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Shame On You

Shame and pride are second order emotions. They are really emotions that are about other emotions. Shame is an inborn script that attenuates the positive effects of interest, excitement, or joy. It is called into play when there is something problematic with the expression of these positive emotions, a kind of “you’ve gone too far,” or other serious mismatch of expectations to events. When you are in the midst of interest or enjoyment, shame or humiliation will reduce them. Your head droops, your eyes look down, you blush, you can’t talk, and you may cover your mouth or face to hide your appearance. Any interference with the usual gradients of the positive emotions may sound the alarm

Shame is a painful affect which pulls you away from whatever might have been exciting or enjoyable, whenever desire outruns fulfillment. To the degree that we are capable of pleasure, shame is the necessary obverse. You are intruding, you have gone too far, your exclusion has hurt someone, you should mind your own business, your actions are offensive. Shame is confusing, it is hard to process what is going on, you find it hard to comprehend and you want to simply hide or flee. Shame reduces your interest or enjoyment when it may not be safe for you to continue. So it is an important adaptation for a complex and highly social organism. In producing confusion and withdrawal, it is a retraction of your boundaries. Just as pride is the opposite, and extends you outward, you want to share, you want to be seen and enjoyed. Shame makes you smaller, it limits intimacy and empathy, and even interferes with cognition, so it may also be building the boundary with the unconscious, as it keeps you from going there, from thinking about it. Most commonly, it follows a moment of exposure, uncovers aspects of our lives that are peculiarly sensitive, intimate, and vulnerable. It is the loss of face, the forfeit of social position that we fear most. While sometimes called the self-relevant emotions, I believe the self is actually constructed from experiences of shame and pride. These are the emotions that build and monitor our experienced boundaries. So what does this have to do with love? A lot. I’ll focus on a couple of good reasons after suggesting some readings.

By far the best book I ever read on emotion was published over 25 years ago, but it is still my favorite source, despite having taught an entire psychology course on Emotion for the last few years of my academic career. It is Donald Nathanson’s 1992 Shame and Pride: Affect, Sex,and the Birth of the Self. It is also readable and entertaining. For deeper readers, I’d recommend How Emotions Are Made, just published in 2017 by Lisa Barrett,who one Harvard psychologist calls the “deepest thinker on the topic since Darwin. One of the best known theorists around is Jaak Panksepp, who teamed up with neuropsychoanalyst Lucy Biven to write The Archaeology of Mind: Neuroevolutionary Origins of Human Emotions, a real tome, but worth it. But for the general intelligent reader, there are the books on Emotional Intelligence and even better Social Intelligence, by a journalist with a Harvard doctorate, Daniel Goldman, and any of the trade books written by Michael Gazzaniga, the father of cognitive neuroscience one of whose finer reads would be his 2008 Human: The Science Behind What Makes Us Unique. For those with less of a literary bent, Renee Brown’s Ted talk on Shame is not to be missed, especially her description of how shame is organized by gender: Norms that women must meet: Nice, Thin, Modest, use all available resources for appearance. For men: Emotional Control, Primacy of Work, Pursuit of Status, Violence. She describes the husband and father of several women getting signed copies of a book she wrote: “You see those people I love?They’d rather see me die on my white horse than fall off of it.” She also describes the magnifiers of shame: Secrecy, Silence,and Judgment. Its antidote? Empathy: “Me, too.”

So what about love? What about the relationships between men and women (and probably men and men,and women and women, too)? We’ve talked about evolution in “Full Frontal,” about history in “Myths of Love,” and “Religion and Eros,” so we need next to talk about development. The self-boundaries which accumulate during our long childhoods, and into adulthood, our character, are molded by shame, from the shameless to the cautious to the withdrawn, from those for whom any hint of sex will throw them into paroxysms of shame, to those who treat sensuality like sunlight..All the basic themes of growth and development provide many opportunities to be shaped by shame, as well as pride: size and strength, skill and dexterity, dependence and independence, cognitive ability, communication, interpersonal skills and, of course, gender identity and sexuality. Since the love relationships we all find so central to our lives include the deepest sharing of self we will ever do, the role of shame and pride in defining the boundaries of self are going to be crucial. One of the most important functions of relationship is about learning more about ourselves from the people who know us best, and best discern those secrets we even hide from ourselves, hidden by the attenuation of shame.

