Rage, Shame, and the Death of Love
Rage vs. Anger
Guilt vs. Shame
Empathy and Bonding
Idealization and Devaluation
Concealed deep within the human psyche lies an enduring world, a kingdom which exists and yet is separate from our awareness. Within this shrouded domain reside the remnants of intensely painful experiences that were propelled out of sight for safe keeping. These imprints that were thrown into the unconscious eventually form into a structure that without warning becomes conscious, as if these early experiences were happening in the present moment. From this hidden place comes rage, born out of painful humiliations. This shame shifts our sense of reality and casts a shadow over our experiences with others.
What could be the origin of our tendency to repress pain? The answer may lie in two different areas. First, when an infant experiences acute pain caused from powerful breaks in the emotional connection from parent to child, the intensity is so severe it cannot be emotionally or intellectually processed. Instead these powerful emotions are torn away from consciousness or “split off” from awareness. This splitting occurs because the infant has not formed enough of a self-structure to deal adequately with such feeling states. This unprocessed or disorganized material can be referred to as chaotic or overwhelming. Out of the necessity to make order out of chaos, an internal system forms to manage these elements so that they remain secure and safe from exposure. We refer to this system as the shame/envy/rage/guilt cycle. The second explanation as to why this unconscious system exists may have something to do with a primitive stage of evolutionary development when life was organized around hunting. To survive physical and emotional suffering it may have become necessary to suppress the memory of pain so the hunt could continue. Though we may no longer need this psychological reflex, it remains a force which can cause distortions in our thinking and feeling. This territory of the unconscious endures as a primeval and intensely emotional place, locked away from our conscious minds.
Shame can best be described as an emotional wound to the self for which one blames oneself as if one’s person is the reason. Something like “the reason that I get yelled at is because I am bad.” When personal shame is stimulated by an event that is similar to the original shaming experience, the pain energy converts to rage as it becomes conscious. The shame system operates on its own because we are not in contact with the pain and therefore it appears spontaneously. This pain is organized around sets of values, beliefs, defenses and wishes which translate messages to this private world holding it in or when it cannot be controlled, suddenly releasing it. These vigorous wounds are capable of generating massive shifts of unprocessed pain that can flood the body with fierce rage. As the person matures the force of this energetic rage is often so intense that it blasts out of the unconscious into the world of others.
Shame-wounding from parents and significant others most often begins during infancy and continues throughout life. Because this inner world of shame operates in obscurity it can be characterized as a jungle, wild and primitive. The shift from a shameful stimulation to a rage response is a means of avoiding agony and voiding it at the same time. This constantly expanding jungle of the unconscious produces an enormous amount of negative energy. Rage energy is particularly intense because it is combined with a deep-rooted fear of retaliation and abandonment. The expression of rage mixed with terror is indicative of major emotional breaks occurring at a time when the infant was utterly dependent on the parents for survival. A neglected infant or child cannot risk expressing rage because it may lead to even further loss or abuse. If the suffering from abuse continues for extended periods during childhood the pain will intensify and further develop the shame/rage system.
While growing in secrecy, the child’s shame increases in proportion to the intensity of abuse experienced from the world around him. As the child matures, the rage that has been generated from previous abuse cannot be restrained, and inevitably explodes either toward himself or others.
The four main categories of child abuse are:
- Sexual abuse, such as rape, incest, and/or sexual relations between children and adults;
- Emotional abuse, such as intense criticism or humiliation and the effects of shaming experiences from parents or others;
- Neglect, such as abandonment or long periods of emotional or physical absence;
- Physical violence such as beating, or inflicting physical injury throughout childhood.
Shame and rage are effects of these causes, or emotional responses to these experiences.
The basis for what is referred to in our society as “evil behavior” originates from the shame and rage that developed from experiences of childhood abuse. Case histories of serial killers invariably reveal innumerable instances of intense child abuse from close relatives. The cause and effect of intense abuse causing deep shame resulting in the formation of profound rage is illustrated in the film “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” where the killer describes the horrors of a childhood filled with rage, sexuality and violence. The viewer traces Henry’s violence and rage to his early years through evocative scenes. In one such scene Henry’s mother arrives home with two men for a drunken orgy, while her children and wheel-chair-bound husband look on from the other room. After numerous such experiences the father shoots himself in the head in an act of impotent rage toward his adulterous wife. This experience resounds in the head of Henry. The abuse here is evident in the observing of his mother openly engaging in sex and watching the effect on his father. His love for his father fueled his rage toward his mother and tied it to his sexuality. The identification with the impotence of his father and his urge to retaliate toward his mother was acted out again and again in episodes with women, who he ritually murdered. Thus, Henry’s extreme expression of rage is linked not only with his childhood pain, but also to a disturbed relationship with sexuality.
