Why does shame feel so bad? by Annie Pesskin

I would like to begin by asking you to take a moment to think about the most shaming experience you have ever had. As you reluctantly bring the moment to mind, you may feel your heart contract, a sensation of shrinking away from the memory might come over you and I wager you will want to stop thinking about it as soon as possible. Shame is an extremely aversive emotion, meaning we will do all we can to avoid experiencing and/or remembering it. And yet, for some of us, shameful experiences can come to our minds, unbidden, like a record on repeat with deleterious consequences for our self-esteem and social confidence.

Shame can be experienced on a wide spectrum, from a blush at its mildest to mortification at its most toxic. From the Latin ‘to die’, this is a feeling so horrid that death seems preferable; and in extreme cases, it causes people to commit suicide. Unlike the pain of childbirth, say, which is intense at the time but forgotten soon enough, the moments when you have felt ashamed endure in the memory and can offer up an unmistakably crawly and unpleasant sensation when recalled years, even decades later. The question is why?

Is it because shame is the emotion which most profoundly exposes the way in which our social existence on this planet is an invisible but inescapable aspect of our being? If you fall over while walking your dog when no-one else is around, it might hurt, you might curse, but it is not a cause for shame. When I tripped over on Oxford Street some years ago, in front of a Starbucks window where people were lined up drinking their coffee, I was struck by my response to the accident. I felt an overriding feeling of profound shame because a number of people I didn’t know had seen my vulnerability. The shame washed over me like a waterfall, even as two kind strangers were gathering up the contents of my bag, helping me up and asking if I was OK. Even recalling the experience now, I can feel a hot feeling rising within me and I remember how the shame entirely took precedence over the pain in my twisted ankle. It wasn’t until I had hobbled around the corner, away from the eyes who had seen my fall, that I began to feel the pain in my ankle, in fact.

In my prosaically minor anecdote, shame triumphed over pain. We also know it can triumph over the strongest bond human beings are capable of – notably filial love. When honour killings make the news, people who live by Western values shake their heads and say, ‘I wonder what could have made a father kill his own daughter?’ The answer is shame. So powerful an emotional response does shame engender inside our brains that we have to assume it is wired into our neurobiology for an essential reason. Mammals, as opposed to fish and reptiles, rear their young, so in varying degrees all mammals require parental input to reach adulthood. Another way of saying this is to say we mammals all depend to a larger or lesser extent on understanding the rules of social engagement to survive. If actual exclusion from the group spells death, then the threat of exclusion is the most effective method a mammalian species possesses to bring a recalcitrant individual to heel. Jaak Panksaap (2012) convincingly argues that our emotions are neural tool kits which have been conserved in mammalian evolution because they promote survival. He has not specifically turned his attention to shame, but I would imagine it would show up in the wiring as part of the FEAR system, since it is about a perceived or imagined (social) threat to survival.

The difference between fear and shame, however, is the inextricably social dimension of shame. Shame is what we feel when our actions cause the other to withdraw their good opinion of us. You can be afraid of a spider, for example, but you cannot feel shamed by one. Put another person in the room and your fear reaction to the spider could, quite quickly, be superseded by shame if that other person threatens to retract their good opinion of you as a consequence of your arachnophobia. How do humans shame one another? It can be verbal – an expression of scorn, contempt, derision or ridicule. It can also be non-verbal – a withering glance, silence, or worse, a physical act of humiliation or degradation. However we define the many ways it is possible to shame someone, or for them to feel ashamed, at root, my definition of shame is that it is an interpersonal event involving a failure to tolerate and accommodate vulnerability in either the self or the other.

