SHAME, and Our Selves in Relationship
By Anita Frankel, M.F.T.
What is shame?
Shame is the emotional consequence of feeling marginalized, devalued, disempowered, or disgraced. It follows from the perception that we are unlovable, unacceptable, and disturbing to others. It is the well-learned warning bell that we are stepping beyond our allotted place in the order of things – that we are about to violate a powerful taboo against “too much” self-assurance, “too much” trust in our own experience, “too much” disturbance for those with power or influence over us.
Let us note that shaming may be legitimate as a tool of last resort, when there is literally no other way to stop an injustice. However, in the normal course of our lives we have alternatives to shaming, and being shamed, in assigning or accepting responsibility for the harm we may do to each other.
In the literature of analytic psychology, shame has been described as one of the “self-conscious emotions,” along with “guilt, embarrassment, and pride.” It is “an experience of self” in which there is “a failure of being, a global sense of deficiency or a failure to achieve one’s ideas.” (Lewis, 1998, as quoted in Hartling and Rosen et al, 2000.)
In recent years many in our profession have begun to question the emphasis on the “separate self” when talking about mental distress, in favor of the “self-in-relation” – the connections, disconnections and reconnections that mark the experience of relationships between people. From this perspective, shame can be defined as “a felt sense of unworthiness to be in connection, as deep sense of unlovability, with the ongoing awareness of how very much one wants to connect with others. “ (Judith Jordan, 1989, as quoted in Hartling, Rosen et al, 2000.)
Humiliation occurs when a person who commands authority denigrates or deliberately ignores the humanity, intellect, or feelings of another person. Humiliation is the generator of shame. Repeated humiliations are held in our minds as powerful “relational images.” They predispose us to be hyper-vigilant for signs of new humiliations, and to preempt them.
Strategies of Disconnection
To avoid shame or humiliation, we often opt for a “strategy of disconnection.” Psychologist Linda Hartling (2000) identifies three such “strategies,” based up the typology of personality types first proposed by the eminent psychologist Karen Horney 60 years ago (as reference Hartling, Rosen et al., 2000). They are:
Moving Away – withdrawing, silencing oneself, making oneself invisible. Hartling says, “Many children shamed through neglect and abuse adopt this strategy of survival.”
Moving Toward – pleasing or appeasing by “keeping important parts of their experience out of relationship in an attempt to earn or keep connection…” — a strategy often employed by adults in abusive relationships.
Moving Against – “directing anger, resentment and rage against those whom they believe to be the source of their shame or humiliation.”
Resistance and Engagement
Some of us in the therapy community call ourselves relational-cultural therapists. We pay special attention to the ways in which each of our relational worlds is stratified. The folks who traditionally dominate are variously parents, bosses, European-Americans, Christians, rich people, slim people, professionals, males, therapists! Dominant are often well served by, if not oblivious to, the shame that less favored people may carry. Many of us are dominant in one context, and subordinate in another. Even when overt coercion is absent, shame itself can keep us from challenging the hierarchies in which we live.
As relational therapists, we want to collaborate with our clients to build a measure of resistance to these “power-over” arrangements. At the same time, we work to move both our clients and ourselves to engage more assertively with partners at home, at work, with friends and with the wider community, regardless of the existing arrangements of power. In addition, we strive to reduce the distance between the client and ourselves as experts, by being vulnerable and emotionally responsive to our clients – and by learning from and with them what works, and what does not, in finding a path to mutual respect and reciprocity in their relationships.
The conversation in therapy might begin by learning about those old relational images that have kept a client stuck in shame, and then explore the ways that one partner in a current relationship – even a therapist in the therapy session – might unwittingly be reproducing the dynamic which shamed the person in the past. Ideally, the conversation allows for new kinds of responsiveness, as ideas, feelings and stories are shared between therapist and client. The aim is to create a space that is alive with humor and with humility. If we’re lucky, we’re moving together toward designing a strategy of re-connection with others that can move beyond the legacy of feelings of humiliation and shame.
Anita Frankel practices marriage and family therapy in the Silver Lake district of Los Angeles, California. She is a member of the Independent Psychotherapy Network. You can contact her at 323-661-0297, or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Copyright 2022 by Anita Frankel.