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Review: Alexis Johnson on Healing Shame (2006)

Johnson, A. (2006). Healing Shame. The Humanistic Psychologist, 34(3), 223-242.

Johnson offers a lovely description of shame and an account of its treatment using a case study, a client she calls Maria. The article provides a thoughtful introduction to the issues of shame aimed at clinicians. As such, it does not propose a new or comprehensive theory of shame, but rather a working understanding of shame processes for use by therapists. This has value, of course, in its own right, but it also has value as a representation of how shame is understood by clinicians. Johnson does an excellent job of making use of the available theoretical models for her purposes. I read this article to see how sense is being made of shame in the trenches, as it were. The remarks that follow are intended to underline a few key areas where I think the resulting sense being made of shame is not quite right, even as so much of it seems good and true.

1. Johnson proposes an "identifiable sequence" to shame that has four phases (p. 225): 1) action tendency (including dropping our gaze, lowering our head, sloughing our shoulders); 2) reduction in clarity of perception; 3) cognitive confusion; 4) "interruption" of emotional processing and communication. But is this a sequence or a confluence of phenomena? If it is intended to be a sequence (that is, a string of events across time), it appears to be out of order and over-simple.

The following strikes me as more accurate: The perception of social rejection is the signal that reliably results in shame, following such perception the first response is emotional dysregulation which, in turn, inspires distortions in perception and cognitive processing (more or less simultaneously), and which also inspires, in parallel, the action tendencies of shame. This model suggests that appraisal of significant rejection (or threat of such) is first registered in the limbic system, generating a cascade of emotional responses that are dysregulating of the entire nervous system. This dyregulation floods the executive functioning parts of the brain (the prefrontal cortext), reducing their effectiveness both at processing further external stimuli and processing the flow of information through the brain. At the same time, the limbic response immediately triggers the associated action tendencies of bodily withdrawal from social contact.

So, rather than one "identifiable sequence," I think we see at least three parallel processes (limbic, cortical, and motor) that unfold more or less simultaneously and at somewhat different speeds. Though complex, this falls more into the general category of a confluence of events than a single sequence of events. (All of this reasoning goes to how I have structured my understanding of emotion, discussed in an earlier post.)

2. Johnson summarizes a key tenet of recent shame theory as follows, "the baby-as-body falls into the shame affect with any kind of generated failure (reaching for something and not getting it) or interpersonal failure (displeasure on the mother's face)" (p. 226). I find I cannot accept this; it seems to me that these are two very different kinds of event in the baby's world, only the latter of which falls under the purview of shame. When a baby reaches for an object and fails to get it, she experiences frustration, of course. There is, following Tomkins, interest and a bad feeling in relation to the object of interest, but in this case I think it does not register as shame. Rather, I would propose it registers as dismay.

Shame is a subset of dismay. Dismay comes from the Old French, "to trouble, disturb," from an even older Germanic word meaning "to divest of power or ability." In the baby's case, she is reaching with hopes that she has the power and ability to attain the desired object which, when frustrated, troubles and disturbs her. Compared to her aspirations, she does not have adequate power and ability; in this sense she has been divested of them. I want to say that shame only occurs, by definition, when our power or ability is divested by another (or, at a later stage of development, when we have internalized the divesting other and thereby divest ourselves). But in this case, it is an impersonal universe that denies the baby her prize. Shame does not enter into it until or unless it becomes relational.

Similarly, when Johnson asserts (again following Tomkins) that, "pride affect involves the pleasure of competence plus excitement" (p. 227), I think this fails the test of being relational. I want to say that a sense of mastery is the flip side of the sense of dismay, a subset of which is pride, which requires a relational component. I'll say more about this, no doubt, when I review Donald Nathanson's book Shame and Pride.

3. Allow me one further quibble. Johnson builds a developmental model to understand shame, beginning with the assertion that a baby's sense of worthiness depends on such mechanisms as experiencing the movement "from discomfort (hunger) to comfort (full)" (p. 228). This formulation misses a key distinction, I think, that lies at the core of how shame works and how it develops in childhood.

