Shame, Anxiety, and Mathematics

It is taken as common knowledge that many people hate mathematics, that it is a difficult subject in school, and that not everyone has an aptitude for math (Sam & Ernest, 2000). People’s difficulties with mathematics often get blamed on what educators and researchers call mathematics anxiety, the fear of doing mathematics. The term “mathematics anxiety” first appeared in the literature in the early 1970s (Suinn et. al., 1972; Nash, 1970), and was popularized by Sheila Tobias and others working in the late 1970s to address mathematics anxiety, particularly in women (Tobias, 1993). The frame of mathematics anxiety has problems, however. When an experience or set of emotions is classified as a psychological disorder, the experience and the response are pathologized. The reality may be that what is termed “anxiety” is a normal and reasonable response to mathematics education.  Additionally, anxiety is an individual problem, but we have a society-wide issue with mathematics in the United States (Ginsberg et. al., 2005), so it would be useful to view problems with mathematics in a context that can include community and culture (Lave, 1988; Apple, 1990).
In addition to anxiety, many other emotions play a role in math avoidance and negative mathematical identities, and these emotions are linked to learning difficulties (Ashcraft & Krause, 2007; Lyons & Beilock, 2011). Over the past year, I have become increasingly convinced that shame is a primary emotion that negatively impacts mathematical identity, and that it is shame that gives rise to anxiety about, avoidance of, and disinterest in mathematics (Bibby, 2002; Ingleton & O’Regan, 2002; McGregor, 2005).
Shame is an intensely 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 (Lewis, 1993).  Although shame can occur in private or in public it is a an emotion that signals a threat to our social being (Bibby, 2002) and the feeling can be characterized as feeling unworthy of human connection (Hartling et. al., 2000). Because shame is a relational emotion, considering the role of shame in mathematics places mathematical difficulties in a larger context which includes not only the learner, but also parents, teachers, administrators, and the entire society surrounding the learner.
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, procedures, 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, since mathematical competence is seen as a stand-in for overall intelligence and ability (Sam & Ernest, 2000).
Shame can render a person passive and helpless (Miller, 1993) which impacts his ability to learn and to teach. To be able to effectively do mathematics, a person needs to perceive of himself as powerful, which means that he must be free of shame. People have a tendency to be both unaware of shame (Lewis, 1971) and to “catch” the shame of others, feeling ashamed of their shame (Scheff, 1988). The collective shame that our society holds about mathematics impacts all of us, and pressure for change gets transmitted to politicians, school districts, teachers, and finally to students, as teachers and parents respond to the pressure and shame by hiding difficulties, avoiding problematic encounters with mathematics, or even unconsciously shaming students as they struggle with math.

There are many suggestions for how we might solve our “math problem” in the United States, and many of those suggestions have great potential. However, teachers and students cannot make effective use of inspired methods of teaching and learning without attending to affective and relational issues, and this includes shame. People have many responses to shame, from pushing for greater competence to secure social acceptance, to adopting being “bad at math” a part of their identity that may be accepted by others, to withdrawing and avoiding math, to anger at self or others, to manipulations that paint the self in a better light (Bibby, 2002; Brown, 2007). Many of these responses are disempowering and result in isolation (Hartling et. al., 2000) and failure to achieve academic goals (Turner et. al., 2002).
If people face their shame while staying vulnerable and authentic, they can reclaim power and heal (Brown, 2007; Hartling et. al., 2000). Math teachers deal daily with students who cannot handle failure, because failure is a trigger for shame (Brown, 2007; Turner et. al., 2002). It is crucial to publically identify shame as a source of disconnection and difficulty (Hartling et. al., 2000), and once shame and its triggers are identified, alternate methods of responding to those triggers can be developed. To create change on a broad scale, we need to get people collectively address shame and mathematical power, to listen deeply to those who have been disempowered by mathematics, and to transform the shame held by parents, teachers, and school administrators, since those groups have so much influence on young people.

* I have written previously about most of these ideas, but the version above is more succinct and better (although not comprehensively) referenced. I’m going to be working up a bibliography to share as part of a paper I am currently writing. References below the cut.

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