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Our Tragic Flaw: Confronting Violence in Ourselves and the World (c) Parke Burgess, 2018




We have explored how prohibitively expensive violence is, revealing how violence fails to solve social problems—indeed, violence itself is the social problem that needs solving. In this chapter, we telescope down into the individual psyche to wonder how we end up choosing this deeply flawed approach as often as we do. What forces act on us at the individual level to choose violence as opposed to peace? I argue that our existential situation poses a natural and unavoidable dilemma that prepares the way for violence or peace; and that our response to that dilemma depends on our conditions, especially in early life. We will see how our existential situation contains a certain polarity, and how early conditioning across the first three years of life develops in relation to those poles, disposing us more toward violence or peace.

I should note that the propensity for aggression in humans has been studied extensively in biology, anthropology, and social psychology. On one hand, we can look to the findings of evolutionary psychology that seem to reach a fairly cynical conclusion about human violence—namely that it serves an adaptive function and is deeply wired into our genetic inheritance.[i] On the other hand, a broader survey of relevant evidence suggests much greater hope for our species, even as it acknowledges very definite limits to our capacity to be peaceful and altruistic.[ii] It goes beyond the purview of this book to present the relevant evidence and defend the more hopeful view. Instead I hold that, in the absence of any conclusive scientific findings to the contrary, it remains eminently possible that we humans are in fact capable of making the kind of progress as individuals and as a species that I recommend throughout this book. Indeed, I would argue that to give in to the more bleak conclusions, throw up our hands, and declare the current situation good enough is a kind of moral cowardice—not to mention suicidal.

What is existential is that which is unavoidably baked into existence itself, as distinct from the conditional, which depends on specific circumstances that could have been otherwise. This distinction runs throughout my argument, for reasons that will shortly become clear. We cannot change our existential situation, by definition. We can pretend that it is not as it is, but this puts us immediately into disharmony with reality with predictably unfortunate results. All we can do is recognize the existential facts, acknowledge them as true, and work out how to integrate them into our way of being in the world—this world as it actually, factually is. I argue that violence occurs precisely at the point at which we resist our existential situation, whereas peace occurs, and can only occur, with a radical acceptance of it.

Baked into existence itself lies a fact that perhaps only humans can recognize as such: existence contains a paradox. We can formulate this paradox in an utterly ordinary way: the universe is one thing and it is many things. The Sun, for example, is a relatively small star in a relatively remote corner of an average galaxy—it floats alone in a vast universe that dwarfs it in every way. At the same time, the Sun is the universe itself, just as much as any other thing in the universe is. There is after all, no universe apart from the myriad elements of which it is comprised. And still, on the other hand, the universe literally makes the elements that make it. Every particle and every vibration of energy is made of the interactions that occur in the context we call the universe.[iii] Without the whole universe there would be no single elements.

For humans this paradox becomes a dilemma. From the beginning, humans have stood in awe and perplexity at the whole cosmos, feeling at once dwarfed by its immensity and enlarged by its majesty. This confusing state of affairs calls into question whether we are alone in a universe indifferent to our fate or as one with a universe that births us and provides for our every need. Of course, it is both. This is a paradox because, though these appear to be contradictory conditions, they both nevertheless obtain. And this is a dilemma because we seem to have to choose continuously between fighting against an indifferent, even hostile, universe or relaxing into its nurturing embrace.


All of us encounter the paradox of existence in early life, long before the onset of conceptual thinking and explicit memory. Once encountered, this paradox is seared indelibly into the basic architecture of the brain and serves as the reference point for the whole of our emotional lives thereafter. This process begins even before our birth. Our brain first develops in the relative safety of the womb. As far as the prenatal brain is concerned, the womb is not merely the best place that brain could ever be; it’s the only place. All it knows is womb-based, including the manner in which food and oxygen are provided, the sense of closeness and enclosure, a certain temperature, and a range of sounds, from the mother’s heartbeat and breathing to her voice and digestion.

