A month ago I talked about mental illness in the theological academy, and now I want to talk about shame. The fun doesn’t stop!

I keep trying to find a way to make the following post somehow relevant to something specific that has occurred recently in the news, but I’m detaching from that aspiration. All I can say is that lately I’ve been doing some research on shame, especially in relation to suicide and self-hatred, for my dissertation. However, I do think this will be of interest to those searching for some conceptual tools for self-evaluation.

It seems to me that the task of living out of a sense of our own embodied dignity is very difficult to do, especially in a sexist, homophobic, and racist society (So NB: understanding one’s personal experience of shame does not in any way occur apart from understanding the political and structural injustices in our society which lead to particular kinds of shame among people who are oppressed socially, economically and culturally — if you belong to an oppressed group in a society, you are much more likely to struggle with feelings of shame, particularly about your membership in that group.) Anyway, perhaps coming to a better discursive grasp of shame, namely, that which, in its toxic form, eats away at our sense of our own dignity, will be helpful in these struggles.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, psychologists have increasingly come to identify shame as a key emotion in discussions of various kinds of disturbed self-relations, especially as it contrasts with guilt. Relatedly, this blog post that I read awhile ago about comedian Louis CK leads me to think that shame may be a prominent emotion in our time, for a variety of reasons. Anyway, with guilt, “the focus is upon the victim’s sufferings and ramifications of the act…The emotion is experienced as an unpleasant sense of remorse and tension accompanied by an urgent need to expiate or relieve the emotion…Reactions include making reparation, confessing and apologizing.”[1] When we say a person is guilty, we typically mean that she is experiencing regret for a transgression she has committed, and with this sense of regret comes the desire to atone and to purge the stain of the transgression from one’s identity. Significantly, a guilty person presupposes that her real identity is more fundamental than the act for which she is guilty; she has a stable sense of self that precedes the transgression, and once she has made amends or atoned, she can return to that sense of self with a clear conscience.

With shame, however, some kind of transgression, event, or feature of one’s identity causes one to feel profoundly discomfited as one reflects on one’s identity overall. Shame cuts deeper and affects one’s entire sense of self:

In shame, the individual’s focus of attention is on the self and its deficiencies; the self serves as both judge and accused, and the ashamed individual experiences global devaluation…The emotion is subjectively experienced as acutely painful, with a sense of shrinking and feeling awkward, small, helpless and worthless. The ashamed individual reacts to the emotion by wanting to hide, disappear, or retaliate…Remediation is difficult because it involves recasting or remaking the self.[2]

Shame is an internal conflict within the individual’s psyche. Though it can be related to a person’s specific transgressions in complex ways (i.e., one may feel badly about having committed some kind of trespass), it always touches upon questions not only about what the person has done, but who she is. And the person that she takes herself to be is judged unacceptable. The desire for cathartic reparation or atonement does not strongly exist (though it can in “healthy” forms of shame; see below) because one does not believe that one can recover a fundamentally good or at least stable sense of self. Shame tends to be chronic, and, as a kind of “guiltless despair,” it causes one to want to become invisible.[3] Whereas the guilty person needs forgiveness, the ashamed person needs radical acceptance (though such radical acceptance does not necessitate a blanket approval of the actions of this individual).[4]

Within this general description of shame, psychologists agree that there are different kinds of shame, and some are even considered healthy in a qualified sense. For example, John McDargh identifies a kind of “discretionary” shame that enforces social taboos within the psyche and keeps one from doing something embarrassing such as walking around naked in public. Should one socially transgress in this way, one experiences discretionary shame in the moment. One can see how this internalized sense of propriety, and the concomitant sense of shame, can serve a useful protective function in regulating behavior. McDargh also speaks of what he calls “existential” or “moral” shame, which refers to the experience of feeling tainted in one’s identity by problematic or hurtful acts that one has committed. One can carry this kind of shame because one has somehow harmed another and then feels that this act affects one’s entire identity. This kind of shame can provide the spur to rectifying one’s behavior and therein altering one’s identity for the better over time.

