On Shame

Shame is emerging as one of the most important and overlooked emotions in mental and emotional suffering, both among psychotherapists and the public.  Shame is both a form of mental and emotional pain, and a major obstacle to psychological healing.  Psychological work on ourselves needs detachment, self-observation, and acknowledgement of what we are feeling; all of which shame prevents.  Shame can evoke the grief of being utterly alone,  unworthy and incapable of authentic relationship with others, and can also drive rage, as the pain is directed away from the self and externalized and projected out onto others.

But there is more to shame than meets the eye.  Although shame tends to be labeled in therapeutic circles as a negative emotion, and in therapy it is often true that shame both creates emotional disorder and prevents therapeutic growth, I think we need to see shame in a larger context.  All our emotions and reactions have been selected by evolution, so shame must have made an important contribution to human survival over the long trek of human history.

Shame is a way of getting people to behave in conformity with what a group needs, or thinks it needs.  Group cohesion was (and is!) essential for human survival, and shame is a way of getting the individual to fit in.  Shame is also a way of maintaining attachment to the group.  If members act in ways that threaten the cohesion and survival of the group, they can be shamed into changing back into acceptable ways of behaving by being threatened with the loss of attachment.  Institutions use shame to get members to conform.  Parents use shame to get children to conform.  People use shame to get each other to conform.

Now, there are two main problems with this.  The first one is that conditions can change, so that the patterns of behavior and belief that groups have used to survive no longer are adaptive, but instead become counterproductive.  But the group still goes on, shaming members into conformity.  Those who defy the group norms have to deal with the attempts of the group to shame them.  This applies to small groups like families, as well as to larger communities and groups.

The second problem is that groups that were formerly better organized and functioning may become deteriorated, corrupted, and dysfunctional.  Authority figures who were effective leaders may decline morally or cognitively, or may be replaced by others who are  more dangerously stupid and/or corrupt.  The hierarchy may become mindless and insipid, and groups which had been adaptive and furthering of their members’ human needs instead become obstacles and problems.  But the group, through its members, will still shame members who speak out into conformity; “If you don’t do it our way you are not one of  us.”  During the Vietnam War, protesters were admonished to “love it or leave it.”

The story of “The Emperor’s New Clothes” is an example of this.  Although the emperor was naked, the courtiers and subjects all told him how magnificent his robe was; coerced by shame, and perhaps also the fear of consequences.

This week I attended a presentation entitled:  “Resilience to Shame:  Getting to Authenticity,” by Deerfield social worker Margaret Moore (margaretmooremsw@aol.com/ 8473909145).  Moore sees shame as interfering with our living fully and authentically, interfering with our ability to be fully present, and, preventing clients from making full use of therapy.  She spoke of a case in which the client had completed therapy, apparently doing  well, and then returned, years later, to work on another issue which she had never even brought up, because it was too shameful at the time.

Moore, who presented at the Gifted Center of the North Shore (as part of a series hosted by Gifted Center Director Noriko Martinez, 8473728134, nmartinez@giftedlearningcenter.org) referred to the work of Brene Brown on shame, vulnerability, and shame resilience.  Brown has become a leading voice on this topic, with several TED talks, books, etc.

Some key points from Moore’s presentation handout:

• Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.  Women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered, conflicting and competing social-community expectations.  Men experience shame when they are ranked, or judged to be less than powerful and strong.

• Shame is different than guilt:  “I am a mistake” (shame) vs. “I made a mistake” (guilt).

• Empathy is more than words.  It takes work, to see the world as others do, to be non-judgmental, to understand another peson’s feelings, to communicate your understanding of that person’s feelings.

• People who demonstrate high levels of shame resilience share four elements in their lives:  the ability to recognize and understand their shame triggers, high levels of critical awareness about their shame web, the willingness to reach out to others, and the ability to “speak shame,” (being able to talk about shameful feelings and situations).

• Shame is the biggest obstacle to authenticity, and living authentically is the “noble goal.”

I appreciated Moore’s focus on shame, and certainly see it as an obstacle to authenticity and therapeutic growth.  Her presentation helped me become more aware of the pervasiveness of shame, both in society and in individuals, and to be more aware of it in my own self-work and my work with clients.  But I think we miss something if we stop at shame and don’t look at what’s beneath it; which is the urgent need to attach to others.  Our need to attach is so strong that we will split off or disown parts of ourselves to do it.  When we are subject to disabling shame, we have already made a sort of transaction, trading integrity for acceptability—because we authentically needed to be accepted.  The need to attach, to belong, etc., is as authentic as the parts of ourselves that we disown in order to achieve it; and often more powerful, which is why attachment wins out over integrity.  Of course that contributes to splits in the personality, the understanding and healing of which psychodynamic therapy is all about.