No amount of variation within the womb under normal circumstances can possibly compare with the transition that accompanies birth. Nearly everything the brain has experienced prior to birth changes abruptly and radically. The enclosure of the womb rejects our body and presses us forcefully through a narrow opening into a completely foreign world—a world that is glaringly bright and cold, where we don’t know at first how to breathe or feed. On one level, of course, we are little more than instinctive creatures at this point, and our instincts provide everything we need (assuming our caregiver does her part). But on an emotional level—that is, how we experience the change in our bodies—birth likely represents a profound trauma that leaves a permanent and significant mark on our subsequent lives.[iv]

Birth represents the first iteration of a pattern that repeats throughout the normal human lifespan, an oscillation between states of dependency and autonomy. In the womb we are utterly dependent on the mother; in birth we separate from her and establish our physical autonomy. This polarity between dependence and autonomy can be detected even very shortly after birth. The newborn comes already equipped with the capacity to like and dislike specific sensations, as a function of instinct and temperament.[v] Like and dislike are not yet ideas (feelings) but are experienced purely on the physical level. Dislike triggers a physical withdrawal response; like triggers a grasping response.[vi] So the newborn will automatically grope for his mother’s breast but will just as automatically reject an object that’s too cold or too hot. These are purely instinctive, physical, and sensation-based responses that require no higher-order mental processing, processing that cannot yet occur.

Responses not only vary in terms of like and dislike, but in terms of intensity and urgency. Under dire threat the body is flooded with hormones and neural impulses designed to steel us against the perceived danger. Thus, the trauma of birth unfolds entirely on the physical level as an event experienced throughout the body, and, very likely, sharply rejected as profoundly threatening. We bear no memory of our own traumatic birth because explicit memory has not yet come online. But implicit memory is already functioning at full throttle; that is, the experience of the trauma of birth is laid down in the early architecture of the brain where, both because of its chronological primacy and because of its profound emotional intensity, it almost certainly exerts a powerful influence over all subsequent development.

Following the principle that what fires together wires together,[vii] it is reasonable to suppose that the trauma of birth establishes strong and permanent linkages between certain sensations and what eventually becomes an intense feeling of dislike. To the extent that the trauma of birth inaugurated an association between dislike and the passage from warm to cold, from darkness to bright light, from enclosure to exposure, and from complete dependence to autonomy, these archetypal passages may be strongly (though implicitly) associated with dislike throughout life. Similarly, a strong sense of like may be associated with the converse, the passage from cold to warm, from light to darkness, from exposure to enclosure, and from independence to dependence.

Whatever the specifics of our own birth, it is likely that its intensity as an experience lays down a strong polarity in our infant mind between those states that we like and those that we find aversive. We experience a sense of wellbeing when the present moment feels good, and a sense of discontent when it feels bad. We want to retain the sense of wellbeing when we have it, and we want to escape the sense of discontent when we have that. Wellbeing feels like, “more of this,” and discontent feels like, “not this.” We want to hold or grasp that which we associate with wellbeing, and push away or reject that which we associate with discontent. The archetypal experience of wellbeing occurs in the womb, and the archetypal experience of discontent is birth. While neither the intrauterine experience nor the birth experience is monochromatic or unambiguous, I submit that these offer the earliest and purest forms of either state we are likely to experience throughout our lives, and provide the frame of reference against which all future experiences of wellbeing and discontent are implicitly compared.

Because the brain processes associatively, I propose that our sense of well-being is deeply and permanently linked to the feeling of connection to our mother that we experienced in the womb, and that our sense of discontent is deeply and permanently linked to that original crisis of disconnection, birth. This linkage runs in both directions: We experience a sense of wellbeing from feeling connected (to our primary caregiver in childhood, or to our intimate partner, closest friends, or our children in later life), and we experience a sense of connectedness from the feeling of wellbeing. Similarly, the experience of discontent carries with it a sense of disconnectedness, and the experience of disconnection fosters a feeling of discontent.

Thus, throughout life we simultaneously yearn for social connection and a sense of wellbeing; this explains the importance many of us place on finding and maintaining an intimate relationship throughout our adult years. Similarly, we simultaneously abhor social disconnection and the feeling of discontent; thus, our fear of ending relationships, even painful ones, likely stems from our dread of a profound and potentially unbearable sense of discontent.

Drawing the Polarity

As we saw in Chapter 1, violence contains a certain logic that presents itself to us as a natural and appropriate response to the world. Who could deny that my survival depends on meeting certain basic needs and that those needs depend on limited resources? It is also incontrovertible that other beings partake of the same resources. The application of this logic to our specifc situation, however, offers a wide range of possibilities—and our violence or peacefulness hangs in precisely that balance. At this juncture, we pivot from the existential aspect of the issue to the conditional. The first three propositions of the logic of violence describe our existential situation accurately enough. The conditional question concerns how we apply those existential facts to our unique circumstances.

