We all know what it’s like to feel shame.  It is a universal emotion.  Yet to actually say the words “I feel ashamed…” to another person, even to a therapist, seems to be one of the hardest things for people to do.  Why is this?  I have created this Multi Media Project to attempt to answer this question and related questions in order to demystify and humanize this fascinating and elusive emotion.

Actually, shame does have unique distinctions from other emotions such as pride, fear, sadness, anger, and joy.  Shame reflects feelings of failure, defectiveness, inadequacy, vulnerability, and even of not being lovable. It also creates the fear of being seen by others differently from the way we want to appear and it can feel intolerable to ourselves.  Most importantly, to acknowledge shameful experiences only leads to more shame and, therefore, we possess a strong desire to hide and defend ourselves from the shame itself.  (The word shame is derived from the Indo-European root skam or skem, which means “to hide.”)

My own interest in the topic of shame began during my training as a psychoanalyst. I became aware that while I was able to develop strong levels of trust with my patients as we explored deep emotions and could see benefits from treatment, there were areas of the work I felt remained elusive.  I thought I really knew what it was to feel my own shame and knew about my own shame, which allowed me to help patients reach way down to the depths of feeling ashamed in my presence when needed. Yet, with some patients, I felt there was more I needed to know, both about myself in relation to shame and about shame itself.  For those patients, being with them and their shameful parts pulled for something even more from me.

Noted authors from many disciplines have written about shame beginning with Freud’s brief foray into the topic before he chose to focus on guilt. Each discipline at different points in history has significantly different contributions to make.  I plan to include a piece about the historical perspective that brought us to this point in understanding this complex emotion.  Psychoanalysts have helped us to understand the connection between shame and who we are and who we hope to be. Some sociologists have helped us to view shame as having an adaptive function; other sociologists have noted our use of language to avoid talking directly about shameful emotions.

I have chosen to focus on the most current area of study to convey the human aspect of the shame experience.  I plan to illustrate and examine the disciplines from my own educational background and areas of study: psychoanalysis, developmental psychology, and early attachment trauma.  In the past decade, these disciplines have combined their expertise to answer questions about how shame develops as an affect.  They have also shed light on how shameful emotions become too overwhelming to manage and interfere with healthy development.  I plan to explain the work of researchers, including Allan Schore, Edward Tronick, and Beatrice Bebe, which illuminated mother-infant patterns of relating and the transmission of emotions, including shame.

Social media has opened up an entirely new arena for hiding emotions behind screens and sharing with others.  I would like to pose the question: has the cyber world been helpful or harmful in allowing people to express shame to others?

Psychotherapist have a responsibility to allow room for all emotions, including shame.  Yet if there is a strong desire to hide and defend ourselves from shameful emotions, how does this happen?  What could be helpful for therapists to know about shame in the consulting room?

It is imperative that I pose the question: what is the antidote to shame?  The answer is clear: it is empathy.  Children who are raised in an atmosphere of empathy and who internalize a feeling of pride from a caretaker are better able to regulate experiences of shame.


Ted Talks:

After a decade of silence, Monica Lewinsky speaks publicly about her feelings of excruciating and unbearable shame  and pleas for people to return to a value of empathy and compassion.

Monica Lewinsky: The Price of Shame

In one of the most popular Ted Talks ever, Brene Brown declares: “we have to talk about shame” and gives permission to be vulnerable as a measurement of courage and not shame.  She offers: “empathy is the antidote to shame.”

Brene Brown: Listening to Shame

You Tube:

Dr. Edward Tronick: Still Face Experiment

Dr. Tronick captures an infant’s reaction to her mother’s still face that demonstrates the deeply negative emotions that take place to create the shameful experience.  When this pattern becomes repetitive and there is no room for reparation, the mother and child are “stuck in that really ugly situation.” (Tronick, 2007)


Tyrese: Shame

In this song, we hear the writer’s pleading words: “I need your forgiveness….Mistakes, I made em….I’m sorry for hurting you….I’m ashamed of me.”

Shame Shame Shame Shirley & Co.

In this playful song, I like to think we are hearing the voice of someone who has shed her own shameful feelings through motion and dance and advises others “if you don’t want what you got remember one monkey don’t stop no show.”

The image of this child depicts the experience of hiding in the face of a shameful experience.  It elicits thoughts of feeling unloved and vulnerable.


Books and Journal Articles:

Davies, J.M. (2004) Whose bad objects are we anyway?: Repetition and our elusive love affair with evil. Psychoanalytic Dialogues., 14: 711-732.  Davies writes about the importance of the therapist leaving room for the patient to see the therapist’s shameful parts so as not to feel that all the bad parts belong to them as it did in childhood.

Hill, D. (2015) Affect Regulation Theory: A Clinical Model. W.W. Norton & Co. New York. Hill explains how the regulation and dysregulation of shame profoundly impacts the development of the child.

Lewis, H. B. (1971). Shame and guilt in neurosis. Helen Block-Lewis is noted for her research on shame and guilt and the statement that “shame is directly about the self” as well as the role of shame in therapeutic failure.

Morrison, A. (1989) Shame: The Underside of Narcissism.  Hillsdale, N. J. The Analytic Press.  Morrison moved the study of shame from drive theory and ego psychology to include the contribution of Kohut’s understanding of narcissism.

Nathanson, D. (1992). Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex, and the Birth of the Self.  W.W.Norton & Co. New York.  Nathanson made a significant contribution to the subject of shame and sexuality.

Orange, D. (2008). Whose shame is it anyway?: lifeworlds of humiliation and systems of restoration (Or “The Analyst’s Shame”) Contemporary Psychoanalysis, 44: 83-100. Orange writes about shame belonging to both the patient and the analyst within a relational system.

Price Tangney, J. & Dearing, R. L. (2002) Shame and Guilt. New York. The Guilford Press. The authors identified the adaptive function of shame which allows the young child to disengage from a caretaker when appropriate.

Scheff, T. & Retzinger, S. M. (2000). Shame as the master emotion of everyday life.  Journal of Mundane Behavior. 1 (3). 303-324.  The authors write about our use of euphemisms and baby talk when referring to shameful emotions.

Scruton, R., “Hiding Behind the Screen,” The New Atlantis, Number 28, Summer 2010, pp. 48-60.  Scruton believes that children need the human experience of embarrassment to grow and not the “mere point of view” they receive from the cyber world.

Schore, A. N. (1991) Early superego development: the emergence of shame and narcissistic affect regulation in the practicing period.  Psychoanalytic Contemporary Thought. 14: 187-250.


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