Rage then is the messenger of shame, the communicator of this inner world to others. Upon closer examination, one of the intentions of rage is to create a kind of empathy in order to manifest in the “other” how we feel. Rage becomes a primal or primitive attempt to reconstruct a broken emotional bond. Rage operates as a mechanism to empty out “bad self” or shameful feelings from within the psyche. Rage, while conceived from an effort to connect, to correct an injustice or insult, causes great emotional consequences, namely that it is alienating, destructive, and inflicts pain on others. If this negative energy is directed inward, it is experienced as masochistic self-criticism and self-loathing. If it is directed outward, it is manifested as sadistic onslaughts that resemble primitive revenge. Rage is ultimately a formula for failure often taking on ritualistic or compulsive patterns of behavior that the person is unable to control. The problems that it may aim to correct may never be resolved.
To fully understand the concept of shame and its complexity, some specific definitions will be offered throughout the text.
The word “shame” originates from the Teutonic root word “skem” which means “to cover oneself.” Shame is an intense reaction to the pain of humiliation and necessitates deception to keep it concealed. For shame to be exposed could mean more humiliation and that would feel intolerable. For example, if a child grows up in a home where he feels unloved, neglected and worthless, he would feel ashamed of his own shame and would need to hide this knowledge from others and even himself. The pain he feels about his worth would create massive fear and anxiety about being abandoned by his parents. In order to keep the hope of being worthy of his parents love he may try to be perfect as an attempt at redemption. In this way he would need to form a public perfect self and live a private hell that would operate quite contrary to one another. Many of us live in varying degrees of this kind of secrecy, both within and toward the world. An example of this behavior would be characterized in a child who was raised by parents who were alcoholic and depressed. The abusive alcoholic parent may be critical or physically abusive and the other parent being depressed would not protect the child from the abuse. The child would then feel helpless, weak, worthless and inadequate. He would also be incredibly rageful but have no one to direct it toward but himself. This circumstance would create massive shame and intense defenses to ward off the dangerous rage that he felt toward his parents.
Shame wounds that occur as a result of child abuse whether from neglect, violence, sexual abuse, humiliation, betrayal or abandonment are often subsumed into a child’s self image. These experiences produce “bad self” feelings and are felt as self-loathing, inadequacy, powerlessness, weakness, and worthlessness. Shame is so often experienced as a sinking feeling, a wish to disappear or hide. Shame is metaphorically the fear of being caught with one’s pants down. We protect ourselves from feeling shame through defense mechanisms that oppose the original shame feeling. These defenses can be observed in behavior such as self-righteousness, grandiosity, perfectionism, devaluing of others or as a defense against shame by acting need-less, selfless, or disingenuous. We may also observe some people whose behavior seems directly opposed to the true nature of their shame or insecurities. This seeming confidence is observed in: exhibitionists, grandstanders, posers, and those who need to constantly be the center of attention.
To better understand what causes shame, Maurice J. Barry Jr., most eloquently describes what kinds of experience creates these emotional wounds.
In the genesis of the shame reaction, the parent’s attitude toward the child is one of angry rejection of the child himself. The parent fears and rejects the child’s dependency and masks the fear with anger. Punishment is used in the form of humiliation and the parent takes the transgression as evidence of the innate badness on the part of the child. The “badness” on dispassionate examination turns out to be a common human impulse (such as needs). But the parent attacks the child’s right to such an impulse and thus degrades the child’s self concept. This includes threats of abandonment and is followed by an angry separation of the parent and child. The child, through repetitive similar onslaughts, is forced into the humiliating attitude of being worth less than the parent is worth. He fears abandonment, fears his own resentment, and suffers a decrease in confidence in his own capacities. All this is most painful, but since the child is held at a distance and finally left alone by the still angry parent, the child must resolve the tensions by himself and with himself in painful solitude.
Sylvan Tompkins, a neurologist proposes a physiological explanation for shame. He describes a neural pathway in the brain for shame. He believes that shame is a universal condition shared by all human beings. He further asserts that these shame neural pathways are also linked to joy and pleasure. Tomkins’ theory concludes that people are most acutely sensitive or “shame prone” when they are joyous and vulnerable. There is comfort in knowing that we are not alone.
Shame causes positive side effects as well. One of the beneficial elements appears to be a byproduct of the fear of being cast out of our family, group or culture. We endeavor to avoid the shame of exclusion by conforming to our cultural values and behaving in a manner that engenders culturally sanctioned approval. The urge to belong, not shamed, to want our family to be proud of our achievements is a positive component of shame. This desire to avoid shame encourages people to make efforts toward being accepted into the larger culture even to strive toward greatness. Herein lies an element of human nature; avoiding pain is often an incentive in directing our lives toward more positive goals that are difficult and sometimes fearful.
