In one of my earliest posts on this website, written nearly a year ago, I introduced the concept of “basic shame.” Although I often link to that piece in later posts, many site visitors may not have read it. As an introduction to the current post, I invite you to do so now by clicking here.
Yesterday, a reader sent me a link to an article from the New York Times, about “evolutionary psychology” and an interesting theory concerning the possible value of
depression for the survival of our species. I’m not sure about that theory, but the article did set me to thinking in a physiological mode, about the biological roots of shame. I’m not a biologist and I can’t support my ideas by reference to hard science, but this theory comports with my clinical experience. It helps me to understand and explain what I’ve learned about shame in the last 30 years. Bear with me while I take a detour into Freud at his most speculative.
Most people know that Freud wrote about instincts and the importance of the sex drive; other than psychoanalysts or students of Freud, few people know about the transformation of those ideas toward the end of his life. While Freud’s model of the mind always involved the idea of conflict, in his later theories, he focused on conflict between what he called the life and death instincts. As a translation of the German Trieb, “instinct” is a problematic word; the idea that there’s an “instinct for death” is difficult to grasp; it sounds counter-intuitive. In my view, Freud was talking about two different principles that govern human biology — one that promotes life and the preservation of the species, evolving toward diversity and larger unities; the other that represents a tendency of things to deteriorate or fall apart, the biological equivalent of entropy. In Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), he says that the purpose of the death instinct is to “lead organic life back into the inanimate state.”
You can contrast these two forces at work by looking first at a child or adolescent evolving toward physical maturity, then at an old person declining toward death. To my mind, there’s no question that one force drives growth and maturation up to a certain point, and then things begin to “fall apart,” a steady process of deterioration that culminates in death. Beyond the Pleasure Principle is a fascinating book, full of speculation about how the death instinct helps to explain different phenomena such as the repetition compulsion, aggression and masochism; but as an aid to understanding my clients, I’ve never found it terribly useful. When it comes to basic shame, however, the idea of a death instinct does provide a theoretical underpinning to my clinical understanding. Let me explain.
I believe we’re born into the world with a built-in sense of how our development ought to unfold, more or less: an innate expectation of what “normal” should look like. It’s part of our genetic inheritance. (In a more precise way, in connection with the feeding breast, Wilfred Bion talked about “innate preconceptions”.) When our infancy and early childhood unfold approximately as we “expect” them to (I think there’s room for quite a lot of variation), the creative life instinct predominates; on a psychological level, we feel whole, strong and self-confident. We’re able to take charge of our lives and work toward the achievement of our goals — career, family, etc.
When childhood goes seriously awry, when early life doesn’t approximate to our innate ideas of “normal”, we know it on a physical level. We feel it in our bones. Development can’t progress in the expected way and instead of the creative life instinct holding sway, the death instinct takes premature hold. Rather than feeling that we’re healthy and growing, able to master the challenges of life, we instead feel defective. We may feel as if we’re in a state of decay or deterioration, in danger of falling apart.
If you think of psychological/emotional development unfolding along the lines of an embryo, early emotional trauma limits and distorts that process just as damage to the embryo affects development from that point going forward. Early embryonic damage may eventually lead to birth defects and physical deformity. Basic shame is the physiological “knowledge” that our emotional/psychological development has gone amiss and that, as a result, we are in some way “deformed”, not evolving as we should. The life instinct has been thwarted and the death instinct gains in power. From a theoretical point of view, that is what basic shames means. In other words, this type of shame is not caused by shaming messages or influences from the outside, but rather is the felt knowledge of one’s failure to thrive in a more-or-less “normal” way.
I’m in the process of writing a book about this type of shame, the characteristic defenses against it and realistic ways to heal; I’m not sure whether this theoretical explanation will form a part of that book, but I thought I’d put these ideas forward and get your feedback.