A Brief Psychoanalytic Look at 'Shame'
Several psychoanalytic authors have considered the major role shame plays in the psychic apparatus. Shame is the affective response to a conscious or unconscious sense of failure and inferiority in relation to the ideal. Shame is when we feel "small."
Freud's brief consideration of shame seems to be connected to his early attention to narcissism, self-regard and the ego ideal. The ego ideal here was a structure created by the internalization of cultural values, idealized parental representations, and moral precepts to guide the actions and contours of the self. In "On Narcissism" (1914), shame became for Freud a defense rather than an interpersonal subjective experience (a reaction formation against exhibitionistic/sexual drives).
Moving from his conception of instincts, he discussed an agency of the mind that was to be "conscience," and to function as a watch dog to the ego exerting behavioral and cognitive control over the drives. This agency he called the ego ideal or ideal ego was to be the forerunner of the super ego in his structural model. Freud suggested that the "ideal ego" was invested with narcissism lost from the sense of original perfection emanating from the infantile ego and determines the subjective sense of self-respect (i.e., self-regard, and self-esteem).
Freud explicitly related the ego ideal to self-regard and to its dependence on narcissistic libido. The inability to love, to invest in an object, lowered self-regard and lead to feelings of inferiority. Here Freud equated feelings of inferiority with the functions of the ego ideal. Freud ended his essay with a discussion of object love as a means of rediscovering lost narcissism through narcissistic idealization of, and investment in, the libidinal object. It is interesting to speculate had Freud not turned his focus to the Oedipal Complex at this point, he might have offered a framework for an elaboration of shame as a central affect underlying narcissistic phenomena.
Early Object Relations: Narcissism and Shame
Reich (1960) in her paper on self-esteem regulation identified a kind of narcissist whose grandiose fantasies and limited object relationships gain inflated self esteem and bouts of helplessness, rage and anxiety from their "narcissistic injuries." Reich noted that "contempt" toward the injuring idealized object is shifted to the self as a reflection of feelings of inferiority and "shameful exposure" (page 230).
Jacobson (1964) was interested in feelings of vulnerability and failure in regard to the ego ideal. She related this to narcissism and destructive early objects. Jacobson noticed in her patients a tendency toward shame reactions and feelings of inferiority. She suggested shame developed from exposure (lack of control) and failure (with some reference to penis envy). Anticipating Kohut, she indicated that shame frequently reflects deficiencies (not conflict) that the individual feels incapable of remedying. Passive, masochistic and dependent proclivities are present, which may lead to ineptitude, evoking shame and inferiority.
Spero (1984) suggested that shame evolves from negative ego ideals, "those aspects of superego structure which never gain complete internalization." (page 267) These superego elements are differentiated as introjects and split object representations, contrasted with internalization's of whole objects attained through identification. Spero suggests that shame reflects "unstable self-other boundaries," and negative and devaluing internalized object representations that have remained alien to self-structure.
Borrowing from Mahler here, Spero believed that self-object differentiation is incomplete, leading to the threat of diffusion of the self's boundaries by envy of the "observing other", thus impinging on the self's separate and unique identity. Introjects and part-object representations predominate over true identifications and therefore threaten the separate and unique existence of the self.
Kingston (1983) suggested that shame could be understood as a movement from "self-narcissism" to "object-narcissism." Self-narcissism is defined as an attempt to maintain a stable, integrated and positive self-representation. Disturbances occur in self-narcissism when the self-image easily becomes negative (i.e. narcissistic vulnerability). Object-narcissism represents a primitive object relationship in which self-object differentiation and boundaries are easily diffused, quickly leading to an anxious withdrawal from important objects to preserve the integrity of self boundaries, and a swift attitude shift displaying toward others self-sufficiency, denial of need, and indifference. Narcissistic disturbance has its genesis with early difficulty in differentiating from parents who need to maintain symbiosis.