The eminent psychological theorist Heinz Kohut has observed that every child has two chances at emotional health. If they do not form a bond with the mother, they have another chance for an emotional connection with the father. The infant develops his basic temperament and identity through interactions and emotional connections with parents and significant caretakers. Building a healthy identity is a complex task and requires a considerable focus on the self. In developing healthy self-esteem, children strive to be at the center of family life and thus need to be egocentric or self-centered. The effect of childhood egocentrism in adult behavior often results in goal-directed ambition, healthy self-esteem, interests, hobbies, appropriate career choices, and feelings of self worth.
Children need to concentrate on themselves so that the typical developmental stages of identity-formation will be completed. Thus, negative emotional experiences during childhood disrupt the natural developmental process and create a deficit. This gap in the normal process produces more shame because the person believes that they are to blame for the deficiency in their identity and abilities. For example, if a child feels secure with his environment he feels free to venture out and explore. This activity produces both knowledge and curiosity, which will make the child a better student, more likely to prepare for career and life choices. Children who are mediators between warring family members who are experiencing profound emotional pain or a myriad of other issues (like alcohol, drugs or illness) cannot afford to spend time on themselves. Children who miss out on developmental task completion are often aimless by the time they reach adulthood. They are confused because they do not know what they have missed out on and blame themselves because they cannot understand why they are living out their life in a dead end job. Many of us know people who seem perpetually stuck in their self-centered childhood. What we are witnessing are people who were never able to complete the normal processes during childhood. These prerogatives would include learning the developmental imperatives that are required to move onto the next stage. Erik Erikson, the renowned developmental psychologist described eight stages of human development. The first stage being Basic trust vs. Basic mistrust and the outcome being drive and hope. If this stage is never reached and resolved, a person’s ability to trust, their sense of possibilities and drive would be disturbed. Other stages of development involve willpower, direction and purpose, method and competence, devotion and fidelity, affiliation and love.
Identification with one’s parents is the precursor to identity formation. All children identify with their parents because imitation is the primary mechanism the infant utilizes to learn language, proper behavior, and how to survive in the world. Children who feel that their parents are interested in them cultivate the ability to develop their talents without the terror of failing. One might imagine for a moment what a child feels like, looking up at parents who appear to be “gods,” who actively pay attention by loving, listening, and helping. Imagine the opposite of that situation and what effect that might have on a developing psyche. When we consider the factors which are fundamental to emotional health, it is obvious that this kind of quality attention helps to bolster the self-esteem of infants and children. If neglected, children become depressed. Statistics have demonstrated that abused children most often become child abusers. If they experience violence and sexual abuse as children, they become physically and sexually violent adults. Parents who experienced intense shaming in their childhood cannot be expected to behave in a healthy manner toward their children. The awesome power of identification is demonstrated by people who suffer terrible child-abuse, and eventually transfer the same abuse they received onto their own children.
Parents who are non-responsive, neglectful, raging, and are particularly controlling, especially concerning feeding and affection, produce helpless rage in their infant. When parents punish their infant/child for crying, being hungry, needy and clinging or express unrealistic expectations of what the infant “should” be they will cause the child/infant to believe that her needs are bad. The parents may want the infant to be a “good baby” i.e. clean, obedient or sharing with her other siblings at a time when it is not developmentally possible. Parents who see their infant as an intrusion or resent its presence, create a feeling of shame. This feeling will eventually form into part of the child’s identity. Infants cannot distinguish outside from inside. So when they feel shamed they internalize the pain as a part of the self. The rage resulting from this kind of rejection is now attached to a set of dependency needs or experiences that were shamed and are propelled into the unconscious forming into a shame/envy/rage/guilt system that will operate in secrecy. This system then functions as an influence over thinking and feeling.
Recent psychological theoretical thinking places the origins of shame within the first two years of life, before the self or identity has entirely formed. An infant by definition is absolutely dependent on his parents for food, shelter, love and is consequently quite vulnerable to injury at this sensitive period of time. Ideally, parents interpret the infant’s cries to decide what needs are being expressed, and then respond appropriately to satisfy the infant with food, affection, or comforting. Under optimal circumstances, loving parents form an empathic bond as they hold, gaze, cuddle and interact with their infant. The infant senses the parent’s attention and thus feels secure. The emotional bond which develops during this time is considered by Margaret Mahler and Mary Ainsworth to be an empathic attachment or symbiosis. The ability of parents to respond to the infant’s needs for affection and food enables the infant to feel secure to explore her world. When an infant does not sense that her parents are empathically connected she will feel less safe and will consequently have a difficult time separating and exploring. If the infant’s source of protection is insecure, she will feel unprotected and by necessity cling to the parent for safety. This kind of instability limits the infant’s ability to concentrate on forming an identity. Infants and children who experience the lack of a parental interest feel unimportant. When children are criticized, they feel “bad” about themselves. Parents who ignore their children make them feel worthless. When parents do not respond to the cries of their infant, they create in them a feeling of being powerless. The most common indicators of shame wounds in adult behavior are: self-criticism, phoniness, shyness, perfectionism, and approval seeking.
