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I'd like to distinguish two related but functionally different concepts:

  1. State shame, a temporary state of disrupted connection that is marked by sharp mental pain and profound parasympathetic dominance ('dorsal vagal' or 'freeze' reaction) State shame leaves spontaneously as repair occurs. The core of the concept is the bodily state and experience in the moment.
  2. Trait shame or Basic fault, a chronic deficiency in one's sense of legitimacy and goodness that is marked by hyper-defensiveness, avoidance in interpersonal relations, and a disturbed relationship to one's self-interest. The core of the concept is the way of relating, either to tasks or to people in the world

State Shame

State shame is a physiological and emotional reaction. It occurs when one feels a rupture in attachment, especially with important others. State shame is best thought of as an acute painful attachment experience rather than an emotion. In the body, it consists of a feeling of warmth, nausea, red face, tucking the sacrum (tail) in, trying to achieve a C-shape to minimize the body, averting eye contact, and hanging of the head..

The healthy shame state is usually preceded by an over-exuberant state of excitement in which the person 'was carried away' with a goal that intruded on others. When the realization occurs, spontaneously, or from protests, of the harm, the person shifts into this profoundly parasympathetic state, as of way of 'reversing engines'. The harmlessness of a person in the shame state is useful in achieving repair. Usually, offended others are then willing to 'take the person back in' quickly.

The state abates usually within 15 minutes to an hour. The resolution is quicker if repair is possible or achieved, longer if repair has not. There may only be a partial return toward homeostasis if an issue remains unresolved. Embarrassment is state shame invoked by the sudden realization of violating social norms. That is why blushing is associated with embarrassment.

During the state of shame, the tendency is to hide oneself, stay away from loved ones, deny oneself pleasure, and abuse oneself. In a healthy family or community, this elicits the concern of others who insist on the shamed party receiving the opposite, which breaks the shame state emotionally and physically and completes rapprochement.

These days state shame is usually only seen in small children because of the constriction in the autonomic nervous system that is so common in our society. If the physical signs of shame do break through in adulthood they may be confused with a panic attack.

Unfortunately, in a high demand culture like ours, there is a tendency to abuse the docility of the shame state in order to attempt to socialize children. Young children are shamed (threatened with emotional abandonment) for harmless behavior merely in order to get them to conform prematurely to adult goals. That is, children are shamed for natural behavior, and will come to feel permanent shame about their bodies and impulses. Worse yet, reconciliation is deliberately delayed to 'milk' the docility. This abuse of state shame probably has a contribution to the development of basic fault as described below.

Trait Shame or Basic Fault

Basic fault is term coined by a British analyst Michael Balint. It refers to the feeling and belief that one is unacceptable and unaccepted, because one is 'not enough'. The name derives not from an actuality of defect, for that is untrue, but from an erroneous, conscious and unconscious, sense of defect or fault. Basic fault differs from state shame in that instead of parasympathetic dominance, it is built on a baseline shift toward the sympathetic (fight or flight). It comes with a weak core (belly, solar plexus area) that never develops well and is largely unfelt by the mind.

With basic fault, one always feels that one should be different than what one is. The physical correlate is "not being comfortable in one's skin." While often this discomfort is channeled into efforts to 'improve' oneself, these will-based efforts, successful or not, never lead to feeling 'at ease' Despite momentary delight at these improvement efforts, a great deal of distraction and numbing will be employed, if not on a continuous basis, then in between great pushes of achievement efforts. To contrast, in the non-shamed state, growth stems creatively out of desire or purpose, not from fleeing oneself.

Basic fault may come about because state shame has been too much too early, and has experienced a 'blow out.' Basic fault may also arise from failures of nurture that pre-date the capacity for state shame (ie the first two months of life or in utero).

Basic fault is called shame (or shame-based behavior) by many authors probably because of a frequent childhood co-existence with shame-fostering practices in families. In basic fault, shame tendencies of isolating, passivity, self-denial and self harm are pursued, but they cannot be interrupted because, with younger children, the family doesn't work that way, or with older sufferers, the basic fault has become part of the self concept, and others are pushed away.

Sometimes there is 'shameless' behavior that represents unconscious rebellion from the oppressive effect of the basic fault. 'Reversing the engines' and stopping the provocative behavior doesn't happen easily despite strong cues that it is not working. Often drugs or alcohol or other episodically disinhibiting maneuvers are used to facilitate the 'shameless' acting out.

Basic fault more commonly produces many shamed behaviors, and many, many indirect behaviors meant to hide the basic situation. That is, the shamed state is treated as if it is itself shameful. This is an area where many good books and approaches are available from outside the Reich and Lowen tradition. The one caveat is that even when the relational impacts of basic fault (shame) are understood, attempts at correcting oneself cognitively are counter-productive in the long run. That is because being put in the position of trying to perform 'acceptably' was the original bind, and trying to perform acceptability is no better as an adult. Suggestions on real shame-busting follow below after the list of traits.

A key issue is the inability to distinguish fallibility from a character flaw or a moral fault. All humans are fallible, that is, fallibility is not a flaw or a fault. Fallibility cannot be lessened and attempting to do so by vigilance and denial has many damaging effects on relationships. Basic fault drives people to hide or attack their own humanity.

Basic Fault or Chronic Shame Traits

Two Directions of Adaptation

Although the above traits are exhibited by all individuals with basic fault, there is a split in the pattern of over-all relating to others that can be confusing. A small minority of individuals become tyrants, demeaning others, attacking peremptorily, attempting to control others and situations, and refusing all information causing discomfort. (see 'covert' narcissist)

However the majority of people adapt by taking an inferior position, becoming self-doubting, placating, pleasing, self-deprecating, avoidant, and other focusing --nice-guys or nice-girls. Although in this latter group, contentiousness, defensiveness, irritability, and some manipulation is very common, actual results tend toward the submissive and self-effacing.

Being Manipulated by Shame

Individuals following the 'inferiority' adaptation described in the above paragraph unconsciously believe other people are morally superior and respond to disagreement, judgment, belittlement, teasing, opposition, discomfort in others, confidence in others, and anger in others, etc, by feeling defective, shameful, and guilty. They will stop what they are doing and let go of their plans and desires, even when no valid reason has been provided. Potent weapons against individuals carrying a sense of basic fault include both direct accusations and implications that they are 'stupid', 'selfish', 'greedy', 'dirty', 'messy,' 'immature,' and 'weird,' etc. But any disagreement or non-acceptance can have this disabling effect.

Sometimes entire ongoing relationships can be based on being manipulated by shame, either because a 'tyrant' (described in the section above) enters the picture, or because the inferiority-adapted person co-creates such a relationship over time with a more confident person. After all, it is a rare individual who can resist for long the ease of pushing buttons.

Shame Busters