What needs are actually so basic, for example, that our survival literally depends on them? Some may have quite a long list; others may profess to get by with very few. Also, some may feel a sense of urgency that each of these needs be maximally met; others make do with a minimal satisfaction of needs. Similarly, we might come to different conclusions about just how limited are the resources that we require to meet those basic needs. Some will feel a sense of scarcity where others find abundance. Finally, one could reach very different conclusions about the demand for these precious resources. Some might worry that everyone is out to take what they can; others may have a more collegial feeling—that we are sharing rather than stealing from one another.

These differences of assessment, which can cover a large range, naturally elicit highly divergent responses. If I feel that my needs are many and maximal, that the resources on which they depend are scarce, and that others are apt to steal those resources away, I will sense much more acutely that I am in competition with others for those resources. As a result, I will likely be far more motivated by the conclusion that my survival depends on prevailing over the competition. As I have argued, this conclusion points one in the direction of violence, and contains the seeds of the whole modern catastrophe. On the other side, a person who regards her basic needs as relatively few and readily met, depending on resources that are ample, and that those resources are being shared relatively benignly, may not feel very competitive, if at all, with others, and is unlikely to draw the conclusion that she must defeat them. Such a person, we can well imagine, would not be very likely to use violence.

The paradox of existence suggests, on the one hand, that we are alone in a universe that cares nothing for our survival or happiness—a condition that we find reflected in the logic of violence and given fullest expression in violence. That paradox also suggests, however, that we are profoundly interconnected with all beings in just such a way that we not only can survive (after all, we’re still here), but we can also find deep joy, too. This condition isn’t so well reflected in the logic of violence—indeed, we will need a logic of peace to capture it (supplied in Chapter 5)—and this condition inspires responses conspicuously lacking in violence.

The poles of the paradox of existence operate much like opposite magnetic fields, which simultaneously attract and repel the metallic objects that lie between them. The interconnectedness pole represents an attractor state that pulls a person into connection with the universe; and the aloneness pole represents the opposite attractor state that pulls a person into isolation. Both attractor states reflect our actual existential situation. Both operate on all beings all the time. But different individuals or groups carry their own internal charge, just like the metallic objects in a magnetic field. Those more strongly charged with connectivity will feel a greater attraction to the interconnectedness pole of the paradox of existence. Those beings more strongly charged with disconnectivity will find themselves more pulled toward the aloneness pole. (See Figure 1.)


The Paradox of Existence


Existential Pole:

Internal Experience:

Social Experience:

Resulting Logic:
















Figure 1: The relation of peace and violence to three significant polarities.


I submit that violence occurs when a being yields disproportionately toward the disconnected and autonomous pole of the paradox of existence. But even a well-balanced life occurs into the existential tension between these poles, a tension that always applies. (See Figure 2.) The tragedy to which this book’s title refers becomes more likely when we find ourselves significantly more attracted to the pole of disconnection than to its opposite.




            Figure 2: Being in relation to the paradox of existence. 


            Thus far we have only begun to tell the story of how early life establishes patterns that will inform our adult tendencies toward violence or peace. In the remaining sections of this chapter we consider important developments that occur in the first three years of life. In what follows, I do not mean to suggest that the child’s life course is set in stone by her third birthday, far from it. As recent research has shown, our capacity to change and grow never abates as long as we remain reasonably healthy.[viii] For the same reasons, we remain vulnerable to trauma throughout life—meaning that we can be thrown into great tumult at any time, which might increase our attraction to violence. I focus on the first three years, however, because they represent three distinct and important critical periods. During these times, we have vastly greater neuroplasticity than usual in key brain areas. Critical periods appear to be timed genetically, unfolding in a very particular sequence to enable the growing brain to develop those skills and capabilities at each stage necessary to make the next stage possible.[ix]

These critical periods represent the most sensitive and vulnerable moments in the development of a proclivity toward violence and offer a general theory of our psychological susceptibility to violence throughout life. Most especially, I submit that maladaptive shame, whether it occurs in childhood or later, serves as a necessary but not sufficient cause of most violence. I am thus suggesting that most violence would not occur in the absence of the proposed mechanism; but of course maladaptive shame does not cause violence all by itself. Other factors must also be present. This psychological mechanism, I mean to say, disposes one toward violence, and one probably cannot commit violence (of the relevant kind, at least) without it.

