Shame – suppressing joy

Why do we prevent ourselves from being able to reconstruct our bonding ties and our history, both chronologically, emotionally and rationally?shame blushing


Translated from Norwegian. Here the original text:

In this article, I will analyze the term shame, both within the psychoanalytic and the vegetotherapeutic tradition. I will attempt to shed light on the connection between certain educator techniques and a primary reaction, the fear of exclusion from the group, and the preconditions this creates for shame to occur.

I will attempt to further thought regarding the phenomenon of shame in the therapeutic relationship to shame as an ontogenetic response form linked to a phylogenetic response stereotype.

I will start with a short case description.


In my clinical practice, I have observed that perceived shame, or merely the threat of experiencing shame, has made patients unable to enter the emotional experiences that could have triggered cognitive processes and a deeper understanding of the individual itself and its relationship with itself and others. Such recognition refusal – as I choose to call it – has amazed me numerous times, and lead me to question what forces lie behind and hinder man from entering into cognitive processes.

Short case description

A meeting with a very special patient made me move past the wondering stage and into an investigation of the action cluster and conceptual content of shame. The patient had terrible anxiety and was completely disabled. She was unable to be among people – she regularly woke up several times at night – was depressed and, as she put it, “verging on insanity”.

Clinically she appeared slumping, with weakly bent knees, slightly stooping forward with her arms hanging down, an avoiding gaze and a bent head. Her eyes were dull, empty and wandering. Her body was lean, but not thin, as is the case when one lacks subcutaneous fat. The skin on her face was pale and slightly doughy, with fiery red spots. Her hair was wispy and lifeless, her voice dull and powerless.

During the course of the therapy, it became evident that she felt invaded by shame, to such an extent that her entire vegetative existence was defined by it. She lived in and with this shame all day, and it even woke her up at night. She was also filled with disgust for herself and others, terrified of intimacy and horrified by currents and waves of intense desire that could overpower her. All these feelings appeared simultaneously, “under her skin”, either as a burning sensation (the shame), rotten, doughy (the disgust) or as a burly, trembling and unbearable hysterical sensation (the lust). Her feelings became a therapeutic barrier for all experiences, both in her thoughts and her imagery, that could be connected to this bundle of emotion, which in itself was so intense as to make the patient experience a feeling of being “paralyzed in the head”.

In the first therapy session, her tears flowed silently in a vacant stream, from both eyes. This awkward silent and lifeless cry lasted for months. Gradually, a path opened into sexual abuse in her first months of life. They were of such a nature that all previously described emotional states had been activated simultaneously.

The early experiences would dominate both the mobilization and emotional direction of her defenses, colored by all her experiences and her potential for recognition on a wider and deeper level of life. This would especially affect her relationships with other people. The fear of a revival of experiences also created an opposition to acknowledging that something fundamentally terrifying could have happened to her so early in life. The woman underwent horrible fears, self-reproaching and a lack of belief in her own experiences and feelings when she tried to set them up against what she had become and was told about herself and her behavior as a child. According to her mother, “something was always wrong with you”, “you have no tolerance”, “we’ve always given you everything”, “no-one has had a better childhood than you”.

Approaching an understanding.

To understand how such experiences affect a child of this age, it seems relevant to reference Bowlby (1987). He claims that our inner models of ourselves and others develop based on our actual experiences.  The models are based on what actually happens. This is consistent with Daniel Stern (1991) and his statement that:…”infants are assumed to have a very active memory and imagination, but they are concerned with events that really occur…”. “…The infant is thus seen as an excellent tester of reality. At this stage, reality is never distorted as a defense mechanism” (p. 25). It is reasonable to assume that Stern believed this because at this stage the defense has yet to be developed in the infant.

Stern’s statement allows us to understand the enormous forces such traumatic stresses put on the emotional apparatus. At the same time, this stress can explain why everything must be kept hidden and what forces must be put in place to prevent the revival of the original feelings.

The experience that this patient gave me during therapy made me question whether there could be something more behind the emotional bundle and behavioral pattern of shame than what one normally understand as shame. Four seemingly essential questions eventually formed.

1. What areas of the human companionship sphere are so fundamental to us that we fear its destruction more than anything?

2. What punishment can affect us so strongly that it makes us react destructively to our own realization?

3. Why do we fear a physiological/emotional state to such an extent that we do everything we can to avoid experiencing it?

