The Topic of Shame

by Mark Zaslav, Ph.D.

Feelings, thoughts, memories, experiences or fantasies can turn into topics when we have a chance to step back from, appraise, and acknowledge them. In psychotherapy, an issue becomes a topic when sufficiently specified and labeled to enable discussion and examination. This very transformation into declarative form accomplishes a great deal. Putting problems into words may be a first step in seeking help. In semantic form, our issues take on a reality and a sense of context that they lack in their latent, experiential or implicit form. Our experience is so rich, and our minds capable of so much conscious and unconscious activity, that anything can become a topic. A conscious conflict or dilemma might become a topic when we get a chance to talk with a trusted friend. On the other hand, there are a myriad of other potential conflicts or dilemmas that may tend never to become topics even in imagination or intention. Unspoken, unacknowledged burdens trouble us all at times.

Guilt and shame differ in their potential to become topics. While the “self-conscious” emotions of guilt and shame are often confused or conflated (even by therapists), cognitive and social psychologists view them as different emotions. In the parlance of current psychological theory, guilt is about “doing” and shame is about “being.” Guilt is an emotion we feel when our act causes real or imagined suffering to another person. Guilt is associated with a sense of regret as well as a motivation to make amends or apologize. In shame, on the other hand, the focus is inward and much broader. Rather than a reaction to having committed harmful actions, shame involves a global sense of being bad, deficient or inadequate. Excessive, recurrent states of shame are associated with tendencies to hide, blame or attack others, or escape into defensive grandiose or persecutory fantasies.

Psychotherapy patients express guilty topics more directly than shameful ones. Guilty patients tend to talk a good deal about their imagined ability to cause suffering. Struggling with an exaggerated sense that they are capable of burdening or injuring others, guilt-prone people will openly share their worries and concerns to friends, loved ones and psychotherapists. They often find it extremely cathartic merely to “confess” some real or imagined harm or potential harm that is worrisome. There may be a sense of expiation in this exchange.

We are social animals. Our complex cognitive capacities have evolved in large part in order to analyze, understand and encode in working memory various important social scenarios or transactions. Transactions involve people and their actions, generally appraised through the lens of self-conscious emotions. A guilty narrative is a story in that there are discrete actors, each having particular interpersonal roles. The guilty perpetrator does something that causes harm to another person in reality or imagination. The harmed person suffers and the guilty self experiences acute regret at the infliction of suffering. The guilty self is in turn imbued with the motivation to apologize, make amends, or “undo” the harm. Evidence for the successful negotiation of this social transaction would be for the harmed individual to forgive the guilty self or to correct guilty distortions by reminding the self that it did not actually commit the imagined offense. Telling the guilty narrative may feel helpful because the person to whom it is told (perhaps a therapist) may be seen symbolically as a proxy for the harmed, who is somehow capable of issuing expiation.

In the case of shame, however, there is no corresponding “story” that is easily told. In shame, the self has not committed an act. The self is fundamentally bad and unworthy to live. This phenomenon does not have a clear playbill of actors, and there is no schematic action that can yield any corresponding sense of remediation. The condition is a wordless, internal sense of a self that is ugly and unworthy. There is no point in expressing this painful material as there is no external agent who can provide the shameful equivalent of forgiveness of the self.

Whereas in guilt the therapist is potentially seen schematically as a potential source of expiation, in shame the therapist may instead suddenly become the devaluing other, scrutinizing and judging the self as deficient or bad. Thus, the shameful situation is not a story having definable actors, it is not written in words, there is no safe person to tell it to and it is not worth telling because it has no foreseeable favorable outcome. The only “solution” is to hide, turn away, or lash out in blame at “others” who are at fault. In fact, shame-prone people often initially present to therapy not to explore their own shame-related problems, but to decry a sense of despair and frustration at the actions of other people in their lives.

In order to help the patient overwhelmed with shame, it is the task of the therapist to make inferences that enable the person to begin to tolerate introduction of the relevant topics. The therapist must be attuned to subtle signs of emotional disconnection, brief but discordant emotional displays (e.g., inappropriate laughter or smiling), confusing omissions in narrative or sudden deflections or disorganization of speech to extrapolate the shameful theme initially being avoided. With tact and empathy, we help the patient piece together topics that are hauntingly familiar but threatening. A picture emerges of recurrent states in which the patient signals that he is experiencing or warding off a deep sense of emptiness, deficiency or self-loathing.

Once revealed, the topics related to shameful self-evaluation tend to flip in and out of focus. At times, the therapist will be recipient of projections appointing him or her as spokesperson for various split-off aspects of the patient’s internal shaming narrative. These enactments enable the therapist to experience parts of the patient’s story at first hand. As the therapist becomes incorporated into the narrative, developments in the relationship between therapist and patient help clarify the emerging issue. For example, the therapist might be in a position to shed light on a pattern in which normally neutral therapist comments take on a projected quality of criticism in response to certain sensitive themes.

As relevant topics are identified and explored, shame and its derivatives can lose some of their debilitating hold on the individual. This therapeutic knowledge is portable. The patient now carries within herself the sense of context and self-exoneration gained in therapy. Access to this new understanding is increasingly linked with the therapist’s stance of understanding and support. With practice, instantiation of an awareness of familiar topics into working memory can help the patient cut short, for example, descent into deflation before it becomes an outright implosion of self-esteem. As mood and personality organization become more stable, shameful states of mind can become less intrusive and compelling. As a result, the shame-prone patient will come to feel more whole, adequate, and essentially deserving to exist.

For more about Mark Zaslav, contact him at

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Blog Disclaimer:

The opinions expressed by the authors are their own and do not reflect the opinions of the Marin County Psychological Association. The information posted on this blog is not intended as, and is not, a substitute for professional mental health services.