Shame, the Invisible Affect

Shame, an Archetypal Affect in Psychoanalytic Process

The presence of any of the archetypal affects helps us recognize a complex has been activated in an individual.

Affects occur usually where adaptation is weakest, and at the same time they reveal the reason for its weakness, namely a certain degree of inferiority and the existence of a lower level of personality. On this lower level with its uncontrolled or scarcely controlled emotions one . . . [is] singularly incapable of moral judgment. (Carl Jung, Aion, CW 9ii, par. 15.)

There is a hint of a judgmental attitude in this passage, for the intolerable affects are archetypal realities just like the great mother, the trickster and the messiah.  In Jung’s contempt for the affects, which many other passages also reveal, the definition of this passage can actually be turned around on him. Within a contemptuous attitude lies hidden a complex driven by shame.  Lest you find this claim shocking, it is neither new nor original.  In her book Masculine Shame, Mary Ayers has rendered portraits of both Freud and Jung and demonstrated their incapacity to carry shame, persuasively pointing out the impact of this issue on the development of psychoanalysis.

Shame, Toward a Working Definition

With this backdrop in place, I want here to explore the archetypal affect shame.  In Stewart’s theoretical synthesis of the archetypal affects he provides an interesting insight. The experience of rejection and alienation result in a dual affect: contempt/shame.  It’s as if these form the two sides of the same coin as they rip through our culture.

Similar in dynamic to sadomasochism (from a psychological perspective), contempt/shame and the disgust it engenders pervasively disrupt the functioning of consciousness on a collective level.  Racism, misogyny, homophopbia, religious and political extremism, homelessness; all types of exclusion, bullying, and disdain for others find their roots in this deeply embedded archetypal reality.

While the hatred of contempt is often overt and visible, even in the subtle signal of a slightly lifted chin while passing by a homeless individual on a city street, the wounds of the shame carrier often stay hidden in the recesses of soul.  Especially in those whose contempt is leaking out all over the place.

And shame, while somewhat on an experiential continuum with guilt, is significantly distinct from it.  Guilt arises when we have done something wrong.  Shame is rooted in the perception not that what I have done is wrong, but who I am is wrong. The alienation of all abandonment, as well as the accumulated effect of neglect and abuse of all sorts, indicate the presence of the dark tar pit of shame constellated in the unconscious.

Psychoanalysis and Shame

When working with individuals in psychoanalysis on the parental complexes, in my experience the constellation of contempt/shame is by for the most prevalent affect in the process.  Due to it’s alienating nature, shame needs to be coaxed into the field. Embodied it is often nauseating.  Counter-transferential somatic symptoms like nausea, an upset stomach and acid reflux in the analyst during session (if no other likely personal factors would give rise to these symptoms) can signal an attempt by shame to enter the process.

Working with shame is a slow difficult dance.  At an archetypal level, far beyond the storms of fear, the valleys of grief and the towering infernos of rage, the rejections of all ages fill unfathomably wide and surrounding oceans of shame.

I am a firm believer that until we collectively begin to take some responsibility for shame on the individual level, the cultural ills outlined above will continue on as unsolvable social riddles.

Author: Richard Reeve

I'm the Senior Director of Development at Panthera, a global conservation organization committed to stemming the population decline of cats in the wild. I enjoy rural living with my wife Judith and our two children in the Catskill Mountains of New York.