Shame, ideals, and identity

The Effect of Scolding and Shaming on the Intensity and Direction of Seeking: The Negative Effect on Identity of Personalizing Shame and Humiliation

In early infancy, fear and fright (Main, 1995), a chase and dodge failure in coordinating face-to-face communication (Beebe, et al., 2010), stillfaced unresponsiveness (Tronick, et al., 1978), and maternal depression are all implicated in insecure attachment and a negative hedonic tone. In his seminal paper on affects, Tomkins (1981) stated that shame functions to inhibit mounting interest, pleasure, excitement, and enthusiasm. Along with its inhibiting effect, shame and scolding directly impact identity - the growing infant’s sense of who he or she is. Timmy is delighted when his daddy picks him up. As Daddy is engaged in talking to Mother, Timmy’s attention turns to Daddy’s glasses, which take on the quality of an irresistibly alluring toy. As Timmy pulls on the glasses. Daddy states an emphatic “No! Naughty!” and pulls Timmy’s hand away. Timmy hides his face in Daddy’s neck, his body drooping.

Mother having left the room for a few minutes, Betty, no longer very hungry, starts to play with her food, mushing it about on her plate and the table. Seeing her little brother enter, she throws a piece at him. On her re-entry, Mother is startled and then, with an angry scold, finger wagging, tells a shame-faced Betty what a bad, bad girl she has been.

Billy starts a playful game of turning his head away as Mother tries to give him his bottle. Mother goes along with the game for a few minutes, then tells Billy to stop it, holds his head and Billy accepts the teat with a downward gaze.

Mother unexpectedly enters Mary’s room to find Mary cooing in her bed as she leisurely rubs her genitals. Seeing mother, she jerks her hand from under the covers as mother gives her a look of embarrassed “oooh.”

What do the parents of Timmy, Betty, Billy, and Mary hope will result from their interventions and their intensity? They hope that now or in response to repeated comparable interventions, their child will develop a signal of shame that has for him or her sufficient amplitude to curtail the amplitude of interest (the glasses), or messing (the food), or the pleasure of opposition (turning the head away), or the excitement of sexual arousal (masturbating). Having the capacity to signal to oneself implicitly or explicitly that “you will be ashamed if you act on that desire” is critical to regulate behavior that would be disadvantageous to the person’s adaptation to live comfortably within his or her skin, family, group, or culture. A child’s listening to his signaling to himself to stop a forbidden or destructive intention triggers an identity narrative: my mother thinks I am a good boy, and I feel it too.

Contemporary research indicates that infants repeatedly scolded and shamed for a particular behavior will anticipate and be hyper-responsive to the negative response of their caretakers. In some instances, a look saying “don’t” from a mother is enough to lead the infant to inhibit the intention and have a shame affect and body-state change. The mother may provide an alternative route for the intention to play out - an optimal response. Or she may reward the infant’s inhibition, saying with it “good boy.” Or the infant, after the scold, will wait for the mother’s attention to be diverted and resume his intention - shame transformed into the pleasure of defiance and being sneaky.

Donald Nathanson (1987) called shame “the underside of narcissism.” What does this mean? In the Freudian tradition narcissism referred to regressive pathological grandiose preoccupation with self. The underside would be shame-filled preoccupation with self. In contrast, Morrison was writing from the perspective of Kohut. In self psychology, narcissism refers to healthy experiences of self-esteem, self-worth, and self-enhancement arising from being affirmed and having a kinship with and connection to admired others. If a person values herself as worthy and experiences her doings with pride, her underlying affect tone will have a generalized hum of heads-up optimism. If a person judges himself as deserving blame and rejection and experiences his doings with shame, his underlying affect tone will have a generalized hum of head-down pessimism.

How we currently construe the affects activated in Oedipal conflicts involves another shift in analytic theory bearing on shame. Freud’s emphasis was largely on guilt and punishment, with very little mention of shame.

Guilt, we would agree, would be triggered by the Oedipal child’s wish to do away with his or her rival parent. To harm or want to harm someone, especially a cared-about or loved parent, would arouse guilt. But other wishes in the Oedipal myth trigger different affects. The little boy comparing his penis with his adult father’s may feel hopeful, excited, and enthusiastic about the future, or inferior, envious, and humiliated. The little girl comparing her genitals with a penis may feel defiantly equal or superior, or she may feel inferior, envious, and humiliated. Comparing her flat chest with her mother’s breasts, she may feel hopeful about the future, or inferior and envious. Both boy and girl wanting what he and she know is forbidden in their family and their culture - sexing with a parent, each other, a boy with a boy, a girl with a girl, and masturbating - will feel mixtures of excitement and shame. In each of these contexts, whether guilt, humiliation, or shame, the result can be a defiant denial of the restrictions of the prohibition. Alternatively, with an underlying affect tone of power common to sociopathic individuals, bouts of shame and inhibition of the urge may trigger resignation, loss, and sadness with an underlying affect tone of lowered vitality and optimism.

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