Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Shame and Guilt: Self-Reflexive Affects from the Perspective of Relationship and Reciprocity

Academic journal article American Journal of Psychotherapy

Shame and Guilt: Self-Reflexive Affects from the Perspective of Relationship and Reciprocity

Article excerpt

The understanding of shame and guilt proposed here draws upon the concept of reciprocity to extend approaches based on object relations and structural theory. Shame is understood as an interface affect manifested in the context of external interaction. It constitutes the relational structure of self-consciousness by the internalization of a reciprocal relationship between subject and object. By contrast, guilt is an affective manifestation caused by the differentiation of the subject from a fusion of self and the other. First, it precipitates a disruption between subject and object. Second, it is used to restore oneness by regression.


Although there are a variety of reasons why the relationship between shame and guilt has been given marginal attention (Seidler, 1997, 2000), this paper focuses on a reason I consider to be of central significance: traditional object relations theory is unsuitable for the conceptualization of genuinely reciprocal processes. It overlooks the fact that a subject can only become a subject by its relation to an object, and vice versa. Though undoubtedly valuable in other contexts, object relations theory cannot conceptualize the full extent of the interplay between two participants in a relationship. Such a relationship is best understood as the product of the interaction between the two participants. Traditional object relations theory only captures reciprocal processes by a change of perspective on the part of the observer. One participant in the interaction is referred to as "subject" and the other as "object", then the process is reversed. Reciprocal relationships are considered sequentially, with the observer's perspective changing the subject into an object, and so on. This approach cannot conceptualize the processes involved in the change of view as a product of an interaction between die two individuals.

There is a need to elaborate on a modified approach, allowing us to describe a reciprocal processes in a way that improves our understanding of affects that resist description. To this end, I offer a theory of alterity that shows how the subject is constituted by acts of reciprocal perception within the context of an interaction. It demonstrates how the symbolically represented self-relation configuration emerges from reciprocal interactional relationships as a dialogic structure of the self. In affective terms, self-relation is organized around shame, whereas the equally reciprocal external relation (the relation to others) is organized around the guilt affect. Thus, these emotions can be understood as processes that are not located solely within the individual but are comparable to networks: their emergence, regulation, and effects take place through reciprocal exchange processes among two or more persons. Because of the duality between the internal and the external, and the interplay between subject and object (notably in connection with shame), I propose designating this affect as an interface affect.


Wurmser (1981) distinguishes three forms of shame characterized by their different relationships to time. He speaks of shame anxiety, when the event around which shame revolves has not yet occurred. If the event has occurred, he speaks of the "shame affect proper". Finally, he goes on to describe the attitude he refers to as "bashfulness", which is designed to guard against the otJier two. The experience of shame oscillates between two poles. Wurmser uses the term "subject pole" to refer to whatever causes shame and "object pole" to describe the witness of that shame. This witness looks with contempt on the person who feels ashamed. For Wurmser, the source of the shame affect is the superego-the internalized object pole. A further requisite he posits is a standard associated widi the object pole, which, if I understand him correcdy, he defines in terms of ideals. According to Wurmser, then, shame is provoked by the superego. …

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