It has been posited that no single theory can encompass the whole range of human violence.[x] That is undoubtedly true; there must be multiple mechanisms that can account for the diverse forms and motivations we see in human violence. Nevertheless, I would propose that most violence, including its most common and most damaging manifestations, can be substantially accounted for by a single general theory such as the one I offer here. Some violence rooted in severe mental illness, for example, such as bipolar disorder or schizophrenia, may involve additional processes not included or implied in the present theory—but even in these cases it is likely that the mechanism I describe here plays some role. When the severely mentally ill are embedded in a context of care and understanding, free from the traumas of abuse or neglect in childhood and beyond—that is, absent excessive shame—violence is exceedingly rare.[xi]

First Year

We are born into relationship. Our connection with our own mother is more than merely metaphorical, more than just a social construction. It is a biological fact most graphically illustrated by the umbilical cord. As I have suggested, the cutting of the umbilical cord raises an acute existential problem. I am no longer physically connected to my caregiver, on whom I remain utterly dependent for my own survival. Now, all of a sudden, I am dependent on my caregiver to seek proximity to me and do things like make her breast available to me, keep me warm, and protect me from predators and other critical threats. Where, in utero, I belonged to my mother in actual fact—I was a literal extension of her body—now I must belong to her, or with her, in a new way, one that is chosen by her again and again. My situation has become much more precarious.

Fortunately, the biology of mother and child supplies a mechanism to ensure my ongoing belonging to my mother, called the attachment system.[xii] This system recruits limbic circuits in both the mother’s and infant’s brain that creates a sense of anxiety, or discontent, in the absence of proximity, and a sense of well-being when proximity is restored and maintained. This system employs natural hormones in the mother’s brain, such as oxytocin, to establish a sense of bondedness to the infant, and a desire to nurture that infant in all its needs and wants. The mother’s circuits of social bonding and emotional regulation, thought to center in the right prefrontal area of her brain, focus intently on the well-being of the infant, who drinks in her ministrations and thereby wires his own right prefrontal areas, following closely on her lead. In this way, the child gradually develops his own social and emotional intelligence. Soon, he will be able to read the face of his mother to find cues of love and care, or the absence of such cues.[xiii]

Life presents many frightful prospects, especially, we must assume, in the confusing and overwhelming period before we have the capacity to make any sense of our world. The emotional antidote to these fears, and thus an emotional need the infant strongly experiences, is a feeling of oneness with the caregiver, which represents a comforting return toward the original state of connection in the womb. When the infant is denied the sense of connection she seeks, she feels invisible and unrecognized, and she experiences anxiety that her needs will not get met. When the fearful infant receives the loving attention of her caregiver—when the caregiver is attuned to her—she experiences a comforting return to a sense of connectedness to the larger world. If either pattern becomes strongly reinforced over time, the infant will either develop a strong sense of expectation that the world is a safe place and her place in it is secure, or she will develop a strong sense of expectation that the world is neither safe nor secure.[xiv]

These poles represent an extension of the original polarity between wellbeing and discontent described earlier. In effect, a securely attached child finds reinforcement of the womb-based sense of wellbeing through the caregiver, while the insecurely attached child finds reinforcement of the trauma-based sense of discontent. The secure child feels empowered by loving gaze; the insecure child feels disempowered by its denial. Further, the poles of secure attachment and well-being on the one side and insecure attachment and discontent on the other map directly onto the polarity of the paradox of existence. When the child feels securely attached, in a pervasive context of wellbeing, she experiences her interconnectedness with the world directly. When she feels insecurely attached, in a pervasive context of discontent, she directly experiences her aloneness within an indifferent universe. We might well conclude that, in the absence of mitigating effects, an insecurely attached child is more likely to adopt the logic of violence in later life than a securely attached one.

Second Year

In the second year of life we move from the safety of the primary attachment bond built (ideally) in the first year into a new phase of individuation. Once this is accomplished, beginning around the third year of life, we begin to assert ourselves within that bond. This movement toward an independent self arises naturally from the child’s greater mobility and an upsurge of energy that reaches a new threshold at around 15 months of age.[xv] The child now has the motoric capacity and the psychic energy to move rapidly and exuberantly through space. She begins to venture away from the mother and excitedly out into the world. Most parents experience this exploration as both gratifying and frightening, because the child’s curiosity and wonder are not matched with common sense and an awareness of risk. As the child’s repertoire of exploratory behaviors expands, the caregiver’s anxiety focuses first on maintaining the child’s safety and then on teaching the child correct or appropriate social functioning.

