Shame on who? And what to do about it.
N. Szajnberg, MD Intro to Victor Chu’s Shanghai Congress Paper
Victor Chu, born in China has been practicing as a psychoanalyst and also is a Zen meditator. He attended the Shanghai IPA meeting and presented this paper on Shame, a major concern in China.
He writes an informal note about his subsequent visit with his German-born wife and daughter as they continued on a Zen tour of China: Thanks for the immediate response. Of course you can publish my paper on IP.net. It’s a great honor for me.
“The zen visit was wonderful. We visited Hangzhou, a beautiful city situated at the West Lake, with favorable winds coming from the East. We went by bus to a marvelous zen temple on a mountain surrounded by bamboo trees. It was such a quiet and serene place.
Back in the city I joined a Tai Chi group practicing in the morning. I have been doing Tai Chi since the late 70s, so it was like coming home. Besides, you can rent a bike to go everywhere you want……”
Here is his paper on Shame. As I read it, I asked him about the more developmentally normative expriences of shame that three-year olds manifest. But, let’s hear his thoughts.
N. Szajnberg, MDThe
Psychology of Shame
by Dr. Victor Chu£¨ÖìÎ¬µÂ£©, Germany
Shame is a major cause of delusions and suppression. The origins of shame are: (1) discrimination and
social exclusion, (2) family disgrace, (3) emotional, physical or sexual abuse. In order to heal shame,
therapeutic and group support is needed.
Shame is the emotion that is most involved in the development and maintenance of delusions and
Shame is the feeling of being naked and exposed ¨C in front of oneself and in front of the world.
Shame makes us look away. A shameful person does not want to see and be seen. He covered his
face in shame, so he often does not know how the reality looks like. At the same time he does not
want be seen by others. His inner world is full of critical, inquiring eyes. He suspects to be seen
through by everyone he encounters. Shame involves the whole person, not just certain behaviors or
characteristics. You can change your own behavior, but you cannot replace a whole person.
Therefore a shameful person has the feeling that he cannot do anything to be accepted by others.
Along with the exposure there is the threat of being excluded from family or society: “Look at him!
He does not belong to us!” A shameful person feels like an outcast, unworthy of being accepted in his
The Origins of Shame
What causes shame? First of all shame is caused by discrimination and social exclusion: if somebody
looks different than the majority of people around him, or if his behavior differs from the norms of
the society, he is easily excluded. The second cause for shame is family disgrace. The third cause is
the experience of violations ©\ these include emotional, physical and sexual abuse.
Discrimination, Shame and Identity Conflict
In every culture there is an unspoken demand for uniformity: you are accepted if you conform to the
rules of society. If you don¡¯t, you are often negatively sanctioned. You get insulted, ridiculed,
humiliated or rejected.
Discrimination is an innate behavior ©\ we can already see this phenomenon among children. Those
children who are different from the others are often discriminated, e.g. if they are too small or too
tall, if they come from another country, if they have another skin color, if they speak another
language or dialect. Although they can do nothing about their appearance or their innate attributes
they feel ashamed. Children tend to identify with their peers. They identify themselves with those
who despise them. So they end up rejecting themselves. Thus shame is a double rejection of the self:
Shameful people are devalued by others, and they devalue themselves. They abandon themselves.
Coping with Shame
There are three ways for shameful people to deal with this humiliating situation: they can give in,
they can protest, or they can disguise themselves. The first ones resign and withdraw from society.
They hide themselves and try to make themselves invisible. In this way they avoid being rejected.
The second ones stand up and defend themselves: they might fight physically or legally against being
discriminated and insist on their right to be treated equally. This is a difficult and thorny path. Those
who protest openly face ridicule, oppression and persecution ¨C as in the case of Mahatma Gandhi,
Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela. But this is the only way for the victims of discrimination to
regain their dignity.
