The Shame-Blame Reflex


Popularly, shame and guilt are understood almost exclusively in their conscious forms. Professionally, we know that guilt is primarily unconscious, but the extent to which everyone is controlled by shame is much less familiar. Shame works subtly, silently, and swiftly—in a word, reflexively. This seems to be why the study of shame has appeared relatively late on the psychotherapeutic scene, although it is the key to ego analysis.

The shame experience is difficult to catch. Typically only its effect appears, as a withdrawal or constriction. A familiar example from the therapy relationship is the infamous “Why do you ask?” question-in-response-to-a-question. Although it is not the therapist’s intent, the patient feels reprimanded, as if hearing “You shouldn’t be asking questions.” Now, here is where it gets especially interesting. My impression is that it never occurs to patients who have encountered this response from a therapist to say, “Do you mean I’m not supposed to ask questions?” Further, I doubt that most of them even form the conscious thought that this was the therapist’s message.

The patient instinctively and pre-reflectively withdraws. It has the conscious/unconscious quality of a post-hypnotic suggestion. The patient acts on it, but seemingly without awareness. I should add that the patient also gets the idea that you’re not supposed to feel reprimanded, and my impression is that this happens in the same way, without making it to awareness.

We are accustomed to making such adjustments all the time in our relations with others. I don’t think there is anything special about this transaction, which probably is one reason it is so subtle and silent.

The therapist, without knowing it, has shamed the patient. The patient, without knowing it, has been shamed. If the shaming was overt—if the therapist had said, “I’ll ask the questions around here”—then the patient would of course be aware that his/her wrist had been slapped. But what I want to illustrate is the fact that, distinctive to shame, is this sudden aversion. It has the quality of shock, like touching a hot stove.

It helps to grasp the nature of shame to consider the ways it can be relatively content free. The best example of this is the way it drives class-and-caste distinctions —status hierarchies: who can stare at whom and who looks away, among all peoples. People who internalize subordinate status automatically react with downcast eyes—do the slave shuffle—when in the presence of their “betters.” It is tempting to call on phylogenetic parallels; the lower-status animal cringing or groveling before the alpha male or female. Psycho-biological parallels risk being facile, but are tempting at least as a way to dramatize the power and universality of the shame reflex—and may, after all, explain its universality.

What do we experience when in the grip of this status reflex? And why does shame have this constricting, wanting to disappear quality? It appears to be a fear of being inappropriate, of embarrassment, of sudden shyness, maybe a fear of further shame if one even moves. Somehow you are suddenly outside the pale. Your identity is up for grabs. You risk falling outside defined roles, in effect, outside the group—an outcast. This fear seems to be what grips us in the shame, shyness, embarrassment experience.

The power of shame has something to do with the effect of feeling ostracized, shunned. Shame-anxiety has a mentally narrowing, paralyzing quality. It can be an intense fear, up to panic; people freeze, or like point men in combat, may charge unthinkingly into enemy fire. More intense levels cause more obvious self-destruction (hara-kiri).

In most (all?) primitive societies, conventions are enforced by shaming, expressed largely by laughter and ridicule. Laughing at the deviant is apparently an instinctive (cross-cultural) enforcer. Just as on the playground and in the schoolyard, any sort of deviation from the norm is severely punished and status distinctions are rigidly stratified, with shame and ridicule as the means of enforcement.

In the anthropological literature, “fear of the stranger” is one of those items on the list of the prominent features of most primitive (tribal) cultures. Although hospitality rituals are a familiar feature of all societies, once a certain social distance is reached, alarms seem to go off.

Think of it this way. Tribal societies can be so rigidly stratified that a film company working in the Australian Outback found, once they cast the first member of the tribe, that all the other roles were automatically cast, since the rules of deference determined who could initiate talk with whom. Now imagine a stranger wandering into the group. It is as if all the anxiety bound by the social structure is suddenly loosed when someone appears who doesn’t fit—or when a member of the group acts in some way that doesn’t fit.

Many an explorer’s first contact with an isolated group has been by the arrow. We all are getting newly acquainted with the lively propensity for ethnic strife and for feuds between any groups separated physically, religiously, or in almost any identifiable way. Consider this homey example from Garrison Keillor, writing about his experiences in the tiny Minnesota prairie town that led him to write his Lake Wobegon stories.

