Why do some people love to be ashamed

Avoid embarrassment - discover strengths

Stefan Paetzholdt-Hofner

To start with, three short stories:

  1. "Nice childhood in the department store. The only familiar thing has been lost, submerged in neon-bright ravines. The little one, in tears and whimpering without composure: Mama, Mama. - As always, a lot of willingness to help, spare hands, shaken off by the child, it runs around and screams. Is heard somewhere behind a colorful backdrop: There she comes, the mother, the child towards her with a heated face, crying, but relieved, and she sits down in front of him, spreads her arms and strikes, left right, left right, and hisses and insults "(from" Zündels Abgang "by Markus Werner, Munich: dtv-Verlag 1988).
  2. "That's it!" the dragon screamed shrilly and glared at the little Indian with his glasses. "So you don't know? You bite the stupidest and laziest child I know. And stupidity and laziness have to be punished!" (The dragon molar in "Jim Button and Luke the Engine Driver" by Michael Ende, Stuttgart: Thienemann-Verlag 2004).
  3. At the beginning of my puberty, a girl next door asked me if I would like to go with her. When I asked "where to", she burst out laughing, and for weeks afterwards I was ashamed when I saw her.

Perhaps we are relatively certain that we would never react like the mother and also not scold quite as badly if a child cannot do something like the dragon molar. But we all know the affect of shame, of being ashamed, when we are ashamed of ourselves or of other people. You probably also remember situations as a child where parents, acquaintances, friends or educators offended and shamed you through disparaging remarks, through reactions and sentences that you experienced as hurtful and unfair back then as a child, or through embarrassing situations, in which you were involved.

While we experience shame as offensive, shame belongs to us humans, and already in the Genesis of the Old Testament we read that Adam and Eve were ashamed when they noticed that they were naked. For me at the age of 14 it was terribly embarrassing to suddenly stand naked in front of my also undressed Latin teacher on a nudist beach during the summer holidays.

So there seems to be something important in a healthy shame, something that belongs to us humans and protects our body and our inner being, a guardian of our privacy, our integrity, our dignity. Not everyone is allowed to know everything, to see everything, and we know the uncomfortable feeling of being "seen through" and thus no longer having any secrets from the other. Shame has to do with how far we show something of ourselves to others, and often we feel in ourselves that the more often we have been shamed, the less we show other people about our inner life. So this deeply human shame, which protects us, makes us feel with others and shows us that we have acted against our conscience, is important for us and our coexistence.

So let us briefly state that feelings of shame can also be meaningful, necessary and natural, that it is good that we have a conscience and, with the help of a healthy shame, we can become social, empathetic, and in a certain way "decent" people.

But in addition to this healthy shame, which can make us aware that we made a mistake earlier, there is unfortunately also a toxic, i.e. poisonous shame that settles in us and gives us the tragic feeling that I am faulty, not am valuable.

However, shame and guilt are not the same. Because if I've made a mistake, I can apologize (hoping the other will accept it), but if I feel like I'm wrong, I can't easily put myself off. So shame is an inner feeling related to myself, and that's why we say: "I am ashamed".

But where does this shame that poison our lives come from? Violence, humiliation, disregard and even shame are the great threats to our dignity, our self-worth. In the past people were pilloried, today there is the Bild newspaper or television programs such as "Do you understand fun?" Shame does not only show itself in a conspicuous physical way like a slap in the face, but unfortunately very often in small, unconscious looks, messages, gestures and sayings, in exposing, in disregard, in criticism "below the belt" or in disrespect and laughing at others .

The BEP (Bavarian Education and Upbringing Plan), which is binding for us, is shaped by the following image of man: "The reference point for educational thought and action is the child as a fully fledged personality. Such an image of the child requires unconditional acceptance and respect for the child from adults. His person is to be valued unreservedly and must never be embarrassed. "

Certainly we all totally agree with this statement, but perhaps some doubts arise as to whether this is always possible in everyday pedagogical stress. Aren't there children who can really drive you crazy, who ask for the tenth time whether they're allowed to go to the bathroom, and I get annoyed with "No, you can't!" answer and have a confused, irritated child in front of me who looks at me and asks: "Why not?" and I laugh at him and shake my head?