The third way to deal with discrimination is to disguise oneself. You can put on an arrogant mask. Or
you can adapt to the standards of your surrounding and pretend not to be different from the
majority of the people around you. You may even deny your own identity and origin. Emigrants face
this problem. Wherever people are displaced due to political or economic reasons they encounter
problems of identity. You have to build a new life in the host country and adapt to its norms and life
style. At the same time you would like to preserve your original identity. So you feel guilty towards
your home country. You feel like a traitor even if you had to leave your home against your will. In
these cases people feel both ashamed towards their home country as well as towards their host
But even in a family discrimination happens. Here are two examples:
©\ A girl is rejected by her father because he wanted a son. She grew up as a half©\boy, climbing trees
and playing football with boy. As a woman she rejected marriage and behaved like a man.
©\ A man makes a brilliant career. He marries the daughter of a respected family. Although he makes a
brilliant appearance everywhere, he often feels out of place because he comes from humble
backgrounds. He is constantly afraid to betray himself by his behavior or his accent.
An even deeper shame arises if one is considered by his family or clan as a disgrace. Shame is the
feeling that one is no longer supported and protected by the solidarity of the community he belongs
to. He suddenly stands all alone. This is the worst social punishment of all: to be expelled from one¡¯s
own clan. When even the own parents and siblings turn away from you, it is like a social death.
How comes that families exclude particular members? Families and clans maintain themselves
through blood relations. Therefore, it has always been important for families that you marry the right
partner. If your partner matches to your background, it gives credit to the family. The whole family
feels honored. When you choose a partner who does not match the family¡¯s standard, or if you get
an illegitimate child, it brings shame on the family. The whole family feels dishonored and
humiliated. It threatens the position of the family in the community.
That is why a family which is threatened by dishonor excludes the family member who brings
disgrace to the family. It is an attempt to restore the family¡¯s honor. Some families even kill a person
who brings disgrace to the family. It is like a kind of blood sacrifice.
This process can be diagnosed as a collective projection. By prosecuting a scapegoat the family tries
to free themselves from the disgrace. This view is undoubtedly true, but it falls short. Taboos exist in
every culture. They serve as a means to preserve the collective identity. Others taboos are rooted in
the religious beliefs of the community. They serve as a link to the god or gods they worship.
Therefore taboos can be regarded as “sacred” standards. Their violation is an offence against divine
order and has to be sanctioned.
At the same time, family traditions change as the times change. An example: Up until the sixties
intermarriage between Catholics and Protestants in Germany was regarded as a disgrace. Nowadays
most young people do not worry anymore about marrying a person of a different religion.
Nevertheless, the Catholic Church still regards divorce as a sin, and a divorced person is not allowed
to receive the holy sacraments. He is therefore expelled out of the Catholic community.
Shame caused by violation of intimate boundaries
Now we come to the third most important cause of shame: abuse. Abuse is defined as a violation of
the emotional, physical or sexual boundaries of a child or a dependent person by a parent or any
other responsible person.
Abuse always happens in an unequal power relationship, e.g. between parents and children, older
and younger siblings, teachers and students, doctors and patients, and so on. The perpetrator is a
person who has formerly been responsible for the welfare of their victim. So the victim trusts him. He
allows him to get close to him.
This gives the perpetrator the opportunity to take advantage of their power and to satisfy their own
needs. Emotional or sexual exploitation serves the gratification of the perpetrator. Hence, a reverse
takes place: Originally the relationship was supposed to serve the needs of the dependent person.
Now it serves the needs of the person in power. Thus, abuse is a betrayal of the original relationship.
The responsibility for the abuse always lies on the side of the perpetrator.
Prejudices and myths about abuse
It is important to keep this definition of abuse in mind, when you work with victims or perpetrators,
because many myths are created around the issue of abuse. Nowhere else will you find so many lies.
It is striking that the vast majority of myths about abuse excuses the perpetrator and gives the
responsibility to the victim. In a patriarchal society, sexual abuse is still considered a minor offense.
