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 others in order to demystify and humanize this fascinating and elusive emotion.

My deep 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, I also found there were areas of the work, especially with some patients, that remained elusive.  I felt I had come to know the depths of my own shameful feelings.  This had allowed me to help patients reach down into the depths of feeling ashamed in my presence when needed.  Yet, with some patients, I felt there was still so much more to know.  I wanted to know more about myself in relation to shame, about the complexities of shame, and also about shame within the therapeutic relationship.  I knew that being with patients and their shameful parts was pulling for something more from me.

Shame has 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 leads to feeling more shame and, therefore, we possess a strong desire to hide and defend ourselves from the shame itself.  (Interestingly, the word shame is derived from the Indo-European root skam or skem, which means “to hide.”)

Noted authors, from many disciplines, have made significant contributions to our understanding of shame beginning with the philosopher, Jean-Paul Sartre.  Freud made a brief foray into the topic before he shifted away from shame and placed his focus on guilt.  Other noted authors include Gerhart Pines, Helen B. Lewis, Andrew Morrison, Benjamin Kilborne, Leon Wurmzer, Francis Broucek, Donald Nathanson, Melvin Lansky, June Price Tangney, and Scheff and Retzinger.

Each discipline, including philosophers, psychoanalysts, sociologists, and anthropologists, at different points in history, has shed light on shame.  I have provided a timeline that offers a historical perspective that brought us to this point in understanding this complex emotion beginning with the work of Sartre.  Psychoanalysts have helped us to understand the connection between shame and who we are and who we hope to be.  Researchers have helped us view shame as having an adaptive function.  Sociologists have noted our use of language to avoid talking directly about shameful emotions.

Shame and guilt are frequently confused, yet, they differ significantly from each other.  I offer a comparison of the two which clarifies what we would think and say when we are feeling each.

There are so many important ways of viewing shame that we need to define it as the sum of all of these parts.

Clinicians have a responsibility to allow room for all emotions to enter the consulting room.  Yet, if there is a strong desire to hide and defend ourselves from shameful emotions, how can we help this to happen?  In this multi-media project, I am aiming to share what I have learned about shame in hopes that it will be helpful to clinicians.



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?




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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