In this way, the child’s exuberance during the second year sends her on a collision course with the parent’s responsibility to protect the child from harm. Indeed, during this period, the parent is admonishing her child at an average of once every nine waking minutes,[xvi] setting up the central drama of this phase of life. Its theme is shame. If this developmental passage goes poorly, the stage is set for a lifelong tragedy to ensue; indeed, it would be the tragedy of violence.

The word shame encompasses an array of related meanings.[xvii] At its core, shame refers to the complex emotional response that follows naturally from social cues of rejection. When our primary caregiver rejects or appears to reject us, or when a group that we care to belong to rejects or appears to reject us, we have a more or less universal emotional reaction. Typically, we experience fear, anger, embarrassment, and sadness all wrapped into one. Of these, the most fundamental is fear—to be rejected by our parent or an important peer group could be catastrophic for us, even fatal. Our limbic system tends to react to social rejection as though it were a direct threat to survival.[xviii] We feel anger as part of the fight-or-flight response brought on by the fear; part of us wants to fight the one who has rejected us, as if to say, “How dare you rejected me!”[xix] But, also, we feel embarrassment as the other part of the fight-or-flight response. We want to run away and hide, mortified that we deserve to be rejected, as if to say, “Don’t look at me, for I am hideous!” Lastly, we are sad because rejection involves the loss of the relationship(s) and other benefits of membership. Although each instance of shame is unique, and the intensity of each of these elements varies widely, the experience of shame is always aversive. Shame invariably feels bad.

The word shame also refers to a social transaction that occurs when one person (or group) transmits shame to another. One person rejects, or postures as if to reject, another person. Originally, shame only traverses social space in this way—there is only socially transmitted shame. Across the early years of life, however, we internalize this transaction and learn how to shame ourselves. Thereafter, one part of the self can shame another part as an internal repetition of the original social transaction. This form is known as internalized shame. Thus, whether socially transmitted or internalized, there is always one who shames and another who is shamed, the shamer and the ashamed.

Shame always feels bad, and early experiences of shame are always eventually internalized. As a result, we become permanently capable of creating a bad feeling within ourselves at any moment. But this is not altogether unfortunate. For one thing, shame is woven into the very fabric of social life, not only in humans but in many other social creatures—it represents an inevitable, existential fact. For another, shame does important developmental work—it can be adaptive. In its adaptive mode, shame helps us locate our exact position within the polarity of the paradox of existence so that we can live wholesomely and artfully in the world. This promotes peace. When shame is applied maladaptively and becomes internalized, however, then we make mistakes about our existential position in the world, and this adversely affects how we feel, how we think, and what we do. Violence likely follows.

Chronic maladaptive shame becomes internalized and eventually crystallizes into a shamed identity. A person begins to think of herself as profoundly unworthy of love, as intolerable or invisible to others, and doomed to a more or less permanent state of unhappiness. By this process, shame shifts from being a temporary state to a lasting trait. Under the conditions of a shamed identity, we are apt to feel much more isolated and alone than we otherwise would and, worse, that we are prisoners of this condition as a result of our own inherent inadequacy.

The transient emotional stew of shame in its adaptive mode, that fleeting mixture of fear, anger, embarrassment, and sadness, becomes a permanent burden that we painfully carry inside when applied maladaptively and thus internalized. It seethes, ferments, and curdles for each one of us in a specific way.[xx] As a general rule, we may think of maladaptive shame arranging itself along two axes. (See Figure 3.) The hiding/hostility axis organizes our fight-or-flight response into a more lasting orientation toward aggression (hostility) or retreat (hiding). The internal/external axis of shame establishes the direction of our fight-or-flight response. Internal hiding refers to the use of denial or dissociation to obfuscate our own inadequacy to ourselves; external hiding refers to our avoidance of exposure to the judgment of others. Internal hostility indicates a pattern of self-loathing; external hostility involves a rejection of others.

Although each person will organize differently around each axis, in all likelihood our shame expresses itself to some degree in all four quadrants at once. One person may express their hostility mostly inwardly, but he will also feel hostility outwardly, though he may never express it. Similarly, another person might hide herself from others, but she may also hide from herself. Hiding and hostility represent inversions of one another. Hiding is an escape from one’s feelings of hostility; and hostility is a protest against the imperative to hide. We hide from our own hostility, and we feel hostility toward our hiding. Similarly, internal and external are inversions of one another. I express internally what I cannot express externally, and vice-versa. In this way, each quadrant of shamed identity casts its shadow on all the remaining quadrants. We are thus all four of these all the time.



