Psychologists, admittedly chagrined and a little embarrassed, are belatedly focusing on shame, a prevalent and powerful emotion that somehow escaped rigorous scientific examination until now.
Everybody experiences shame, but part of the reason it has been so elusive, in psychological terms, is that it has been overshadowed by the study of guilt. It is also difficult to measure and harder to bring into the open than many other emotions that researchers study with ease.
Shame is emerging, in the view of some, as a "master emotion" that influences all the others. Its development is being traced back through childhood and its role in a wide range of human experience, from spurring the greatest of accomplishments to the bitterest of marital fights, is newly appreciated.
Psychologists describe the power of an emotion that had rarely been studied.
It can spur achievements or violence
Much of the discomfort people feel in personal relationships may derive from shame, experts say. Some kinds of violence may be rooted in it, others suggest, And according to some theorists, the way shame is handled in psychotherapy may determine the length and effectiveness of treatment.
"Shame is a master emotion, regulating the expression of other feelings," said Thomas Scheff, a sociologist at the University of California at Santa Barbara, who presented a paper on shame at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in Chicago last month. "Whenever shame enters the picture, we inhibit the free expression of emotion, with the exception of anger," said Dr. Scheff, who studies the sociology of emotions.
Unlike other emotions, which tend to pass with time or with a catharsis like weeping, "shame is the emotion most difficult to admit and to discharge," Dr. Scheff said.
Further, shame is the most private of emotions. "Shame may be one of the only emotions for which no facial expression has evolved," said Dr. Paul Ekman a psychologist at the University of California at San Francisco who is an expert on facial expression. "Of course, in shame you do not want to signal your state. Turning away or hiding the face in some way are the only objective signs of shame."
Researchers are now beginning to use these indirect signs of shame in observational studies of infants and small children, to study how and when shame emerges in development.
Guilt usually refers to feelings about an act, a transgression real or imagined. It does not necessarily bring with it self-loathing as shame does. Shame goes to one's basic sense of self and is not often experienced as embarrassment or humiliation. The experience of shame is invariably and literally humbling. Shame is in many instances a normal enough feeling but it becomes emotionally dangerous when it starts to color one's most basic idea about who one is, or how worth one is.
Normal shame might result from seeing a dark secret -- a not terribly honorable motive for helping a friend, for instance -- slip out. But pathological shame would be when that same feeling arises with every rebuke or small failure, or as a subtext in all one's relationships because of some presumed character flaw such as a constant feeling of dependency.
RESEARCHERS TO GATHER
Later this year an international group of researchers will be brought together at a conference sponsored by the Sloan Foundation to discuss methods for studying shame in children.
"We know much too little about shame," said the organizer of the conference, Dr. Joseph Campos, a developmental psychologist at the University of Illinois. "It's been the ignored emotion in psychology."
Shame is seen by psychoanalysts as emerging earlier in psychological development than guilt. Freud's work paid more attention to guilt than shame, but recent theorists, particularly Heinz Kohut, have focused on the role of shame in psychological problems.
The recent interest in shame has also been spurred by developmental psychologists who, studying the emergence of the self in infancy, have found a sense of shame to be part of that process.
Feelings of shame begin to emerge in the second year of life, at the very formation of the infant's sense of self, developmental psychologists say. As the infant realizes that he is a separate person, he is first able to understand that others are directing emotional messages to him. Pride and shame appear -- pride at pleasing others and shame at displeasing them. "Babies know at a very early age whether their mother is angry or happy, but they do not yet know if it is because of them," said Dr. Campos. "By 16 or 18 months, though, they begin to be aware of whether the feelings are directed at them." The infant comes to understand that what he does can determine those feelings, and that can lead to either pride or shame. "You see shame clearly, for instance, in a 2-year old who soils his pants; he looks down or away to avoid contact," said Dr. Campos.
ROOTS IN EARLY CHILDHOOD
Psychoanalysts trace an extreme sense of shame to an early childhood in which parents did not respond with empathy and attention to the child's strivings to show his competence. Because the child feels that his efforts do not matter to the parent, he grows up feeling inferior and unlovable. "A child's sense of not being affirmed or supported in his strivings leaves him feeling the world does not respond to him at all," said Andrew Morrison, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School. "To have such an unmet need for support and response is in itself a source of shame." "For such people in adulthood, just to feel anything other than self- sufficiency -- a need for support, for attention, for physical contact -- is a source of shame," Dr. Morrison said.
