Sunday, June 24, 2012

A Psychiatrist Making Matters Worse: On the Absence of a Sense of Shame

On more than one occasion I have said to my psychiatrist: "I feel I am screwing the system.  The system screwed me, so now I am screwing the system."  I am referring to the fact that I believe was a victim of job harassment at my last place of employment, the law firm of Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld:  harassment that was never investigated adequately and also that I was a victim of retaliation in the form of defamation by the firm's senior attorney managers.  I feel no shame about aggressing on anyone or any institution that has aggressed on me or has wrongly subjected me to overwhelming shaming behaviors.  Perhaps that is an aspect of my psychopathology: that I feel no shame about blatantly aggressing on the government of the United States -- which refuses to investigate the wrongs to which I have been subjected -- by way of filing for and receiving disability benefits for the past twenty years for a dubious disability.  But that's the way I am.  I feel no shame about screwing people who have screwed me.

At my last session with my psychiatrist he repeated my statement: "You have said you want to screw the system."  I had the sense he was trying to shame me.  He seemed to assume that I would recognize the shameful aspect of my behavior if he reinforced my past statements and that, in response, I would modify my behavior.  He seemed to think that he could use shaming as a way to influence or control me.  Little did he recognize that I have absolutely no sense of shame about screwing the people who have screwed me.  Little did he appreciate, from a clinical perspective, that the proper posture of a psychotherapist is not to heap more shame onto such an individual, but to investigate why it is that the individual came to be this way: how I came to lose any sense of shame about aggressing on those who have aggressed on me by their use of overwhelming shaming behaviors.

The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson has some pertinent comments about the absence of a sense of shame in some individuals who have been subjected to overwhelming shaming behaviors by others.  In Identity and the Life Cycle Erikson writes:

  • Shame is an infantile emotion insufficiently studied. Shame supposes that one is completely exposed and conscious of being looked at -- in a word, self-conscious. One is visible and not ready to be visible; that is why we dream of shame as a situation in which we are stared at in a condition of incomplete dress, in night attire, "with one's pants down."  Shame is early expressed in an impulse to bury one's face, or to sink, right then and there, into the ground.  This potentiality is abundantly utilized in the educational method of "shaming" used so exclusively by some primitive peoples, where it supplants the often more destructive sense of guilt to be discussed later. The destructiveness of shaming is balanced in some civilizations by devices for "saving face." Shaming exploits an increasing sense of being small, which paradoxically develops as the child stands up and as his awareness permits him to note the relative measures of size and power. Too much shaming does not result in a sense of propriety but in a secret determination to try to get away with things when unseen, if, indeed, it does not result in deliberate shamelessness. There is an impressive American ballad in which a murderer to be hanged on the gallows before the eyes of the community, instead of feeling appropriately afraid or ashamed, begins to berate the onlookers, ending every salvo of defiance with the words, "God damn your eyes." Many a small child, when shamed beyond endurance, may be in a mood (although not in possession of either the courage or the words) to express defiance in similar terms. What I mean by this sinister reference is that there is a limit to a child's and an adult's individual endurance in the face of demands which force him to consider himself, his body, his needs, and his wishes as evil and dirty, and to believe in the infallibility of those who pass such judgment. Occasionally he may be apt to tum things around, to become secretly oblivious to the opinion of others, and to consider as evil only the fact that they exist: his chance will come when they are gone, or when he can leave them. Many a defiant child, many a young criminal, is of such make-up, and deserves at least an investigation into the conditions which caused him to become that way (emphasis added).