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Health & Wellness

Dealing with Shame

UROP student’s research suggests potential tool

Allison Borges, Heather Murray, Boston University BU Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program UROP, mindfulness, shame, research

Allison Borges (CAS'13) (left) and Heather Murray, a CAS assistant professor, studied how people might cope with shame. Photos by Cydney Scott

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.)

Allison Borges, Heather Murray, Boston University BU Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program UROP, mindfulness, shame, research

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.”

The application deadline for summer 2013 UROP funding is Wednesday, March 6, at noon. Find more information about the program and application process here.

Rich Barlow

Rich Barlow can be reached at barlowr@bu.edu.

3 Comments on Dealing with Shame

  • Tony on 02.04.2013 at 11:16 am

    Great article Rich. Mindfulness, a major part of DBT (dialectical behavior therapy) is a tool that I’d love to see put in practice. This is could possibly explain why some people are reluctant to be a pro-social bystander. Heather and Allison keep up the great! 1

  • Anonymous on 02.04.2013 at 12:41 pm

    As someone who suffers from social anxiety, GAD, depression, and self-harming, all of which are mental health problems which do revolve around a chronic sense of shame and failure, I can say right now that the idea of “mindfulness” (a term which I have come across often in my quests for treatment) is regretfully a highly idealistic one, to the point of it being ridiculous. It is basically asserting that people can use their “will power” to overcome bad feelings in a bad situation.

    That goes back to the stigmatized view that depressed people are just lazy and can just use their “will power” to fight their disease. The same cannot apply to people who suffer from bad reactions in shameful situations.. People like this need therapy and need to be helped by being taught ways to cope with their feelings and also by engaging in CBT, which works FAR better than DBT and is far more practical and isn’t all hippie-like as DBT is.

    You are basically asking people to change their attitudes by being “mindful”. If someone cannot engage in this so-called mindfulness, it is probably because their disorder or their personality or whatever makes it hard for them to do so; just as some people are more prone to depression based on their personality types or whatever.

    The research is interesting and I’m glad it’s being done, because it does touch on aspects of the atrociously under-researched Social Anxiety Disorder; however, the conclusion should not be that people who are more likely to feel ashamed and suffer from self-loathing SHOULD be more mindful; the conclusion should be that people who cannot be any more mindful, those who have reached the limits of their abilities of being mindful, need to be intensively treated for their mental health problems. The next step should be to find ways to treat those who cannot fix themselves simply by wishing it.

  • Marie on 02.04.2013 at 3:25 pm

    I agree with you, Anonymous person; The people with mental disease is sick BECAUSE they cannot control how their mind works. If only willing it could fix the reaction that we do not want to take, I would not be afraid of the touch of others (induced by several men who thought it’s ok to push their sex drive on to a woman) by now.

    However, from what I read, this article is targeted to normal, non-sick people, who may be on borderline and/or has a potential to be sick. I got this feeling from the experiment’s manner and the condition; if they wanted to see how being mindful works for the mentally sick, they would have obtained the subjects that actually do have mental illness. But they chose random subjects.

    On top of that, mentally ill and strong-will (aka mindful) does not contradict the other; even though I have fear of touch, I would have finished the second part of the test. You see, even the most mentally healthy person could be weak-willed, and the researchers do know that; but they did not ask for such information. They only looked for the strength of the will.

    To them, the mentally healthy, this kind of information is quite useful; by teaching them how not to fall into the circle of despair and/or fear, there will be less people sick, and so we who actually needs help DO get a help, from the doctors. And that’s what I believe that this article is trying to tell us.

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