An important component in healthy development is for parents to teach their children how the world works, as well as how to interact with others in it. If a child matures into adult life without coping skills, good modeling of positive adult problem-solving behavior, empathy or well-developed values, he will eventually come to feel that there is something wrong with him. All children imitate their parents as the central method in learning to survive. Unfortunately, this identification also includes bad behavior as well as good.
Identification with the shaming or raging parent creates a raging adult who repeats the same process often without much control or choice. The aftermath of a raging incident is intense guilt and is followed by efforts at contrition or in extreme cases suicide. The power of this condition is so vehement that entire methods of thought and action are invented as a means of expelling the intense pressure that shame and rage produce. One could postulate that hate groups are an excellent example of the creation of a consistent method for the release of rage.
Anger can be described as a secondary response to the primary experiences of pain, fear, sadness, frustration and guilt. Anger, as opposed to raging, is a conscious reaction to primary feelings in response to something tangible. Anger will tend to dissipate after an apology, contrition or recognizing the source of the anger. Anger can be difficult to locate because we may not be connected to where it is coming from, but it is about something in the real world.
Rage is most often produced from a perception of “rejected love.” When an adult experiences rejection, the shame of the infant emerges as rage stemming from the memory of forsaken love or the shamed desire to make an attachment. The ultimate result from the frustrated desire to connect and this now despised urge to love evokes destructive feelings that attack the very thing that is desired, often precipitating an inevitable death of love. Rage is aroused by an event that mirrors a primary emotional injury. This stimulation that is similar to the original event evokes intense emotional memories. When these memories merge with shame experiences, the reaction can be violent.
Rage may have several intentions, to magically change the other, to create in the other person a shame feeling that is inside as a form of empathy, to communicate through rage in order to penetrate the other in a powerful way, or to seek revenge, as in: “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”
The probable origins of bulimia, anorexia, and agoraphobia can then be linked to the shaming of basic impulses. With the bulimic the rage toward the self is swallowed in an orgy of hunger and expelled violently in vomiting the bad shame laden food linked with shamed basic hunger. With the anorexic it is the body that is filled with shame, then wastes away with the elimination of shame. With agoraphobia the shame is with the world that will humiliate, reject and injure, which can be understood as a projection of the rage out to the world and back toward the self.
When shameful feelings are linked to the need for affection, fear, denial and inhibition may appear. An example of shame related to getting needs met could be seen in a person who believes they are unselfishly giving of themselves with the secret intention that the other will return their giving with affection. When the receiver does not respond with appreciation and affection the giver flies into a rage. The perpetrator believes he is unselfish and does not see where the shame is operating. They truly believe that their intentions are altruistic. The reason for this is related to the idea that the shame/rage exits as if on an “island” within the psyche, apart from the self yet still connected. If shame is stimulated through rejection or humiliation, whether in fantasy or reality, powerful rage explodes from this island toward what is seen as the perpetrator. The cause and effect of this pain being apart from conscious awareness revolve around the notion that the outside world becomes a part of the interior original “bad self” feeling. The projection of this rage pain onto others is the hallmark of the shame/rage condition. In this way rage operates as a paranoid process, shifting in a fundamental distortion causing the perpetrator to believe that they are entitled to their rage. This license to rage exists because the person believes that he is the victim and therefore becomes the aggressor. The sado-masochistic character of shame/rage is evident in extremely violent behavior. The effects of rage and shame are seen in a disgruntled employee who empties his gun into what he believes are his enemies only to turn the gun on himself moments later. The chain of shame/envy/rage/guilt either toward the self or others transpires instantly, distorting reality to fit an unconscious need to rid the self of the shame/envy/rage. Once the rage is dissipated the reality becomes clear again and the recognition of what has happened becomes intolerable, stimulating guilt, rage and shame which is then directed at the self.
Christopher Bollas defines shame as an “unthought known.” What he means by the term is that on some level we know about our shame but we are too ashamed to reflect on it. The presence of shame compels us to hide it because the pain is so acute. Shame conceals itself from conscious recognition, because identifying it inflames the original wound, and it is instinctual for the mind and body to avoid pain. Human beings like all mammals and animals naturally avoid pain and move toward safety and security. The person who believes himself to be inferior, worthless, weak and powerless does not want to know this about himself because he does not want to acknowledge that it is true. To acknowledge the truth of his shame might stimulate feelings of self-hatred or abandonment terror.
