An Alternate Script for the Embarrassed Self

I’m very happy that my idea of creating Embarrassment Free Zones resonated with many teachers and students. My goal in this post is to establish that there are situations when Free Zones won’t work. Yes, that’s right. 

Remember Vaishali?

For someone so deeply and permanently hurt by humiliation, for someone who has repeatedly seen evidence to not trust teachers and fellow learners, my silly drawings about brainpower and cheery graphs about learning make no difference. They have no reason to trust that the Free Zone will be any different. But, even in the optimistic scenario that they are convinced to try, their lifelong habits and the voices in their heads kick in without warning. Many of my students feel they have almost no power to effect change in the Free Zone. In this post, I share an exercise that can gently nudge someone like Vaishali to overcome what often appears beyond their control. 

It helps to acknowledge that what stops us viscerally, without warning, in a way we can’t seem to control, exists to help us survive. Vaishali couldn’t bear the smirk of a classmate and the impatience of the teacher the first time. Her fear of embarrassment is meant to save her from the same outcome in subsequent teaching-learning encounters. She fights, takes a flight, or freezes as if her life depends on it. This acknowledgment enables the realization of a few important truths: 

  1. Our fear of embarrassment and everything we do to avoid it is a subset of our coping mechanisms. 
  2. While coping mechanisms help us survive, they may not be useful when survival is not in question. They may, in fact, create formidable barriers to thriving.

The rational brain that understands that Vaishali’s learning (and consequently her life, in many ways) actually depends on switching off the fear is either absent or too feeble in contrast to the coping mechanisms to have any effect. 

Many of my students understand all of this, yet the understanding itself is not enough. Switching off the coping mechanisms and switching on the rational brain is not easy. Certainly, just instructing someone to do so doesn’t work. In this post, I share with you an exercise I sometimes use with my students to help them replace the voices in their heads with kinder, more rational ones. 

This exercise may not be suitable for all students, teachers, or teaching-learning relationships. For some students, it may bring out intense feelings, and if the teacher/adult is unable to help them process it, it may even be harmful. 
Please exercise caution and seek appropriate support from professionals before you decide to use the exercise. 

Once students are able to make the distinction between surviving and thriving, I help them find examples of teaching-learning environments where survival is the only choice available vs. those where thriving is a strong possibility. Usually, they name teachers, classmates, and subjects they feel threatened around. Most often, immediately after this, they begin to name spaces, teachers, and subjects where they have no evidence of the threat of embarrassment, or even where they are sure they feel safe. (It’s essential here to exercise your judgment on how much of this list you need/want to see. This activity will work well even though you don’t have access to any of the students’ lists.) 

At this stage, I invite them to imagine that: 

  1. They are in one of the unsafe spaces they just listed. 
  2. What they dread the most is happening: perhaps the teacher asked them a question; perhaps they have a question they are too afraid to ask; or, any scenario where their learning is about to get adversely affected because they are scared of being embarrassed. 

Many a time, it’s hard to name what’s happening at this moment. The mind is in fight-flight-freeze, remember? The voices in the head are most often not voices that utter words, they are bodily sensations. Accessing these sensations may serve as the bridge to the mind, the thoughts, the words, and the voices. I ask students to locate this dread in their body, and if possible, localize it and touch it, all while reassuring them that they are safe. I ask them to then put the dread in words whenever they are ready. I write down what they say. Here’s an excerpt from what I wrote for one of my students: 

I’m supposed to know this. I’m too stupid to be in this class. They are going to laugh. Ms. Aishwarya is going to think I’m worthless. It’s okay. I’ll figure it out later. I’ll look for YouTube videos later, or maybe ask Rashmi to explain it at lunch. 

When there’s nothing more to be said, I remind them that they are in a safe space, that the threat was imagined for this exercise, and that they can slowly release it from their body and their mind. (It’s crucial to give students as much time as they need at this point. Some may need to drink water or use the washroom. Some may just need an extra few minutes to be with their thoughts. Therefore, never do this activity when there’s not enough time.) 

This is usually a point of surprise for many students. They are finally able to name and describe their thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations which may have been a black box up to this point. (In case a student is unable to name or describe the dread, let it go. Don’t force them; don’t pressure them to try. Not all of us have access to awareness and insight at all times. Perhaps they’re shutting down to safeguard themselves. You don’t need to know the reason to let it go.) 

I explain that this is probably the script that plays automatically in our heads in many teaching-learning situations throughout the day. We don’t even realize it’s happening since it’s below the level of conscious awareness. Our body and mind need to be this fast to escape from threats successfully. My students always laugh when I describe a deer taking its own sweet time to finish munching on the grass before it gracefully moves away from an approaching tiger. It needs to bolt, or it will die. 

I remind them again that this script may hold them in good stead in an unsafe space, and then invite them to consider what harm the same script may cause in a safe space with tons of potential for learning. When they tell me that the script is a liability in a safe learning space, it doesn’t take them long to see the necessity of an alternate script. 

Now, I ask them to embody the voice of the kindest person in their life, someone who loves and accepts them unconditionally, real or imaginary. 

Would that person say the words in the script? 

No, they won’t. 

Then, what would they say? 

I support students through the long and difficult work of writing down what the kind, loving person would say. I generously offer sentences. It’s a privilege to serve as a kind voice. This is the alternate script their rational brain created in a safe space to replace the automatic script when it’s the right thing to do: maybe they are in a safe classroom, or maybe they want to risk it anyway so they learn. Here’s an excerpt from what one student wrote: 

I’m not dumb. Remember how Ms. Latha always asks me to give others a chance first during oral tests. That’s because I know the answers. I’m asking so I can learn. That’s a good thing. If someone laughs, it’s on them, not me. I will ask. 

Finally, I explain that the old script is deeply entrenched in us. Replacing it with the new will not be easy. We need to put conscious effort to:

  1. Be aware of our body and breath, and catch ourselves when the feeling of dread begins. Thoughts don’t help here. Fight-flight-freeze, remember?
  2. Ground ourselves (drink water, breathe from the belly, or any other method that works for them.) 
  3. Get their alternate script out of their backpack (or memory) and read it. 

I end by wishing them well: I hope and pray that the kindness in this alternate script allows you to give yourself a chance to thrive. 

I’d love to hear from you. If any of my writing on embarrassment resonated with you, please comment below or get in touch with me on Twitter @teachingtenets.

– Aishwarya

Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

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  1. Amazing ! You are doing ” interoceptive exposure response prevention” a strategy of behavioral therapy . This is used for simple phobias and social phobia in adults also. Positive reinforcement and consistent reinforcement of the desired behavior must be contingent to the behavior. Often one teacher has no influence on what the other does and that can cause serious damage to the child. Because they cognitively understand what is the right thing to do but are once again shamed for doing that. Team work becomes challenging to the teacher , who will have to fight amongst colleagues instead of focusing on the student. Thought provoking post . Thank you !

    1. Thank you so much for your comment! It’s enlightening and affirming that there’s actually a name for what I do, and that it’s valid!

      Working together with other teachers is an absolute challenge, like you said. I have found hope in the ability of the child to discern harmful behaviours once they are taught to do so. The harm doesn’t cease but with awareness that “this adult is the problem, not me.” Of course, it’s not a complete or ideal solution.

      Thank you for reading! ❤

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