Is a little irony that bad, e.g. a child with a "Maybe you will use your brain!" to wake up from its trance - and maybe it will find out for itself that its question was stupid?

If a child falls down and cries and I say: "Come on, it's not that bad, don't have to cry!", Is that a shame?

And when there is ice cream for dessert, everyone is happy, and I say to Moritz next to me: "Unfortunately, no ice cream for you! You haven't made the main course, then you can't put any dessert in!" Where is the line between consistency, punishment and shame?

Two first remarks: No, we as humans will probably offend and shame others from time to time, even if we consciously do not want to because we do not take our feelings and those of others seriously, we abuse our power or make ironic comments. Nevertheless, humiliations are bad, the small and the large. Bad, because they are devaluations for the other, bad for the inner image a child makes of himself in the course of life, and where every shame drips some poison into his self-esteem and he begins to doubt whether it is valuable, whether it is accepted as a person with all his feelings.

All of these hurtful and shameful physical and mental injuries are "blows", writes Robert Bly (1991), "which undermine self-respect, undermine our sense of our own dignity, dampen our enthusiasm, poison and destroy our self-confidence, bruises on the skin Leaving a soul behind and undermining and degrading the feeling for one's own body ".

It is the question of our attitude, our values, our heart formation, our sensitive, empathic presence and perception. Although we as human beings keep making mistakes, offending or hurting others, I am firmly convinced that we can reduce devaluing behavior patterns and become more conscious. As adults, we should also apologize to children, telling them "I'm not perfect, I make mistakes, but I'm learning, I'm sorry".

It is we adults - and this is important to me - who are responsible for communicating with the children. And we should really be clear about what we really mean by such great terms as empathy and presence.

How often do we give advice, teach, pity, interrogate and improve instead of being open and mindful for the other. The philosopher Martin Buber writes: "Despite all the similarities, every living situation, like a newborn child, also has a new face that has never existed and will never return. The new situation expects an answer from you that does not Can be prepared in advance. She expects nothing from the past. She expects presence, responsibility; she expects - you. "

I think that is really difficult for us educators when we have so many theories, concepts, ideas and goals in mind, but we can practice this being there and being open - every day anew with children.

The child and youth therapist Nossrat Pessechkian speaks of recurring insults, shame or devaluation of "microtraumas", which over time lead to massive damage to our self-esteem. When, as a child, I keep hearing and feeling "Don't act like that, what's the point of the rubbish now, if you could listen, it won't be anything anyway, typical that you haven't paid attention again!", Then it seeps inexorably and very deeply into my image that I have of myself and my feeling of how much I am worth.

The insidious and mean thing about shaming is that as a child I cannot defend myself against people I love and on whom I depend, and that I ingest this poison through identification and imitation. As I get older, I often feel ashamed of myself and feel guilty, as a "victim", only when, for example, I feel certain feelings such as anger and sadness.

And this poisoned shame makes us speechless, sad, lonely; we feel wrong, we want to "sink into the ground in shame", i.e. we are afraid to show ourselves; we are demoralized.

These self-doubts, these demoralizations are the opposite of what the Israeli health researcher Aaron Antonovsky calls the essential core of a mentally and physically healthy life, the sense of coherence. This sense of coherence, or let's also call it the inner sense of life, is the ability to give me and my life, my family, relationship or work a meaning, to experience myself and what I do as meaningful and valuable, even if it always is there are crises, conflicts and stressful life situations again.

We should contribute to this with education and upbringing: to enable children in a rapidly changing time with their great opportunities and risks to develop their own sense of life and a positive self-concept of themselves, where as few shame as possible have left cracks. We should enable self-efficacy and personal responsibility and not undermine it by devaluing it.

An argument broke out in the cozy house of a kindergarten and it got louder. The kindergarten teacher went over to it, lifted the curtain and said: "If you can't play properly in there, then it's all over for everyone! I'll only say that once!"

A shame or a meaningful limit? It is feedback to the children that arguing is not okay, that arguing children are not okay, that they should please be decent after all - whatever that means in concrete terms - and a wonderful chance is wasted to practice arguing with children to help them negotiate different needs and develop communication skills. What the children then learn in such situations is that arguing is undesirable and actually bad, instead of trying out with a teacher how we can argue constructively without being embarrassed.

