Shame and Basic Fault
I'd like to distinguish two related but functionally different concepts:
- State shame, a temporary state of disrupted contact that is marked by sharp mental pain and profound parasympathetic dominance (dorsal vagal or 'freeze' reaction) It abates spontaneously as rapprochement occurs,
- Basic fault, a chronic deficiency in one's sense of legitimacy and goodness that is marked by a chronic sympathetic shift and hyper-defensive object relations.
State shame is a physiological and emotional reaction that occurs when one feels a rupture in attachment, especially with important others. State shame is best thought of as an acute painful attachment experience rather than an emotion. In the body it consists of a feeling of warmth, nausea, red face, tucking the sacrum (tail) in, trying to achieve a C-shape to minimize the body, averting eye contact, and hanging of the head..
The healthy shame state is usually preceded by an over-exuberant state of dynamic sympathetic dominance in which the person 'was carried away' with a goal that intruded on others. When the realization occurs, spontaneously, or from protests, of the harm, the person shifts into this profoundly parasympathetic state, as of way of 'reversing engines'. The harmlessness of a person in the shame state is useful in achieving repair. Usually, offended others are then willing to 'take the person back in' quickly. The state abates usually within 15 minutes to an hour. The resolution is quicker if repair is possible or achieved, longer if repair has not. There may only be a partial return toward homeostasis if an issue remains unresolved. Embarrassment is state shame invoked by the sudden realization of violating social norms.
During the state of shame, the tendency is to hide oneself, stay away from loved ones, deny oneself pleasure, and abuse oneself. In a healthy family or community, this elicits the concern of others who insist on the shamed party receiving the opposite, which breaks the shame state emotionally and physically and completes rapprochement.
These days state shame is usually only seen in small children because of the autonomic constriction that is ubiquitous in our society. If the physical signs do break through in adulthood they may be confused with a panic attack. Unfortunately, in a high demand culture like ours, there is a tendency to abuse the docility of the shame state in order to attempt to socialize children. Young children are shamed (threatened with emotional abandonment) for harmless behavior merely in order to get them to conform prematurely to adult goals. That is, children are shamed for natural behavior, and will come to feel permanent shame about their bodies and impulses. Worse yet, rapprochement is deliberately delayed to 'milk' the docility. This abuse of state shame probably has a contribution to the instillation of basic fault as described below.
The consolidator or masochistic character is actually an adult in a more or less permanent residual physiological shame state. This comes about because such a person was accepted for his or her existence and accepted for his or her oral needs, but was shamed for his or her independence. The consolidator character is constantly trying to relate to others by being harmless and docile.
Basic fault is term coined by Michael Balint. It refers to the feeling and belief that one is unacceptable and unaccepted, because one is 'not enough'. The name derives not from an actuality of defect, for that is untrue, but from an erroneous, conscious and unconscious, sense of defect or fault. Basic fault differs from state shame in that instead of parasympathetic dominance, it is built on a sympathetic shift and a weak core (belly, solar plexus area) that never develops well and is largely dissociated.
With basic fault, one always feel that one should be different than what one is. The physical correlate is "not being comfortable in one's skin." While often this discomfort is channeled into efforts to 'improve' oneself, these will-based efforts, successful or not, never lead to feeling 'at ease' Despite momentary delight at these improvement efforts, a great deal of distraction and numbing will be employed, if not on a continuous basis, then in between great pushes of achievement efforts. To contrast, in the non-shamed state, growth stems creatively out of desire or purpose, not from fleeing oneself.
Basic fault may come about because state shame has been too much too early, and has experienced a 'blow out.' Basic fault may also arise from failures of nurture that pre-date the capacity for state shame (ie the first two months of life or in utero).
Basic fault is called shame in the humanist (mainstream) tradition, probably because of a frequent childhood co-existence with shame fostering practices in families. In basic fault, shame tendencies of isolating, passivity, self-denial and self harm are pursued, but they cannot be interrupted because, with younger children, the family doesn't work that way, or with older sufferers, the basic fault has become ego-syntonic, and others are pushed away.
With basic fault, the compensatory drive is to archive a feeling of adequacy and acceptability. Basic fault however produces a durable difficulty with contact.
Sometimes there is 'shameless' behavior that represents unconscious rebellion from the oppressive effect of the basic fault. 'Reversing the engines' and stopping the provocative behavior doesn't happen easily despite strong cues that it is not working. Often drugs or alcohol or other episodically disinhibiting maneuvers are used to facilitate the 'shameless' acting out.
Basic fault more commonly produces many shamed behaviors, and many, many indirect behaviors meant to hide the basic situation. That is, the shamed state is treated as if it is itself shameful. In the literature the conglomeration of behavior is often known as 'shame-based.' This is an area where many good books and approaches are available from outside the Reich and Lowen tradition. The one caveat is that even when the relational impacts of basic fault (shame) are understood, attempts at correcting oneself cognitively are counter-productive in the long run. That is because being put in the position of trying to perform 'acceptably' was the original bind, and trying to perform acceptability is no better as an adult. Suggestions on real shame-busting follow below after the list of traits. The trait list excludes many common body and neuromuscular aspects, such as clumsiness, that are covered under sympathetic shift and the creator and communicator characters.
A key issue is the inability to distinguish fallibility from a character flaw or a moral fault. All humans are fallible, that is, in reality, fallibility is not a flaw or a fault. Flaws exist of course, (mostly based on fears) and they reveal themselves to us with maturity and growth. Flaws are never completely removed but can be addressed and lessened, and this is a basis for peace of mind. Fallibility of course, cannot be lessened and attempting to do so by vigilance and denial has many damaging effects on relationships. Basic fault drives people to hide or attack their own humanity.