4. How does such a fear enter into the service of upbringing?

Shame as behavior and experience

Shame is described as a feeling of emptiness, rejection and exclusion. This description appears to be cross-cultural. The shame causes the individual to experience an intense desire or need to get away, to avoid being seen, to sink through the floor or shut off sensory expressions. The shame can lead to a denial of reality, because it becomes too painful. This can in turn lead to what can be perceived as a basic defense mechanism – recognition refusal.

The fear of reliving the very physiological and psychological condition that triggered the shame becomes the guiding principle for the individual’s actions. This can lead to a deep and unconscious dependence on others’ acceptance of them as individuals.

The power of shame can be so great that the individual gives up their “self-will” in order to avoid having to relive the shame itself. By asking forgiveness from others, and by being conditionally forgiven – because of one’s regret – one has also admitted to having committed a shameful act. –This sends a signal to others that one is willing to live with the shame, and this is a prerequisite for being able to re-enter humanity.

Through the possibility of being excluded, sent out in the hallway, banished to the corner, time-out, isolation, disgrace, wolf in the womb, we evoke shame in the individual and those closest to them. This would not be possible if this emotional state was not emotionally, physiologically, cognitively and somatically widespread in the ontogenetic manifestation of man.

Basic values of different cultures of shame

Hultberg (1987) has studied shames from two different cultures of shame, namely the Japanese and Viking cultures. He states that a culture of shame does not necessarily let good will or good acts determine where people place each other hierarchically, but rather it is the good reputation that determines the individual’s place.


Identification through role models is the most important factor in the socialization process in a culture of shame. There are no rules about good or evil in a metaphysical sense. The key is honor and reputation, which is seen as contrary to the contemptuous and petty. To be made a laughing stock is disastrous in such cultures. “To be laughed at in such cultures is often the harshest punishment a person can be exposed to.” (Hultberg 1987, my translation). This is what he calls: “The burning, stinging shame.” ( p. 91).  He continues: “Through shame, one no longer exists in the view of the community, which means absolute abandonment.”  ( p. 93).

Hultberg (1987) presents a few theoretical considerations that can provide associations on a biological basis for the reaction syndrome of shame, while at the same time, in my opinion, he actually links it to Bowlby’s attachment theory, though without mentioning Bowlby by name. Hultberg  points out that because the individual transgresses or breaks certain ideal norms, this can lead to an individual’s fear of  “. Being thrown out of the human community.“

He takes this a step further, while at the same time clarifying his opinion with the following statement: ” Shame is the fear of total abandonment, not of physical death, bur rather of mental denial.” ( p. 92).

Hultberg’s observations align very well with the assumptions and approaches to shame that I perceive as constructive.  Shame appears to always be associated with the danger of expulsion from the community, and that it is really possible to transfer or inflict shame of one’s own actions to one’s parents or offspring.

Psychoanalysis’ approach to shame

In his article “A timetable for shame” (1987), Nathanson states that there are two main schools in the traditional psychoanalytic approach to shame.

1.”If narcissism is limited by shame, and if infants are normally narcissistic, then shame cannot appear before there is a failure to renounce narcissism».

2.”If theory states that the child does not possess a self, does not differentiate a selfconsept out of the premordial slush of primary process thinking until s/he has begun the contest of toilet training, then investigators will not see shame before the anal phase” (p .6, my annotations).

As I see it, this schism in the psychoanalytic view of shame is not about the “roots” of the shame, but rather of its ability to appear in the individual.

In psychoanalytical theory it is also claimed that shame can be a stumbling block for the libido (Levin, 1971), or particularly related to narcissism ( O`Leary & Wright, 1986.)  O`Leary & Wright (1986)  describe shame as: “…..A sudden and painful experience of being perceived, either by others present or internalized others, as… Defective, drifting or weak in a way that appears to trap a selective and unexpected truth about oneself… The sensation of one’s private world being punctured is created, and one feels helpless and visibly unmasked” (p. 330, my translation).  This description was also less than satisfactory considering the problem area.

From my point of view, that shame can be learned, it is difficult to follow the reasoning that in the psychoanalytical literature makes it necessary to explain shame as a defect in their organism’s defenses. E.g. Natanson’s (1987) statement: “.. In my opinion, many of these patients start their lives with a constitutional limitation in the ability of the Ego to avoid shame through normal defense patterns.” According to my interpretation of Nathanson it seems clear that shame is not something that can be “placed on/applied to the individual” from outside, but that Nathan believes it to emerge from a developmental failure of innate malfunction causing the individual to be unable to resist an unavoidable and necessary reaction.

It would appear that all of the aforementioned authors take as their starting point the description of the perceived sense of shame, and that they do not describe the origin or starting point of the shame. Rather, they appear to describe the emotional forms of reactions that occur in the individual when the fear of the basis of the shame itself breaks through and strips the individual of their power.