Prior to the formation of attachment bonds, which occurs no earlier than the fourth to sixth month of life, I would argue that the sense of worthiness does not, indeed cannot, arise. Worthiness is a relational element, based on acceptance by and belonging to the attachment figure. Prior to attachment, I would hypothesize, the baby experiences the discontent of hunger followed by the well-being of fullness as a movement from feeling bad to feeling good. This is an important event, when consistently patterned, that bodes well for the formation of a secure attachment bond later on, but it is not yet relational.

This sequence teaches the child, "I can feel bad and then feel good again" which carries the existential message that "the world is a safe place for me." When feeding is inconsistently provided, the child may learn that "I can feel bad and it may go on forever," which further means, "the world is not a safe place for me." From a developmental perspective, these are crucial messages that likely influence all that follows through the course of development. Not least, these messages will get mapped onto the attachment relationships that develop in later months--at which point, but not before, worthiness becomes part of the meaning the child may make of her experience.

Though my objections to Johnson's description of shame and its onset may seem minor, in fact I think they underline a state of affairs in the field wherein shame is known in its broad strokes but not understood very well at the fine-grained level. But when we have clarity about the details--where, famously, the devil of a thing resides--a very different larger idea of shame emerges. It is my hope to sketch that larger view in future posts and, eventually, in book form.


Review: Silvan Tomkins on Shame and Affect Theory (1995)

Tomkins, S. (1995). Shame and its sisters: A Silvan Tomkins reader. E. K. Sedgwick & A. Frank (Eds.). Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press.

Silvan Tomkins (1911-1991) was certainly some kind of genius, father of what calls itself affect theory. He produced a sprawling 4-volume work, his magnum opus, called Affect, Imagery, Consciousness over a period of decades. He took a special interest in shame, which he regarded as a central feature of his grand theory of affect. The book under review here, a selection of chapters drawn from this larger work, offers a chance to dip one’s toe somewhat intelligently into the vast ocean of Tomkins’ thought.

It’s a strange little collection, not least because of the editors’ stated agenda—some sort of historical demonstration of postmodern literary criticism. Their introductory essay baffled me as a reader interested, perversely, in affect theory as opposed to what they evidently regard as “theory”—you know, literary theory. Early on, I was given to know that I have not even entered “theory kindergarten,” much less been “long out” of it (p. 2). What a fascinating way to begin a book about shame!

Tomkins himself reads much like John Bowlby, his nearly exact contemporary. Both have a freshness about them, an intellectual rigor and commonsensical thorough-goingness that enjoyed its heyday prior to the crisis of quantum mechanics in mid-century, wherein science became less sure of itself and began to take cover in ever more elaborate and obscure technical detail (not unlike postmodern critical theory, come to think of it). But Tomkins has a whimsy about him one doesn’t find in the more sober writings of Bowlby. Both were mavericks, but Tomkins is more the purveyor of crazy wisdom and Bowlby the solemn prophet.

Tomkins’ crazy wisdom, however, contains a radical paradox I rather love. He aims at deep understanding of the human condition through a severe reductionism, a profoundly mechanistic worldview. He wants to conceptualize the richness of our affective life, and in no way diminish it—if anything, to call our attention to its dizzying variety—using a series of binaries. On-off switches, yes-no choice points, ones and zeros. Can all the glory of human consciousness be thus reduced? Tomkins seems to think, yes. I do too. Exhibit A: in every one of our billions of neurons, that neuron either sends an action potential down its axon or it doesn’t. All of our mental life comes down to that. (And it’s much more complex than this, of course. But the fact remains. This is only Exhibit A, after all.)

That said, I find myself unmoved by Tomkins’ actual proposal. He attempts to reduce all affective responses to the patterns of “density of neural firing.” If, for example, the brain’s density of neural firing suddenly increases, we experience that as startle (which Tomkins controversially identifies as an affective state). Laughter, on the other hand, is what occurs when the density of neural firing quickly diminishes from an elevated state to a lower one.

In current affective neuroscience, Tomkins’ view takes the form of the circumplex model of affect. The most common form of this model suggests that emotions can be mapped onto two dimensions, arousal and valence. Broadly speaking, arousal refers to how energetic we feel, and valence refers to a spectrum of positive to negative feeling associated with the emotion. All distinct emotions have some unique position in the circular space demarcated by these twin dimensions of affect. The current model and Tomkins’ proposal share the belief that any given emotion or affective response corresponds to the global state of the central nervous system.