Feelings of shame are often at the root of what may seem like irrational rage, research is showing. In studies of violent men under treatment at the Brentwood Veterans Administration Hospital in Los Angeles, Melvin Lansky, the psychiatrist in charge, found that shame played a key role in family violence among patients there.
Most of the violent men, Dr. Lansky found, had psychological vulnerability -- a history of psychosis or minor brain damage, for instance -- that made them especially dependent on their wives to function well. Without their wives' help, they believed, they would be overwhelmed and disorganized. At the same time, the men were ashamed that they were so dependent. They were particularly humiliated by remarks by their wives that made them feel incompetent, and typically they reacted with rage and violence.
SHAME AND VIOLENCE
Dr. Lansky said the violence served two major purposes, taking attention away from the dependency of these men and giving them a sense that they are in control.
"It is this sense of disorganization and helplessness at the hands of others that is often reversed by completing the violent act," Dr. Lansky wrote in a report in The International Journal of Family Psychiatry.
The role of shame in marital conflict is being studied in other research by Dr. Scheff and his students. "When marital partners use shaming as a weapon, their fights escalate dramatically," Dr. Scheff said. Shame and rage amplify each other in a dangerous spiral, according to Dr. Scheff. Much anger, he says, results from affronts that have caused feelings of shame. This shame, in turn, inflames the anger.
"Shame is the hidden motive in feuds and vendettas that go on forever," Dr. Scheff said. "It is humiliations to a group, assaults on their honor and pride, which make them, in turn, avenge themselves by humiliating the other group. The shame and rage get passed on from generation to generation. You see it in many of the ancient rivalries of the Middle East.
Beneath the self-adoring posturing of the narcissist, psychoanalysts say, is a sense of shame and self-loathing. Early and repeated childhood experiences that leave such people with a strong sense of being unlovable impels them to prove their worthiness with ever more impressive triumphs.
"A sense of shame drives some people to build an inflated self-image through the pursuit of fame and excessive amounts of money," said Dr. Nathanson. "They hope to convince themselves of their worth and lovability through their accomplishments."
Entire families can share feelings of shame over such events as a suicide or bankruptcy, or problems like an alcoholic parent. The sense of shame can persist over generations, according to Marilyn Mason, a family therapist at the University of Minnesota Medical School who is co-author of "Facing Shame: Families in Recovery," published by W.W. Norton. "The family's implicit rule becomes not to talk about painful life experiences of all kinds," said Dr. Mason. "The sense of shame leads them to become emotionally controlled and to set demanding standards for themselves."
BEST ANTIDOTE FOR SHAME
The single most effective antidote to shame, some studies suggest, is a person's laughter at himself -- an observation made by Freud. In research by Suzanne Retzinger, a student of Dr. Scheff, those people who were able to laugh at their own accounts of feeling humiliated and resentful had an immediate drop in their feelings of shame. But shame persisted in those people who were unable to laugh at themselves. The study was published in a recent issue of Psychoanalytic Psychology.
Feelings of shame can also be alleviated, according to Dr. Scheff, if the person can admit them openly to others, and feels respected instead of judged by them.
How well or poorly shame is handled during psychotherapy, according to some theorists, may determine both the length and effectiveness of treatment. Helen Block Lewis, a psychologist at Yale University, was among the first to study the role of shame in psychotherapy. Dr. Block proposed that intense shame led many patients to fare poorly in psychotherapy.
ROLE IN THERAPY'S SUCCESS
In a study of transcripts from 180 psychotherapy sessions, Dr. Lewis found that when the therapist failed to recognize a patient's feelings of shame, the patient's problems were prolonged or worsened. But when the therapist recognized the shame and helped the patient deal with it, treatment was more effective and shorter.
"Shame is the tacit issue in psychotherapy, but its importance has been under-recognized by many therapists," said Dr. Donald I. Nathanson, a psychiatrist at Hahnemann University in Philadelphia who is editor of "The Many Faces of Shame," recently published by Gulford Press.
"Freud thought that when a patient was silent, it indicated anxiety, he interpreted it as resistance," Dr. Nathanson said, "but silence often indicates the patient is embarrassed, he's ashamed to say what he is thinking."
Dr. Nathanson, who last year taught a course on shame in psychotherapy at the annual meeting of the American Psychiatric Association, urges therapists to let their patients know from the start that feelings of embarrassment and shame are a natural part of the process. Such an acknowledgment, he says, makes it easier for patients to admit their hesitation to talk about events and feelings that they have most often never disclosed to anyone before.