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You walk into an important meeting, pumped and primed to perform your best, when you realize that your fly is down. What do you do? You could tell yourself that everyone goofs sometime, zip it up, and move on. Or you could flee the room red-faced.
Which option you choose could come down to whether you have something psychologists call trait mindfulness: the ability to focus on your emotions in the moment without being too hard on yourself. Allison Borges (CAS’13) wondered if trait mindfulness might help a person dam up shame’s floodwaters during stressful situations—a question with therapeutic potential, since shame feeds several mental illnesses, from depression to eating disorders to borderline personality disorder.
Borges probed the question in a study sponsored by the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program and overseen by Heather Murray, a College of Arts & Sciences research assistant professor of psychology. To see if more mindfulness might help people better handle stress after an embarrassing incident, Murray, Borges, and their team created, in essence, a laboratory for manufacturing shame.
They recruited 60 BU students and asked them to answer a series of questions measuring mindfulness, such as how good they are at finding words to describe their feelings and how often they’re self-critical about irrational or inappropriate reactions. Then they divided the students into two groups: a control group and a second group that went through “shame induction.” Members of the second group were told to think of an incident in their lives when they’d felt ashamed and to write a journal entry “as if it were reoccurring,” describing their thoughts and feelings and any physical sensations. Researchers know, says Murray, that such an exercise “does actually elicit the emotion of shame in the moment.” (The control group received an emotionally vanilla assignment: to write a description of a room.)
Having shamed half their subjects, the researchers measured how well those ashamed people and their unashamed peers handled a distressing situation. They put each person in front of a computer screen that shot rapid-fire addition questions at them. Whenever a subject muffed a question, the computer emitted an annoying sound, akin to an earth-rumbling stomp by Godzilla. Students in both groups—shamed and unashamed—who were highly mindful did indeed stick with the computer test longer; the less mindful in both groups bailed more quickly, giving in to their distress.
“Our results suggest that performance on future tasks is less affected by the situation (e.g., shame or neutral) for individuals high in mindfulness,” the team wrote in their report for October’s UROP symposium.
“I think it potentially could have a lot of clinical implication for the way that we intervene” with patients, says Murray. “You can teach folks different strategies of how to cope with their emotional experience. With formal training and a lot of practice, people can become more mindful.” Similar research would need to be done on those with diagnosed mental illness to confirm mindfulness’s role, she says.
The researchers understand that too much of anything, even mindfulness, is not necessarily a good thing. When we behave badly, we should feel ashamed, says Murray, but it’s important that we respond in a way that helps us avoid future shameful acts. “The way that we think about emotions is that they are telling us really important information,” she says. For example, if we ignore our feelings of anxiety in a dangerous situation, “we will potentially walk out in Kenmore Square and get hit by a car.” The problem comes when people get so caught up in negative emotions that they can’t function in ways they want.
Then, says Murray, “they’re so caught up in this shame experience that they can’t be that friend that they want to be.”