First, a couple of basic facts about emotion and relationship, then about some of the painful realities of adolescence, and then a bit about identity and intimacy. Most of the human nervous system, from sensory experience to our emotional and cognitive lives, is about responding to change. You hear the refrigerator turn off, but you weren’t aware of it being on. I used to ask my students whether they were aware of their bottoms on the chair before I asked them about it. Everything is this way,including why we respond to News but not all the stuff that has been around before,even if the latter is more important. The first time I got my first wife to a dozen roses, she was ecstatic. No one had ever done that before and it exceeded her expectations. For our first anniversary, in memory of our courtship,I got her a dozen roses again and she was very happy. For our second anniversary, I got the dozen roses again, and she was pleased enough. But the next time I did it, when I arrived at the door, she burst into tears,as I had just gotten the damn roses again.” What is interesting and troubling, then, is basing relationships on emotions, as emotions are also responses to changes in patterns of stimulation. When things happen as you expect them to,you don’t really feel much of anything at all, but you do when expectations are violated.

Research on breakups show that relationships tend to end in two ways, both of which involve “not feeling like I used to.” In one case, this is because people have drifted apart, do fewer things in common, don’t get the same rewards. When they break up, they can mainly feel relief. But the other kind is when people’s activities and lives are so intertwined that they are interdependent in a myriad of ways, but it has become taken for granted, and we stop experiencing things that aren’t different, But when they break up they feel terrible, because all of the now expected outcomes no longer occur. You may know couples that have horrific breakups and then get back together again, because of all that they miss. I remember my mother bursting into tears a week after my Dad died, when she was back home, where he had been making her morning coffee for decades.

But here is the problem. When you first start seeing someone, you are putting your best foot forward, telling the best stories about yourself, and paying a lot of attention to the other person. They are doing the same. But part of the raison d’etre of relationships is for someone to really know you. Early on, your expectations are getting exceeded, but that really can’t happen for long, because the new things you are learning about someone aren’t getting better and better. Now, some of this can be wonderful, as stuff for which you have been judged by others is not producing the same judgement, and even more delightfully, some of the things about which you yourself felt shame not only do not produce the same negative effects, and are not only tolerated, but are even appreciated or liked. We respect people for their virtues, but we love them for their flaws, and for tolerating or even appreciating ours. But it should come as no surprise that many relationships reach a point where one or the other partner feels cheated or betrayed that the person they are with turns out not to be the person they thought they were. Now, much of early relationship is projective anyway, and believing someone to really be the better angel of their nature can certainly boost each partner to improve for the other. But this may well in fact not be what they had in mind for themselves, or be experienced as “loving me for who I really am,” but as who they want you to be. We may learn to tolerate each other’s peccadilloes, but it sure isn’t going to feel like that early rush of falling in love, also assisted by the phenylethylalanine (PEA) that may actually inhibit critical functions of the frontal cortex. Of course this is likely to be valuable in the early goo-goo-eyed stages of a relationship, but that passionate love has a physiological half-life of about two years. This is why I have often told students and friends to not even think about getting married until they had been with someone for more than two years.

