been brought up to the front of the entire class for not having done their homework.
If they feel shame, they are likely to be thinking “I am bad” and they’re less likely to say anything - there’s nothing to tell after all - it just reinforces a belief that ‘there is something fundamentally wrong with me’. Shame is isolating and happens in secrecy and silence, and is positively correlated with depression, self-harm, bullying, addiction and aggression.
Guilt, on the other hand, is linked to behaviour. ‘‘I did something bad”. Unlike shame, guilt can have a positive outcome as it can be the trigger for us in putting things right. So maybe ‘I hadn’t done my homework when I said that I would, I’ll go do it now’.
If the person felt humiliation, you’re likely to hear about that as their parent or care-giver, because they will feel strongly that they didn’t deserve what happened. It’s less corrosive because they don’t make it about them, as a person.
The hallmark of embarrassment, is that it’s fleeting and funny, and we recognise that we’re not the only person to have ever come out of the loo with toilet paper on our shoe, or trip over in public.
When a ‘shame storm’ strikes, the antidote is in recognising that it’s happening and reaching out to someone you deeply trust where you will be met with empathy and non-judgement. More widely, understanding how shame operates in your life and developing skills around self-compassion, shame-resilience and empathy - I truly believe it’s the inner work that we all could benefit from doing.
For more information on mental wellbeing, see mind.org.uk.
Jacqui Sjenitzer is a trained coach, psychologist and Certified Daring Way™ Facilitator. She works with groups, teams and leaders in workplaces and communities, helping them develop braver, happier people, and works with women wanting to experience the full The Daring Way™ curriculum on a 1:1 basis.