Basic Fault or Chronic Shame Traits
- Understanding everything in terms of performance
- Perfectionism. This is not about high standards but rather keeping an illusion of infallibility
- Avoiding learning situations that are not quick, and so having trouble acquiring deep skills despite talent
- Failure-izing struggle. Anything worth doing has to be accomplished by successive approximation, which means the first try rarely works but something is learned and some progress is made. With shame though, if the first try doesn't work, the person gives up and may even be ashamed of having tried.
- Avoids trying new things if there is skill involved
- Poor listening
- Survival orientation
- Fear of failure, even in situations where there is no pass/fail sorting going on.
- Constant busyness, unable just to be
- Tendency to hurry things, even when there is time, perhaps out of a sense that one might be taken to task at any moment.
- Scarcity or zero-sum orientation
- Very critical of others
- Self-deprecation but an intolerance of criticism by others
- Seeing everything in terms of right or wrong.
- All or none thinking
- Black and white thinking
- Blaming others.
- Judging self on intentions, judging others on results
- Participating in scapegoating. This is more than blame, people or groups are labeled as intrinsically bad and the cause of problems generally. More mildly, practices or viewpoints are scapegoated.
- Shooting fish in a barrel. Examples of other people's egregious failure or ethical lapses are constantly brought up to make the speaker feel better about him or herself.
- Anticipating rejection
- Vigilance about the approval of others
- Treating effort as a virtue rather than as a tool; overdoes everything.
- Outcome orientation
- Never feels like an adult
- Difficulty making decisions that affect other people (despite usually having adamant ideas about what should be done)
- Difficulty asking for anything
- Difficulty accepting gifts and difficulty enjoying gifts accepted.
- Trying to be self-sufficient.
- Over- concern with conformity or over- concerned with rebellion.
- Escapism. Too much time spent watching TV, sports, video games, easily read books, surfing the internet, porn, shopping, etc...
- Eating problems, especially eating to 'fill a hole.,' which is an attempt to distend the stomach so that it presses on the solar plexus area and provides a momentary sense of self.
- Filling needs and wants with crumbs (things that may have some value but no one else wants)
- External locus of control
- Trying to control situations
- Trying to please others
- Concealing struggle
- Concealing problems
- Seeking praise but having difficulty accepting it.
- Forming covert contracts (giving with unspoken strings attached)
- Resenting being asked for anything, despite taking a stance of willingness to help.
- Denying anger, but leaking negativity
- Denying sadness, but being focuses on losses, disappointments and grievances.
- Wanting to give and never take (but giving with so many strings and expectations attached that one is seen as a poor source for anything good)
- Tendency to conceal self-perceived faults
- Compartmentalization This is the strategy of only telling someone what they would know about or find out anyway. In this way, no one person knows a lot about the person, and what each person knows is different.
- Difficulty taking even constructive criticism. Difficulty in learning in contexts which require a lot of correction
- Justifying actions, even when not asked to
- Trying to control moods, addiction common.
- Easily flooded
- Tendency to rage
- Taking the role of victim
- Bodywork. Especially core strengthening and grounding. This increases the sense of self and the experience of agency.
- Pleasure. Here we are talking about the involuntary experience, for which one puts oneself in situations where it is likely to be experienced. It is not legitimate to twist the meaning of the word and insist one "gets pleasure" from compulsive activities like overwork etc...
- Learning to ask and take graciously. Taking is asking for something the other person is willing to give but which would not be forthcoming if it was not asked for. Gathering 'crumbs', exchanging, earning, and demanding as an entitlement are all not taking.)
- Participating in a community in which evaluation is not practiced. That is, give and take happens but without strings attached. This may take some searching, human nature being what it is such communities are not common. This likely will seem, 'corny' and pointless at first before the benefits are felt.
- Rigorous honesty. With shame, even white lies to protect others should be kept to a minimum, because the impression management motive can be hidden in any small dishonesty. Honesty is more than just not telling lies, it includes openness appropriate to the situation, and putting oneself regularly into situations where great openness is appropriate.
- Twelve step groups. These are controversial with some because of the inclusion of 'God' or higher power. To my mind, this is just short-hand for accepting that one is part of a natural order that is greater than one-self. This is the essence of true humility. The steps are really about honesty, humility, and fellowship.
- Treating oneself with respect. Self-deprecation must stop. If one comes to respect oneself, one will automatically respect others. Disrespecting oneself with the idea of saving up more respect for others never works. Respond with polite curiosity to others that are showing disrespect. One may either learn something valuable, or at least resist taking on the energy.
- Self-Indemnification The best nurture is a relationship in which a child feels he or she can do no real wrong as far as the adult is concerned. The adult is responsible for making sure that the environment is safe for this to be true, and for absorbing small inconveniences. Adults with basic fault did not have enough of this, and are presently constantly finding fault with themselves, and hopelessly trying to manage or prevent small inconveniences others may experience from their actions. But we are all inconvenienced by each other, this is the human condition. Self-indemnification is the conscious determination to proceed as though one felt that one's actions were good (which of course actually is the case) and let others manage their own inconvenience. This is part of self-acceptance. Unconditional acceptance (actually possible, if rare) is different from unconditional approval (a harmful fantasy). But because non-acceptance is usually communicated to children through disapproval (or its close cousin conditional approval) with basic fault, there is a constant yearning for acceptance that is mishandled by a constant manipulation for approval.