Hiding/Hostility Axis

Internal/External Axis

Internal Hiding

(e.g., denial)

Internal Hostility

(e.g., self-loathing)

External Hiding

(e.g., isolating)

External Hostility

(e.g., irritability)

Figure 3: The two main axes of maladaptive shame and resulting quadrants.


Perhaps it is already obvious how maladaptive shame promotes violence. First of all, it accentuates our aloneness, thus aligning us with the pole of discontent and disconnection. But there is much more. A shamed identity roils with hostility (of course to different degrees in each case). This provides heat to our discontent, encouraging us to react explosively to our aloneness, and especially to further social cues of rejection. Moreover, shame supplies cover to our violence when we hide internally, denying to ourselves (and then to others) our own alienation and rage. In this way, maladaptive shame can shape up as a perfect storm of existential isolation fired by hostility and protected by denial.

It may be less obvious that most violence will not occur in the absence of shame. In other words, violence (of the kind we are concerned about here) requires a shamed identity, among other things. Conversely, to the extent that a person lacks a shamed identity he is incapable of violence.[xxi] This claim may seem more credible when we remember that we have defined violence as the infliction of unnecessary suffering. In order to inflict suffering that is not strictly necessary (when we are capable of knowing that we are doing so) requires the three elements just enumerated: strong alignment with the pole of aloneness, discontent, and disconnection; hostility; and denial. When we can access our interconnectedness with all beings, we spontaneously avoid causing any of them suffering; without hostility, we lack the kind of focus and energy required to overcome our natural peacefulness and commit acts of violence; and without the capacity for denial, we would be too aware of our own culpability to go through with violent intentions—or, at the very least, we would have such strong remorse that we would actively seek to make amends and then avoid further violence.[xxii]

Shame, in both its adaptive and maladaptive modes, teaches us about our existential situation. As we become securely attached to our primary caregiver over the first year of life, we orbit contentedly around the pole of interconnection much of the time. As we become more mobile and expansive we experience for the first time her sharp censure. We discover for the first time a terrible existential fact: that we can be cast out of connection at any moment. Gradually, we come to recognize that our membership  in  the  relationship,  and  then  in  society  as  a





Figure 4: Two contrasting shame patterns. On the top is an adaptive pattern resulting in an optimal position centered between the existential poles. On the bottom is a maladaptive pattern resulting in extended dysregulation and shamed identity.


whole, is contingent on our behavior. We learn that love is not unconditional, strictly speaking, nor can it ever be. This is a harsh lesson, to be sure. It nevertheless serves an adaptive function, pushing us more toward a center position between the interconnected and autonomous poles of existence.

This painful experience is balanced in adaptive sham by a process called repair. In repair, the caregiver moves toward the child and reassures him, and thus restores the bond. In this way, repair draws us back into relationship with the caregiver, pulling us out of the orbit of aloneness. In this way, adaptive shame pushes us out of the emotional womb of the attachment bond but also holds us close enough to maintain an ongoing connection.[xxiii] If we find ourselves oscillating between the poles of the paradox of existence, subject to the pull of each but not captured by either, we inhabit the optimal zone for healthy development of the psyche. (See Figure 4.)

Third Year

The third year of life has acquired a bad reputation among parents, known as the “terrible twos.” By this time, the child has developed the cognitive capacity to see himself as an independent being with autonomous needs and wants. In short, he has developed a sense of self. This development involves a process of differentiating the emerging self from the caregiver. This, in turn, sharpens the child’s focus on his relative lack of power in the relationship with his caregiver. The stage is set for an epic power struggle.

Power in its social and human sense refers to our capacity to exercise autonomy in the world. Thus, power is that which is applied by a being such that something in the world is affected. Power enables efficacy. In physics, power is defined as joules per second—an amount of energy expended per unit of time. It is the same in relationships. My capacity to have some effect on you depends on the energy I can transmit that draws a response from you over the course of a certain interaction. Transmitted shame is a form of power, like an electric charge, that jolts the recipient. Love, in any of its forms, is another. If we try to affect another and we see no response, we feel that we have no power. We assume that no energy was actually transmitted to the recipient. In human interactions, therefore, power carries paramount importance. Without it, the child will wither and die, for she cannot command the care she needs to survive; and without it, the parent will lose the child, for the child cannot survive long if it cannot experience the parent’s care.