What seems to be missing from these models that the thinking of Panksepp, among others, provides is localized circuitry within the brain that would account for the very phenomenological qualia specific to distinct emotional states. For example, anger feels a very particular way. It is not just that it is highly energetic (arousal) and unpleasant (valence), but that it involves a certain quality of energy, and a precise type of unpleasantness. While there are many different experiences of anger a single person might have across her lifespan, I think it reasonable to say they all share a certain family resemblance that is more specific than the dimensions of arousal and valence alone can account for.

So, Tomkins’ conceptualization of shame is already in trouble even before he advances it. “Density of neural firing” simply cannot provide a sufficient basis for a meaningful understanding of shame, in my view. Nevertheless, Tomkins defines shame as that which is organically and innately evoked when there is an “incomplete reduction of interest or joy.” On the one hand, this definition seems so generic and bland as to be almost meaningless. It is certainly devoid of the kind of sharpness and richness of affective flavor we associate with shame. On the other hand, Tomkins identifies something really foundational to the shame experience that, to my knowledge, no one else before had identified at such depth. Tomkins shows his mavericky genius here. He captures the sense in which shame causes us to want to hide ourselves and isolate ourselves not because of disinterest in the other, but precisely because of our interest in the other.

There is much more to say here than this post could possibly handle, but perhaps I have done enough to suggest one of the rich veins Tomkins finds in his formulation of shame. My own sense is that he offers a revealing and powerful lens into the dynamics of shame, but he has in no way defined it, nor has he offered what could hope to be an adequate or complete theory of shame.

Even so, time spent with Tomkins is never time wasted. His keen sensitivity to the nuances of human experience and his razor-sharp mind have proven to be a source of continual surprise and fascination for me. While I think we could have a perfectly sufficient grasp of shame without taking Tomkins into account, why would we want to?


Emotion Defined

In recent weeks, in order to try to tackle the question of whether shame is an emotion or, as I have earlier suggested, some kind of complex of emotions, I have been scouring the scientific literature (both in psychology and neuroscience) for a definition of emotion that draws a substantial consensus of opinion. It appears that no such definition yet exists. I will, therefore, propose my own definition below.

I will also propose a definition of mood below, as distinct from emotion. It has become clear to me recently that these are two separate, though interwoven, phenomena (that is, emotion and mood). But what exactly constitutes the difference remains unclear--indeed, the two terms are often used interchangably in conventional usage. I am quite excited about (and somewhat daunted by) my proposal for mood. If I'm right about it, my proposal carries profound significance for how we think about the relation between human health and psychological well-being.


General description: Emotion is a discrete, short-lived subjective phenomenon linked with a specific menu of neurobiological circuitry and a specific behavioral repertoire.

Definition: Emotion is a discrete feeling that involves all of the following: 1) a more or less consciously registered felt sense concerning what it's like to be experiencing a given moment; 2) the activation of one or more of the basic emotion circuits of the limbic system; 3) the conscious or unconscious performance of action tendencies directly associated with those basic emotions.


General description: Mood is a lasting, pervasive subjective phenomenon linked with a general appraisal of bodily homeostasis that influences the valence and intensity of emotional responses.

Definition: Mood is a lasting, pervasive feeling that involves all of the following: 1) or more or less consciously registered felt sense of what it's like in general to exist (across a period of hours or days); 2) signals from the autonomic nervous system regarding homeostatic balance; 3) the conscious or unconscious performance of action tendencies directly associated with the maintenance of bodily homeostasis.

Both definitions just offered consist of three parts, an a, b, and c. The relation between these parts is not causal or contingent, but rather identical. In other words, I am not saying that emotion or mood is of the type where if a is true and b is true and c is true (as opposed to one or more of these conditions not being true) then we have an emotion or mood. I am saying, rather, that emotion or mood is the sort of thing where a, b, and c are three different ways of saying the same thing. An emotion, for instance, is any one of those things and all three of those things. The items a, b, and c are three different but entirely mutually consistent ways of describing the same state. Emotion is, by definition, that which satisfies all three of these equivalent descriptions. I am not defining emotion as Emotion equals a + b + c. Rather,

Emotion is that wherein a = b = c

Clearly, I have left far more unsaid here than said. I will provide more background about what is intended here in future posts. In the meantime, I welcome--no, implore!--you to leave comments about these rather innovative and risky efforts to define these elusive concepts. Thanks!