Kingston described shame as a signal experience reflecting painful self-awareness and separate identity (self-narcissism) in the face of difficulty in relating to others. Anxiety from this self-awareness leads to a wish to deny need, dependency, conflicts, meaning, and imperfection. Shame then recedes with the move to "object-narcissism." Like Erikson's (1950) formulation of shame/doubt, Kingston saw shame developmentally as "the urge to live up to parental expectations which disregard or violate a unique personal identity; but which offers a sense of closeness, love or approval." (page 220)
The importance of the ideal self or ego ideal in these writings lead us to view shame as an ongoing tension-generating dialectic between grandiosity and the desire for perfection and the archaic self as inadequate, flawed, and inferior out of the realization of separateness from and dependence on objects. Thus shame and narcissism inform each other as the self is experienced, first alone, separate and small, and again, grandiosely striving to be perfect and reunited with its ideal. Uniqueness and specialness may be imagined in terms of total autonomy/independence, or, worthiness for merger with the fantasized ideal. The internal desire for autonomy on the one hand and merger on the other becomes the primary tension. The therapeutic issue becomes how to integrate the two desires.
Kohut (1977) defined the self as "a center of productive initiative - the exhilarating experience that 'I' am producing the work, that 'I' have produced it." (page 18) The self is the center of the subjective, the experience of the attributes of individual identity. Kohut uses the term 'bipolar self' in describing two chances human beings have at a healthy cohesive self. The first opportunity is through the experience of adequate mirroring by the early selfobject. This entails empathic mirroring of the exhibitionistic grandiose self (earlier called the grandiose self). The second chance for a healthy cohesive self is from relationship to an empathic idealized selfobject. This requires the experience of acceptance of the "voyeuristic" idealization of and wish for merger with the idealized object, by the idealized object.
Kohut (1966) states, "shame arises when the ego is unable to provide a proper discharge for the exhibitionistic demands of the narcissistic (ideal) self." (page 441) Thus shame results when the ego is overwhelmed by the grandiosity of the narcissistic self experienced as failure. He says, "shame of the narcissistic patient is due to a flooding of the ego with internalized exhibitionism and not to a relative ego weakness, vis-a-vis an overly strong system of ideals." (page 181)
The shame prone person is ambitious and success driven responding to all failures in pursuit of moral perfection and external success. Kohut believes that clinical healing takes place when a shift in narcissistic investment occurs. It becomes therapeutic as the analyst demonstrates acceptance of the patients' grandiose self. The patient shifts some narcissistic investment into the idealization of the analyst. Thus, the idealization of the analyst and the subsequent working through of empathic failures transforms the patients exhibitionistic grandiose self toward a more authentic self-esteem and progressive self-stabilization.
In much psychoanalytic literature shame has been mostly considered a defense against exhibitionism/grandiosity. My clinical work however, leads me to understand shame as primarily an affective experience from which defenses develop. Even when shame in fact serves as defense, the affective experiential nature of shame needs to be understood and acknowledged. Shame is a genuine human affliction that requires treatment, which may be frequently overlooked in part because it inevitably reverberates with shame experiences in the therapist. In other words, because most therapist have not experienced their own full shame analysis, they collude with the patient to keep these feelings unrecognized and unexamined. Shame then, is ever-present in the therapeutic encounter; and unless it is adequately understood and considered transferential interpretations frequently seem to be criticisms or irrelevant.
Shame presents in various ways, often very subtle. Seldom will a patient speak explicitly of shame, (in part because of it's unconscious nature) but may speak of feeling worthless, invisible, pathetic, ridiculous, or foolish. It is helpful to learn the language of shame. It is also beneficial to become familiar with defenses of shame including addiction, denial, withdrawal, rage, perfectionism, exhibitionism, and arrogance. It is almost always present in patients with impulse control issues.
Shame has different significance in the treatment of different types of pathology. For the neurotic, it will tend to relate to failure in action, often reflecting defensive passivity against oedipal aggression, competition, and desire. For patients with primarily narcissistic phenomena, shame will be more pervasive and will be in the foreground of all aspects of narcissistic vulnerability. Defenses for these patients will be more active and primitive, often representing manifestations of projective identification.
Shame may represent self-object failure in mirroring or self-object failure in idealization. These different manifestations of shame should be explored in an elaboration of the unique shame experience for each patient. Shame itself may very well be hidden, while at the same time it functions as a central concern and experience that must be identified and explored, frequently before authentically useful work can proceed in the interpretation of underlying conflicts and genetic issues. This is not to say that shame is primary and supersedes the interplay of dynamic conflicts, but rather, that it is of great significance and may be of primary importance to patients.
All of the material included in The Real Solution Workbooks and the Individual Programs pay extensive attention to the problem of shame.
Richard H Pfeiffer, M.Div, Ph.D.