It follows that the caregiver will not give up her power easily in the emergent power struggle with the child. After all, the child has scant experience of a world full of risk, virtually zero capacity to understand these risks, and a terrifying lack of impulse control. The child is likely to make demands that are impossible or highly impractical to meet and refuse to cooperate in tasks that are essential for the child’s health and well-being, like eating nutritious foods, brushing his teeth, or taking a nap. Any one of these struggles might become the focal point of the child’s intense desire for autonomy, resulting, if thwarted, in a violent tantrum.

For the child, though this is not understood conceptually or perhaps consciously at all, each of these struggles symbolizes the profound power differential that the child experiences between herself and her caregiver. In all likelihood, she feels that the parent has absolute power and she has none. This becomes increasingly intolerable to the burgeoning and expansive self of the child. In this way, a struggle over eating her peas or putting on her shoes is only partly about peas or shoes. The real content is power. The child wants to know: Can I ever get what I want, especially when the caregiver wants otherwise? What leverage do I have, and how do I exercise it?

The caregiver, meanwhile, feels he needs to have nearly absolute power to protect and care for the child. But not only this. The caregiver also rehearses his own relationship to power in the unfolding struggle with the child. If the parent’s relationship to power has been distorted, especially if that distortion occurred in early life—at the very same juncture in his own early development—he is likely to pass that distortion on to his child. If, on the other hand, the parent’s early learning about power was adaptive, then the parent will more likely thread the needle of the ‘terrible twos’ in such a way that the child comes away with an appropriate, and appropriately limited, sense of empowerment.

The negotiation of power that occurs in the third year depends entirely on the quality of shame that is brought to bear on the process by the caregiver. If we allow that the self needs to assert itself at this stage in development—that this is a natural and healthy impulse—it follows that the child’s yearning for power should not be shamed. When we prohibit a natural developmental process we necessarily create the conditions for dysfunction in the child. We are, in effect, forcing the child to suppress her own biology. That said, in our duty to protect the child from harm we remain obligated to use shame to teach what the child must know about the natural limits of her power. But if we end up creating shame around the desire for power itself, we have done her a great disservice.

For this reason, the parent needs to make a clear distinction between the child’s need for autonomy and power and the specific focal point of that struggle—say, brushing her teeth. Applying a judicious dose of shame when she refuses to brush her teeth while judiciously avoiding shaming the child for wanting to assert herself is indeed a hard trick, made especially difficult after a day of similar struggles or in the context of other stressors. Research suggests that the ultimate outcome, the child’s wellbeing throughout life, does not depend on parents striking this balance just right every time, or even most of the time. It is enough to get it right a substantial minority of the time.[xxiv] Crucial to this success, then, is the intent to localize the shame to its appropriate object, and to allocate only as much intensity as that object requires. If we over-shame the child when she refuses to brush her teeth, she is much more likely to take in the message that she is supposed to be utterly powerless rather than the intended message that she is supposed to brush her teeth.

As in all shame transactions, repair is essential in the power struggles of the third year. As the parent co-regulates with the child recovering from an incident, and the child becomes more calm and open, resting in the caregiver’s soothing embrace, the parent can affirm the child’s desire for power and control over his own life while also clarifying her, the parent’s, overriding concern for his wellbeing. We cannot expect the child to fully understand this nuanced position, but the parent’s reassurances are felt and seem to have a positive impact on the trajectory of development. In their absence, when no repair is attempted, especially when this is the usual and expected pattern, the child will likely settle more and more deeply into the idea that he is powerless and alone. This conclusion leaves him with two painful options: to fight bitterly to assert himself or to give up on himself altogether.

We can see how the outcome of maladaptive shame in the power struggle of the third year of life might dispose a child toward the logic of violence. Powerless and alone I am forced to become an aggressor or a victim. Actually, I likely become both: the victim of an aggressor, my caregiver, and the aggressor in response to feeling the victim. Even when I feel powerless I have aggression, but it may be directed mostly inward where it can find traction. I aggress against and victimize myself.

