A colleague posted a comment on my previous blog post, “The Shame Family”, and I think this comment warrants a wider discussion because it contains some misconceptions that are pervasive both in the mental health fields and in our culture at large. Here’s his comment:

“You cite Sartre without a full explication of his point. After all, his example is the experience of a man peering through a keyhole at a naked woman suddenly becoming aware that he is being observed. The person in shame is "caught" half looking up, half looking down. We are rightly alarmed by individuals who are "shameless," those who refuse the gaze of the other and place themselves outside of the social control that the gaze creates. Your description of shame only moves in one direction, that is, the shamed person as "victim." But the refusal to accept that someone is vulnerable, that someone is "weak" (hence, human) is often a significant resistance in therapy. The ability to move through shame, to repent as Job did "in dust and ashes" in the presence of the other, is a vital part of emotional growth. Your observation that in shame, ‘we belong, not to ourselves, but to them’ is certainly correct, but your conclusion that this leads to the development of an ‘inauthentic’ self is only one possible outcome. The child grows through shame to a greater awareness of his social world. Much of the work in therapy is to allow the patient to feel the full impact of shame in the presence of the therapist and recover split-off aspects of the self. Shame, as is true for all affects, has both positive and negative implications for emotional development.”

This comment seems wrong-headed to me in a number of ways. I don't think that shame, which fosters only compliance and pathological accommodation, has any positive developmental implications at all, and I think that the claim that it does so derives from the failure to distinguish between moral shame and guilt. Sartre's peeping tom feels shame about being seen, not guilt over violating the naked woman. True repentance belongs to guilt, not to shame. Repenting out of shame is inauthentic repentance. To repent for being vulnerable, for example, is absurd. We should be much more alarmed by people who are guiltless than by those who are shameless. Sociopaths, perhaps like Sartre's peeping tom, are guiltless, not shameless. In short, I think my colleague’s comment has gotten the emotional phenomenology all wrong!

The idea that shame is essential for social awareness and socialization is one of the great, destructive, and largely unquestioned myths of our culture. It is socialization by coercion—shame the child and break his or her will! What about the essential role of empathic attunement and emotional understanding in the socialization process? In Sartre's account, it is only in experiencing objectification and shame that we become aware of the Other. There is no place in Sartre's philosophy for the vital role of the experience of being understood or loved for oneself.

It is simply not the case that all affects have “both positive and negative implications for emotional development.” Can my colleague come up with positive developmental implications of feelings of annihilating humiliation, horror, and stark terror, for example? People who are subjected relentlessly to such devastating experiences in childhood can become perpetrators or mass killers themselves. When shame or humiliation shows up in the therapeutic relationship, the goal is to loosen the grip of such feelings, not use them to make the patient more aware of the otherness of the therapist!

The valorization of shame in the name of social awareness and socialization is all too often a rationalization for emotionally abusing young children.

Copyright Robert Stolorow

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