BOSTON -- A child punished by his parents and feeling shame hides under his bed demanding that people go away and not look at him. A boy cuts school when his acne becomes so severe he cannot show his face without feeling humiliated. Embarrassed by her clothes, her hair, or her weight, a girl refuses to leave home.
Shame resides in the soul as an assessment of the self as bad.
While healthy shame gives the child permission to be human, toxic shame renders one's sense of self as worthlessness, defective. Shame can cause a child to feel despair to the point of feeling immobilized. It can also cause a child to experience murderous or suicidal rage.
Shame lives at the core of trauma. It insinuates itself into the fantasies of the wounded, its poison seemingly multiplying geometrically. Even the perception of potential humiliation, the thought, "what would people think if they knew this about me?" can become so searing it can cause a person to self-destruct through self-loathing, or in contrast, become murderous.
It may not be a stretch to suggest that the two young men who committed murder and suicide at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., more than a year ago may have looked at the shamers of their lives as their most significant points of reference, surreal fun-house mirrors magnifying and mocking their already precarious self-images.
The child admitting to ignorance, inadequacy or culpability in a setting that shames runs the risk of having his or her belief in personal goodness and integrity destroyed. To have it discovered that one is a pretender, a sham, a mere actor who hides sadness and hurt with masks of power, grandiosity and toughness, is possibly to have life itself destroyed.
These dynamics may play out in any classroom.
Merely to be open to learning, one has to be comfortable enough with the potential vulnerability that not knowing something or outright failure can bring. No one knows what any child in any classroom is thinking, feeling or experiencing. No one knows how alone that child may be feeling, how vulnerable he or she may be to acts of humiliation or exclusion.
We know how it feels to have friends -- themselves perhaps acting out of a sense of shame -- not look at us or, worse, give us the silent treatment. No one can know who in that classroom could turn their loneliness and shame into such rage that they would consider killing themselves or others.
The ideal classroom is not only a magical arena of learning, it must be a safe container. For learning to take place and moral character to develop in this container, shame along with humiliation, ridicule and inappropriate condemnation must remain strangers. Children need to know where they stand. They need evidence that they are worthy, competent, good, or instruction on or models of how to become worthy, competent and good.
Shame is never the means by which these three qualities are reached. Rather, shame is transformed by the child into public and private evidence of worthlessness, incompetence and badness. It is worn on the child's face just as it is housed in his or her body, and once there it seems never to fully disappear.
Beware the shamed child, for he or she carries the seeds of death -- his or her own, or someone else's.
Thomas J. Cottle is professor of education at Boston University. Daniel Frank is associate principal at the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago and executive director of the International Society for the Psychoanalytic Study of Organizations.