Shame pathology is so intense, and generates such powerful negative feelings toward the self, that the shamed individual is unable to derive self-esteem from within. This means that most, if not all, access to self-esteem must be sought through contact with others. The result is that the person who is unable to feel good about himself will engage in relationships with others that seem to represent a cure for shame. Poor self-esteem is another term for shame feelings. The process of acquiring this kind of self-esteem from an intimate relationship occurs when the person meets someone that to him represents a fantasy of redemption. The abiding fantasy that one day someone will appear to release him from his shame. This fantasy can never be realized. No person can ever save another from his shame. When someone believes in this redemptive fantasy, it develops into a recipe for rage. For example, a man marries and yet feels deep within himself that he is inadequate and that no one could ever really love him. The origin of this feeling evolves out of a lonely childhood and develops into a fantasy of redemption that soothes him during the long hours of isolation. He has an image of someone who will appear someday to meet all his needs, deeply love him, and deliver him from his shame and loneliness. This condition is referred to as the “Golden Fantasy.” His wife feels trapped by his expectation that she will save him. She must constantly prove to him that she loves him, and when on occasion she fails, he rages. All of her efforts to please, to sacrifice, to be good to him, will evaporate in a moment of rage. She cannot win because she cannot live up to the ideal. There is no possible way to become the ideal because it is based on a fantasy. The rage energy builds until it cannot be contained and spills out through the conduit of entitlement. He feels entitled to rage because she has failed to demonstrate her love for him in accordance with his redemptive fantasy. The surprising quality of rage is that the perpetrator so often does not sense the power of the emotion itself. Because rage is unconscious and automatically stimulated, it can actually bypass consciousness through entitlement. This circumstance often leads to more raging because he may feel the reaction he is getting is unjust.
Adults experiencing rage typically feel that its origin is “out there.” They believe their anger is caused by the “other,” when it is really being stimulated from within. Indicators of shame and rage behavior or their defenses can be noted in domestic violence, racism, perversions, eating disorders, and major depression. It can be said that shame is the core issue forming the nucleus of most personality disorders. Each person responds differently to their personal sense of shame, but when Shakespeare wrote “Out damned spot!” he was referring to a common theme about shame, an emotional stain on one’s soul.
The phenomena of rage can be described as a psychological distortion based on the force of a primal shame wound. The active rage state customizes reality to create a means of expulsion. To illustrate, rage alters reality in a similar way that sexual excitement alters perception in the excitement phase before orgasm. Rage is produced by an active shame wound which exerts force from the pain that the person experiences from a negative act or a perceived negative act. Active shame pain feels like anxiety, fear, agitation, torment, depression or anger. There are several stages that precede rage within the person who is experiencing it. First, one may feel a rising tension inside through an experience that the person believes is shaming. Secondly, the mind reacts to this rising tension by unconsciously and automatically searching for an object to purge the system of the “toxic” shame. At this point the object could be anything from an anonymous person who cuts another off in traffic, to a wife who serves the dinner cold, or to a crying child. Thirdly, the psyche invents a rationalization to create a means to an end. The means to an end is identified as “entitlement to rage” or the switch that legitimizes the purging of shame from the psychic system. Rage is the ignition that propels the shame out of the structure and into the world of others. Since the shame/envy/rage/guilt system is the remnant of a regressed infantile wound it is pre-moral and without boundaries. The expelling of rage is a great relief to the pressure that rage produces from within the psyche.
“Shame-prone” individuals are quite fragile emotionally because they have given the authority for feeling good about themselves to someone else. Essentially, the forfeiting of one’s own responsibility for self-esteem, burdens the relationship with pressure both to be the savior and to be continually ideal.
To invest the power over one’s self-esteem to another produces destructive envy. Envy about the power we assign to another produces a desire to destroy the other and therefore the pain. Envy is at first converted into a reality by assigning the authority over self-approval to another and supporting the deeply held belief that the other has a capability they do not. To destroy the other has significance both to annihilate needs and to take back the power one has lost in investing the self-esteem potential in the other. Rage then responds to a deeper pain than anger. Envy stimulates shame and rage because the person believes that others are more adequate.
Envy is the feeling that someone else has something we lack. Envy causes pain because it arouses the shame of deficiency, weakness and worthlessness. It also engenders rage against the pain, as it attempts to destroy aspects of the object that are envied. The person who envies wishes to obliterate the source of envy as they seek to eliminate it within themselves. Investing this power in others relieves the shamed person of the responsibility for maintaining his own self-esteem, thus protecting himself from the fearful consequences of failure and rage toward the self. When others fail or even reject the attempts at redemption, rage or obsessional thinking may be directed at the unsuspecting “other” in an effort to control or change them to reconstruct or hold onto the source of self-esteem nurturing. A component of rage is a magical intention to reconstruct the fantasy. The raging person believes that their rage will magically change the other into their ideal. This intention fails because the victim of this treatment feels like an object, overvalued, overwhelmed and in some sense invisible. This notion would seem obvious to the casual observer but not to the person who is raging. They do not understand why their wife or children do not want to be around them. Obsessional thinking is tied to rage but is a distraction the psyche invents to avoid the terror of abandonment and the great depth of the shame agony.