Review: Gershen Kaufman on Shame (1980/1992)

Kaufman, G. (1992). Shame: The power of caring, 3rd ed. Rochester, VT: Schenkman Books.

No book on shame has more often or more ardently been recommended to me than Kaufman’s Shame: The Power of Caring, which first appeared in 1980. I can see why. Kaufman shows a deep empathy for the experience of shame, and has managed to elaborate many of the ways in which shame operates in the human psyche. What’s more, he outlines a rich developmental theory showing how shame becomes implanted in the young child, and how it can grow into many diverse and painful forms as the child matures through the lifespan.

Of greatest value, to me at least, in Kaufman’s book is the trove of phenomenological descriptions of shame in many of its guises. The book compels us to take in the sheer complexity of the subject and to come to terms with that common thread that binds it all together, the affect of shame. The holism of Kaufman’s approach advanced the field in a direction Robert Karen would later bemoan, as a result of which we began to see shame at the root of a vast swath of human psychopathology.

I am inclined to agree with Kaufman. Shame, it seems to me, is at the root of a great deal (though certainly not all) of the patterns of psychological distress we see in clinical settings. Moreover, even if shame does not occur at the root, a person’s distress almost inevitably gets bound up in shame sooner or later. This secondary effect may ultimately become just as problematic as the original issue, if not more so.

So, I love this book. But it is certainly dated. It lacks any reference to attachment theory, even as it draws on the same thematics. But these thematics are currently much more honed in light of recent advancements in attachment theory than anything Kaufman would have had access to even as late as 1992, when the third edition came out. In addition, Kaufman was writing before the explosion of brain science that has essentially reconfigured psychological thought over the last 20 years. Largely as a result of these more recent advances, I believe we are now capable of a rigor in the theorizing about shame that was not available to Kaufman at that time. It is my hope to supply some of that rigor as I develop some new ways of conceptualizing shame.

In pursuit of such rigor, I want to eliminate or refine fuzzy concepts that don’t serve a clear and concise function in our understanding of shame. Kaufman relies very heavily on one such fuzzy concept, in my view—identity. I broach this subject with some trepidation for two reasons: 1) identity is a venerable concept in psychological thought; and 2) I know less about the idea as it has been developed by the field’s major theorists (such as Erik Erikson) than I probably should to take it on. Nevertheless!

There is a lot of talk in psychology about how we develop our identity particularly in certain stages in life (most notably, adolescence—but it’s really a lifelong process). Kaufman makes great hay of showing how shame gets mixed into that emergent identity, and then eventually infects identity itself. This is a wonderful image, and it resonates with me, and yet I am left without a clear sense of what this actually means. I want to say that identity is a useful metaphor or phenomenological description, but is limited because it lacks the kind of scientific precision I am looking for. By way of an hors d’oeuvre, the smallest of nibbles at a very large topic, let me give a brief example.

Kaufman argues that a child struggling with shame might internalize a parent’s strategy of defense against shame, such as blaming others. If the child observes that her parent blames others whenever he feels ashamed, the child, through identification with the parent, will adopt the same strategy herself (Kaufman, 1992, p. 108). In this case, I am not sure the notion of “identification with the parent” actually does any work. Learning theory’s concept of vicarious learning would cover this case entirely without recourse to identity. By observing how the father deals with shame, the child learns how to deal with shame. She is more likely to learn this from her father because she is more often exposed to him than nearly any other model of behavior.

In addition to this, we can assume that her father is an attachment figure of great importance. She may want to be like him in order to be accepted by him. Kaufman would probably argue that I have merely used other words to describe the identification process. I would counter, however, that the attachment description is richer than the identification metaphor because it implicates a whole mechanism—including behavioral, phenomenological, and neurobiological components—as a result of which the daughter emulates the father. I would further propose that, when we understand her pattern according to these terms, we have a more dense, specific, and accurate understanding of the child’s experience.

