Alexander Kunkle, Jesse Poole, and Stefany Sigler, Nevada State College
The human mind is full of complex emotions and often these emotions drive us to places that we may not have prepared for. As academic advisors, we believe that student success is possible. However, there are often subtle emotions or characteristics that lead them to struggle. This is the human condition. Psychologists differ on the number of “primary” or “core” emotions (Boll, 2017) that make up the tapestry of our personalities. In an effort to better understand and visualize “emotion,” psychologist Dr. Paul Ekman was approached by the Dalai Lama with a goal: “When we wanted to get to the New World, we needed a map. So make a map of emotions so we can get to a calm state” (Randall, 2016). The product of this conversation was the Atlas of Emotions (http://atlasofemotions.org/), developed by Dr. Ekman, which maps out five core universal emotions in humans: Enjoyment, Sadness, Anger, Disgust, and Fear. This was later brought to the minds of adults and children alike in Pixar’s Inside Out (Rivera & Docter, 2015).
As academic advisors, we see students display a range of emotions every day. While core emotions described by Dr. Ekman are often easy to recognize, secondary or complex emotions are more difficult to identify. The American Psychological Association defines primary emotions as emotions that are typically “manifested and recognized universally across cultures” (American Psychological Association, n.d.). Most individuals experience primary emotions and can recognize them. However, secondary emotions often serve as a reaction to other emotions (Tull, 2019. Two of the secondary emotions students often exhibit to their advisors are guilt and shame. Secondary emotions form as a combination of multiple core emotions and require more self-reflection and are often enhanced through social experiences (Weir, 2012).
When working with students experiencing complex emotions, advisors must first understand how guilt and shame are similar, how they are different, and why they so greatly influence student behavior. From there, advisors must recognize verbal and visual cues for more subtle, secondary emotions, such as shame and guilt. Finally, advisors must find ways to best support students experiencing these debilitating emotions. During advising sessions, students may choose to disclose their struggles to their advisors. Those struggles could range from missing a class, to failing a test, to dealing with parents who are divorcing, or even the disclosure of a sexual assault. In these sensitive situations, advisors must be able to identify secondary emotions, establish the difference between them, and uncover the best way to work with the student. An advisor’s goal should not necessarily be to solve a student’s problem or relieve their shame or guilt but to empathize with the situation and provide support and resources for the student. Not only is this approach more effective, it promotes self-efficacy for students and helps them to develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills, which is invaluable for students during their academic journeys and well beyond.
Shame, Guilt, the Benefits, the Challenges, and How to Recognize These Emotions
Guilt and shame are similar in that they are both “negative affective states that occur in response to a transgression or shortcoming, and both are self-conscious emotions, meaning that self-reflection is critical to their occurrence” (Tignor & Colvin, 2017). Despite these similarities, they also have distinct characteristics. Boll (2017) explains, “Guilt arises from a negative evaluation of one’s behavior, while shame arises from negative evaluation of oneself. Guilt is the feeling of doing wrong, while shame is the feeling of being wrong” (Boll, 2017).
Understanding these differences may lead to different approaches. Consider the student who experiences guilt for failing a midterm because they did not study, while another experiences shame for failing a midterm because they interpret their own skills as lacking. Guilt is seen as a wrongdoing and shame is seen as a deficiency in oneself, thus an advisor’s approach to these situations may differ. Additionally, it is important to note that shame and guilt can be felt simultaneously (Tignor & Colvin, 2017), leading an advisor to take a mixed methods approach to the situation.
Guilt and shame can be debilitating and can greatly impact student lives. To put it into context, people experience guilty feelings for at least five hours per week on average, making it difficult to think clearly and causing a reluctance to enjoy life (Winch, 2014). Negative affective emotions can be potentially dangerous for students as “individuals tend to be distressed and upset and have a negative view of self” (Watson & Clark, 1984) as a part of that emotional experience. However, negative affective emotions can also lead to prosocial and productive behaviors under certain circumstances (Tignor & Colvin, 2017). This is particularly evident when the individual believes the damage is repairable (Graton & Ric, 2017).
A clear distinction has been made between how individuals experience guilt and shame.
When experiencing shame, an individual is
- more likely to attempt to escape the situation and avoid eye contact (Selva, 2019);
- more resistant to reengagement, even if the student has a strong relationship with the advisor;
- more likely to exhibit behaviors associated with isolation and disconnection; and
- less likely to self-forgive due to the internal evaluation of oneself (Thompson, 2015).