Affective neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp and psychoanalytic therapist Lucy Biven, in their The Archaeology of Mind, describe the basic affective state of “panic/grief,” which is a “separation distress” system.  When it is overwhelmed, “one experiences a deep psychic wound–an internal psychological experience of pain that has no obvious physical cause.” Spelling the system in capitals, Panksepp and Biven state, “The PANIC/GRIEF system helps facilitate positive social bonding…because social bonds alleviate this psychic pain…”  This need is one we share with animals, and it is directly connected with the evolutionary need of individuals to survive as part of a group.  “When people or animals are deprived of love and acceptance, when they are spurned and forced into lower echelons of a social hierarchy where they have few rights and fewer pleasures, this is often emotionally damaging” (p. 156).  Thus, the child, or adult, in separation distress may bond with an adult, or a cult-like group or organization, to alleviate that distress, even at the cost of disowning authentic parts of the self.  Better fragmented but attached than isolated, seems to be the emotional rule here.

Even though modern culture seems to value and encourage independence, in fact it cultivates intense conformity.  Shame—the emotion of feeling extruded and excluded from the group, or key attachment figures–such as parents and high-status peers–is a key emotion by means of which conformity is established and maintained, through the manipulation of separation distress, which Panksepp and Biven call the PANIC/GRIEF system.  Of course families, schools, peer groups, faith communities, as well as the larger society, all tend to work like this.  And when so many groups that we must affiliate with are so deeply flawed, we have what I call the insanity of modern life (see, “How I See It”).

One of the ways therapy works is by providing an alternative relationship within which the client can establish attachment in ways which allow, recognize and appreciate parts or aspects of themselves that they’ve had to split off or disown as the price of forming earlier attachment relationships.

How I See It

Here’s how I see it:

We live in a world of drastic change, for better and for worse.  Over the millennia, centuries, decades, the pace of change has been accelerating.  “Every generation throws a hero up the pop chart,” Paul Simon wrote, and a generation, in popular music, is now only about 5 years.  That’s how long it takes for the music to change from one style to another.  Most people throughout most of human history lived in relatively small villages or groups in which they knew everyone, and everyone knew them, from birth to death.  Today, it’s a very different world.

How we understand ourselves and others, how we understand and communicate our needs and experiences, how we make and keep (or don’t keep) relationships, how we find our economic way in the world, how we understand the meaning of our lives and how we seek to achieve our purposes, are all profoundly influenced by this world, and by the cultures–of family, neighborhood, community, belief, economy, nation, and more–in which we’ve learned who’s who and what’s what.  Every culture, too, celebrates some values and omits others, claims certain values and also undermines them.  This becomes part of the fabric of who we are.

We are also creatures of our biology; members of our species, each with our own biological individuality, with our own temperament and disposition.  As neuroscientist Gerald Edelman said, “Every brain is unique in the history of the universe.”  To which I would add, “At every moment!”

Creativity, adaptability, compassion, love, the motivation to know and achieve; the instincts (not always well developed) for truth and justice; resilience, the ability to rebound, reinvent, start over; the ability to laugh at ourselves; and the potential to learn through awareness of ourselves, of others, and of life around us, are among the resources we can draw on.  Being stuck in habit patterns of thinking, feeling, perceiving, reacting, believing what we’ve been told, trying to relate and communicate but not succeeding, trying to solve today’s problems, which we often don’t understand, with yesterday’s tools, which often weren’t even good enough yesterday; these are what bring us to the impasses in our lives for which we seek psychological help.

Sometimes the stresses of our lives produce symptoms like anxiety, depression, unstable moods we can’t regulate, inability to relax and enjoy life, all the categories of the DSM-5.  Eating disorders, sleeping disorders, thought disorders (psychotic episodes), addictions of various kinds, all kinds of mental suffering and misery, can result.  In many cases, we can learn to improve or resolve these disorders with our own mental resources and the process of therapy, without necessarily needing medication.  In other cases, medication can be an important part of getting better; sometimes until the crisis has passed and we can take over on our own, sometimes on a long-term basis.

Each person is unique, each situation needs to be understood in its own terms, and there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all therapy.  Or therapist.

Conversation, relationship, and psychological skills training are what I have to offer.  It can mean a lot to have our experience understood by our therapist, as we come to understand it ourselves.  That can lift depression, inspire hope, and bring a sense of direction.  Increasing awareness of self and seeing others more as they are can supports better, wiser choices, more likely to meet our needs.  The therapeutic conversation, with its micro focus on the individual’s self and life, takes place in the context of the bigger picture of humanity.

Therapy can be fulfilling, healing, even humorous, but it’s not always easy.  My song, “I Must Be Getting Better ‘Cause I Think I’m Getting Worse,”  refers to part of the process of getting “back in touch” with oneself.


In all this, there is something that calls or pulls us to “reach up,” in our individual lives, in the context of the vast human journey of which we are a tiny part.   It has to do with being honest, with how we treat ourselves and others, and being of service.  We may call it nature, evolution, divinity, whatever; all our names and definitions are hit-and-miss.  But to some extent our psychological health depends on how well we can be in harmony with it.