Shame and the Capacity for Self-Reflection

Shame and the Capacity for Self-Reflection

by Alexis Johnson, Ph.D.

Only in an open, nonjudgmental space can we acknowledge what we are feeling. Only in an open space where we’re not all caught up in our own version of reality can we see and hear and feel who others really are, which allows us to be with them and communicate with them properly.

– Pema Chodron

Life in all of its forms requires a rhythm of expansion and contraction. Psychologically speaking, shame is a contraction signifying being inferior or not good enough in one’s core being. When we experience shame our innate, explorative, and creative life force is inhibited. Shame curtails our desire and capacity for personal growth, inhibits our spontaneous interpersonal creativity, and mitigates our innate urge to learn and expand our consciousness. It is a powerful and under-estimated force in the development of personality. We often fail to recognize shame as a root cause of severe inhibition or the source of on-going depression.

Shame, or humiliation, is among the most negative and disruptive feelings. The experience fragments our going-on-being, our sense of self in all its various aspects. When we feel shame our body language, learning capacity and communication significantly change.

• Shame is in the body. We lower our eyes and break off our gaze. We bow our heads and droop our shoulders. We become clumsy or un-coordinated.
• Shame controls our perceptions. We become unable to see or hear what is going on around us.
• Shame interferes with thinking. When we feel shame we automatically defend in various ways. By trying to get away from this noxious feeling, we can’t think, can’t problem solve, and certainly can’t be creative.
• Shame interrupts emotions and emotional communication, limiting intimacy and empathy. Shame can interfere with anything and everything from the joy of sex to the joy of ideas.
• Shame interrupts spiritual connection and well-being for when in shame, I have lost my sense of wholeness and possibility.

Shame is a far more powerful inhibitor of action than guilt. Most of us develop a moral code that both allows us to live within the rules and to occasionally break them. We will risk the guilt of rule breaking under certain circumstances. But shame, the loss of face, never leaves us as an inhibitor of action. Shame is purely subjective and its punishment is a swift internal fall. Even the most powerful greatly fear this fall, this loss of face.

Positive and Negative Shame

We use the word shame to describe the negative experience of being ashamed and the positive experience of having the capacity to feel shame in the appropriate setting. While negative shame elicits a swift painful, contraction, positive shame protects my proper boundary around privacy and the sense of what needs to remain hidden. Some of us want a great deal of privacy around specific experiences such as sexuality, finances, and illness. But we also might want privacy around birth and death, love and prayer. Shame in this sense indicates we are vulnerable, and being vulnerable is part of being human. A healthy sense of shame guards the separate, private self with its boundaries and prevents intrusion and merger. It is part of integrity.

The word ‘awe’ gives a spiritual dimension to positive shame. When in awe we transcend ourselves and face mystery. Awe opens us to the power and potential of uncertainty. We feel awe whenever we have a spiritual opening whether in the grandeur of nature or a religious ritual. We know both our smallness and our place in the cosmos.

Shame, in both its positive and negative sense forces us go inside, teaches us to be self-reflective. In that sense, it creates depth in us. It enlarges our sense of humanity. The Jungians often use the idea of creating soul – soul is not a given, rather it is through suffering and learning that we become whole human beings.

Collective Shame

Much of world history involves cycles of shame and revenge at the collective level. When defeat is mythologized and includes a strong shame element, revenge is the ‘best’ option. I was astonished to learn that part of the motive for the Serbian aggression against the Muslims in Kosevo was an event that happened 800 years ago. We of the United States are currently involved in a war in Iraq to avenge what happened to us on 9/11/01. Ideologically, we are totally committed to staying the only super-power; sharing power is humiliating from that point of view.


The capacity for shame begins in early infancy. Infants live in a world of discontinuity. What is happening now is all that has ever happened. So when the baby-as-body experiences shame affect, he falls into an incompetent, incomplete sense of self. Phenomenologically, there is a ‘me’ being excited or interested in someone or something and then that ‘me’ is thwarted. The failure experience disorganizes the baby-as-body and he becomes uncoordinated and momentarily unable to achieve his goal. Because he has not learned sequencing nor does he understand time, he experiences two different “me’s”. There is a me that is excited and curious – good. And there is a me that is contracted and collapsed – bad. Over time and if he is soothed through his frustrations, his sense of self will organize these two discrete experiences into one “me”.

We need to understand these roots in early childhood if we are to help ourselves and others through the pain of shame into a more whole sense of self. As helpers we must find our own specific ways of making shame-based clients feel safe. Some clients need a lot of space, silence, and patience for them to grapple with what is going on inside and come up with their own words. Other clients need very active engagement, lots of dialogue and aliveness or else the therapist is experienced as too far away and as not caring. We know that for growth to happen the client must be willing to look inside, deeply experience what he is feeling and share those experiences with the therapist or healer.

To become self-reflective is this way is very scary if one expects to meet some internal form of shaming, like emptiness or badness. If the helper confirms this expectation by offering shaming feedback, no matter how accurate, it will take a long time for the shame-based client to risk sharing again, if ever. An opportunity for wholeness has been lost.

An affirming relationship is crucial as part of the spiritual journey. We are social animals living out our aloneness inside our skin all of our lives. When facing difficult issues like shame or grief we need appreciative contact. Our defenses were designed to keep us out of such unbearable pain and they will only be softened and set down within the safety of a relationship that does not re-create the old stories. Then we can take the time and space to be self-reflective, to learn and to grow, and to follow the daimon within.

Rent the movie Monster’s Ball if you want to see a painful, yet redemptive story of shame at both the personal and collective level.

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