The Biological Roots of Basic Shame

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.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. You may want to read Others in Mind: Social Origins of Self-Consciousness by Philippe Rochat, Ph.D. The blurb about it, “Why are we so prone to guilt and embarrassment? Why do we care so much about how others see us, about our reputation? What are the origins of such afflictions? Philippe Rochat argues that it is because we are members of a species that evolved the unique propensity to reflect upon themselves as an object of thoughts; an object of thoughts that is potentially evaluated by others. But, the argument goes, this propensity comes from a basic fear: the fear of rejection, of being socially “banned” and ostracized. Others in Mind is about self-consciousness, how it originates and how it shapes our lives. Self-consciousness is arguably the most important and revealing of all psychological problems.”

  2. I feel so grateful that you have this website. I have been trying to wrap my head around my defenses for a long time and this blog has been so helpful. I cannot believe the amount of time you spend to help the rest of us make sense of ourselves. And I am deeply touched you spend so much time responding to comments in such a genuine and personal way.

    I want to know about your viewpoint of shame–full steam ahead on your book. Like everyone else in the world, I have experienced challenges at a tender age which created tidal waves of confusion. Shame is hard to sort out. I have begun taking a closer look at myself and wonder how to neutralize my reactions. To someone with tons of shame, it often feels so hopeless.

    Looking forward to more.

    Thank you.

    1. I got read your comment at the end of a very long and difficult week; it really made a difference to me, to feel appreciated. I’m grateful for your gratitude, if that makes sense.

  3. I can’t agree with the notion of a death instinct at all, which I feel is confused with the freeze response, mediated by our autonomic nervous system. After 30 years experience of bipolar disorder, neurobiology education has taught me to feel my instinctual nature, my unconscious re-activity, rather than remain in denial through conceptualizations of the mind.

    My bipolar condition feels very much like a terror stimulated natural avoidance of life circumstances, rather than a “deformed” biology. In my recovery from bipolar, I have had to learn how to sense my unconscious nervous system reactions, rather than continue to seek safety in the conceptual confines of mind.

    As an unwanted and constantly shamed child, my fear stimulated avoidance behaviors were fully congruent with life circumstances. This natural, instinctive response pattern seems to have become unconsciously conditioned though, maintained by the feedback of muscular tensions? Good old body language?

    Neurologists tell us that the brain/nervous system matures with life experience over the first 2-3 years of life, laying down the unconscious behavioral responses we later call personality. I see many theories in evolutionary psychology, as tainted by our spiritual history, which seeks to elevate the mind above our animal nature, unaware of the unconscious urge for dominance?

    Donald Nathanson’s “Pride & Shame,” is the best book I’ve read on shame, incorporating Silvan Tomkins work on “affect,” with his “compass of shame” a brilliant interpretation of our unconscious reactions. As one who has suffered with “affective disorder” though, I can only say that I’m now more comfortable in my own skin, having accepted that affect is basically instinct, and that life is primarily about the body and movement, not the mind.

    1. I don’t think I can justify Freud’s theory of a death instinct, especially when he uses it to try to explain things like masochism. I do find certain aspects of it useful, however — e.g., the “awareness” of biological processes that lead toward death. I’ll check out Nathanson’s book — thanks for drawing it to my attention.

  4. After reading this post of yours I was doing some writing myself and had an interesting thought on shame.

    in trying to better understand my experiences of shame, anxiety and depression, im begginning to understand that in some respect, these negative experiences serve some purpose. this notion helps me in dealing with them when they come about. over the last few months ive come to understand what shame is, and how it has played a part in my life. (many thanks to your posts on shame).

    My experiences of shame could possibly be rooted in my early childhood, but its not entirely clear. What is clear now looking back, is that i can first identify with the experience of shame in my early teens as a result of physical and verbal schoolyard abuse. i look back at these verbal and physical attacks on me and think, from an evolutionary standpoint, these attacks threatened my survival, directly, due to the theoretical risk of death from injury and indirectly as a result of my resulting struggle to exist in the comfort and safety of a group of friends. my survival was at risk, not to mention my ability to find a mate and reproduce. i was in serious risk of failing to fulfil the two most fundamental goals of my existence; to survive and reproduce.

