Confronting our positive interpretations of the functions of shame
Shame is «a toxic material» resulting from a lack of recognition for a child’s vitality and loving feelings. It should be detoxified, and not in any way be attributed positive functions. There is no such a thing as positive, good, or adaptive shame.
We project something positive onto shame
We have a problematic relationship to shame. By we, I mean us, the clinical professionals within the fields of psychology and mental health. What is problematic is that we continue to assert that there is something positive to be found in shame. That it keeps us «within bounds». That it prevents us from crossing social boundaries, protects us from embarrassment and keeps us from being ostracized (Engelstad, 2018; Gullestad, 2020; Skårderud, 2001). It is said that shame is imbued with an important signaling function (Gullestad, 2020; Strömsten, 2017; Tomkins, 1962). It warns us that we might be about to do something that can result in negative consequences. It is also said that there is a kind of respect to be found in shame, a respect for others and for ourselves (Engelstad, 2018; Gullestad, 2020; Sartre, 1993; Skårderud, 2015).
Shame is also considered to be a foundational affect that halts a child’s positive feelings when those feelings do not match the environment (Sinding, 2020). It is thought that shame in this way plays a crucial role in the development of the child’s sense of self as well as the child’s attachment to others (Halvorsen, 2020).
In other words: Shame exists for a positive reason. This is a mistaken conclusion. Shame is there, however not as an important reason for something going right but rather as a result of something going wrong. A result that we carry forward with us as an internalized sense that “there is something wrong with me”.
In this paper I will problematize the positive interpretations of the function of shame. In line with scientific research, I will also refute the assertion that shame is a foundational and innate biological affect present at birth, and that it plays an important role in the development of a child’s sense of self as well as his attachment to others. Shame and development do not even belong in the same sentence.
To see shame for what it is
There is nothing good about shame. There is no singular small part of shame that can be called good or valuable. In my lectures on shame, I begin by emphasizing that there is nothing positive about shame and that we continue to assert otherwise is problematic. The common reaction I receive is one of protest, “We need shame, or at least some of it. At the least in small doses.”
Before I go into why we think of shame as something partially positive, I would first like to further explore what shame is. Not with the aid of literature and what others have said about shame, but phenomenologically, with the help of empathic experience and introspection. We should begin by feeling how shame is experienced and what it does to us on the inside.
The Phenomenology of shame
In shame it is «I who lose value” – the self that loses self-love. “It’s me there is something wrong with. It’s me that is unlovable.” Shame is a collapse of self-compassion and the loss of contact with good internal objects.
Shame and social norms
It is said that «shame keeps us within bounds”, that it serves to prevent us from overstepping social boundaries and to keep us from being ostracized (Engelstad, 2018; Gullestad, 2020; Skårderud, 2001). However, is it necessary for us to be threatened with the loss of self-worth in order for us to maintain social boundaries? The answer is no.
Norms and social boundaries are maintained, and breaches of these can be repaired, by care for others, empathy, consideration, and the capacity to feel and withstand guilt. When we say or do something that bothers or hurts others, or which violates boundaries in a given situation, we do not need shame in order to repair. We do not need to feel that “I am worthless” in order to maintain relationships with others or to take the feelings and needs of others into consideration. We can still feel self-compassion even if we have done something inappropriate. “I am good, I have good intentions, there is nothing wrong with me, but I said something that was inappropriate.” Guilt does not need to threaten self-worth. “Instead of attacking myself and withholding love and compassion for myself, I can instead use my resources to orient myself outwardly and apologize». To repair does not need to include loss of self-worth. We do not need shame to orient ourselves in the social landscape.
The shameless = The ruthless?
Is shame the last buffer of self-regulation and a kind of last wall of defense for human decency? Would one say that the shameless risk becoming the ruthless? One who violates? Do the shameless lack an important lock that stops them from becoming omnipotent, narcissistic, even vulgar?