The best defense against envy is to devalue the love object. To devalue the other person is to destroy the desire to need the other. In order to strip the other of their power to save us, and to protect against humiliation, rejection, failure and shame, we devalue them. When this person no longer holds value for us, we can eliminate shameful needs and take back the power that was lost in feeling inadequate. Obsession operates as a defense against profound fear, suicidal urges and deep shame concerning adequacy. In this way obsession attempts to hold onto a love object in fantasy to attempt to repair the lost connection and to keep the powerful unwanted feelings down. Obsession when unchecked can convert into violent fantasies which can be acted out.
Rage that is generated out of envy feels entirely justified. The person who is envied has held the power and has failed. Thus, those that envy respond to these failures with a sense of entitlement. The progression from inner shame to outward rage occurs instantly but is temporary in nature. The consequences of the resulting violence, however can be permanent. The pronounced effect of destructive rage is remarkable because it is boundless. It is a wild beast that can rip out the hearts of our loved ones.
Guilt stems from a different source than shame. While the reference point of shame is the self, the reference points of guilt are the actions of the individual. Shame is about the self while guilt refers to the activity of the self. While an act of guilt can be eliminated by changing the activity which causes the feeling of guilt, shame remains as an active personality trait. If a person believes that he is bad the feeling is that he was born that way, whereas with guilt it involves a value or an action, that can be changed. The activity can be eliminated, but the self remains. Guilt is connected to a behavior that is in opposition to a moral or ethical value system. Guilt attends to an activity, past or present, something a person does that has caused the guilty feeling. In ceasing the guilty activity, the guilt is usually relieved. In the case of child abuse the person may feel both guilt and shame. The child feels guilty about the act and ashamed for having been violated. In this kind of circumstance if the person is able to accept their innocence at the time of the experience, the guilt can be alleviated. Adult victims of child abuse tend to feel especially guilty because as children they believed that they were somehow responsible for the reprehensible behavior of the perpetrator. Since childhood is considered to be an egocentric period of development, children feel responsible for whatever is happening to them, either positive or negative.
Although guilt is very powerful and complex it is often relieved through the simple process of confession. Confession seems to neutralize guilt by giving the confessor some kind of forgiveness or understanding. Self-mutilation, flagellation and masochism are most often guilt related because guilt is relieved through punishment. The person feels that they have committed a sin or moral break and punishment is a source of relief for the bad act.
Guilt also represents a higher-order moral development because one must have a set of morals to even feel guilt. For this reason, guilt develops at a later developmental period than shame. Nevertheless, shame and guilt are frequently found operating together. They may coexist as “I feel guilty for what I have done, and I did it because I am bad.”
While shame represents a primitive wound which is generated very early in development, before the existence of a moral system, guilt develops in relation to a learned sense of what is acceptable behavior. From this we can extrapolate that shame although related to the self corresponds to basic impulses like hunger, need, sexuality and identity. For this reason the bond that develops between parents and children becomes critical in the development of healthy self-esteem and the sense that one is able to get needs met and what one wants from the world.
Empathy is often confused with sympathy. Sympathy is a condition of being in “sync” with the other person forming an emotional bond. Sympathy is defined by Webster’s Dictionary as:
Harmony of or agreement in feeling, as between persons or on the part of one person with respect to another, the harmony of feeling existing between persons of like tastes or opinion or of congenial dispositions, the ability to share the feelings of another, especially in sorrow or trouble, compassion, and commiseration.
Unlike sympathy which is emotionally based, empathy includes intellectual reasoning and is defined as the ability to grasp the experience of the other, which may or may not involve feelings.
Robert Katz defines empathy as: “the projection of one’s own personality into that of another in order to understand him better.” Theodore Reik defines empathy as a four-step process:
- Identification, the experience of projecting ourselves into the identity of another.
- Incorporation, which involves taking the experience of the other into ourselves.
- Reverberation, getting the feel for the experience through “vicarious cognition,” which may lead to new insights.
- Detachment, which is withdrawal from the other in order to gain “reason and scrutiny” through a more objective perspective.
Heinz Kohut described empathy as the ability to put ourselves into the mind of another, which he defines as “vicarious introspection.”