I found myself mentally deconstructing many of Kaufman’s examples of identification along these lines. I believe this opens up theoretical space for a much more powerful psychological construct to emerge to explain shame and its diverse sequelae. To begin to get a sense of what that construct might look like, I refer you to the series of posts I published earlier this year. So far, I have only taken early stabs at a more coherent total theory, but I think you can get a flavor for where I am heading even if the final result ends up looking somewhat different from what I have shared so far.


Review: Robert Karen on Shame (1992)

Robert Karen (1992) "Shame" in The Atlantic Monthly

1992 was a heady time for shame. After many years of relative obscurity, the subject of shame exploded prominently into the awareness of psychological theorists and therapists in the 1980s. In his article, Karen provides an historical overview of shame theory and cites only a scattering of works prior to the 1980s, the most important of which was Helen Block Lewis’ Shame and Guilt in Neurosis (1971). Once the floodgates opened, the pace was fast and furious: Gershen Kaufman’s Shame: The Power of Caring (1980), Leon Wurmser’s The Mask of Shame (1981), Donald Nathanson’s The Many Faces of Shame (1987), John Bradshaw’s Healing the Shame That Binds You (1988), Kaufamn’s second book, The Psychology of Shame (1989), Andrew Morrison’s Shame: The Underside of Narcissism, Frank Broucek’s Shame and the Self (1991), and Michael Lewis’ Shame, The Exposed Self (1992). All of these, and more, are referenced in Karen’s comprehensive overview of the state of the field at the time of the article.

By the time Robert Karen wrote his article in The Atlantic Monthly, in February of 1992, the pendulum had swung so far in favor of shame that he could say, “It will probably be quite some time before enough research and theorizing accumulate to slow the pendulum and allow a more balanced assessment [of the causes of psychological disorders] to take hold."

Quite some time, more than 20 years, has passed since then. Where do we stand now? From my vantage, the most important developments in the field of shame research have come in the area of attachment theory and neuroscience. Married together under the banner of interpersonal neurobiology, these new fields have become so robust that they have both enhanced our grasp of shame and eclipsed it, too, as a primary area of study.

Allan Schore’s work on the neurobiology of attachment and its implications for shame has placed shame close to the center of our understanding of insecure attachment. Today, insecure attachment is understood by many (though certainly not all) theorists to be the major channel toward clinical psychological distress. As a result, shame remains very prominent among available explanations for much psychopathology. So, more than 20 years on from Karen’s article, the pendulum remains far to the side of shame—though, admittedly, under the cover of its younger and more charismatic cousin, attachment.

Karen’s hope that shame might some day be placed in a more modest position in the pantheon of psychological theory seems to be rooted in a basic discomfort with the concept itself, which Karen finds too unwieldy. He writes, “Once grasped, the concept seems to change into a thousand shapes in one’s hand. It grows from complexity to complexity until suddenly it seems to be everywhere—and thus begins to lose its particularity and potency and collapses into relative uselessness." To my present-day ear, this sounds very much—and not coincidentally—like the objection most frequently raised against attachment theory: It seems to explain absolutely everything, and therefore nothing.

Part of the solution to this peculiar feature of both shame and attachment theories, it seems to me, lies in clearly demarcating what these theories cannot explain—and surely this represents a great deal of territory. But, further, theories can only be taken seriously even in those domains they properly inhabit only to the extent that they are rigorously developed. The problem with the state of the art of theorizing about shame in 1992, I would venture to say, was that it had not yet become rigorous enough. Concepts were left ill-defined, and connections between related phenomena were not precisely understood.

This is where the field of affective neuroscience (one of the many step-children housed under the wide roof of interpersonal neurobiology), which emerged only after Karen’s article was written, might make all the difference. This field, most strongly associated with the work of Jaak Panksepp, aims to elucidate the specific neural mechanisms that drive emotion and, therefore, human behavior. If we can specify an exact line that connects the phenomenology and behaviors of shame to clearly defined and scientifically validated emotional circuits within the human nervous system, I believe we can then properly address Karen’s objection. What’s more, we are then in a position to determine the exact role of shame in the range of patterns of psychological distress found in humans and, so, can judge how central shame is to human functioning in general.