When experiencing guilt, an individual is
- more driven to repair the relationship or circumstance;
- more likely to engage in small-talk and avoidance of the topic;
- more likely to have increased levels of anxiety; and
- more likely to forgive themselves (Selva, 2019).
Tignor & Colvin (2017) explain that it is “much easier to alleviate feelings of guilt than of shame.” An individual who feels guilty regrets behavior; because guilt is behavior-based, an action plan could help repair or reframe these feelings. Meanwhile, repairs for shame are more complex, because they are based upon feelings of their shortcomings as a person, rather than a behavior or action. In these situations, empathy, normalizing, and demystifying are far more powerful tools than an action-based plan.
A Toolbox for Reframing Perspectives
When deciding the best role for an advisor working with students experiencing negative affective emotions, it may be best to consider an advisor’s training and the context of the situation. It can be very difficult and painful for advisors to watch a student suffer through guilt and shame. From the developmental advising perspective, it is of the utmost importance for advisors to meet a student where they are at in the moment and to not use a singular tool to attempt to fix the student’s emotional state. The best course of action, regardless of the theory to which an advisor subscribes, is to consider how tools can contribute positively to a student’s development and not simply how to solve a problem.
To determine where a student is in their navigation and emotional process, start with a framework adapted from the principles of Motivational Interviewing (Miller & Rollnick, 2013). First, express empathy as the student uncovers the root of the issue and describes the events that caused them to have their feelings initially. When expressing empathy, it is essential for an advisor to be genuine to truly connect with the student. Second, roll with the resistance a student may experience and allow them to express why they do not want to make (or do not feel comfortable making) the change. Third, identify barriers that could affect the improvement of the student’s emotional state. Fourth, encourage self-efficacy to foster further student development. Finally, incorporate challenge and support into the interaction. By following this framework, the relationship dynamic between the advisor and student could increase the likelihood that the student is willing to change and/or persist. In addition to modeling genuine, healthy emotional responsiveness for the student, an advisor should implement active listening skills throughout the interaction, ask open-ended questions, validate the student’s feelings, and exhibit cultural competence to reach the best possible outcome.
A student may not be willing to make a change, especially initially, which is okay. In this case, an advisor could empower the student to take ownership of their choices or simply make their space a refuge. Consider creating a comfortable environment where the student can express their thoughts and feelings. Keep in mind it is perfectly normal to have different timelines for processing emotions.
Despite the accompanying challenges that secondary emotions, such as shame and guilt, can present, they also provide valuable opportunities for students to grow. Zhang and Chen (2016) framed the concept of guilt (referred to as regret) as a mathematical formula: “regret+self-compassion=growth.” Once a willingness for change begins to blossom, additional tools can be used to supplement the healing process. Consider using mindfulness as a tool or intentionally bringing awareness to the emotions and staying in the moment with the student through this process. Also attempt to employ the six-step-to-change model, which includes: recall the event, repair the relationship, rethink and ruminate, REACH emotional forgiveness, rebuild self-acceptance, and resolve to live virtuously (Worthington, 2013).
Another tool could be reframing the student’s perspective and converting their feeling of shame into guilt. As a result, instead of feeling bad about oneself for a perceived internal lacking, the student can assign their feelings to actions or behaviors, which they have the power to change. A plan of action could then be created between the student and the advisor to modify their actions and/or behaviors, making them subsequently repairable. The action plan for resolving guilt would preferably include demystifying or normalizing the feelings, helping the student recognize that the damage is repairable, identifying tangible ways to repair real or perceived damage, and ultimately overcoming the negative emotional impact made by shame and guilt. Succeeding in overcoming these challenges would ideally build a student’s self-efficacy, confidence, critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and contribute to their success not only academically, but holistically.
While these tools and approaches can be helpful when working with students exhibiting guilt or shame, genuine empathy should be at the forefront of these interactions. This golden rule is demonstrated eloquently in the words of Maya Angelou: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
Director of Academic Advising
Nevada State College
Coordinator of Academic Advising and Student Success Initiatives
Nevada State College
Academic Advisor II
Nevada State College
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Cite this article using APA style as: Kunkle, A., Poole, J., & Sigler, S. (2020, June). Shame-less: Supporting students experiencing shame and guilt through academic advising. Academic Advising Today, 43(2). [insert url here]