But how does it come that we keep slipping into insulting, shameful, hurtful behavior patterns? The answer is as simple as it is painful: because we too have been shamed and offended by people we loved, who we were close to and on whom we were dependent. And precisely because we know how shame feels in our soul, because it used to hurt us so much, that is why we unfortunately often unconsciously repeat this pattern with the opposite sign.

Sigrid Ebert writes in an article about the difficulty of teaching and learning upbringing: "I consider the ability to relate to one of the most important personal skills that an educator must have. To understand children and empathize with a child does not seem to me to be possible without thinking about myself, without reflecting on how my own path was, what stressful and blocking. "

Before reading on, take some time to pause and investigate:

What shame and insults in your childhood do you remember? What did you feel then, how did you deal with it?

In what situations does it happen to you today that you offend or devalue others? Do you have any idea what you are protecting yourself from?

Which sentences or sayings do you often "slip" out of when you are angry and in conflict situations? How do you know these "comments"?

Who and what could help you to react more carefully and appreciatively in some situations? What role do stress, fear and excessive demands play?

How might you react if you see colleagues on your team shaming and offending children?

As an educator, what do you need in order not to "harden", but rather to empathize with children and yourself again and again?

How do you react when you feel offended and ashamed of yourself by criticism or expectations from parents?

What thoughts and feelings does what you have read trigger in you?

So I come to six thoughts on how shame can be reduced or avoided and strengths developed:

  1. Through the mindful "recognition" - that is, perceiving and appreciating - my own biography, through the sometimes painful awareness of my own life story, I can become clearer, more open, more sensitive, as I do not have to act out my own fears and injuries unconsciously on the children . Self-awareness is an essential part of a good teacher training because some things have been suppressed and can cause a lot of harm in everyday life.
    Mr. Spaemann writes in "Courage to Educate": "The first responsibility that the educator has is the responsibility for the childhood memories from which a person will live his life." Because if I suppress and fend off the shame I have suffered myself, there is a particularly great danger of offending others through arrogance, cynicism, contempt, or of hiding myself behind a mask or of slipping into addiction or perfectionism. We cannot avoid perceiving the shamed "inner child" and thus our "shadow" in us anew.
  2. I check my "internal answering machine" in the spirit of Jesper Juul, the educator and family therapist from Denmark, whom I appreciate very much. In the course of my life I have saved "genetic material" and "beach property" on it with offensive comments that I reel off at the push of a button in difficult, stressful situations.
    Notice what sentences you have ready and which of them you didn't like as a child. Start erasing offensive lines and trying new sentences. Empathetic presence and appreciative contact do not go well with constant new advice, instructions, with pity or interrogation, with explanations or improvement. Only when we become aware of the unconscious is there a chance of change.
    In addition, in our social work context, children cannot defend themselves against lovingly packaged shame, which may end with the sentence: "Don't you understand fun?"
  3. Take the time not only to plan offers and projects well, but also to feel out and become aware of your own attitude and your own values. Can I accept that children are not equal, but are of equal value? Is lying only bad and bad, or can I allow some behavior disorders to appear necessary to the child as an attempt to turn around adversity?
    We should accept the children's competence and really integrate it into our actions and be ready to take the annoying or boredom of some offers seriously as feedback instead of scolding and shaming the children.
    Am I there for the children or do I need them for my self-affirmation and my own attention? Make yourself aware of what needs you yourself as an adult and what your children have!
  4. When I work as a pedagogue with very fixed ideas about what is right and wrong, these ideas literally often come before me or between the child and me. Dare to enter into contact, to enter into dialogue with children and to allow yourself to be drawn into surprises and what is happening in the moment. Even if you are not currently making an offer, be vigilant and present with your senses!
    It can be a bit exhausting at times, but you will be rewarded with committed, motivated children.Hand over responsibility to the children when doing things together, alternate between leading and following.
    And please pay special attention to the quiet, good children who may have withdrawn into themselves for fear of losing love, for fear of new insults and who adapt to us too often (the gunman in Winnenden is a new, terribly tragic example of such a long time "inconspicuous child").
  5. Notice the children's posture, eyes and facial expressions. You can see shame in the other. And please take the children's needs, feelings and reactions to your offers and actions seriously. It's not just about your goals or what you want to promote.
    After lunch, an educator had prepared a fantasy trip for "little, tired tigers" in the after-school care center. However, the children did not want to lie still while they were being offered, but rather crawl across the room on all fours and scratch and tease the other tigers a bit. After a few admonitions, then ranting, the teacher broke off the lesson and said: "I'm really disappointed. You can't do anything nice with you today!" These children were shamed, devalued, even though they only showed their needs for exercise and play ...
  6. Take care of yourself, your mood, your stress, your excessive demands. Check your own high standards, set yourself limits and please treat yourself with love and appreciation. Be aware and take it seriously if you feel ashamed or offended at home, at work, at school.
    In our society, teachers often feel neglected or ashamed, and unfortunately they too often feel ashamed. In a 2005 study, three quarters of all pupils stated that they had been offended or disregarded by teachers in school. Recognition is the first step towards change.