The bond between infant and mother requires compassion, empathy, sympathy and love which is strong and healthy. The infant experiences a “primary empathy” with the mother, a oneness, or fusion, a feeling of being in the same emotional space with the mother. This attachment, or empathic bond, is critical in the formation of identity and defines the basic personality structure for developing and maintaining significant relationships throughout life.
Empathy can have two intentions – one is the desire for the other person to understand how we feel, and the second is to comprehend how the other person feels. As stated, rage expresses a kind of search for empathy or symbolic effort to create in the other the pain that one feels or a kind of search for empathy but in only one direction. The act of rage delivers the internalized shame, but it is not a true empathic connection; it is a bond of pain. To understand that rage is an attempt to form an empathic bond helps the person who experiences rage to feel less ashamed and not as defensive toward seeing the origin of their rage with more clarity.
The child who experiences empathy identifies with these kinds of encounters and continues these behavior patterns with significant others in adulthood. However, if his parents failed to make an empathic attachment, or instead made rageful connections, he will yearn for empathic attachments but will lack the ability to achieve them. This concept perhaps explains why couples resist methods of eliminating rage in their relationship. They do not fight because they enjoy it, but because it is the only means available to create a powerful connection.
Empathic failures during childhood do not entirely rule out the possibility of having empathic experiences as adults. Adults who become aware of themselves and are knowledgeable about empathy can learn to develop these bonds. This task usually requires some support from a competent therapist because of the tricky nature and profound sensitivity of shame wounds. The strength of personal connections however, are often fragile. A mini-break in empathy will tend to sever the connection because shame-prone individuals have great difficulty sustaining a connection during such breaks. Shame-prone individuals desire love, but their efforts frequently backfire as they fly into a rage and uncontrollably break the connection. These rages refer out from infantile wounds lying deep below the surface producing pain and anxiety which builds until it must tear away from or destroy the connection with the other.
For children to understand the meaning of their feelings and needs, parents must verbalize that meaning to them. Parental empathy, communication and behavior build the child’s capacity to articulate needs, desires, fears and anxieties as well as the mechanisms for soothing and satisfying. This empathic soothing process enables children to express their needs and form healthy boundaries as adults. The ability to form boundaries and structure identity is consistent with the quality and quantity of interactions with parents and other significant adults. If a child experiences rejection after rejection each time a need or want is expressed to his parents, these impulses become “linked” to the pain of shame and rage. These empathic breaks stemming from rejected needs and wants develop into idealized beliefs that significant others “should” know our wants and needs as a defense against the fear of rejection.
Two of the most powerful defenses that shame produce are idealization and devaluation. The intensity of idealized fantasies is directly proportional to the severity of isolation and loneliness that were experienced during infancy and childhood. In order to keep the rage and pain that shame generates safe and out of sight, the child concocts potent fantasies which operate as a defense against the deeper and more dangerous rage. Idealized childhood fantasies mature into romantic adult ideals that erupt into rage when these standards are not met.
Idealization pacifies the infant from the agony of isolation. When an infant is alone for too long, he may conjure an image of his mother to comfort him in her absence. This calming process is a normal developmental task and continues to evolve throughout life. However, if the infant experiences intense neglect, absence, or loss, he develops much more intense fantasies to ward off the fear of abandonment and rage. In this way the protective idealized fantasies not only comfort the infant, but also defend against expressing the rage which would result in causing the feared abandonment. The infant intuitively dreads that his mother will retreat even more if he dares to express his rage. This unconscious wish to fulfill the unrequited love continues in an abiding desire to complete what is incomplete, the acquiring of the fantasy mother in others, in order to vindicate the original loss. The shamed infant, having matured into an adult, will transfer this fantasy image to a love interest, child, or friend and will ultimately re-experience the original and inevitable disappointment. This causes the rage to break open from under the cover of idealization. His rage feels legitimate because his love object has failed to fulfill his redemptive fantasy. The regressed infant remains a force in the adult, amending reality without the person being fully aware that it is happening.
Children who experience neglect are in conflict about dependency needs. These needs can best be described as the natural desire to be nurtured, to belong, to be attached to a love object or a person who satisfies one’s needs. The best way to defend oneself against dependency needs is to devalue the importance of the other, or to devalue one’s own needs. By doing this, one is protected from needing anyone and therefore shielded form the possibility of humiliation or rejection. The defense against need can be accomplished in two ways: first, by devaluing the other for not living up to the ideal, and secondly, by making oneself grandiose and superior to the other. An adult whose parents were rejecting, uncaring and distant, will turn the tables and make himself superior to others, protecting himself from more of the same kind of treatment. The shame inside is so painful that devaluing others avoids the pain of feeling inferior.