The ruthless, those with narcissistic personality disorder, or those using omnipotence as a defense mechanism do not violate others due to a lack of shame. They do so due to a lack of or an impaired capacity for empathy, care and compassion for others. They might also do so due to insufficient abilities to tolerate their own vulnerability, to give themselves to other people and tolerate their own inadequacy. The motives and mechanisms can be many. It is also possible that it is precisely the unconscious shame that impairs one’s ability to tolerate their entire self and that one projects their own (threatening) shortcomings and inadequacies on to others (Morrison, 2011). That which is painful is placed outwardly on and into others. In that case, what the “narcissist” needs is not more shame but rather to increase their own self-compassion, in order to increase their compassion for others. The person in question needs to expand their capacity to tolerate their own feelings of inadequacy without it threatening the self with loss of worth. If we fail to understand this, we can quickly want the “narcissist” to feel ashamed.
When we say to others, «Shame on you!», we react out of the true nature of shame: we know very well that shame is a destructive force that we want others to feel when we want them to feel bad. In other words, this is an aggressive response from our side. When we wish for someone else to feel shame, we are in effect wishing them pain. We lose the empathic contact with the ruthless, which is a form of concordant identification (Racker, 1968): when the ruthless feel contempt for their victims and we end up feeling contempt for the ruthless. We respond in kind. We want to induce in them the same thing they induce in others: suffering.
To get others to feel ashamed is a way to get them to suffer, it is to install an inner mechanism of suffering in them. Hold them down. Or ensure they hold themselves down. These examples help us to further confirm the true nature of shame. There is nothing positive about it. To induce shame in another is an act of psychological violence (Popovac, 2020).
As an extension of this reflection, a consequence is that we also do not want our children to feel ashamed. If they express shame, it activates care and concern in many parents: “Do not feel ashamed, my son”. We do not want our children to lose contact with their own self-compassion and self-worth. We want them to be empathic, thoughtful and considerate individuals. We want them to love themselves, also when they make mistakes. We want them to be good at repairing without being threatened with a sense of worthlessness or a loss of self. We want to protect them from shame.
Shame as an important signal function?
Do we need shame as an important signaling function? Many believe so (Engelstad, 2018; Gullestad, 2020; Skårderud, 2001; Strömsten, 2017; Tomkins, 1962). Giving shame such a vital function can say more about our loyalty to the perceived purpose of shame, and less about shame as an important signal of boundary violations. We have signal anxiety to serve this purpose (Freud, 1963). Signal anxiety is something different from shame. It is an immediate activation when something is unacceptable or threatening (intrapsychically or in the outer world) occurs. This is a morally neutral anxiety activation (it does not imply anything negative about the self) that alerts us to the possibility that our relationships to others are under pressure, or that a threatening feeling is about the break through. Most of us can recognize this as a surprising and immediate change in attention in the form of “oh!” or “hm!” or that one suddenly startles or has to think twice before saying something more.
The immediate anxiety activation has the necessary signal function. We do not need shame for this. What we need is better capacity to notice, tolerate and understand our own signal anxiety.
Shame and biology: an innate affect?
What if shame is an inborn affect, a kind of basic emotion? If so, then it must be there for an important reason. Or is it?
We know that children between four and 24 months are able to emotionally express happiness, anger, disgust, fear, surprise and sadness (Sullivan & Lewis, 2003). However, can children younger than 2-3 years old feel shame? Studies indicate that shame first begins to appear after the 2-3 year age range (Barrett et al., 1993; Cole et al., 1992; Denham, 2007; Kochanska et al., 1994; Parisette-Sparks et al., 2017). In order to feel shame children must first have developed sufficient self-awareness and the capacity to evaluate themselves (Barrett et al., 1993; Denham, 2007; Eisenberg, 2000; Eisenberg et al., 2006; Kochanska et al., 2002; Muris & Meesters, 2014; Thompson et al., 2006). As a result shame is defined as a «self-awareness emotion» (Parisette-Sparks et al., 2017) or a “moral emotion” (Elison, 2005).
The development of shame in children is further correlated with parenting style and parental mental health, as well as the level of conflict in the family (Cummings & Davies, 2002; Mills, 2005; Zimet & Jacob, 2001). The more distress in a marriage, the more punishing and rejecting parenting style a child is likely to encounter, and the more mental health challenges a parent experiences when a child is 3 years old, the more shame that child will exhibit at age 6 (Mills, 2005; Muris & Meester, 2014; Parisette-Sparks et al., 2017).
