Breaking The Spell of Shame and The Freedom To Live Life

Peter Shabad, Ph.D.
Northwestern University Medical School

On a number of occasions I have told a story that is emblematic of my upbringing. When I was five years old, I had a nightmare about the evil witch after seeing the Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. To this day, I remember the cackling profile of the witch looming monstrously before my eyes. I cried out for help and my mother) came in to calm me down. Then right before leaving my room, she counseled me with these reassuring, but strangely paradoxical words of Freudian wisdom “Think about the witch, so you don’t dream about her.”

Little did I know at the time, that I was being introduced to the revolutionary paradoxes of Freud’s talking cure. That is, rather than turn tail on the dreadful monsters of which we are most afraid so that they magically disappear, only later to be ambushed by them at the most inopportune of times, we must instead face and remember them, to speak our deepest fears; it is only then when their intensity is diluted. As someone who was attempting to heal the mistrust of all that was hidden in the world, my mother encouraged open self-expression and taught me to face the “evils” of the world with a fearless directness.

Already very early in life, I was challenged to put the lessons I learned of facing the “evil witch” to the test with regard to the lurking demons of grief, and later, paranoia that haunted my mother herself. One of my earliest memories is of seeing my mother crying whenever she mentioned her father’s death at the hands of the Nazis at Auschwitz. I wondered who were these evil Nazis who murdered my grandfather and hurt my mother so deeply. My motivation to address my mother’s grief awakened in me an ethic to understand and “reform” evil. This ethic of understanding has been fundamental in forming my psychoanalytic ideals.

Seeing my mother’s grief and hearing about my grandfather’s murder introduced me to death at a very young age. Since then, I have attempted to conquer death by understanding it as well (with very little success, I might add). As a psychoanalyst, I have viewed death as a limit that both frames and highlights the preciously brief moments we have at our disposal. As we muddle uncertainly from one moment to the next and confronted with the choices of life, we can use the projected image of ourselves on our deathbeds as a mirror reflecting back to us a question to which we are always answerable: “Are you living the way you would like?” Our deaths, intertwined as they are with our lives, are a means of holding our feet as unique individuals to the fires of our conscience, “To thine own self be true.”

When a patient walks into my office, her relationship between who she is now and the horizon of her death is at the forefront of my mind. As a psychoanalyst, I consider myself responsible for offering my personhood as a joint participant to each one of my patients to help them fulfill themselves before they die.

The personal and clinical value I place on living a fulfilled life before we die has led me to a concern with the ways in which the tragedy of shame wreaks wasteful havoc in people’s lives. Shame is tragic because although it is rooted in an individual’s very real experiences of trauma, loss, and disillusionment, the victim, in her omnipotence, takes an excessive burden of responsibility for the misfortunes that fate may have visited upon her. Whether a person has been victimized by a humiliating parent or sexual abuse or by an ethnic slur, the victim often transforms the limitations implicit in the creature helplessness and of being only human into self-blame and a sense of personal failure. Shame derives from a tragic misunderstanding: There is nothing fundamentally wrong with us except for the fact that we believe, as if under the spell of a hypnotic trance, that there is something fundamentally wrong with us.

Whether a person is fearful of the shadows of their imagined badness, or expects the worst of strangers they have never met before, shame and its cover of prideful bluff concern me especially because they prevent us from living the lives we would like to live, instead leading us down an endlessly circular path of a misbegotten life.

Life’s opportunities pass by quickly as one invests time and energy in waiting for an apology that is never forthcoming, or waiting for the other person to call first, or in coercing love from someone who does not give it freely. It is for this reason that I believe the crux of analytic work lies in the juncture, between the fundamental traumas, losses, and disappointments of our lives and their omnipotent transformation into the moral self-recriminations of shame or externalizing judgments of blame.

In this sense, I believe that the psychoanalysts must take a morally radically accepting view toward the freedom of a patient’s inner life. I can think the most horrifying thoughts about killing babies or having sex with my children, and still believe that I am a good person. There is no moral content to our inner life. It is only when we prohibit our freedom to imagine, think, or feel that our self-oppressiveness eventually backfires in the entitled resentments and vindictiveness of doing violence to others.

If we were to use the metaphor of an extended family for the self, then all the wayward, orphaned “children” of disowned thoughts, images, and feelings that were placed in exile must be welcomed back into the lifeblood of the self’s family. It is especially the “black-sheep” children of unrealized and therefore shamed desires, which never found a home in the outside world that must be brought back into the fold.

Within this freedom of imaginative inner space, one may create or think or feel anything and everything one’s heart desires, for better and for worse, without fear that those thoughts or feelings must lead to actions in the outside world. It is when we learn to accept those aspects of ourselves we most fear, the shadows of the stranger in our midst, we begin to realize that the stranger is us.

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