These two kinds of shame can also be distinguished from a kind of “ontological” shame in which one is aware of the contradiction of one’s finitude alongside one’s wide-sweeping desires for various kinds of self-transcendence: “From the proximate reliance on our adult caretakers for food, shelter, attention and affection, to our ultimate dependence on breath and being that is not ours to control or manage, we are dependent creatures who are alone among all sentient beings, possessed of the capacity to be aware of the nature of that dependence.”[5] These three kinds of shame, discretionary, moral, and ontological, suggest that shame can be understood as a normal or self-protecting aspect of human existence. They all differ from guilt because they all touch on a person’s fundamental self-understanding, and the question in light of these experiences of shame is not first and foremost, “What did I do?” but rather, “Who am I that I did that?”[7]

However, any of these kinds of shame can devolve into “toxic” or “pathogenic” shame, and it is this shame that pertains to what I would call an experience of “impoverishment of self.”[8] Toxic shame involves the chronic feeling of worthlessness, a feeling that either runs through a person’s mind and speech constantly or remains at a more unconscious level, always felt but never made explicit and confronted:

People have creative ways of dealing with [things they don’t like about themselves], and sometimes they become stronger as a result. But the pathogenic shame belief seems to block creative avenues. It is crippling, because it contains not just the derisive accusation that one is a wimp, a bully, a runt, or a fag but the further implication that one is at core a deformed being, fundamentally unlovable and unworthy of membership in the human community. It is the self regarding the self with the withering and unforgiving eye of contempt. And most people are unable to face it. It is too annihilating.[9]

This vivid description of toxic shame returns us to the impoverished self, the person who denies her own worth and looks upon herself contemptuously for this perceived lack. In fact, though the term “impoverishment of self” is my own, I employ it because it resonates with Kohut’s category of the “depleted self,” the person who is burdened by shame and inadequacy.[10] This state of being does not open oneself up to God and others, but rather, shuts one in on oneself in an internal paralysis reinforced by self-directed hostility. And because this shame is so deep-seated and painful, many people live with it out of view rather than dealing with it directly.

As I have come to possess more clarity on the common experience of pathogenic shame at this point in history, I have come to see the world more through this lens. I think that many people, for a variety of reasons, carry with them at least a vague sense of painful inadequacy and of deep-seated feelings of worthlessness. This is not the only interpretive axis in my worldview but it is one of them, and I think it does interesting things to standard Christian conceptions of guilt.

Think about it — do you experience shame about yourself? Your body? Your mind? Your past? Your career? Your relationship? How does shame corrode your sense of self?

[1] John McDargh, “Religion, Shame and Violence: Unholy Alliances and Liberating Possibilities,” Lecture, William Alanson White Institute, Center for Applied Psychoanalysis, New York, NY, March 8, 2006, 5.

[2] Ibid, 5.

[3] This term, which describes the state of patients who are struggling with feeling shamefully worthless, comes from psychoanalyst Heinz Kohut. Kohut was famous for developing what is called “self psychology,” an influential branch of psychology in the mid- to latter-twentieth century. As part of the development of “self psychology,” Kohut was also pivotal in ushering in the rise of shame studies over the past several decades. In contradistinction to Freud, whose therapeutic paradigm centered around the “Guilty Man” struggling to bring his drives under the control of the ego, Kohut emphasized the “Tragic Man” struggling with the burden of feeling deficient at his core. The “Tragic Man” is thus the figure who is beset by shame and haunting questions about his identity. See Andrew P. Morrison, “Shame, Ideal Self, and Narcissism,” Essential Papers on Narcissism, Ed. Andrew P. Morrison (New York, NY: New York University Press, 1986), 348-370; see also Peter J. Gorday, “The Self Psychology of Heinz Kohut: What’s It All About Theologically?” Pastoral Psychology 48.6 (2000), 445-467; Heinz Kohut, The Restoration of the Self  (New York, NY: International Universities Press, Inc., 1977); Donald Capps, The Depleted Self: Sin in a Narcissistic Age (Minneapolis, Fortress Press, 1993), 33-37; 71-100.

[4] Morrison, “Shame, Ideal Self, and Narcissism,” 370.

[5] McDargh, “Religion, Shame, and Violence,” 10. I would argue that Reinhold Niebuhr’s discussion of anxiety (and how that gives rise to pride) in his The Nature and Destiny of Man falls under this category.

