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How to end the shame game: Supporting self-regulation after failure

Shame is a very unpleasant and activating, some even say "devastating" emotion.

We all know it and it accompanies us in our everyday life. We can be ashamed of anything and we are even ashamed of the fact that we are ashamed.

Shame is such a special emotion because it constantly provides us with information about ourselves, our identity and our position in social interaction.

When do we feel ashamed?

People usually feel ashamed when they do something wrong. This can be, for example, the violation of social norms, the perception of not meeting significant social requirements, or performing poorly. A bad grade at school can be all of these things to a student: "You must be good at school!", "Your friends can do it too!" or "You are obviously not capable!" can be feedback that reinforces shame after a failure. The problem is, in fact, that you are not ashamed of something you feel you did wrong - no, the impression of being generally wrong goes hand in hand with the feeling of shame. A client of mine once said "I was told that I was wrong so many times in school that at one point I thought I am wrong" and in further conversation "shame is a monster that rages inside me and destroys everything good, thoughts of my resources and beliefs about my competencies."

How does shame affect learning?

The problem of shame is yet another: Because this emotion is so unpleasant, everything that can trigger shame is avoided: People, situations, even one's own mistakes, for example, are prevented by being particularly perfectionistic. In the context of learning, this can mean that one no longer learns, for example, out of fear of failure and the threat of shame. The result is that one's own competencies actually decline and the risk of failure also increases objectively. A vicious circle develops, or rather: the shame game, in which one can actually only lose.

Thus, one can well imagine that it must be very difficult for students to recover and regulate their learning behavior after a failure associated with shame experience.

What can help students self-regulate feelings of shame?

Jeannine Turner and Jenefer Husman conducted an in-depth study with students in 2008 on the question of what can help learners self-regulate after a shame experience, and their findings can be applied well to the school context. Their conclusions are based on Pekrun's (2006) control-value theory. They explain there are two main starting points to help students self-regulate after a shame experience:

  1. Remind yourself of your goals and why they are important to you

The first point concerns the value appraisal (Pekrun): They found that learners found it easier to pursue their own goals after a shame experience if they made the value of the goal clear to themselves. This could be, for example, the overall goal being worked on, like:

  • "I want to get a good grade in math because I want to study physics later and be a renowned researcher"

  • "I want to increase my skills in math because I want to work in this field later."

They also found that it makes sense if the goals do not conflict with each other in the process.

(In Zimmerman's terms: support students' task value)

2. Reflect on how you're in control of your performance

The second point concerns the appraisal of one's own control (Pekrun). Learners who have the feeling that they have control over the attainment of their goals were more likely to be able to further regulate their learning behavior after a shame experience and to achieve their goals. Here, it seems particularly important to move from the global judgment of "I am bad" to a more nuanced judgment in the sense of "I did this or that wrong". Wrong behavior can be changed and influenced, while subjectively hardly anything can be changed about the self's own global deficits. The more the new behaviors correspond to the goals, the more likely the goal will be achieved.

(In Zimmerman's terms: examine and support students' attributions and outcome expectations)

How can you help as a teacher?

Imagine you see a student struggle with feelings of shame after failure. What seems a reasonable thing to do according to the study findings?

1. Teachers should provide students with concrete behaviors that will help them to achieve their goals.

2. Teachers should offer their students a whole repertoire of possible learning strategies. Methodological diversity increases learners' experience of autonomy.

3. In order for the whole class to benefit from the experiences of others, it may be useful to discuss possible different strategies in the group.

4. Teachers should discuss both short-term and long-term goals with their students. Short-term goals can be discussed with specific strategies for achieving them. Long-term goals are important to clarify the overarching value and thus put an individual failure into perspective.

5. Teachers should demonstrate that engagement per se can be an incentive in the learning context, thus motivating learners to maintain their learning behavior.

Hopefully, these tips will help to end the shame game and ultimately make students winners in their own learning.



Husman, J., & Turner, J. E. (2008). Emotional and cognitive self-regulation following academic shame. Journal of Advanced Academics, 20(1), 138-137.

Shame photo created by diana.grytsku -

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