Finally, one last little story: There was a neighbor where I grew up whose main purpose in life was cleaning. Sweeping away the leaves in front of the house - what else might the other neighbors think? - and of course mop and vacuum around the house every day. There were no cobwebs and you could have eaten off the floor. Once she told my mother that it would be the worst for her if something happened to her and acquaintances came into the house or in the event of a fire the fire department would come and they would see dirt or things lying around. Then she would be ashamed to death.

So we can even learn to be ashamed of the future in anticipation, and something like that creates this deeply internalized, poisonous shame that separates us from life.

We can lovingly perceive the ashamed little child in us anew, we can become more empathetic and more aware of our own feelings and needs. We do not have to be exemplary when dealing with children, but we should be aware that we are role models, because "through you, people become I" (Martin Buber).

"Who do you call bad? - The one who wants to shame me.
What is the most human thing? - To spare someone shame.
What is the seal of freedom achieved? - No longer be ashamed of yourself. "
(Friedrich Nietzsche, The happy science, Aph. 273-275).


This article is a revised lecture for educators in February 2009 at the Municipal Academy for Social Pedagogy, Munich.

You can find an article on the subject of idiosyncratic children here at www.kindergartenpaedagogik.de/969.html

Further reading on the subject of self-worth, shame and shame

Baer, ​​Udo / Frick-Baer, ​​Gabriele: On Shame and Shame and How Children Feel, Volumes 1 and 7. Weinheim, Basel 2008

Bly, Robert: Eisenhans - A book for men. Munich 1991

Bradshaw, John: When shame makes you sick. Munich 2006

Büntig, Wolf: "Attention - a basic human need". Article in www.zist.de

Ebert, Sigrid: On the Difficulty of Teaching Upbringing and Learning. In: Education in the Risk Society, Socio-educational sheets. Weinheim, Basel 1999

Juul, Jesper: The competent child. Reinbek near Hamburg 2003

Keupp, Heiner: Encouragement to walk upright, Forum 35. Tübingen 1997

Lienhard, Valentin: Going new ways with children. Reinbek near Hamburg 2000

Marks, Stephan: Shame - the taboo emotion. Düsseldorf 2007

Marks, Stephan: "I am a mistake!" Psychologie heute 2/2009, p. 42

Marks, Stephan (Ed.): Shame - Shame - Recognition. Berlin 2007

Opp, Günther / Fingerle, Michael (ed.): What strengthens children. Education between risk and resilience. Munich 1999

Pessechkian, Nossrat: Constant dripping wears away the stone. Microtraumas - The drama of minor injuries. Frankfurt 2005

Rosenberg, Marshall B .: Nonviolent Communication. Paderborn 2001

Rosenberg, Marshall B .: Solving conflicts through non-violent communication. Freiburg 2004

Gaschler, Frank and Gundi: I want to understand what you really need / The Giraffentraum project. Munich 2009

Shame. bankruptcy register 43. Tübingen 2005

Spaemann, Robert: Courage to educate. The challenge in education and ethics. Edited by Beutler / Horster, Stuttgart 1996


Stefan Paetzholdt-Hofner, graduate social worker (FH), teacher at the Städt. Fachakademie für Sozialpädagogik, Munich, and freelance trainer and consultant

Contact via www.eigen-sinn.info