The (mostly male) perpetrators get away with it without any punishment. In contrast, the victim
faces humiliating interrogation and medical check©\ups. This often leads to a re©\traumatisation, that is
a repetition of the violation in another form.
The creation of shame: Role reversal, the victim feels responsible for the perpetrator
Family therapy has shown another psychological factor concerning abuse: the ¡°parentification¡± of
the child in a dysfunctional family. If the parents are sick, handicapped, depressed or alcoholics , the
child takes the role of parents and begins to take care of their own parents (hence the term
“parentification”). When an emotionally or sexually needy parent abuses the child, the child feels
obliged to meet the parent’s need for affection, physical intimacy and sexuality. The abused victim
feels responsible for the welfare of the offender. This attitude of the child is probably the real reason
why in many cases of abuse the victim blames himself and feels ashamed.
We can now see how important it is to cure our shame. Shame obstructs our view of reality and
destroys our intimate relationships. Finding the way out of shame is not easy. It is actually like
groping in the fog.
When we face our shame, we will encounter loneliness, defiance, self©\harm, self©\abuse, addiction,
depression and violence. All this can be part of the steps on the winding road to our self. Therefore,
the first important thing is patience.
The second thing we need is: to follow our inner compass. Even in the life of a seriously disturbed
person there are times in which he sees clearly, times in which he clearly sees himself and his
situation. Such moments may last only seconds or minutes, but they are enough to show us the
A special guide is our body. In our physical sensations, especially in our pains, are stored all our life
experiences. They give us clues to what happened to us. Therefore it is essential to listen to the
signals of our body. Our mind may misguide us, never our bodies.
The third thing we need are people who are sympathetic and are willing to accompany us on the long
and arduous journey to healing. When you’re full of shame, it’s hard to trust anyone. But it is crucial
to get support from others. It could be a single person, it could be a therapist, it could also be a
supportive group of co©\patients who have suffered likewise. The knowledge that you are not alone,
the knowledge that others share your shame dissolves your solitude. Once you see how others are
also struggling to recover, you get more confidence and courage to stay on the path to recovery.
The goal is to heal our self. The wounds of shame need time to heal. They heal gradually. We can
learn to take better care of our intimate boundaries, so we don¡¯t get hurt again. We can carefully
open for new contacts and relationships. And we can appreciate and love. This is the best cure for
shame. I have once said: “The most valuable parts of ourselves are hidden within us in our shame.
But we need to free them from their destructive proportions. ”
Bass, Ellen, Davis, Laura: The Courage to Heal, 2008
Bugental, James: The Art of the Psychotherapist, 1987
Chu, Victor, de las Heras, Brigitta: Scham und Leidenschaft (Shame and Passion), 1994
Fossum, Merle A., Mason, Marilyn J.: Facing Shame: Families in Recovery, 1989
Goleman, Daniel: Vital Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self©\Deception, 1996
Imber©\Black, Evan: Secrets in Families and Family Therapy, 1993
Kaufman, Gershen: Shame: The Power of Caring, 1991
Levine, Peter A.: Waking the Tiger: Healing Trauma: The Innate Capacity to Transform Overwhelming
Lew, Mike: Victims No Longer: The Classic Guide for Men Recovering from Sexual Child Abuse, 2004
Wurmser, Leon: The Mask of Shame, 1981
Dr.med. Dipl.psych. Victor Chu£¨ÖìÎ¬µÂ£©
Born in Shanghai 1946, grew up in Hong Kong, living in Germany since 1961. Studied medicine and
psychology in Frankfurt/Main and Heidelberg. Trained in psychoanalytic therapy, Gestalt therapy,
family therapy. Private practice since 1977. President of the German Association for Gestalt Therapy
(DVG) from 1986 to 1991. Member of the German©\Chinese Academy for Psychotherapy
(µÂÖÐÐÄÀíÖÎÁÆÑÐ¾¿Ôº). Author of 9 books, included books about the treatment of shame,
partnership, growing up and family secrets.
Wiesenbacher Str. 52