No one ever welcomed us to town when we came in 1970. Several times I stopped at neighboring farms to say hello and announce our presence and was met in the yard by the farmer, and we spent an uncomfortable few minutes standing beside my car, making small talk about the weather, studying the ground, me waiting to be invited into the house, him waiting for me to go away, until I finally went away… If I said hello to someone for me to go away, until I finally went away… If I said hello to someone on the street, he glanced down at the sidewalk and passed in silence. I lived south of Freeport for three years and never managed to have a conversation with anyone in the town.

Keillor adds that the small town in which he grew up was similarly “wary of strangers,” and “If strangers came to the door, they were dealt with and sent on their way.”

What I am driving at here is that shame is the instrument of conformity. Only shamans can get away with doing something out of the ordinary. Everyone else judges themselves in accordance with group norms. In other words, it is OK to have experiences that are sanctioned by the group—that are consensually validated, in Sullivan’s phrase—validated by the group consensus. Then it doesn’t require the individual to struggle with the issue of entitlement (to the experience). (The shame experience that we are most familiar with—Adam-and-Eve shame, i.e., shame reactive to exposure, bodily, sexually, etc.—manifests the group consensus about such experiences. Since this instance of shame is painfully conscious, it has misled some theorists into using it as the reference for the study of shame. But it is just as context dependent as is any other kind of shame proneness, as witness nudist colonies as well as many equatorial cultures.)

Group norms dictate the experiences we are able to “have” (i.e., feel entitled to, be comfortable with, embrace, enjoy, make part of ourselves), and also dictate the negative judgments about those experiences we are not able to have. Since group norms are enforced by shame, we typically are unaware, not only of the shameful experience, but of the shame effect as well. We automatically mold ourselves, our experiences, to fit the group consensus.

What is this fear that shame exemplifies? How can it be such a life-or-death matter to avoid it? Maybe conformity once was a life-or-death matter. We apparently are the descendants of plains apes. Out on the largely treeless savanna, with only the plains grasses for cover, we may have had to depend, not only on a strict military train of command, but on a readiness to move when the scent of a predator was picked up by one of the outriders. Wheeling about like schools of fish, rippling with anxiety signals whenever someone picked up a threatening scent, we didn’t have time to ask what the fuss was about. What other people think was a life-or-death matter.

Abandonment by the group would have meant absolute vulnerability. This scenario is seat-of-the-pants evolutionary biology, but if it didn’t happen this way, it should have.

The shame reflex internalizes the harshness of the group consensus; it’s the playground or schoolyard in our heads. It’s the ethnic feuding in our heads, with an ingroup and the out-groups. It’s the internal authoritarianism, the internal tribal mentality that makes judgments both hair-trigger and intimidating.

But we hate being so sheep-like. We idealize the predators. A group of lions is a pride. We like their independence from the herd instinct, but we are not predators, so what is this all about? We even are ashamed of “caring about what other people think,” as it is put. What’s our problem? This takes me even farther out of my depth, but it seems to have something to do with the problem of figuring out how to free ourselves from this vulnerability to groupthink and, essentially, from shame. As a result, rather than being wholeheartedly driven by shame, as were our forebears and is still the case in non-Western societies (see “honor killings” for an egregious example), we are ashamed of it. Everyone is much more aware of the potential for guilt that our urge to individuate generates. Shame is the greater hindrance, but harder to see and more intense the more our efforts to overcome it are shame driven.

Why link shame and blame, as my title? While not identical, in effect, they are the same thing. Although our language does not instantly suggest this, we blame others and feel self-blame, and we shame others and feel self-shame. I suggest that by linking the two, we best capture the reflex reaction I want to look at—as well as that by combining the two we create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.


After this long excursion, let’s go back to the patient who automatically absorbs the imagined reprimand, who feels shamed for asking a question, but hardly realizes it, if realizes it at all. Although this reflex acceptance may be greased by old brain pathways, on the immediate level shaming is simply taken for granted. It is how we expect problems to be solved. In a word, we expect them to be adjudicated rather than analyzed.