Therefore, there is nothing inherently biological about shame – it is not created out of pure biology. Young children do not exhibit emotional expressions of shame during the first two to three years of life. One of the greatest predictors for the development of shame is to what degree a child has been deprived of acknowledgement, confirmation, and validation from primary caregivers, and to what degree a child is robbed of the experience of being accepted and loved (Feiring, 2005; Lewis, 1992; Loader, 1998). Even if shame has biological correlates – it activates the body’s physiology (Sinding, 2020) – it is still an insufficient argument for there being a biological antecedent or to view shame as something inborn or primary. Shame is a relational phenomenon.
Everyone will encounter some degree of invalidation and upset during their upbringing, and to a large extent this will occur unintentionally. With differing degrees of this, combined with differing robustness in inborn temperament (Karterud & Kongerslev, 2019), we end up with varying degrees of susceptibility and vulnerability for shame later in life. Regardless of if there is a lot of or little shame, mild or intense shame, the source remains the same: not innate biology, but selfobject failures (Kohut, 1971). This does necessarily refer to enduring neglect or repeated trauma a child might be exposed to, despite the fact this obviously increases the risk for developing shame (Feiring, 2005), but rather the everyday sequences of noise and ruptures in relationships with significant others that are unavoidable. It is impossible to be 100% attuned as a parent all the time.
Shame and attachment
Shame is a collapse of self-compassion. So how does the road lead from the outer world to the inner world? How does the outer rejection, or the outer failure in acknowledgement of a child’s feelings, lead to an inner failure of the child’s self-compassion? The answer lies in the selfobject failure (Kohut, 1971).
«You’re nobody ´til somebody loves you».
The self is inextricably tied to its objects. Without a mother, there is no baby. Not only in a physical sense, but in a psychological sense as well: it is in the mother’s gaze that the child finds himself (Winnicot, 1971). The child not only has to locate himself in mother’s gaze but must also experience himself as a “glint in her eye” (Kohut, 1971). Mirroring and validation of the child’s feelings consolidates the child’s sense of self. Challenges may arise when the child seeks his mother, bringing his feelings to her, and when the child looks at his mother, instead of finding himself, he finds an absence of interest, a rejection, or an empty gaze (Winnicot, 1971). The child then internalizes this image as a representation of self (Ikonen & Rechardt, 1993). Mother fails to validate the child’s vitality – she as an object fails the self (cf. selfobject failure; Kohut, 1971).
The child is left with two problems: Firstly, the child’s vitality, grandiosity and loving feelings go unvalidated. At worst the child can be left with the experience that there are aspects of himself that his mother does not tolerate, and this can thereby threaten the child’s relationship to her and as a result lead to anxiety. Secondly the child has internalized an inaccurate representation of himself. The gaze of another has become the child’s gaze of himself (Gullestad, 2020). “I am unlovable.”
The child does not recognize this as object failure and the mother goes unpenalized. To save the relationship with her, the child sacrifices himself. “It’s me who is a bad boy” (Fairbairn, 1952). The relational need trumps the need for emotional regulation. The self pays the price.
The loving gaze that was supposed to be internalized, so as to become a part of the child’s self-compassion, is absent. When this internal object relation is activated (absence of love) the self is threatened with shame.
Shame becomes part of our internalized attachment history, the way we learned to experience ourselves in situations where validation of our feelings has been absent, or in those instances where we experienced the anger of our caregiver in the form of shame induction – “Shame on you, child!”
Is it then shame that enables the child to succeed in saving the relationship with an invalidating parent? Is this what is adaptive about shame? The answer is no. This is not thanks to shame, but thanks to the crucially important relational need. The child sacrifices himself to save the relationship with the primary caregiver.
Shame is the price a child pays in order to be in a relationship with an invalidating primary caregiver. Almost all children experience individual episodes of selfobject failure, where the relationship is otherwise good enough. Others unfortunately experience a more stable shame-inducing parenting style, something which results in increased vulnerability for the development of shame later in life (Muris & Meester, 2014).
