Two schools have scrapped their end of year prizegivings because they don't want to upset children who miss out. In response a psychologist said that it is absolutely essential for kids to experience failure. Life and learning is about accepting you can't always win.

I was nodding when I read that. "If we are so busy protecting our kids from the experience of failure then we are doing them a dis-service," psychologist Catherine Gallager said. Nod, nod.

"I've got lots of young people who come through my door who haven't had an experience of failure and don't know what the hell to do with it."


I stopped nodding at that. Now I was scratching my head. Really? I'm confused.

It seems to me it would be impossible for any young person, no matter how cosseted and cotton-woolly and special snowflakey, to have made it to adulthood without many and varied experiences of failure.

Have you ever watched a baby learning to walk? It's a masterclass in failure. You stand up, you fall down, you get up again. That is just one example. Even if a straight A student is captain of the first fifteen, a guitar prodigy and a chess grandmaster they will have had to deal with quiet disappointments, with unrequited crushes and ruptures of friendships, all painful failures.

I also don't know how character building it is to fail. If it was the failure itself that was a resilience-instilling elixir, then surely people who flunked out would all be super-motivated to succeed. Some of them are, sure. But often they are simply broken.

Maybe what Ms Gallagher means is not that young people have never faced a failure, but that they have defended against feeling the shame of that failure. It is painful to feel shame. It is human nature to defend against pain. So they have adopted ways to protect themselves from it.

One defence against shame is to retreat into a fantasy of having it all—being larger than life, a winner. This is a kind of running away from being small and helpless by becoming big all at once—dreaming of being a rock star, a top model, a musical genius.

Other people take refuge in superiority and contempt for the average person, which are also defenses against unbearable shame. By this reckoning perhaps Trump, far from having robust self-esteem is so fragile he cannot tolerate the tiniest hint of shame. This dynamic lies at the heart of pathological narcissism.

This is new to me. I have always seen shame as a terrible thing that must be eradicated. I'm not the only one. Our age is characterized by an antishame zeitgeist: a great many people of all ages now regard social shame as an oppressive force that must be resisted. Until recently, I was one of those people. But I've changed my mind since reading a new book Shame by psychoanalyst Joseph Burgo.


In his research for his book Burgo collated articles flagged by Google Alerts with the keyword shame. There were many proclamations that people were not ashamed about their weight, sexual orientation, gender identity, divorce, abortion, addiction, having been raped or sexually abused, or suffering from mental illness and a variety of physical disabilities.

He wasn't surprised by this, but he was surprised by the larger number of articles insisting that other people had something to feel ashamed about.

"Day after day Google Alerts sent me links to authors pointing an angry finger at bigots, misogynists, xenophobes, doctors who fat-shame their patients, greedy industrialists, shameless tax evaders, uncaring politicians, criminals without remorse, neglectful parents, and so on."

So perhaps we are busy eradicating shame – which sounds like progress - but at the same time projecting our shame on to other people.

It seems we deal with profound shame by denying we feel it while causing other people around us to feel bad. Pretentiousness, arrogance, blame, and self-righteousness are all strategies for offloading (projecting) unconscious shame and forcing other people to feel it. (Trump, again?)

I now realise what is important is not getting rid of shame altogether, it's about being able to bear a bit of the day to day shame we encounter just by being human. In part this capacity to feel shame about our basic animal nature makes us civilized.


We all feel ordinary day to day instances of shame, when our love or admiration is unrequited, when we are exposed publicly or when we disappoint expectations. This is not the same as "toxic shame" – the residue of physical or emotional abuse which leaves a child feeling damaged and unworthy of love.

It is a crucial developmental task to be able to bear a bit of common-or-garden shame, to laugh at ourselves when we trip up on the pavement or mispronounce someone's name or fart or get something wrong. Being able to say "That wasn't my finest moment", might be the most accurate arbiter of strength of character.

So healthy self-esteem does not mean the absence of shame but rather the ability to recover from its inevitable occurrence in life. So perhaps authentic self esteem doesn't come from getting the big prize after all, but from being able to laugh when you trip up on your way to the stage.