Reflections On Shame
I have recently been given cause to revisit shame. I find it useful to think of shame as the experience we are left with when we reach out in distress to an expected source of comfort or containment only to have that source of comfort or containment reject us, either by turning away (neglect) or punishing us for having expressed our need (persecution). Then we are left not only with the original distress but also with the experience of being left rejected and uncontained in our distress.
My reflection allows me to differentiate shame from self-hatred, which may accompany shame but is not the same thing. Self-hatred can even be a defence against shame.
I was also able to think about the way we most often encounter defences against shame rather than shame itself, since shame is unbearable in a very primitive way. Significantly I found myself wondering whether shame is most often defended against narcissistically, by constructing a grandiose ‘false’ self, either in direct contradiction to the sense of impoverishment induced by the shame or sometimes by making shame itself the kernel of this ‘false’ self. (I sense John Bradshaw encourages something of this latter case in his approach to shame: Being special because of our shame and becoming stuck in the mirror of ourselves as ashamed).
I want to ‘sharpen my pencil’ and fill in my sketch a little: Perhaps shame is what we call the experience whenever we attempt to find connection in response to a primitive need and are met with rejection: I feel angry, attempt to negotiate a boundary; I feel sad, attempt to seek comfort; I feel happy, attempt to celebrate; I feel frightened, attempt to seek protection. The person I turn to, in an attempt to negotiate my intense and unmanageable need, is a significant other, someone I can expect to meet me in a containing way: Not necessarily to meet the need but to respond in a way that helps me with the experience of needing. They are as it were a ‘maternal signifier’, someone who can be relied on to be ‘good enough’ in their response.
However when this significant other responds in a manner that is violently opposed to our expectation, there is a radical loss of meaning that goes beyond anything that might be thought of as identification with the aggressor. We experience what Winnicott called, ‘unbearable anxieties’. This loss of meaning results in a withdrawal of cathexis from the external world, the construction of narcissistic defences, and the creation of a ‘false’ self.
I wonder if this experience I am trying to think about as shame is a particular type of trauma in that the original event that predisposes us to experience trauma and the event that precipitates the experience of trauma are very close, so close they collide.
Shame is particularly intractable because it requires us to revisit the unbearable.