What the child begins to intuit in the third year has been true all along: Shame is a function of power. The attachment bond provides the context for the power dynamic. Not only is the parent larger, stronger, and wiser, but the child is totally dependent on her to meet his physical and emotional needs. The parent thus has enormous power over the child. In the shame transaction, the parent momentarily withdraws her warm emotional presence and the child perceives this as life-threatening. The child, meanwhile, will not feel that he has any similar leverage to assert himself with the parent, except sheer refusal.[xxv]

The power differential between a parent and her child, or between any two people (or groups of people), creates a gradient running down from the more-powerful to the less-powerful. Shame runs along that gradient. We can only shame another person to the exact extent, and in the specific respect with which, they have less power than we do. Conversely, to the degree that another person has more power than we do, we cannot cause them to feel shame. Perhaps the most insidious feature of maladaptive shame is that it tends to flow spontaneously whenever a power gradient appears. Shame functions in this way to maintain differentials in power, establishing and reinforcing hierarchical social structures. This mechanism lies at the heart of systemic violence and all forms of oppression.

In this light, we can see not only how maladaptive shame might impel us to lean more toward the logic of violence than we otherwise might, but how it spontaneously divides one against the other, demanding better-thans and less-thans, haves and have-nots. The third year of life represents only the first opportunity to establish such a violent way of being, but, like the other periods we have examined in this chapter, it is the most critical period during which such a dynamic may or may not gain a foothold.

We have sought to explore the psychology of violence, the way in which our basic existential situation, with its inherent paradox and resulting human dilemma, draws a range of solutions depending on conditions that we encounter in the first years of life. We have seen how the existential polarity becomes conditionally reinforced such that we are inclined more toward the logic of violence or the logic of peace. But this polarity has long pulled at our ancestors, all the way back to the primates of a million years ago, and beyond. As a matter of evolution, deep in our prehistory, how have our forebears resolved the paradox of existence? It is to this question that we now turn.


[i] See Pinker, 2011.

[ii] See Sapolsky, 2017.

[iii] The physicist Carlo Rovelli says of “any object” in quantum mechanics: “Its position and velocity, its angular momentum and its electrical potential only acquire reality when it collides—interacts—with another object. It is not just its position that is undefined, as Heisenberg had recognized: no variable of the object is defined between one interaction and the next” (Rovelli, 2017, p. 122).

[iv] See Rank, 1929/1993.

[v] Siegel, 2015, pp. 272-273.

[vi] Or perhaps more accurately, approach and withdrawal are the direct, unmediated expressions of what eventually develops into what we think of when we use the words “like” and “dislike.”

[vii] See Hebb, 1949, pp. 69-70 as referenced in Siegel, 2015, pp. 48-49.

[viii] Doige, 2007.

[ix] See Schore, 2003a and 2003b.

[x] Baumeister, 1997.

[xi] “[A]fter controlling for substance use, rates of violence...may reflect factors common to a particular neighborhood rather than the symptoms of a psychiatric disorder.” Harvard Mental Health Letter, 2011. Indeed, though I do not address this point directly in these pages, I would argue that the use of substances to medicate psychological pain is likely strongly correlated with maladaptive shame.

[xii] Bowlby, 1988.

[xiii] Schore, 1994.

[xiv] Bowlby, 1988.

[xv] Schore, 1996.

[xvi] Schore, 1996.

[xvii] For some major works of the shame literature, see Tangney & Dearing, 2002, Nathanson, 1992, and Kaufman, 1992.

[xviii] Bowlby, 1988.

[xix] See Mikulincer & Shaver, 2011.

[xx] There have been many efforts to describe and understand this mixture of feelings and their sequelae, but few have identified shame as the central mechanism. See, for example, Baumeister, 1997, Beck, 1999, Sell, 2011, and Mikulincer & Shaver, 2011.

[xxi] These claims are implicitly supported by the theory cited earlier (Baumeister, 1997, Beck, 1999, Sell, 2011, and Mikulincer & Shaver, 2011). Although shame is rarely mentioned, the mechanism of shame is always being described in different (and, in my view, less adequate) words.

[xxii] I allude here to guilt, which can also be either adaptive or maladaptive. In its adaptive mode, guilt motivates us to repair past wrongs and restore healthy relationships. Guilt is a shame process, in my view, though this topic lies beyond the purview of this book. See Tangney & Dearing, 2002, for the conventional view.

[xxiii] See Schore, 2003b.

[xxiv] See Winnicott & Brazelton, 1994.

[xxv] In fact, the child does have the capacity to induce a shame reaction in the parent. The child holds much more power than he realizes—just not nearly as much as the parent.