Idealization begins as a means of coping with the pain of loneliness and progresses into such a fear of being rejected that the person is unable to make proper connections and through devaluation insures the very aloneness that they wish to be redeemed from. The end result is to remain emotionally desolate, languishing in the grandiosity of one’s own devaluations, either from envy or from the fear of dependency, ever searching in vain for the lost maternal care.
The inevitable consequence of the shame cycle is that instead of developing empathy or communication, it leaves in its wake, pain, fear, hatred, distrust and the certain death of love. Others are at the mercy of a violent act that they often do not understand. The conversion from shame to rage transpires in an instant, and cannot be understood until long after the raging ceases. Once the rage poison is dissipated and calm is restored, the perpetrator may feel tremendous sadness, remorse or guilt. So often these feelings come too late. If shame is the poison, then rage is its agent of dispersal, the transmitter of justice from messages that rage sends from the primal shame distortion. If rage is the symptom, then the pain of abuse is surely the cause. It is reasonable to assume that if violence, pain, and the paucity of empathy are the causes of shame and rage, then healthy, loving and empathic relationships are what cures. If knowing oneself is the key to personal understanding then it is clear that resistance to awareness must be overcome to become truly empathic and insightful.
Just as love binds us together, we know that hate drives us apart. Hate can be described as a constant state of rage. If health can be acquired through developing the balance of mental, emotional, physical and spiritual activities, then healing shame in the individual is the secret to finding a truly healthy emotional life. It seems that what ails humanity is “original shame” or the original sin of the shame wound which destroys the ability to feel compassion and empathy for all life forms. If we can heal the rage and shame that constricts our human potential and causes such destruction, perhaps we can obliterate this cancer of the soul. The most important element in the process of curing shame is to take responsibility for it. We need to see, look and understand how it effects our spirit and how we direct it at others. Gershon Kaufman writes:
Even though the aftermath of shame can be severe, the way to a self-affirming identity yet lies in the deeply human capacity to be fully restored, in the knowledge that one individual can restore the interpersonal bridge with another however late it may be and in the awareness that human relationships are reparable. Through such restoring of the bridge, shame is transcended. The significant other who was involved in the original shame-inducing experiences need not be the one who must restore the bridge. Someone new who later becomes significant, friend, colleague, or therapist, can become that person.
What Kaufman eloquently describes is true of shame. It is after all the dearth of human interaction that creates a shame wound. It would seem logical to assume that the cure for shame lies uniquely in the quality of our connections with others. If humiliation and neglect created the original wound then the cure would lie in empathy and love. The cure for shame is to finally unmask it and retrieve it from the jungle of the unconscious. If there is one factor that represents the most essential quality of human life, it is attachment. Loving attachments produce health. Rage is actualized from damaged attachments.
Importantly, there is a cure for shame, rage and the death of love. If a shamed person works to create attachments to healing people, brings the rage locked within the unconscious out into the light to be seen, looked at and understood, then what was once a system that operated on its own will be worked out. There will remain always a residue of pain because we cannot entirely separate ourselves from experience. To work out shame means that it will ultimately not interfere with our ability to form reliable and loving attachments.
The story of “Beauty and the Beast” well-illustrates the theme of this article. What was once a beast filled with rage becomes the prince when at last he is loved for whom he is inside. In this way we can all understand what makes us beautiful. It is after all love that forges beauty. It is compassion and acceptance that create health and heals the wounds of the soul created by shame and rage.
Important steps must be taken to discover what lies hidden inside us, to look into the origins of our pain, and to explore how, where, when and why the original wounding occurred. Then, and most important, we must learn to embrace our wounds. This embrace means that we keep the wound close to our hearts, and neutralize the poison. The antidote to shame is to become a support toward ourselves. To be an advocate toward the harsh voices from within will lead to a cure for shame. To actualize such a revolution takes time. We must learn to sense the hurt child inside, accept that something did happen to us, and respect our good intentions to process our pain, even if some of those methods do not seem to work at first. The secret to the cure for shame lies in our ability to relate to ourselves and others with compassion, respect, understanding, empathy and acceptance.
As long as we are unable to see or understand how our shame shape, shades our reality, distorting what we see, we will never be free of it. If we are able to reveal the beast within and expose ourselves to our deepest shame, we will ultimately come to understand how it affects what we see. Charles Van Den Berg writes that psychology is the “science of loneliness,” and surely what grows in the heart of the lonely child is shame and rage.
Finally, we must conclude that we need each other, not just for solace, companionship, love and caring, but for the insight that we share with one another. We cannot eliminate what we cannot see. It is through honest, accepting and nonjudgmental relationships that we are able to behold ourselves clearly and to lead each other from darkness. Only then can we allow the child to flow naturally into a fully actualized adult.
“Rage, Shame and the Death of Love” Copyright © 1998 William Cloke, Ph.D.