Suppose the therapist were to say to this patient, “I think you got the idea that I was telling you not to ask questions.” The patient might likely respond by asking, “You mean it’s OK?” Then the therapist might say, “I just wondered what what made you ask the question.” At that point the patient might feel confused and badgered, like it looked as if there was going to be no way to do anything right.

We want to know what’s OK and what’s not OK (abnormal, immature, weak, bad). The therapist’s question “Why?”—all by itself—suggests a raised eyebrow. Suppose the patient mentions in passing that, “I read the editorial in the paper every day,” and the therapist asks some “why” question, like “Why is that?,” the patient might well respond with, “What’s wrong with (or, so unusual, abnormal about) that?”

It is tempting to say that what makes everybody defensive is that we are always on the edge of feeling cast out by the group (some more than others, of course). We expect problems to be solved on the basis of what is acceptable, what is OK. This criterion can feel eminently rational. The alternative to this judgmental criterion has appeared only recently. The possibility of psychological analysis and of change through understanding was given its most significant boost by Freud. In the past, in all of history before the psychological revolution of the twentieth century, it was assumed that acts of will made us who we are. Everyone was ready to define what a gentleman or lady should be like. Insecurities, doubts, ambivalence, or simply, anxiety—unwilled experiences—were not in the lexicon. Bad behavior was caused by weakness of the will (the will could literally degenerate, hence: “degenerates,” a term, now obsolete, that persisted in the language until the middle of the twentieth century).

This early in the development of consciousness we still are largely occupied with judgmental analyses of ourselves and with change through shaming. We are in some kind of transitional period. We have been alerted to the way we suffer from “shouldism,” from “the tyranny of the should” (Horney), but we instantly think we shouldn’t be dominated by should’s. The reflex is that fast and that inevitable.


When parents tell kids, “You’re bad (stubborn, lazy, selfish, spoiled, self-centered)” kids just think they are learning facts about themselves. Mostly, this is verbal bullying, used to get kids to mind, but it is overkill, undermining the child’s ego, the message being: “You should be ashamed of yourself.” Such shaming is so common that its effects go unnoticed. Kids simply absorb it as information—about their weakness of character. Then comes payback time when, in the schools, kids accuse each other of the same moral failings, only reinforcing them.

Kids also are accused, not only of being bad, but of being inadequate, e.g., called stupid, silly, clumsy, weak, babyish. What the child internalizes is the same whether the accusations are of immorality or of inadequacy: feeling diminished, lesser, inferior, defective—in a word, devalued. The consequent self-shaming is, in phylogenetic terms, feeling like betas rather than alphas. This profound effect is in the absence of any real parental hostility, the shaming being more an expression of parental powerlessness and consequent frustration. The impact is, of course, much greater when shaming is accompanied by evident hostility, but typically it just is playing out parental models as they have been passed down through the generations.

So we emerge from childhood, from family and peer relations, having learned what we are like. We experience the result as facts about our character, as moral failings. The outcome of therapy hinges on being able to convert these factualized experiences back into feelings.

This is the fundamental operation of cognitive therapy, although it is not put that way. Cognitive therapists are at pains to separate self-judgments (self-shame) from facts. Their approach amounts to picking up on internalized shame, which should sensitize all of us to the crucial problem of separating judgments from facts. Cognitive therapy is based on showing people how they are making judgments about themselves that they don’t think of as judgments. The therapist tries to show the patient, for example, that although he calls himself a failure, he is not a failure in all ways, and, at that, may be only a partial failure. What is this therapist doing? He or she is taking an inner attribution and trying to show how it is global in a way that facts rarely are. They are likely to be partial and context dependent.

Typically, self-shaming inner judgments feel so factual the person is unaware of having them at all. The experience is of feeling apathetic or depressed. It’s fish in water. The therapist has to bring the negative judgments to the surface. That alone— not to minimize the effort it requires—can be powerfully relieving: that is, just to see that you actually are suffering from inner name-calling, even though it is kicked up by some external event. Once this is accomplished, that is where the overlap between cognitive therapy and ego analysis ends.

The cognitive therapist helps relieve the patient by showing how he or she is being assaulted by arbitrary—or partly arbitrary—judgments, and by teaching the patient to oppose, or as such therapists put it, refute them. This approach has been an enormous contribution to the field, but as we see it, it has its drawbacks.

