Individual and Couple Therapy
in Tacoma and Seattle

Tacoma Office near Proctor District

35th & N. Cheyenne St

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Tacoma Detailed Directions


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Greenlake Wellness Group

7900 East Green Lake Drive North, Suite 202

Free Convenient Parking

Greenlake Office Detailed Directions


(253) 304-1411

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A Prototype of Adaptive Shame -2

[This post is part 3 of the Shame Series. For a table of contents for the whole series, click here.]

Relational Analysis

We will now take a second pass through our scene, this time focusing on the inter-subjective space between parent and child in this prototypical shame experience. Here I will draw on the language of attachment theory (see John Bowlby) and affective neuroscience (see Allan Schore).

As the scene opens, we catch our pair of protagonists in the flow of their ongoing relationship. The parent and child have what is known as a secure attachment—the child knows through consistent experience that his parent offers reliable protection, comfort, and security. The parent provides a safe haven for the child whenever he feels anxious or needy. The parent can be relied on to co-regulate affect with the child, to soothe and comfort him, teaching him how to regulate his own emotions. This sense of security enables the child, on occasion, to move out into the world confident that his parent is there to support him at every turn—a phenomenon known as the secure base.

As our story begins, the child feels connected to his parent and is now out exploring the world, close enough to the parent to feel supported, within the protection of her loving gaze. As he approaches the electrical socket with absorbing curiosity, his parent suddenly becomes alarmed and yells, “No!” From the parent’s perspective, she is fulfilling her protective function as a caregiver to the child—precisely conforming to her role within the attachment relationship. She reaches out across a space too great to traverse bodily, instead employing an urgent, sharp tone of voice. In doing so, however, she is forced to withdraw her loving attunement with the child, shifting abruptly to reprimand.

The child experiences this sudden contrast from loving support to stern disapproval as disorganizing and traumatic. He shoots a terrified glance toward his parent, and finds his worst fears confirmed: Her eyes are hard and intense and her face is rigid and set. He feels sharply the withdrawal of loving attunement (what Schore calls misattunement but I prefer to call counter-attunement), as if a powerful vacuum were sucking the loving feelings right out of him. The child is now bereft. He is out in the world suddenly feeling deprived of the (more or less) unconditional love of his parent. His emotions become dysregulated and his parent is not, in that moment, sufficiently attuned to regulate them. He begins to cry, which is both intended and understood as a bid to re-establish connection with the parent.

Having secured the child in the face of potential harm, the parent now moves both bodily and emotionally toward the child. The parent’s tone of voice becomes warm and soothing, her face softens, she caresses him and empathically feels his anguish. The child, in turn, recognizes the parent’s renewed loving attunement and is able to regulate his own emotional tumult. In time, his inner state becomes calm as he experiences his parent, once again, as his safe haven. The parent’s discussion of dangerous electrical outlets helps the child organize the experience and make sense of it. By the conclusion of our scene, the child has returned to a feeling of having a secure base in the parent, and begins to explore the room afresh, though carefully avoiding that most distressing of objects, the electrical outlet.

This understanding of adaptive shame focuses on the ebb and flow of connectivity between the parties involved. Shame is understood as the willful counter-attunement of the parent designed to protect the child from some danger (one presumably heretofore unknown to the child). Repair is understood as the re-regulation of affect between and within parent and child, as well as a process of making sense of what just occurred.

[This series continues here.]


A Prototype of Adaptive Shame -1

[This post is part 2 of the Shame Series. For a table of contents for the whole series, click here.]

In this post, we will examine what I regard as the most basic prototype of adaptive shame, that which unfolds organically between a parent and infant. I will explore this prototype across a gradually deepening series of passes through a specific scene (continued in part 3 and part 4). This exploration focuses on a relatively benign instance of adaptive shame, not to be confused with the more insidious forms of shame that may first come to mind. My purpose here is to explore what shame looks like in its adaptive form so that we can tease apart exactly how the maladaptive forms differ. This prototype was derived from Allan Schore’s premise that shame begins in early life, during the window of 12-18 months of age, with episodes just like the one we will explore presently.

The Scene

Imagine a 12-month old child crawling about in the family home. His parent is busying herself on the opposite side of the room. (I have assigned genders to our characters, but nothing in what follows is intended to be gender-specific.) The child notices an electrical outlet on the wall within easy reach and begins to move toward it, apparently intent on placing a probing finger into the inviting hole. The parent notices the child’s emerging fascination and yells, “No!” The child immediately pulls his hand away from the electrical outlet, shoots a panicked look toward his parent, and begins to cry. The parent then moves across the room, picks up and caresses the child, and speaks comfortingly to him until he settles down. Then, the parent gently instructs the child in an age-appropriate way about the dangers of electrical outlets.