William Shakespeare’s play, King Lear, is a master class in shame. An extremely powerful man gives up the trappings of power, the better to enjoy his dotage in which he imagines being lovingly looked after by his three daughters. His blithe assumption – that he is loved for himself, rather than feared for the power he wields – is swiftly exposed by the perfidy of his two elder daughters. After a period of destitute wandering on a blasted heath, exposed to the elements and accompanied only by a madman and his court jester, Lear dies a broken man having seen his youngest and most beloved daughter, Cordelia, die in his arms. A bleak story whose central character’s tragic flaw is omnipotence, King Lear is often rendered as a journey about aging – the transition from being in the prime of your life to the frail and helpless aged person whose exit from life’s stage is imminent.

However, King Lear’s predicament also serves as a dramatization of what happens to the His Majesty the Baby when he or she passes from Klein’s paranoid/schizoid position to the depressive position. This shift is occasioned when the baby’s increasingly sophisticated brain stumbles upon a series of painful discoveries about reality. Instead of willing the mother into existence from a position of pure, omnipotent phantasy (ie. hallucinating a full breast and/or destroying the absent, persecuting breast when hungry) the baby comes to see that the breast which he or she depends on to survive belongs to a mother who can come and go as she pleases, ie. she is not under the baby’s omnipotent control. Clearly this shift institutes the primacy of the reality principle and is therefore of critical importance in every baby’s development. It is also, as Melanie Klein posited and as Ron Britton has neatly delineated, an ongoing challenge for us all.

None of us, however privileged, is granted a right to life where the elements cannot buffet us, nor disappointments accrue. We have all felt the cold wind of disillusion, and have discovered time and again that wishing is not the same as having and thus suffered not just the loss of our illusions, but endured the privations that reality itself serves up – I am cold, I am hungry, I am lonely. The defining question though, is how well can we manage our disillusion? Does it send us mad, as it does King Lear? Or can we harness that old chestnut, ‘resilience’, and call on our securely-established internal objects to galvanize us into making new efforts to seek out intimacy?

The point I am making is that our capacity to manage the slings and arrows of misfortune are determined by the security or otherwise of our internal objects, ie. our capacity to cope with life is mediated by another, in this case, an internal Other who got there by being internalized in our earliest years of life. This internal object is a fair reflection of the treatment we received as a baby and infant when our many vulnerabilities placed maximal demands on our care-giver(s). If that care-giver was, by and large, understanding when we were hungry, cold or lonely; when as helpless babies we were unable to ameliorate our predicament for ourselves, we internalize an object who can be sympathetic and loving, positive and encouraging to us in our distress. Then, later on, when difficult things stress us as adults, we can draw on this internally-maintained, loving care-giver to tell ourselves it will be OK.

But if that care-giver, overwhelmed themselves by the onerous demands of meeting our colossal needs to clothe, feed, bathe and soothe us, responds too often in a neglectful, hostile or critical fashion, we internalize a very different kind of object – an object with cruel not loving eyes – who gazes upon us with a shaming countenance. As a baby, we have no alternative points of view with which to contextualize our treatment. We cannot think at three months of age, ‘Mummy is worried about Daddy’s drinking and how he doesn’t have a job to buy what we need, so she is distracted and preoccupied’. Instead, the baby feels furious when his needs go unmet and then he feels like a bad baby for attacking Mummy so punitively in his mind.

The result, over time, is that such a baby internalizes an object that does not love him well enough. He grows up to become someone who doesn’t feel worthy of good-enough loving nor does he feel he deserves to have his needs met. He chooses partners who treat him badly or who he abuses – a set-up wherein shame is the dominant emotional tone – trust is continually abused and relationships are bound to disappoint. It is dangerous to be a baby whose needs are not met and all too often, that baby grows up to be a teenager and sometimes an adult who surrounds themselves with dangerous others and dangerous places for that is what feels familiar and therefore, safe.

Returning to King Lear and his famous line, “I am a man more sinned against than sinning”, we can see how this is a way to stay perpetually angry with the care-giver who shames us when she lets our needs go unmet. You will also notice how it is the archetypal statement of the victim. In such a scenario, there is no place to change the status quo and find another type of relationship which might be more satisfying or pleasant. There is only room to nurse a perpetual grievance towards the shaming object and the result is repetitious misery.