To get past this, it is necessary to look more closely on the underlying reaction patterns in “shame behavior” and try to illuminate these based both on a phylogenetic approach and an ontogenetic framework of understanding.

Underlying reaction patterns in shame behavior

Lewis (1981) lead me to further analysis of the problem through his claim that the child is born social and that shame and guilt are emotions whose purpose is to repair bonds of affection, and that these are innate social emotions. She also suggests that blushing is a signal to the observing party that we want to be accepted back into humanity.

She presents two basic sides of the core of shame and its value to others:

1.  The physiological reactions, e.g. Blushing, that are vegetative and beyond the control of the individual.

2.  The phylogenetic reactions have signal value to others, and this value makes it possible for others to reestablish lost bonds of affection, I.e. attachment and belonging to humanity.

As she puts it, and the thought that there may be some factor underlying shame, made it increasingly sensible to assume that the matter could be species-specific, something innate to humans as a phylogenetic heredity.

It would appear that we were faced with a coping repertoire carried by humans from their phylogenetic history as a set way of responding to specific situations. To survive psychologically, humans may need to utilize this phylogenetic heritage in such a way that a particular response class builds bridges between specific types of existential crises, allowing the individual to “live” on.

Such solutions to existential crises may for us appear a coping repertoires that we can often perceive as the individual’s peculiarities or traits. We have a myriad of phylogenetically conditioned and vegetative inervated response stereotypes that in some situations are assumed by the individual and used in such a way as to be made chronically present in the individual’s coping strategies.

Shame can appear to be linked to such a phylogenetically conditioned response stereotype. Its origin is unconscious, but it has signal value to “the rest of us” by showing that the individual has spontaneously and directly reacted to a threat of exclusion from the community. Physiologically, the response stereotype may appear for example as blushing, contraction of the chest and abdominal muscles and contraction and retraction of the pelvis. The emotional experience and cognitive interpretation of these physiological states often leads to a profound sense of doom: “I thought i would die!”.

Upbringing and shame

The basis for shame being able to develop in the individual at all must be that it exists originally in a phylogenetically conditioned and vegetatively inervated response that is really tied to the fear of separation from the species or group. This has later been linked to specific upbringing techniques, so that the original genetic and inherited fears become a means of organized upbringing and obedience development. This would only be possible to connect if:

1. This response system is a phylogenetically conditioned response stereotypical class outside of the conscious control of the individual. The individual is aware of what happened, but unable to prevent the actual response stereotype from occurring.

2. This emotional state is both emotionally, physiologically, cognitively and somatically prevalent in the human ontogenetic manifestation of reality.

3. The individual’s fear of being excluded from the community is linked to certain upbringing techniques.

4. “Love modulation” is a central component here. This means that the parents or other close caregivers consistently link love and the withdrawal of love to specific action sequences.

The character analytical school and shame

Within the character analytical school in Norway, which is based on the work of Reich, there is an article by Ola Raknes (Faleide, Grønseth & Grønseth 1991,  p.319) that adresses the concept of shame. He states: ” Children accept being shamed because adults see it as a condition for accepting them and loving them, that the children accept that they are unworthy of acceptance and love, which they can only get by the grace of the adults. Acceptance and love from adults is simply a necessity for survival for the child – if not given, the child dies. The child is therefore forced to accept the adults’ conditions – i.e. It is forced to be ashamed – if it is to survive. . In other words, shame means “seeking refuge” in such a way that everyone accepts it.

Based on this, a control instrument is created which I call love modulation.

Parents withdraw and reduce the amount and intensity of love if the child behaves undesirably, but adds and increases the same when the child displays acceptable behavior.

I interpret Raknes’ statement to mean that he also talks about ties of attachment, without specifically using the word attachment. He views the shame in connection between the deliberate use of the application of shame and withdrawal of love as a profound component in disciplining the child. But he also sees the child’s “dependence” on the emotional supremacy of the adults and the child’s need to accept this. This dialectical connection is found deeply embodied in the very concept of attachment, as defined by Bowlby (1987).

Recent infant research

This approach leads us closer to recent research on infants and developmental psychology, and to the formidable empirical evidence present about the child’s coping skills from birth, as described by Stern (1991).  Based on what we know today about child development through interaction with caregivers, all humans/humanity represented by those closest to us, i.e. Our parents, form the basis for the child’s development.  This means that our parents become the very foundation for our relationships with all others. Through what we receive from those closest to us, and what we perceive about ourselves and our parents, through our interactions and communication with them in our first years of life, the foundation for our entire development is laid out.

