In September 2014, 15-year-old Josie Herniman was found hanged in the woods near her home. She had friends and a loving family. A Facebook photo shows a smiling teenager snapping a selfie. There were allegations of bullying and of “unwarranted sexual advances” that the police were unable to substantiate. On the basis of a lack of evidence, the coroner ruled that Josie did not intend to kill herself.

Yet the evidence is there: Josie told a friend that she had tried to take her life a year earlier. Two suicide attempts seem hardly accidental. The unproven allegations centred on emotional abuse and sexuality – the exact sphere of unconscious shame. Was Josie’s death an accident – or the only way out of overwhelming emotional pain?

Josie’s is an extreme case, but our teenagers in particular are increasingly afflicted by the same painful feelings that she was unable to manage. This shame can be understood as a cycle of behaviour shown in this diagram:

Image: Milton Keynes Safeguarding Children’s Board

The shame cycle

This cycle of behaviour applies to a variety of issues such as self-harm, panic attacks, porn addiction, drugs, eating disorders and binge drinking. Regardless of how it manifests, the harmful act is a way of coping with the same distressing feelings that overwhelmed Josie Herniman.

In all cases the starting point is a reservoir of deeply entrenched negative self-beliefs – labelled ‘negative emotions’ on the MKSCB diagram – centred on the emotions, the physical body and sexuality. It is no coincidence that the coping mechanisms used to manage these feelings are also focused on the emotions, the body and sexuality.

In the above instances, the harmful behaviour is directed towards the self. However, the painful feelings arising from shame are sometimes directed outwards, at others. Instances of this include honour-based violence and, less obviously, radicalisation.

While the term ‘honour-based violence’ is often used in the context of the British Asian community, it includes all violence meted out for infidelity or perceived sexual slights, which all communities are prone to. (It is worth noting that the British Parliament was urged to make adultery punishable by death as recently as 1857.) Shame-based violence is often of a particularly ferocious and uncontrollable nature.

The shame family

The ‘family’ of shame-based issues includes:
• Self-harm
• Depersonalisation
• Sexual dysfunction
• Porn addiction
• Honour-based violence
• Radicalisation

As long as we fail to recognise the unconscious shame that underlies this epidemic of destructive behaviour and take steps to restructure society accordingly, more and more people will tread the same tragic path as Josie Herniman.