How many of us have sat with people who thumb their drum of, ‘Woe is me and it isn’t my fault!’ Their lamentation may start to feel rather dull after a while, however much sympathy we might have had with them to begin with. And it is inevitable that we are cast in the role of persecutor when they come to us for help (therapy) and we don’t seem to be making their lives any better. A common impasse I believe, but one with an exit to the victimhood labyrinth, which lies in understanding how their lament about the present is a recapitulation of an internal object relationship which evolved in the early dyadic constellation of mother and baby when that little baby really didn’t have a choice about whether or not its needs got met; when in truth, he or she truly was ‘more sinned against than sinning’.

In King Lear, Shakespeare mines the dramatic tension derived from the clear split between good children and bad children in the play. He neatly exploits the tragic consequences when Lear mistakes his bad daughters, Goneril and Regan, for good ones and banishes his truly good daughter, Cordelia to faraway France. In this way, Lear does what many victims are compelled to do, which is to keep choosing bad objects even when good ones are available. To the lay thinker, this is uncommonly baffling. If someone had a horrid childhood, for instance, with a father who hit them, why do they grow up only to get together with someone who is violent? Surely they of all people would avoid such a partner knowing intimately how awful are its consequences? And yet, they do not. Perhaps it is helpful here to spend a little bit of time thinking about what part of us ‘chooses’ a partner. If only 10% of what we see is actually determined by the data coming from the optic nerve, then 90% of what we perceive is determined by what we expect to see. This means perception is sculpted by what we have seen hitherto; it is moulded by our conscious and unconscious expectations.

If a similar process is at work when we choose a partner, then perhaps the reason why someone feels attractive to us is in large part (90% of it) to do with how familiar they feel. Who will be more familiar to us than the people who looked after us in our earliest years? No-one. Therefore, we choose partners on the basis of how closely the way they treat us resembles those intimate early others. Infantile amnesia means most of us consciously remember almost nothing before we are three years old. What happens to all of that intensely-felt sensory and emotional experience? Is it just wiped out the day we turn three? Or does it form the bedrock of our (albeit unconscious) expectations of how we feel we ‘click’ with a person. If the latter is the case, then perhaps it is a more miraculous occurrence when the daughter of a highly abusive father grows up to choose a partner who is nice to her, rather than when she doesn’t.

If we invert the victim mentality, we get something approximating the healthy person, do we not? Someone who chooses a set of relationships in which they feel seen, validated, enjoyed and find themselves living a life replete with stable, enduring connections with others. If such a person is simply reproducing their own 0-3 years of emotional connectedness, are they really doing anything different to the ‘victim’ who keeps connecting with people who treat her badly and let her down? If that ‘victim’ was once a baby who was not validated, seen, enjoyed and consistently attended to in an emotional sense between 0 and 3 years, aren’t their complaints that they are ‘always let down’, that it is ‘always someone else’s fault’ actually an accurate representation of their baby self’s experience? Is it ever a baby’s fault that they are shouted at, ignored, treated badly? No. It is only ever the parent’s fault. But what if that baby’s parent was once themselves a badly-treated infant? Can they draw on a solidly internalized good-enough parent to guide their behavior in coping with their own infant? How, if they were never treated that way?