    I was in serious trouble and for a long time i have had to deal with the idea that i am fundamentally flawed in some way, and i was failing as a person, and through natural selection, my genes and myself, a weak and flawed human will cease to exist and the human species will ultimately benefit. so much shame. the shame could be likened to a sense of doom as a person. it could however, be viewed as a spark. this sense of shame is telling me “hey! you got some serious problems, if you want to survive, you better figure it out”

    it just seems to me, that all these uncomfortable feelings and experiences such as shame, anxiety and depression that i have been conditioned to push away, remedy, fix, get rid of, all seem to serve some purpose, and possibly should be accepted/embraced almost. this shift in attitidue i am finding helpful anyway and as i am coming to understand mindfulness, i see a link their too.

    1. This is very interesting. Whether or not all those feelings have a “value”, I do agree that it’s crucial to do exactly what you’re doing — make room for and accept them, rather than trying to “push away, remedy, fix, get rid of” them. All those feelings COULD lead to that sense of doom you describe, but if you can accept them and try to take them in account, work with them, they don’t have to lead to despair. There are ways to grow and thrive even in the presence of such feelings.

  5. I don’t see how your model helps understand sociopaths, who have no shame. To put it mildly, they are emotionally abnormal, though as a rule they believe themselves to be exceptional.

    I also wonder about your sentence “Development can’t progress in the expected way and instead of the creative life instinct holding sway, the death instinct takes premature hold.” It implies that if the life instinct is high, the death instinct must be low, and visa versa. But what about artistic people, especially those considered extraordinary? The idea that their life and death instincts are both exceptionally high is so common that ‘tortured artist’ is cliché: Vincent Van Gogh , Emily Dickinson, Sylvia Plath, Ernest Hemingway, Tennessee Williams, Kurt Cobain, Amy Winehouse…

    Am I misunderstanding something?

    1. Sociopaths are a different subject altogether, and I’ll need to think that one over. As for artists, I think we need to be careful not to self-destructiveness with the death instinct. Let me give all of this a little more thought and get back to you.

  6. Such a fascinating topic. I’ve never been able to reconcile Freud’s concept of the death instinct with the twin biological imperatives of survival and propagation. It never made any sense to me. For the same reason, I’ve struggled to understand self-destructive tendencies, especially among young people who, according to evolutionary biologists, should be preoccupied with growth and reproduction. Your “failure-to-thrive” concept of shame offers an interesting explanation. It also seems to fit with the principles of natural selection (sadly).

    The idea of an infant coming into the world with a preconception of how his development should unfold is intriguing because it suggests we play an unconscious role in “thinning the herd.” To wit: being born into adverse environmental (developmental) conditions triggers a premature decline. Yet at the same time, we see so much dogged psychological resilience and even thriving in some of the least conducive environments in the world.

    1. I think the “thinning the herd” concept is very provocative and I was afraid to get into it. From an evolutionary perspective, it makes sense to me that a highly damaged member of the species might develop feelings such as shame that would inhibit procreation, thus preventing that damage from being based on. At the same time, the self-preservation instinct is quite strong, as you point out. I believe we can learn to recognize our damage, work with it, take it into account and then go on to thrive/develop compensatory abilities that have value for the species — i.e., worth passing on. As “pessimistic” as I may sometimes sounds about shame and lasting damage, I’m truly an optimist … just in realistic ways.

      1. I agree–the concept of “thinning the herd” is an ugly one (hints of eugenics). It also doesn’t square with my limited clinical experience. I think at most counseling clinics (especially in the field of family therapy), you see a great deal of trans-generational transmission of trauma and pathology. I’m always heartened and humbled by the people entering therapy with the explicit goal of “not passing their problems down to their kids.” That takes such tremendous courage and foresight.

  7. I found your insights very thought provoking. My experience is consistent with your belief of an innate sense of knowing as to what normal is and is not and I experience this in a spiritual (non religious!) sense.

    My experience of shame is slightly different to your explanation. Shame for me is the self-doubt of that sense of normal. In the context of an abusive environment shame is accepting that abuse must be normal and that I am (or my normal is) fatally flawed.

    Healing started from accepting this is not normal. That is just my take on shame.

    1. I think your view is compatible with mind. My expectation would be that you’d always need to be on guard against your incorrect notions of “normal”: always need to take care that you didn’t subject yourself to some abusive situation without quite realizing you were falling back into old patterns. That’s a part of “shame”, the ongoing awareness of damage and using that awareness to take good care of yourself.

