|Carl Webster - Marriage Counselling, Psychologist and Psychotherapist 0424 650 630
Overcoming the negative effects of the shame response
Finding your own voice
Saying how it is
By Carl Webster Feb 09
I don’t get what I want. I get rejected.
I attack or get attacked.
My hopes are up and then get dashed.
I feel ignored, excluded, unloved or isolated.
I get embarrassed.
I am critical of myself.
I feel guilty.
I am too shy, scared, nervous or tense to say what I want or ask for what I want.
I pretend I am OK when I am not.
I drink &/or take drugs.
All of the above could be seen as universal experiences that might be experienced on occasion by anyone. A reasonably secure person
may experience the above and expect to recover fairly quickly. If necessary they will take time to reflect, learn, apologise if necessary and
move on. They are not paralysed by such circumstances and recognise that they may mistakes from time to time.
However sometimes such events seem to happen too frequently and/or our reactions seem overly strong. We may feel overwhelmed and
powerless to do anything about our reactions and we (eventually) feel anything but OK. We may blame ourselves and obsess about what
we did wrong or what we could have done better. We may blame another and go on the attack or get stuck in thoughts of revenge. We may
withdraw into ourselves and avoid others, often presenting as depression. Or, we may find a way of avoiding thinking or feeling about what
has happened such as taking drink or drugs or by being busy or watching TV. We may often feel (and present to a partner or others) stuck,
confused and unsure how to make sense of and deal with our reactions. In cases like these it is almost certain that we are dealing with
shame (whether or not we are feeling ashamed). We may then go onto feel not OK about our reaction and this can help us dig a larger hole
of negative feeling/reaction and shame. Worst case scenarios will often end in us doing serious harm to ourself and others.
A typical example. Bob is thinking about sex. He comes onto his partner Sally in a physically or verbally suggestive way. Sally appears
uninterested and takes little or no notice. Bob either gets angry or shuts down (or does both). The resulting conflict and distance takes
some time (hours, days or more) to work out. It’s a pattern that keeps repeating on a regular basis. (Many women and men will relate to
this example, although interestingly it’s not always the man in that role – it can and does happen to some women too). So what’s happening
and why? Bob would like sex, but he’s also been feeling somewhat lonely and down. Unfortunately he generally is not in the habit of
acknowledging ‘negative’ feelings to anyone least of all himself. His mates at work and sport have a ‘you’ll be right’ mindset and Sally
sometimes feels threatened when he does share his feelings. Bob does not easily associate his desire for sex with his underlying feelings.
Ordinarily he is likely to accept a ‘no’ from Sally, but this time the lack of interest is actually felt on a deeper emotional level. (Note – its not
her fault. She may be fed up of the same pattern arising and have put her own walls up in what she sees as self defense.) Meanwhile Bob
has a mixture of internal reactions and feelings going on which may include humiliation, anger, embarrassment and feelings of inadequacy
at his own reaction (‘I’m weak’), hurt, self denial and blame (it’s her fault).(cf (i) below) He may end up condemning himself (‘I’m pathetic, no-
one loves me’), condemning Sally (‘she’s a bitch’), desperately yearning for contact (fantasising about other women), being condemned by
his partner (‘you’re only interested in one thing’) and acting out/protesting by getting drunk.
The resulting combination of feelings, judgements and reactions are in this case what constitutes a shame reaction. What Bob doesn’t
realise is that a lot of his internal processes have been learned and ‘scripted’ in childhood and his reaction is pre-programmed to play out
again and again in various permutations and at varying levels of intensity.
Shame is not a single feeling but rather a combination of learned responses. Psychiatrist Donald Nathanson suggests that there is a basic
biological shame response (or affect) inbuilt in all of us which occurs when our quest for pleasure-joy-excitement is interrupted or
suppressed. This affect becomes associated with memories to form various emotions and whole thought processes or scripts are built
around the various experiences (cf (ii) below). These thoughts have to justify why we cannot get what we want and come up with a reason
for failure. Given there is failure this must mean that we or others have failed in some way and so we make ourselves or others wrong.
The experience of this shame effect is highly unpleasant and can be overwhelming. Given our natural tendency is to avoid and escape pain
a secondary level of reaction is then usually triggered in an attempt to feel better. This level of reaction may be more active or more passive
but either way it is about trying in some way to feel better and block out feeling shamed. Nathanson calls this the Compass of Shame:
Attack Other Attack Self
All of these strategies are basically defensive as we are trying to defend ourself from feeling bad. Each strategy may manifest in a range of
ways and will vary according to the individual. For example minimising, denial and blame can be applied to oneself, to others or both. They
may be expressed internally or externally, through thoughts, language, emotions and behaviour. Sexuality or denial of sexuality may be
involved eg masochism, sadism, masturbation, pornography, abstinence and witholding. Unfortunately all defense strategies set up their
own negative dynamics which tend to ultimately make us feel worse (and often others) and ironically tend to increase the sense of shame.
Given that this is generally intolerable the mind will continue to look for ways to hide or avoid feeling like this and yet more layers of
defensive insulation may be added. The very fact that the complex shame reaction continues to be hidden means that it is a ripe trigger for
quick reactivation at a later date. How quickly shame is reactivated will depend on circumstances and the person’s resiliency. Are we
feeling good about ourselves, have we been achieving our goals, are we feeling content, nurtured, rested and satisfied? How stressed are
we and do they have any negative experiences or feelings to deal with?
Dealing with shame
Given that the experience of shame has deep roots (biological, psychological and possibly post-traumatic) and that our reaction often
appears to be unconscious and automatic, it is worth asking the question is it possible to deconstruct shame and de-program our
reaction? Given its often negative and (re-shaming) effects on ourself and others, it is often important to recognise that something needs to
The following is a suggested set of steps that need to be taken in order to work on the shame complex (not necessarily sequential).
1. Build up self esteem and personal resources (such as communication skills, recreational pursuits) to provide a platform for deep
2. Gain support from a therapist who is skilled at deciphering and deconstructing the thoughts and feelings associated with shame
3. Spend time focusing and talking through one’s developmental history and family of origin experience to elicit the shame messages
that were learned in childhood.
4. Work though shame reactions as they arise to separate out appropriate or primary feelings from reactive or secondary feelings.
5. Begin to take responsibility for recognising one’s own reactivity and learn to step back, pause, take time out so as not to increase
stress on or abuse self and others.
6. Recognise when it is appropriate to apologise to one’s partner or others for reacting out of a shame complex and practise doing so.
7. Practise disclosing primary and secondary feelings to one’s partner or other people.
This article is inspired by and in part derivative from Prof D L Nathanson's book 'Shame and Pride:Affect, sex and the birth of the Self' (1992).
(i) Sometimes it is appropriate to feel ashamed about something we have done and then respond in a constructive way. This is not the same as getting
stuck in shame.
(ii) Thought processes around shame
· weak, incompetent and stupid (size, strength, skill)
· helpless (dependence,independence)
· a loser (competition)
· defective (sense of self)
· ugly or deformed (attractiveness)
· wrong sexually (sex)
· wanting to disappear (not be seen)
· unloveable (closeness)
(after Nathanson p 317)