One drawback is that it reinforces a self-rejecting mindset. The patient is encouraged to oppose negative judgments (negative self-talk). This misses the opportunity for the patient to develop a different relationship to negative self-talk, one that invites internal reconciliation—what we call “internal intimacy.” These are two quite different models for growth.

On this same point, cognitive therapy actually does not encourage splitting (or denial) as much as do therapies that depend for their effect on reinforcing negative judgments, rather than refuting them. In this category is id analysis (see other papers in this collection), and what could be called “responsibility” therapies, such as Gestalt and Existential therapies—therapies in which patients are called to account for their behavior. In these judgmental, no-excuses therapies patients are confronted with the pronouncement—beyond discussion—that they are responsible for their lives.

This is not an easy judgment for patients to refute (where are the cognitive therapists when we need them?), especially given the therapist’s conviction, and this therapy depends on the strength of the therapist’s conviction and the vigor of his/her pronouncements. The experience of being victimized is disqualified, especially the experience of being victimized by inner states, that is to say, by negative self talk. In contrast, cognitive therapy makes it abundantly clear that we have no control over negative self-talk—that we are the victims of inner judgments; that we have no more control over them than we did over the negative “other-talk” that parents directed at us and that we internalized.

The task of developing a different relationship to self-judgments, rather than simply refuting them, requires the ego analyst to get more deeply into the nature of disapproval, shame, self-judgments, and moral pressure. In contrast, cognitive therapists assume that there is nothing deeper to get into—that negative self-talk is essentially accidental, created by specific shaming incidents in childhood, often resulting from childish misinterpretations. Treating this internal name-calling as arbitrary and trivial furthers the purpose of discrediting it, that is, of refutation—but it offers no way to understand the universality of such self-shaming. Cognitive therapists do discover accidental precursors of negative self-talk in their patients’ histories, but such accidents occur in all our histories, verbal abuse being an inevitable part of all our relationships, past and present. Blame logic has a firm grip on our minds (see What Creates Negative Self-Talk).


Therapy relationships are a good example of the hold on our thinking of blame logic, and a remarkably apt demonstration is offered by Paul Wachtel, in his Psychoanalysis and Behavior Therapy; Toward An Integration. He says that, “Not infrequently, if one looks closely at how interpretations are actually worded, one finds that they contain an implicit rebuke.” He begins with the example, presented in a training seminar, of

a shy young woman who had been sitting for a long time in an uncomfortable silence, occasionally adding that she just didn’t have anything to say. Finally, at one point the therapist said to her, “I think you’re silent because you’re trying to hide a lot of anger.” [The therapist] recalled being unhappy with her [own] comment even at the time, but for a variety of reasons she felt that some comment was called for to break the impasse, and no other way to phrase it had occurred to her. In the class discussion, she added that she had felt, and still felt that what she had to say was basically accurate even though she was displeased with how she had couched it.

Wachtel adds, to rule out any countertransference problem, that the therapist “seemed to like the patient a good deal and to have a strong empathic sense of the patient’s dilemmas.” He goes on to say that the group tried to suggest a number of better ways to make the same comment. They all omitted the word “hide” in the effort to “soften” it, but couldn’t seem to get the rebuke out:

“I think you’re feeling very angry with me and boredom is a cover.”
“Behind your silence is a great deal of anger.”
“I think you’re really very angry.”
“You’re denying how angry you are.”

Wachtel reports that as the group worked at it they finally were able to get the rebuke out:

“I have the sense that you’re angry but feel you’re not supposed to be. I wonder if you’re staying silent because you feel you had better not say anything if what you’re feeling is anger.”

For some reason we are not given any evidence that the client was actually angry, so these interpretations are hard to evaluate, but the point is that the whole group saw all these versions as “accurate.” Clearly, they are more on the side of the ego, which is to say, more forgiving—acknowledging the patient’s struggle, her conflict, which the judgmental therapies would disqualify as evasions of responsibility, requiring this woman to take what seems to me clearly to be premature responsibility. I see her already feeling too responsible for her anger (assuming she is angry, which I somehow doubt).

Wachtel says that beginning student-therapists frequently, and unwittingly, use these fault-finding phrases: “You are trying to hide…,” “You are avoiding…,” “You’re denying how…you are,” “You’re really very…,” “…is a cover for…,” and so on. Indeed, in the seminar described above, as the students proceeded in generating alternatives, they found themselves smiling embarrassedly and literally wincing as they discovered how readily accusatory phrases came to mind, even as they were working on trying to avoid them.