Regardless of the quality of the relationship, it is the relationship itself that is crucial. As important as food is for the body, to allude to Bion (1959). The body also takes in waste products when we eat (not all food is strictly nourishing), that is unavoidable. Nevertheless, we still eat, because we must. It is the same with relationships. We do not refrain from having them even though they have toxic elements. Shame is precisely this kind of “waste product” after a lack of validation of the child’s vitality and loving feelings, something that should be detoxified and not endowed with positive functions.
As mentioned above, shame is unavoidable for most of us, precisely because everyone’s childhood experiences also include sequences with selfobject failure. As children we are exposed to some waste material along the way. Shame in adults, both in small and large doses, is like a ghost that comes up from the past, as an activating of transference that once again serves to diminish one’s vitality and covers important feelings in the relationship here and now. Maturing as a person involves the ability to meet one’s self with the same love one has, in certain situations or in periods of one’s life, not received from others.
Shame and feelings
Not everything we feel is a feeling; We feel shame, but is shame a feeling? Many believe it is (Izard, 1977; Normann-Eide, 2020; Tomkins, 1962; Vassbø Hagen & Stiegler, 2020). Instead of seeing it as a feeling, we can say shame is more a derivative of selfobject failure. Shame covers feelings. Feelings such as anger, fear, sadness, disgust, happiness and surprise have important vitalizing functions that signal the needs of the self (Ekman et. al., 1983). Shame is the opposite of vitalizing.
Sorrow which lies in the experience of not having been seen, encouraged or validated, or anger against a rejecting, uninterested or mocking parent, disappears beneath shame. If one clings to the idea that shame can be good, the price one pays is that one possibly continues to put a lid over important feelings.
The field of psychology, especially clinical work, has benefited greatly from our discovery of the difference between anxiety and feelings (Malan, 2010). Anxiety is something we feel, but it is not a feeling. Anxiety can result from the activation of feelings one experiences as threatening. This understanding has had enormous impact on psychotherapeutic treatment for several psychiatric disorders (Frederickson, 2013; Malan, 2010). What if we could do the same with shame? If we could separate it from the feelings family and call it what it is – a collapse of self-compassion and a loss of self-worth.
Shame and guilt: the role of love and aggression
One of the most important developmental milestones for a child is the ability to tolerate conflicting feelings towards the same person (Kernberg, 1992). For example, the ability to be angry at a person the child also loves. It is equally important that a child develops the ability to tolerate conflicting feelings towards himself; the ability to be angry with oneself, without losing love for oneself. This is a prerequisite for withstanding guilt!
The classical understanding of the difference between shame and guilt is that shame affects the self, while guilt is about the actions one takes (Lewis, 2000). The deeper division between these two is about the differences between the role of aggression and love in relation to the self.
The development of a child’s ability to tolerate guilt is not determined by the child’s inborn temperament alone, but by the dynamic that emerges in the child’s relationship with his caregivers (Zimet & Jacob, 2001). Studies show that a child who is met with empathy, acknowledgement, boundaries and an authoritative parenting style, develops a greater degree of the healthy capacity to tolerate guilt than the child who experiences rejection, a high level of conflict in the family, an authoritarian parenting style or neglect. These children develop shame to a greater degree (Cummings & Davies, 2002; Mills, 2005; Muris & Meester, 2014; Parisette-Sparks et al., 2017; Zimet & Jacob, 2001). Later in life we see that shame correlates with the development of psychological difficulties (Stuewig et alt, 2016).
It is easy to confuse self-criticism, guilt and self-contempt with shame. What is central to self-criticism, guilt and self-contempt is the role of aggression – it is turned towards one’s self. In shame it is not aggression towards one’s self that is central; after all, it is possible to be angry with oneself without being ashamed. It is even a sign of health to be able to have justified, self-criticism and anger at oneself without having to feel ashamed. The essence of shame is not aggression turned towards the self but rather love that has been withheld from the self. In shame the self loses its value. Shame combined with aggression directed towards one’s self is, in its more extreme variations, the dynamic behind self-harm and suicide (Gilbert et al., 2010).