This may seem wildly off the point, dear reader, since ostensibly this is a paper about the fictional king of Albion, but returning to King Lear, can we perhaps see that this king’s choice – to believe in the satiny words of his two ‘bad’ daughters when he asked all three in the first scene to tell them how much they love him in return for the power he is giving up – might in fact be entirely consistent with someone who as a baby was accustomed to feeling belittled, passed over and ignored? When Cordelia refuses in this first scene to flatter him (she insists on saying ‘Nothing’ to his demand to know how much she loves him) he does not recognize her behavior as that of a good person who acts with integrity. Instead, he banishes her as an ingrate and a fool. When Goneril and Regan use devious wordplay to entice him into thinking they adore and revere him, Lear cannot see the empty words for what they are. He is seduced by their flattery and hyperbole. His ego is stroked and he gives himself up to the care of the inconsistent, cruel and deriding caregivers. He chooses, in effect, the bad object he has known from the cradle and eschews the good object he could have enriched himself with in the shape of Cordelia. I think in this scene we can see a repetition of a story which those who find themselves in abusive relationships know all too well – you fall in love with a prince or princess and upon kissing them, you discover they are a frog. You know how it goes – ‘He was so lovely at first; I thought I’d met my dream partner; he was so kind and loving etc. etc.’

So, a relationship is made and therefore the person becomes vulnerable. In Lear’s case, having willingly given up his authority to wield power, the better to enjoy his retirement, Lear expects his daughters to pay for his retinue of 100 followers. When they patronizingly suggest he doesn’t need 100, that these expensive retainers are farting and burping too loudly at their court, annoying the serving wenches and sitting around thus causing trouble (not unreasonable from the daughters’ point of view), Lear’s indignation and outrage well attest to his painful discovery that the princesses have turned into frogs. And Lear, rather than concede any curb to his omnipotence, prefers instead to banish himself from his daughters’ courts with no-one but his old court jester (traditionally played by Cordelia) for company. Buffeted by the elements, he wanders the blasted heath. Here, where the terrible weather echoes the torments of the benighted king’s heart, he feels increasingly certain that his fall from grace will either break him or send him mad. He declares he is, ‘A man more sinned against than sinning’ and is flooded with shame. Tom, the madman – naked, cold, alone – is the perfect container for this projection. He has been abandoned by loving arms and left to fend for himself with no means to do so. He is not capable of sympathy towards others and therefore cannot make use of what others may be able to give him, nor can he manage his overwhelming mental state on his own. In this parlous state, all Tom can do is say, ‘Poor Tom’ and jabber nonsense. He can speak but he cannot communicate. He is cut off from, and forsaken by, the Other.

King Lear’s loyal henchman, Kent, is outraged by Goneril and Regan’s cold treatment of their father and when he protests, he is put in the stocks. While meditating on these cruel daughters, he says they are, ‘Like rats, which oft do bite the holy cords a-twain/Which are too intrince t’unloose’. These ‘holy cords’ that he refers to are a metaphor for good-enough care-giving, where the baby is held together by the care-giver both literally (provided with food, warmth and shelter) and symbolically (treated in an emotionally-sensitive way). When the care-giver is sadistic, the baby is abused; when the care-giver is depressed, the baby is neglected. In both situations, the baby’s primitive, developing sense of self is suffused in shame, flooded with that noxious and aversive feeling which comes upon him when his social environment (the rats) reacts to him negatively (bite the holy cords a-twain).

We began this paper thinking about how shame is a continuum ranging from a blush to mortification. For poor King Lear, mortification – dying – is his salvation. The ‘rats’ who mistreated him fare no better – like rats in a sack they all end up destroying each other – and not a single one of Lear’s three children survive him. If what happens to King Lear and his family in the play can be rendered as a version of Lear’s internal world, the impact of shame is utterly devastating. Nothing beside remains…

A small number of characters do survive to say goodbye to the audience at the end of the play. They are the ones who kept faith with their ‘holy cords’ – they were loyal and long-suffering and kind – just like a good-enough care-giver to a baby must be. I think therapy can give you a second chance to find a good-enough care-giver and re-program your brain to expect to be treated well in relationships. If a relationship got you into the mess you are in, then a relationship will get you out. Just don’t expect a quick cure though. In my experience, it really does many years. If you find someone good, be patient and stick with it. It has got to be better than the alternative – to reside in King Lear’s hellish internal (and external) world.

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