These therapists-in-training had set themselves the task of deliberately coming up
with neutral, non-blaming interpretations, and they almost could not manage it. Wachtel uniquely caught the shame-blame reflex, in all its reflexiveness, in action. While there may never be a plaque to mark the spot where this occurred, it is impressive if only because it would not have occurred to anyone—or at least to me—that such a demonstration was possible.

Experience does not necessarily inhibit this impulse to scold. Wachtel goes on to say that:

The difficulty the group had in first producing a better version was not just a matter of the students’ inexperience. When I have given workshops on these issues to groups that included quite experienced therapists, they too could recognize the bad examples as far from absent in their work.

Then he adds the capper:

And in my own work, despite years of writing and lecturing about these very issues, I find that such phrasings still sometimes creep in. These are, as it were, the unwanted “tics” of our profession.

Calling it a tic is an extraordinarily apt way to capture the reflexive quality of shaming, it being just as automatic and sub-threshold as the experience of being shamed. Wachtel makes no further attempt to explain this rush to judgment, putting it rather resignedly, but in our view it cries out for an explanation, and the explanation is all-important.

First, what Wachtel has cleverly isolated is the continuing influence of id analysis. Notice that covering (hiding, avoiding) is the focus of Wachtel’s list of the fault-finding phrases that students unwittingly use. Conceiving of defense as a cover is one of the identifying features of id analysis. As Gill and I put it in our 1989 paper,

Defense often does appear to be a simple cover or avoidance… Hence, the topographic conception of defense as a layer or barrier is persuasive, which helps explain why it sufficed for Freud and his colleagues in the early decades.

We also argued, anticipating Wachtel’s studies, that the “cover” perspective pulls for therapists’ judgmental reactions:

When defenses are seen as a covering or restraining force, energetically and dynamically distinct from wishes, as in the topographic model, the analyst is likely either to support defense, or as in Kanzer’s hour [this was the “specimen” hour we re-analyzed], to oppose it.

This layering view of defense has been, as we put it, persuasive”—remarkably so. I have no doubt that no matter how discredited and villified Freud’s work may be, this view will persist, because it uniquely satisfies the impulse to scold that seizes us when we want to influence someone and feel otherwise powerless to do so. The prevalence of knee-jerk accusatory, unempathic interpretations can be traced to the way that commonsense abusiveness is decisively reinforced by the heritage of id analysis (cf. other papers in this collection).

The Wachtellian tic is the shame/blame reflex. On the commonsense level we all express disapproval as a way to make people change. The disadvantage of Wachtel’s approach of trying to drive the demons out of our language is that the demons are us. Unlike a tic—at least in Wachtel’s sense of a glitch—it is a symptom; it means something. When we want someone to change we automatically criticize them. Because this is how we were treated, are treated, and treat ourselves. We all assume that to get someone to change we have to show them how wrong, screwed up, bad, or childish they are. That is commonsense logic. You change people by disapproval. You have to make then feel bad about themselves, although of course it is never put that baldly. Beating a child is called “teaching them a lesson they’ll never forget” (true enough, although the lesson is not the one intended).

Wachtel’s incisive observations and explorations demonstrate the need for ego analysis. To work ego-analytically is to focus on the expectation of disapproval—of shame/blame—itself. In the case of Wachtel’s student-therapist’s patient, if she was in fact angry, the focus would not be on that she was angry or on why, but on her discomfort with her anger, her difficulty being openly angry, i.e., her fear of her anger —her inability to feel entitled to it. The interpretation I might offer would be: “I think you may be feeling angry with me, or some such feeling, and that you’d much rather not be—like you’re really not sure what to do with a feeling like that and worry about how I might take it.”

In other words, we would be focused on how such a client feels about the possibility of being angry, with the goal, if she actually was angry, to help her to be “better at” having the feeling, that is, to develop her relationship to it, to feel more comfortable with it, maybe to be able to experience it as relieving, even to enjoy the feeling of power (that comes with smiting the evildoers), as well as to get in touch with her fears or misgivings about it.


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