  8. i feel that shame is one of the most crippling emotions, and its taking alot of work in therapy to even touch the surface of it, cos its so closed down,

    Healing the shame that binds you by John Bradshaw is a book i found so helpful cos it dared to really open up on this subject and hes such a human writer that i didnt feel so alone with the shame anymore,

    good topic

    1. You’re right — it’s very hard to get at. Most people’s defenses against shame are so powerful they often have little idea that they’re actually struggling to ward it off. I’ve had people who so obviously (to me) struggle with shame tell me it really isn’t their issue.

  9. In developmental psychology and biology, there’s a really important concept of “critical periods” in development. Here’s how “Critical Period” is defined on Wikipedia: “…a time in the early stages of an organism’s life during which it displays a heightened sensitivity to certain environmental stimuli, and develops in particular ways due to experiences at this time. If the organism does not receive the appropriate stimulus during this “critical period”, it may be difficult, ultimately less successful, or even impossible, to develop some functions later in life.”

    I think this fits with what you’ve said about psychological damage. Shame is the awareness that the expected maternal or parental “appropriate stimulus” never came, and resulted in permanent damage. Once the critical period passes, it cannot be recaptured.

    1. I completely agree. In this age of “triumphing over” this and “defeating” that, such a view is not popular but it fits with my experience. At the same time, I don’t see your point-of-view as defeatist or depressing. As I said in an earlier comment, I don’t view shame as incompatible with self-esteem.

  10. Thankyou for your blog. I read it often.

    A book that has helped me greatly in my own journey is, “The Plolyvagal Theory: Neurophysical Foundations of Emotion, Attachment, Communication, and Self-Regulation” by Stephen Porges. It is not an easy read, but it summarizes amazing research about how the early development of the myelinated vagus affects the variability of our respiratory sinus arrhythmia, and the many consequences of that. The book does not focus on shame, although it mentions it sometimes, but I think the research would be both interesting and helpful to you as you continue. I apologize for the vague summary, but the book is worth checking into.

    Thanks again for your great blog!

    1. I don’t think you can get rid of it entirely but you can transform it into something that is no longer “toxic”; bearing shame doesn’t mean you can’t feel good about yourself and develop authentic self-esteem. I think it’s again useful to make an analogy to having a physical handicap or limitation: if you take it into account and work with it, you can accomplish quite a lot and feel a great deal of self-respect. I will definitely be talking about this aspect of shame in my book; I made a first pass at some of my ideas about this subject in an earlier post on the healing of shame.

  11. What an interesting concept: that we have a sort of instinctual awareness that early life did not unfold according to a general plan. Of course, as you mentioned, there is a wide range of what the “plan” might look like. Still, that makes sense. I often know when and where I am making choices that deviate from what I intuitively know to be best for me. Will make a great book and interesting reading!

  12. J, I sure respect your fine writing & clinical acumen — Occam’s razor is a strong guideline , so I’m not usually comfortable with trying to interpret / adapt the great writers’ theoretical meanings to my own clinical experience . I guess I have a develommental framework for what-all balanced & content-enough life in this culture
    might include — & I’m constantly modifying that as I experience & learn in my own life . I’ve not found others’ more general theories of personality & personality development useful for very long . bd

    1. Bob, I agree about not finding others’ general theories of personality all that useful; but sometimes, it’s interesting to take a theory like the “death instinct” and try to find something useful about it. Freud noticed an awful lot; even if he misunderstood it sometimes, he was usually on to something.

      1. Strongly Agree ! re human irratioinality , I’ve found Dan Ariely’s[ Behavioral Economist now @ Duke] 2 books both
        fascinating & inspiring — see his TED talks – UNC_CH PhD in
        Cognitive Psychol & Duke PhD in Economics – really nice ,
        brilliant man .
        1) Predictably Irrational , & 2) The Upside of Irrationality

  13. Wow, this post was fantastic. I’ve read and heard people talk in similar ways before. I don’t know your spiritual leanings, but I find the central idea of this text incredibly similar to “original sin”. This sense of something wrong, but we don’t really know what it is. This ghost that haunts us and that we try to ignore with all we’ve got.

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