Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Lansky on Shame

Lansky delineates shame and guilt for us, and refers to the classical literature to make his points. He describes shame as resulting from failure to live up to one’s aspirations (ego ideal) and it signals fears of loss of relationship or separation and/or fears of exposure with concomitant humiliation. Weakness, defectiveness, vulnerability are all words patients might use to describe their shame. When shame is triggered, it may result in impulsive action, such as the intimidation of others (e.g. domestic violence) or compulsive binging, as one tries to regain control over one’s disorganizing sense of weakness. Guilt, on the other hand, results from failure to live up to superego expectations and can be used to defend against shame, for it gives a sense of action (some committed transgression) rather than the helplessness or powerlessness which evoke shame.

Shame is a hidden affect (there is shame in being ashamed), but Lansky says that it is not the affect itself which is hidden, but the consequences (social annihilation) of the affect. His idea alludes to the relational nature of shame, though when shame is consequent to failure to live up to one’s ego ideal it does not necessarily involve the other. Freud had previously noted that neurotic symptoms were an attempt to hide from awareness that which would evoke painful affect, as are defenses. (Not until 1926, in Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety, did Freud made explicit his signal theory of affect.)

Freud relegated shame to conflicts around toilet training, but Erickson spoke closer to the problem in his stage Autonomy v. Shame and Doubt, which is contemporaneous with Freud’s anal stage. Freud places guilt, and fear of retaliation (by castration), in the oedipal phase, whose heir, as you may recall, is the superego. Klein puts shame in the paranoid-schizoid position when, in addition to fear of attack and destruction, the expectation of one’s vulnerability being exploited by others with the intent to humiliate exists. Klein places guilt in the depressive position, which for her precedes the oedipal phase, when the infant becomes aware of the injury it inflicts on the mother. Kohut “divorced the notion of shame from any notion of conflict”, but Lansky opines that had Kohut linked ‘fragmentation anxiety’  in terms of its failure to live up to an ego ideal of maintenance of self image and self respect, Kohut might not have been so ostracized by the classical psychoanalysis of his day.  

My favorite nod to shame comes from Tomkins; He proposed that shame results from an interruption of joy. [How felicitous is that to remind us to meet our children’s joy with our own!] Many of the patients I see have indeed experienced the failure of their ‘love affair with the world’ to be met with attuned parental joy. Analysts, too, are called upon to meet our patients in the same direction affectively, though somewhat modified and without the disorganizing intensity, if lucky.

What Lansky might have elaborated more is the analyst’s shame, a powerful impetus to our dissociation, as when the struggle of our patients with their helplessness, their humiliation, and fears, trigger our own. He does note that “the shame of others makes us feel about ourselves what we do not like to feel: vulnerable, weak, powerless, dependent, contingent, disconnected, and valueless” and that “the emerging shame of the other stirs up our own difficulty bearing shame, our helplessness, and our anxiety that we may prove defective and fail in our professional roles because we, in facing the patient's incipient experience of shame, will be found to have nothing effective to offer.”

Lansky, M.R. (2005). Hidden Shame. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 53:865-890.

Tomkins, S. 1963 Affect, Imagery, Consciousness. Vol. II The Negative Affects New York: Springer.