Our fear of letting go of shame
It is as if we have an ego syntonic relationship with aspects of shame or an ambivalent relationship to it. No matter which term we use, as long as we continue to hold on to our positive perceptions of the functions of shame, we have a problematic relationship to it. Shame causes pain – that is the essence of it. We need to be very clear about this to everyone and especially to those that come to us for help. We must also be aware that the ambivalent relationship to shame that therapists have, where we hang on to the idea that there can be something positive about it, can inhibit a patient’s own resolution with shame, for example when a therapist unconsciously meets a patient’s shamelessness with his own defenses (e.g. moralization, rigor, etc.).
If one has accepted the arguments in this text, the individual reader can reflect over what has led us to not dare to let go of these positive perceptions of shame. Let me open my conclusion with some brief reflections on this.
In developmental psychology shame emerges as a consequence of a lack of validation of the child’s feelings and rejection of the child’s love. As we have seen above, in order to save the relationship, the child diminishes himself and internalizes the other’s gaze (Ikonen & Rechardt, 1993). The shame becomes part of the child’s internalized attachment history. This means, settling up with shame is also to settle up with one’s own attachment experiences. Letting go of shame can activate a fear of rejection. That one’s vitality will once again be «too much» for the other party. Thus the ambivalence.
Another function that shame has for us, that contributes to our positive perceptions of its functions, is that we want to have shame in our arsenal of anger. Sometimes we think that others should feel ashamed, and that´s normally because we are angry with them. Namely, wanting someone else to feel shame is one of our ways of expressing anger. To induce shame in others is an act of aggression (Popovac, 2020). In what other ways can we show anger if we were to say that shame induction is not exactly the most mature of them?
My final reflection upon our holding on to positive perceptions of shame involves the contribution and context of culture to our understanding of shame. Our cultural inheritance is well internalized in us, perhaps even more than we want to believe. Traditionally speaking, shame has played an important role in controlling group members and for maintaining norms, unity and consensus within the group. For instance, closely associated with sin through religious cultural heritage, our shame has been used to internalize our fear of God. One could feel ashamed even when one was alone, because God saw everything. The body, emotions, impulses and fantasies could easily lead to temptation and incur the wrath of God, and therefore they had to be kept under control, disciplined or denied. Shame can still appear as a defense against arrogance and in this way can also put a damper on our ambitions. In a secular way of thinking some might have “gotten rid of God”, but not of the notion that shame helps us to stay on the right path. When we hear ourselves say: “There may be something good with shame, and we must not abandon all shame” it is like an echoing of the old preachers.
One step further
As psychology professionals we should confront our positive perceptions of shame and we must take our understanding of shame one step further. We must recognize beyond a shadow of a doubt, that there is nothing good about shame. This is especially important when considering our attitudes towards those who struggle more than others.
I have been criticized by some of my colleagues for painting all shame with the same brush (Sinding, 2020). And they are absolutely right, I do. Shame is shame. There is nothing that is called healthy shame, good shame or positive shame. It is also misleading to place shame along a continuum from positive to negative shame.
The fact that we can tolerate some shame does not make it healthy or positive. The essence of shame, in all its nuances, whether mild or intense, short or chronic, is a collapse in self-compassion and loss of contact with good internal objects. The self is pulled away from self-love and threatened with loss of value. With shame the self is in free fall. All the things we believe we need shame for, we have other more benign and adaptive psychological resources for. These resources include signal anxiety, empathy, compassion, and care for others as well as our ability to feel and withstand guilt. Those who violate others without reparations do so not because they lack shame but precisely because they lack empathy, care and compassion for others. It is these abilities that help us to behave and navigate within the social landscape – we do not need shame for this. We can make mistakes, and we can fix them without being threatened by loss of self-worth. To be rid of all shame is perhaps an unrealistic task, and not a goal in and of itself, but we can at least cease attributing positive functions to it.
I would like to thank Norlingua Translations for assisting me in the translation of this work.
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 Songwriter:: James Cavanaugh / Larry Stock / Russ Morgan
Lyrics: You’re Nobody ’til Somebody Loves You © Peermusic Publishing, Reservoir Media Management Inc.
 «Mother» is a term taken from Winnicott (1971) and Kohut (1971). This page references them, and stands for the child’s primary caregiver (this includes both mother and father).
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