[6] Psychologist Robert Karen helpfully notes that both guilt and shame can coexist together, triggered by the same event, within the same person: “The same experience can arouse both guilt and shame, or guilt in one person and shame in another, based on their psychological and cultural makeup. In psychoanalytic literature the pathological potential of shame has long been overshadowed by a kind of reverence for guilt. ..[T]he word is often misused in place of ‘shame’.”  See Robert Karen, “Shame,” The Atlantic Monthly (Feb 1992), 47.

[7] There is also a pathological form of guilt, in which one keeps feeling responsible for damage that one never did at some point in the past, especially in childhood (Karen, “Shame,” 47).

[8] Ibid., 42-43.

[9] Specifically, Kohut views self-depletion as a less severe (yet more common) psychological burden than self-fragmentation, the latter characterizing conditions such as schizophrenia. The depleted person possesses a basic sense of her own individuality in that she knows she is a distinct unit of thought and action, but she feels empty and worthless chronically. See Capps, The Depleted Self, 97-100; Morrison, “Shame, Ideal Self, and Narcissism,” 360-367. In my research on shame, I came to notice that psychologists occasionally use the word “impoverishment” to describe the experience of depletion, though it is never the primary category in such descriptions. For example, see Morrison, “Shame, Ideal Self, and Narcissism,” 368.

8 thoughts

  1. Interesting post. I agree with much of what you have to say.

    A couple of thoughts:

    1) I was wondering throughout this post when you would be talking about narcissistic wounds and then I see that you’re relying heavily on Heinz Kohut. Kohut is an interesting figure whose psychoanalytic theory is problematic in its own right but I’ll spare the you the psychoanalytic lecture. If you’re looking for other intersections between psychoanalysis and theology you might consider Dobbs’ work on Harry Guntrip.

    2) Now I want to highlight a more substantive point. What about the relationship between trauma and shame? In my experience as a psychologist, individuals who have experienced trauma (especially when the abuse is sexual) often have this overwhelming sense of shame/blame as a legacy of the abuse. It leaves them with this internal sense of badness. I had a patient call herself “radioactive.” I recall another patient who said that she deserves to be “humiliated” and that she expects God to send her to Hell because she is beyond redemption. Another recent patient of mine whose full of shame and self-hatred said that she hates the idea of an afterlife because that means she’ll never be able to stop living as herself. All three patients experienced profound sexual & physical traumas as children and adolescents. I’d encourage you to investigate more into this topic. There’s so much great literature on childhood abuse and trauma.

    3) Shame is also more interpersonal than guilt. The person who feels shamed (especially of the toxic sort) presumes that the Other can also identify and see their toxicity. The guilty person’s accuser is the superego (i.e. themselves).

    4) This is all quite salient to a conference paper I’m writing right now masochism and trauma. Thanks for the thoughts.

    1. Thanks for the contributions, as always, Jeremy. I have also been researching the connection between trauma from abuse and shame, even though it is not in this particular post. In any case, I am very sorry to hear that about those patients.

      1. The patients have all made strides on their own. Human beings have an extraordinary capacity to be resilient and courageous in the face of enormous suffering.

        I like where you work is heading in terms of the psychological, political and theological. Glad to see you’re reading psychoanalysis (my true love), even if it is Kohut!

  2. You might tie this in with the reporting around Pope Francis’ observance of the Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, in which he prayed for the ‘grace of shame’ – that’s actually what I hoped this was when I saw the title pop up in my reader. 🙂

    I wrote a 10 page term paper a few years ago on sanctifying shame that I would be interested in sharing & discussing with you if you have the time and interest — please drop me a line if so.

  3. Very nice summary, thank you. I’ve been reading about shame lately, mostly in the context of social stigma, which is relevant to a manuscript I just completed about the moralization process. My readings included the Robert Karen article you cite, although I didn’t follow up with the numerous books he mentions. If you’d like some references for shame and social stigma, just send me an e-mail (lauraa898at898ori898dot898org, but drop all those numerals). Also, Martha Nussbaum’s book “Hiding from Humanity: Disgust, Shame, and the Law” is useful.

    1. Also, I’ve been thinking that Carol Dweck’s distinction between entity and incremental thinking might be highly relevant to shame, as “entity” thinking can involve conceptualizing people, including ourselves, as having fixed characteristics. Once our self-entity has been “damaged,” it would be much harder to bounce back than if we think of ourselves as more fluid and changeable.

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