Transactional Analysis

We will pass through this story three more times, each time burrowing a little deeper into the psyches of our two protagonists. In this first pass, I focus on the transactional nature of the scene. It begins in accord. Parent and child are happily engaged in a form of parallel play, each pleasantly aware of the other even as they go about their own business. Once the parent observes that the child has become absorbed with curiosity toward a potentially very dangerous object (the electrical outlet) the parent quickly recognizes the need to intervene. The parent is too far away, and the time is too short, for the parent to calmly divert the child to more innocuous pursuits. Instead, the parent elects to deploy shame to protect the child from imminent harm.

In this view, we regard shame as a transaction between two parties, the shamer (in this case, the parent) and the shamed (the child). By yelling “No!” in a sharp and focused way, the parent transmits disapproval to the child. This highly aversive and unexpected reprimand immediately fills the child with a bad feeling—he has received the transmitted shame and experiences it painfully. The earlier absorption in curiosity about the electrical outlet has now been fully supplanted by his absorption in shame, and he begins to cry.

The onlooking parent observes that the shame transaction has achieved its objective: the child is no longer approaching the electrical outlet. The danger has been successfully averted. Now the parent is free to engage in a second transaction, which is to comfort the upset child and repair the rupture in the relationship caused by the first transaction. As a coda, the parent can then instruct the child about the dangers of electrical outlets in the now available “teachable moment”—while the child is both calm enough to take in the information and still attentive enough to the dissipating crisis to register the lesson involved.

This way of parsing our scenario emphasizes its features as a learning event. The shame transaction establishes an association between the approach to danger (electrical outlet) and an aversive experience (shame). Presumably, we evolved to deploy shame in this sort of circumstance because it does effectively condition the child to avoid a given danger in the future. The repair transaction, which follows on from the first transaction, provides a second pathway to learning, what behaviorists call informational learning. The child is thus instructed about the dangers of electrical outlets through symbols (words, gestures, and so on).

At this juncture, allow me to propose a definition of adaptive shame, at least for this prototype, based primarily on the transactional level of analysis: Adaptive shame is an emotion-based learning mechanism by which individuals are inducted into the prevailing culture.

[This series continues here.]


Thinking through shame

[This post is part 1 of the Shame Series. For a table of contents for the whole series, click here.]

This post is the first of a series focused on the experience of shame. I want to think into shame as deeply as I can, and discuss it with you, because of its prevalence in the therapy room. (Please use the comments feature of this blog to weigh in!)

Shame is recognized as a universal feature of the human condition, occurring in all cultures and every epoch known to current investigators. It comes up in therapy when it has become a disabling component of the personality. In this mode, shame sabotages our efforts to be our better self, pulling us inexorably toward lowered self-esteem. In short, it is an extremely common and very powerful source of suffering for people. It is important for therapists to have some kind of working understanding of what shame is and how it operates in the psyche. The musings of this series of posts represent my own efforts to clarify these issues.

Emotion theorists distinguish between what they call ‘adaptive’ and ‘maladaptive’ emotions. These categories refer to the evolutionary history and function of emotions. It is generally assumed that our basic emotion system evolved as it did because it promotes the survival of individual members of our species. Therefore, when the emotion system operates as it was ‘designed’ by evolution, it is working for us, enabling us to survive to see another day (and, more to the point, to produce another generation). By this understanding, an emotion is adaptive when it makes us more likely to behave in a way that advances our well-being.

Shame arises as a therapeutic issue, presumably, when it inhibits our well-being—which is to say, when it becomes maladaptive. This state of affairs raises two questions, both of which I will try to answer in the forthcoming series of posts: 1) What is the exact nature of adaptive shame (and, relatedly, why did it evolve in humans)? And 2) how does adaptive shame become distorted into a maladaptive form? Once these questions are answered, we can begin to tackle the question of how to work therapeutically with maladaptive shame. We will also have occasion to develop a parallel theory of guilt, which is less complex than shame overall, though complexly interwoven with shame.

I will devote the next post to answering the first question. We will examine in detail the prototype of adaptive shame—the appropriate use of shame by parents with their infant children.

[This series continues here.]


Introducing my "musings" blog

From time to time I will share something of interest related to my work as a psychotherapist on this blog. Look forward to musings on the lifespan of the romantic bond, from courtship to longterm commitment to dissolution; thoughts on problems with the modern mental healthcare system; and reflections on various aspects of the human condition. Specifically, I am currently developing some ideas about the human experience of shame that I will be sharing here in the coming weeks. Stay tuned!

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