As mentioned, shame is not a primary reaction, but rather the result of systematic shaping through responses form close others in a vulnerable, dangerous and necessary life dialog for the child. The feeling of shame can be induced and established in the child as a punishment for the demonstration of spontaneous “unacceptable” emotional reactions to the parents’ actions and sanctions. For example, this could be the child’s display of disappointment that the parents fail the child in its moment of emotional experience, by attacking the experience directly or denying the child its original and real emotional state.

Nathanson  (1987, p. 21) makes reference to an experiment where the mother is asked to leave the room and her two or three month old child for a while. She has been instructed in advance to not display any active facial expression, but to establish and maintain eye contact with the child once she returns to the room. According to Nathanson, it turns out that the children – after a while – display two distinctive behavioral patterns.  Some of the children cry out in frustration, while others “collapse” in the chair, as a result of a sudden drop in muscle tone, while turning their faces downward and to the side, so as to avoid eye contact with the mother’s face. Nathanson interprets this as a primitive reaction of shame.

If we stick to Stern’s (1991) statements on the child’s lack of developed defense mechanisms, I believe this description can refer to a spontaneous reaction from the child, a reaction that is not primitive in the sense of being rudimentary or a not fully developed emotion – but a primary reaction that is underlying of all later reaction nuances and that is based on a phylogenetically conditioned response type. In other words, it is the emotion itself that breaks out. What we see, however, is not shame as such, but the primary reaction that is the very foundation of the development of shame, namely the acting organism’s experience of its actions not being reacted to, but rather being rejected or neglected.

Since it is the acting aspect of the organism that is attacked, it is the recognizing category of the organism that is being threatened, since action and cognition are integral entities of the organism at this stage (Stern, 1991). It is the being of the organism itself that is at stake, so what we see is an organism that “punctures”, collapses, loses its activity level completely, because continued activity is perceived as an increased threat of possible exclusion and loss of belonging.

Based on the empirical evidence currently available on recent infant research, and the assumed cause attribute in infants in the communicative process, I believe it is not unreasonable to assume that the child interprets this as a failure of itself and its communicative skills. The child’s cause attribution leads to a high probability that it perceives itself as the cause of the actual (expressionless) facial expression, and the fact that the mother does not change her facial expression is related to the child’s own communication errors. The intentional action of the child – to establish contact/interaction – results in the opposite. The fear of further separation becomes acute, the cause attribution emerges – the emotional basis for the establishment of a sensation of shame is laid – There is something wrong with me!

What the child does here can – as I see it – be seen as a phylogenetically conditioned and vegetatively innervated response originally present in the organism, and linked to the fear of separation from the species (group).

This response is linked to the dyad – reason for – guilt for.This dyad has been linked to specific upbringing techniques so that the original genetic and inherited fears become a means of organized obedience and upbringing. Through this, the following triad is established: Reason for – guilt for – shame for.

The individual is aware of what happened, but is itself unable to prevent the shame from occurring. If our parents push us away and use our innate and genetically conditioned and vegetative inervated stereotypical response to exclusion as a means of suppressing our natural pleasure seeking actions, this can be experienced as a deep sense of shame.

Shame can then be seen as a separation of special behavioral patterns from the natural, and the introduction and attachment of “the unnatural” as identical to precisely these behavioral patterns; that is, parts of the natural are separated and labeled as unacceptable. When this occurs in the child, it necessarily leads to a lack of genuineness and dissimulation in the child – because the natural has been defined as abominable. But this is unknown to the individual in question, and because of the lack of insight in, there is no awareness of the mechanisms controlling this use of shame. Then, hierarchical, feudal and judgmental ruling techniques can be performed, preserved and passed on for generations.


Shame can be an extremely painful emotional state. In some contexts it can render us unable to acquire alternative categories of cognition, so that we may experience deeper change structures within ourselves. This is a very important emotional state of the therapeutic process, and it is necessary for the therapist to have insight and understanding of that this affective condition entails with regard to cognitive, emotional and somatic response patterns. The feeling of shame is defined very similarly in cultures as different as the Norwegian and Japanese. It seems documented that the physiological and emotional reactions to the experience of shame are also cross-cultural Shame is inflicted on all of us, and it forms the basis for socializing and disciplining the younger generation. This article has pointed out that discipline would not have the effect it does unless it was linked to an ontogenetically learned reaction (shame), which has its basis in a phylogenetically responsible stereotype, the fear of being expelled from the group.


Translated from Norwegiian. Here the original text: