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The Psychology of Shame Published: Sunday, July 16, 2006 By: Dr. Manuel Ángel Morales

From many studies of people learning, performing and using leadership skills one can make the point that shame is a core impediment to well-intentioned, normal people having learning dialogues. In order to promote individual and organizational learning people have to be able to overcome the shame that activates so much of the negative behaviors and reactivity in organizational life. Shame is that part of all human beings that makes us unworthy, inadequate or bad. It is a feeling that we don’t belong and that people may not accept us. No matter how successful, powerful or beautiful a person is, we all carry our portion of shame. Paradoxically, sometimes shame compels a person to work so hard at being successful or powerful.

All human beings have a shame button, which are images we carry of ourselves pointing to some inadequate and fragile conceptions. Typical ones are not being smart, caring, likeable or attractive enough. The range of these images is as wide as human experience. People vary in how much shame they carry and how close to the surface these buttons are, but we all have them. When the button gets pushed we react in a defensive way, and that can impede a productive learning dialogue or conversation.

Gershem Kauffman (The Psychology of Shame, 1996) has argued that the number one way a child learns shame is when he/she asks a questions and doesn’t get a response. In many ways infancy is a setup for shame. We come to the world full of energy, vitality and curiosity, but our parents and the context want a “good” boy or girl. They are not excited with our discoveries and loud voices. This explains the emergence of severe reprimanded for telling children the ways their behavior is not right, why they should have different thoughts, why they should feel different feelings and want different wants. Of course, much of this socialization process is a necessary survival course, but it also has other consequences.

Understanding the psychology of shame has profound implications for leadership, management and productive organizational behavior. You will not induce productivity by shaming people. Shaming serves to reinforce a negative belief or map the person being shamed already has of himself. It activates the image of inadequacy to flash in the awareness domain, followed by physical and emotional pain, and feeling hurt the person will defend himself against it, in many creative ways.

To the extent possible, never shame other people, especially within a closed and sustained organizational setting. As soon as children and people learn to defend themselves against shame, that makes learning dialogue very difficult. (Wanting not to appear foolish, stupid or inept; wanting to get it right before I say or do something; wanting others to agree with me so I’ll feel accepted; always looking for what is wrong with others; wanting to know what others think before I say something; wanting to be fully in control of the impression I give to others; feeling intimidated by people, whenever I am not perfect; talking constantly about our position, experience or formal education. People sometimes defend themselves against feeling of their shame using the following behaviors: withdraw, perfection, contempt, anger, power and sarcasm.

If we learn to recognize our own shame-based defenses we will start responding to others more effectively and becoming constructive champions of interpersonal and organizational transformation.

 


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