Now, the idea is not that knowing this stuff about relationships is going to hurt them, indeed it may help to more readily figure out what is going on. But several deep but obvious facts about adolescent bodies, and the very different sources of shame for boys and girls, are also pretty crucial. We already talked in "Full Frontal" about the differences in male and female arousal patterns in our discussion of the bouncier blue balls in the quincunx, the reason males take more risks and hence have wider and flatter bell curves on many characteristics. Does anyone question that in general (and do remember that the male and female curves always have huge overlaps), males arouse faster, but also return to baseline faster? Male orgasm is also a sharper peak. Once over, there is a recovery period. Women’s sexual victory is the capacity for multiple orgasm. While male sexuality may be like a sneeze, female sexuality is more like a bonfire: It may take longer, and require more tending, but it’s also gonna burn a lot longer, and it certainly behooves a man to keep that bonfire going with his partner.

Menarche also produces a wide set of possibilities for shame related to leakage, feeling gross, and having lots of healthy red blood to deal with on a monthly basis. It is also sad how little research has been done on the fluctuations in emotional patterns across a monthly cycle, which may vary more widely for women than for men, who may have much to learn about changes in their partner’s feelings. But what are the external physical signs of female sexual arousal? They are far from obvious and indeed may be far less visible, and hence, less likely a source of shame for women than their menses. What is the male equivalent of menarche? Anthropologists call it spermarche, another thing I learned from Melvin Konner’s 2010 The Evolution of Childhood. It is the first male ejaculation, and, out of fairness, we might consider it the first conscious ejaculation, as the vast majority of adolescent males quickly learn how readily this can be “taken to hand.” But wait, just as we had to ask “don’t you remember junior high?" when talking about “what breasts are for” in "Full Frontal," we might also ask what might be the obvious sign of male arousal? And in the full early throes of male adolescence, its spontaneous occurrence at rather inopportune times is quite clearly a rather powerful source of shame. Or don’t you remember boys both sometimes being in rather less of a hurry to rise from their classroom desks, or sometimes walking out of class with a book or a satchel held oddly in front of the pelvis? Yeah, well, it is also harder to remember episodes of extreme shame. And, sadly, part of male socialization in our society is learning to experience shame as an excuse for anger, and describe it in terms of insult or threat. But for most boys, these years are the period during which they develop an armamentarium of physical, emotional, and cognitive strategies for managing such a visible source of potential shame. Most of these become so common and automatized as to represent a kind of armor, worn during any of a range of activities during which times signs of sexual arousal are not appropriate. For women, there are fewer such signs, so the boundaries between activities are not as clearly defended and require no such necessity for such armor. I’d just ask young (and not so young) women to be aware that a fair amount of trust and a certain amount of gentleness and caution might be called for in order for such armor to be removed, piece by piece, and without which physical intimacy will be rather fraught with difficulty. Males might also be apprised of the fact that their well-practiced fantasy life is likely to far better match their own patterns of arousal than those of women (and why romance novels may be the female equivalent of porn), and that true intimacy is likely to require some accommodation from both sides, with the clumsiness which is itself fertile ground for shame and shaming, and the source of far more unhappiness in cultures where it is also thought inappropriate or offensive to talk about it. Another song from that band called “Garbage” (also from Bleed Like Me) begins with “Sex is not the enemy.”

Differences in gender boundaries are also quite likely in later adolescence, especially in and around the Eriksonian “identity crisis” and its neighbor “intimacy versus isolation.” For Erikson, the identity crisis must be resolved before there can be true intimacy. Else what would one have to share? But this is likely to be a very male-biased model. And both genders need to understand their differences in relating the two, in order to better relate to each other. Carol Gilligan’s In a Different Voice, despite its methodological limitations, was an important source for me, though Christina Robb’s This Changes Everything is a more contemporary account of this whole movement. But it was Nancy Chodorow’s Reproduction of Mothering that introduced the historical argument.

