Math Difficulty

Why Shame? Why Mathematics?

Shame is an painful and disruptive emotion in which a person feels a deep-seated failure or flaw in their core self; the feeling is often experienced as feeling exposed, small, worthless, or wanting to withdraw or even die. Although shame can occur in private or in public it is a an emotion that signals a threat to our social being and the feeling can be characterized as feeling unworthy of human connection. Scheff and Retzinger make a case that shame is the “dominant emotion in social interactions,” but note that this shame is often unacknowledged and unclaimed.1 They note that, “Since one’s relationships and emotions don’t show up on a resume’, they have been de-emphasized to the point of disappearance. But shame and relationships don’t disappear, they just assume hidden and disguised forms.” 2

Shaming experiences can happen in all school learning, but students learning mathematics may be particularly vulnerable to such experiences. In a traditional mathematics classroom there is little ambiguity or room for interpretation in problems, and the learning is focused on products, rules, and algorithms. This “right or wrong” nature of mathematics can prevent students from saving face, or otherwise deflecting shame experiences, and can trap students who are struggling in a repeated cycle of negative experiences that are eventually felt as a flawed self. Doing mathematics requires a student to perform in ways that call into question not just her memory, but also her understanding and intelligence, both because mathematics requires the performance of mental skill and because mathematical competence is seen as a stand-in for overall intelligence and ability. As Tamara Bibby says in her paper on shame in mathematics, “It is important to be seen to be able to do/perform mathematics, i.e. ‘do it’ right quickly and efficiently—preferably mentally or with a neat paper and pencil algorithm with as little mark making as possible and with an exact answer.”3

Mathematics is seen as an objective judge, and this aspect of judgment may contribute to the experience of shame. Unlike other subjects, in mathematics there is often no room for other points of view. In science, the interpretation of data may lead to different conclusions, and theories change as new information comes to light. In history, there are some immutable facts, but there is plenty of room for interpretation through different lenses. In English, the interpretation and interaction with the subject is everything. School mathematics also generally requires the student to make a permanent record of their answers as well as the work behind those answers, both of which can make the student vulnerable to judgment.

It is clear why anxiety, panic, and fear were first identified as a barrier to doing mathematics. Many people doing mathematics feel a crippling panic as they sit down to do math. Laurie Buxton separates this anxiety into what she calls “mind chaos” and what she says is more common in math class, a “paralysis” of the mind.4 Fear is the presenting emotion, but shame is the core emotion since the fear is that “through an unwitting self-disclosure, you will allow someone to see your ineptitude and so open yourself to ridicule.”5.

Many people feel silenced by mathematics, lacking the vocabulary and voice to discuss their ideas and feelings. In mathematics classrooms, the discourse is generally out of the control of the student. In everyday conversation, students can manage their own self-disclosure and are likely to be engaged with a supportive other who will acknowledge the separate reality of the speaker. But in a mathematics classroom, the it may be impossible to keep some aspects of work private, and the discussions are around things that are right or wrong with no room for management or hiding.

1. Thomas Scheff and Suzanne Retzinger, “Shame as the Master Emotion of Everyday Life” in the Journal of Mundane Behavior.

2. Ibid, p. 308.


4. Buxton, Do you Panic about Maths?


3 thoughts on “Why Shame? Why Mathematics?

  1. Pingback: Disrupting Shame in Mathematics « Liberation Math

  2. Pingback: Adopting a Protective Identity « Liberation Math

  3. Pingback: MOOCs as a Liberatory Project « Liberation Math

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