Seeing One’s Self Through the Eyes of Shame

Alone in the basement, two teens sit side-by-side on a couch, pretending they are caught up in a movie they have both already seen.  Their minds couldn’t be further from the plot, as the film was only an excuse to be near one another.  Inwardly, each obsesses over the mutual contact; the subtle pressure of adjacent arms and legs.  As they internalize their desire to increase contact, each begins to interpret the other’s present inaction as deliberate inattention or even rejection.  The resulting separation effectively dissuades the young lovers from acting upon their longing for intimacy, yet the longing persists and is intensified by its inhibition.  Such inner torment, confusion and disappointment is known by many as shame.

Psychologist Silvan Tomkins defines shame as “an innate auxiliary affect and a specific inhibitor of continuing interest” (134).  It maintains an “impediment to communication” in response to barriers against intimacy (Tomkins 135).  Without a persistent interest to share in the mind and experiences of another person, shame cannot be felt.  It must come from some disruption of the collective self, such as the failure to emulate the mind of another, or the discovery of a misrepresented self produced in that emulated mind.  By studying shame and its subtleties, one can better understand the self as a social and collective entity, which emerges from dynamic experiences such as the intimate sharing of affects.

According to Tomkins, “the face and particularly the eyes are the primary communicators and receivers of all affects” (147).  The eyes “perceive” affective communication, while the shifting muscles around the eyes communicate one’s internalized affects to others (Tomkins 137).  When two people stare into each other’s eyes, they see both a signature of another mind as well as a reflection of their own.  Psychologist Daniel Stern would call this “two-way sharing” – that is “I know that you know that I know” (Stern 43).  If successful, such a complex merging of object and subject can validate the collective sense of self.  But failure to do so will challenge and disturb collective identity, resulting in either shame or contempt.

If I perceive your mind, and account for your perception of me, I will have considered an alternate version of myself, distinct from my fundamental self-consciousness.  If there is a disagreement between these two selves, I am faced with three options.  In contempt, I may reject you and your perception of me.  In self-contempt, I may reject my own perceptions.  And alternatively, in an attempt to reconcile the two perceived identities, I may suspend both views, temporarily resisting the contradictory conclusions that are shared between us.  If our ways of seeing cannot be reconciled, and if I cannot reject either perception, I must continue to resist communicating with you.  This will certainly fail, as my resistance is itself a form of communication.  Gestures such as turning away, lowering or hiding the face, and avoiding eye contact “dramatically [call] attention to the face” and self (Tomkins 135).  Caught in this self-compounding failure, I am sure to experience shame in all of its stunning confusion.

Silvan Tomkins’ definition of pushes this confusion to the point of helplessness and defeat.  He goes as far as to compare shame with the loss of a deceased loved one, saying, “[Shame] is not unlike mourning, in which I become exquisitely aware of the self just because I will not surrender the love object which must be surrendered” (Tomkins 138).  This analogy gives substance to the philosophy of shame and the collective self.  One can imagine standing near the cold, lifeless corpse of one’s beloved, caught in a contradiction between the shared vitality one demands and the strange separation one perceives in the dead body’s static posture.  In this state, one loops back on one’s own mind, analyzing the felt isolation and helplessness, the “defeat” and the “alienation” of shame to which Stern refers on page 133 of his book.  The collective self cannot “surrender” a sustained relationship with the beloved, while, at the same time, it cannot support the inconsistency of its demands.

As shame is an individual death by contradiction, intimacy is a synchronized dynamic shared and between two merging identities.  According to Daniel Stern, the “most direct path” to this collective experience is the “sharing of vitality forms” – an exchange that he identifies as “affect attunement” (Stern 43).  Affect attunement involves the transposition of vitality forms “across different modalities” such as “seen action” or “heard sound,” yet it preserves “dynamics of the form” in their movement, timing, force, direction and spatiality (41-42).  Such transposition involves a “degree of intersubjectivity higher than faithful imitation,” because it requires not only an accurate perception, but also an integrated emulation of another mind in motion (42).  Stern gave the example of a mother understanding the physical dynamics of her infant daughter’s joy expressed in the face, and transposing her daughter’s vitality affects into auditory cooing.  Through affect attunement, both mother and child share in the intimacy of common understanding and of shared vitality dynamics.

Stern’s example was one of transposition across sensory modalities.  However, one may also consider affect attunement (and the potential for shame) through transpositions across other forms such as verbal and written language and nonverbal emotional expression.  In the latter case, affect transpositions are communicated visually through varying emotions, while the sensory mode remains constant.  Shame is then evoked when ambivalent emotions conflict.  In the case of written language, one may compose an essay and seek intimacy in the evaluation and critical response of peers as they transpose its ideas by their application.  If the “work … is not evaluated, shame may be evoked by such a barrier completion” and cognitive integration by peers (Tomkins 151).   As such, this barrier reduces intimacy and produces shame.  Additionally, if one’s peers “transform the significance” of the essay, and if they alter its dynamic form, one may also feel shamed by the misrepresentation of one’s self.  By considering these examples, one can begin to understand how affect attunement, shame, and the collective self can operate outside of sensory changes by means of distinct affect transpositions.

When considering dynamics of the collective self, one may question the relationship between the highly social experience of shame, and the individual condemnation of guilt.  Tomkins proposes that “shyness, shame, and guilt are not distinguished from each other at the level of affect” (Tomkins 133).  On page 144, he does distinguish guilt from its popular association with “internalized self-contempt,” however, and this is essential to an understanding of the collective self.  Self-contempt is a division of the self – it distances that which is pure from all aspects of the self which one finds disgusting.  In extreme cases, self-contempt can invoke complete self-denial.  Contempt, unlike guilt, does not claim ownership of or association with the object of disgust.  When this disgust is reflexive, and when one is dissociated from one’s own disgusting attributes, self-contempt fragments and destroys the collective self.  In contrast, guilt, as an expression of shame, acknowledges the unity of the self as well as its internal contradictions, its faults, and its impediments to communion with other selves.  Guilt is unique from general shame, however, in its strong association with the significance of committed actions.

It was possible that our two teenage lovers felt some hesitation to touch one another because of their moral discretion, or because of their social or personal obligation to remain “just friends.”  They did not feel guilt in their inaction, however.  They experienced the shame of their own barriers against intimacy.  Now imagine they had become sexually intimate.  The sexual act could stand as a representation of their shared identity, yet if they found that representation incomplete or inaccurate, they might begin to feel guilt, or shame applied specifically to their sexual actions.  The popular view of guilt might attribute such auxiliary affects to their transgression against an external social rule on sexual intimacy, but this is not the source of guilt, nor any form of shame.  Guilt and all of shame come from their failure to knock down those barriers that separate their individual persons, preventing them from sharing the dynamics of vitality as collective selves.

The collective self longs for mutuality, for intimacy with others by the sharing of vitality affects.  This can take place when vitality forms are communicated across transpositions in sensory, emotional, or contextual modality.  Because the primary locus of one’s vital perception and communication is the face, it is not surprising that an inhibition to intimate communication is seen as shame through its visible displays in the facial region.  Shame shows us the vulnerability of the collective self in its inability to juggle both the desire for communion with others and the realization that certain barriers make such communion impossible.  Unlike an individual feeling contempt, however, the shamed self continues to hold interest in the possibility of intimacy.  Therefore the face turns red with the evident failure, as a beacon of self-awareness and an invitation to share in the unique and complex vitality that sets the human self apart.