Prior to the industrial revolution, male and female socialization operated on an apprentice model, where boys and girls learned to become men and women by spending lots of time with the same sex parent, learning to do what they did. However, with the specialization of labor in the industrial era, domestic life and the world of work were separated. Paid and professional work now tended to be done outside the home, and while plenty of “work” was still done in the home, there was a greater gender segregation, with “men’s work” mainly occurring outside the home in civic and public locations, women having the lionesses share of the domestic workload, including child rearing. This meant that little girls still learned to be women in interdependent relationships with their mothers, but little boys grew up in situations where while they knew what girls and women did (and still depended upon their physical, emotional and intellectual support), their model of what they needed to do to become a man could only be learned in separation and guesswork. Much as they might enjoy what the girls were up to,they also knew this to be unmanly, and boys spend more of their time playing alone or outside the home. I like to joke that this is the reason boys are so into sports, as the only bonding they do with their fathers is when their fathers are at leisure, playing or watching sports. Odd that 1970s feminists would sponsor a “take your daughter to work” day, when it might also be important for fathers to take their sons. Perhaps my own gender-role socialization failed because my minister father did so much of his work from his study, where I could often hear him pounding away on a typewriter, in his sanctum sanctorum, to which one was honored to gain entry.

The problem men have in negotiating the intimacy passage has to do with their well-defined (and well-defended) ego boundaries. They have formed identities in opposition, in separation and guesswork about male roles and intimacy means forming a relationship, opening boundaries, letting down some of the defenses. This is why trust is so important: In forming identity in opposition and competition, letting down the guard is dangerous, risky, even foolish. You don’t want to be someone’s bitch. But without letting down your guard, opening the boundaries, you can never form a relationship with another whole human being,or form a unit on anything but your own terms, basically a dominance/ submission relationship, which of course is no new unit at all. The boundaries have to be opened and the defenses let down to expand the bounds of ego and identity to include another person,and be a part of a larger unit. “Building a nest”may require this, just as “making it” seems to require the reverse.

I think, and the ladies will have to confirm this or tell me I am full of it, that the problem women have in negotiating the intimacy passage is both easier and more difficult. It is easier because women have formed identities “in relation,” and have more permeable boundaries. It is harder because it is so easy to lose one’s identity in intimacy.In the latter case you also,as in men’s failure to expand, don’t have intimacy, but only surrender. The you are just someone’s “bitch.” For women, true intimacy, especially with a man, requires “finding your own voice” so you have a strength of identity to be intimate with someone whose identity is clearer (or more well-defined, well-bounded, even “armored”) to begin with. It means differentiating and separating oneself out of the nexus of relatedness to which one’s identity has previously (and more comfortably) been tied. But without this differentiation one can never have true independence, true individuality,and without becoming one’s own person,with choices about relating, the larger wholes of which one is a part are lessened,and one has no legacy to pass on except as part of a whole defined largely in terms of someone else.

Too often, the typical heterosexual relationship between young adults involves a male and a female getting closer and closer, at least when they are doing more than “hooking up." There is actually data that says that the typical first year college student adapts better if they have a “close female friend,” whether male or female, as women schooled in interdependence, and less armored, tend to be necessary for everyone’s emotional support. The closer you are, the better she feels.” Of course, as closeness and interdependence is validating to her own identity. But what do you call a young man who spends too much time with his girlfriend? Pussy-whipped. For him, the closer they get the more his masculine identity is threatened, even to feeling emasculated. What is his response? To pull away, demand “space,” or just walk out and go shoot some hoops (or play a video-game) with his guy friends. This makes her feel like a part of her has been ripped away and is the worst moment of all for both her emotional and even physical health. But in point of fact, it is often his masculinity that attracted her in the first place, so it is actually not in her interest to undercut it, But nor is it in his to sever it, and lose the important but downplayed interdependence. There is something a bit funny to this dance, at least from the perspective of a psychologist. How many men get together by calling up a friend and saying “we need to talk.” Psychotherapy is a prototypically female strategy for resolving problems by talking about them. I sometimes joke that prototypical interaction distance for men is that between second base and shortstop, both looking elsewhere. What to do? You want to have a good Valentine’s Day? Do something he likes to do, the more movement in the world it involves, the better. But guys, while doing this you need to talk to her, and make sure she feels you are with her, and you are part of something together. If you don’t, well, “shame on you.”