“Looking at Shame”. Interview to Benjamin Kilborne
Di Cioccio. Mr Kilborne, shame is a feeling and an experience on which you spent time in the last years, marking its relation with trauma. You wrote: <<Shame is being caught with one’s pants down in one’s own eyes>>, and this suggests us to work on how it is related to looking and being seen.
Could you introduce us to the role of the other’s look in the genesis of “being ashamed”?
Kilborne. This is a fundamental question, and one that is not easily answered. Let me begin by saying that our notion of identity is based in part on what we know and fantasize about what others see of us. So who we are depends in part on how we are seen. And how we imagine we are seen.
But how can we know how we are seen?
Obviously we can only know so much, putting together how we feel, how we imagine we are seen, how much we can hide, etc. All this constitutes fertile ground for shame in the limitations of our own ability to control the ways we are seen. Which suggests that others can always catch us by surprise having seen us in ways we could not have imagined or find threatening. Or that we find others challenge our assumptions about ourselves by revealing what we would rather not have had seen.
This is an essential part of the Oedipus’ tragedy and sheds light on why he put his eyes out.
Di Cioccio. Oedipus put his eyes out, and then the only way he has to exist is to make is shameful story recognizable through a body that gave up glance.
Do you think it’s possible to develop further this point?
Kilborne. What does the blinding of Oedipus mean? Many things.
First it means that Oedipus cannot stand to feel others looking at him, so he blinds himself so as to blot out the eyes of the others. Then it means horror at what the eyes see, so they have to be killed. It also means that Oedipus feels himself to have been so blind (e.g., to the prophecies of Tiresia) that he actually blinds himself to act out
his psychic blindness. Also it means that Oedipus has given up his ties to others and is alone in his darkness.
Di Cioccio. Mr Kilborne, in your work titled “The Evil Eye, Envy, and Shame” (2007), anthropology met psychoanalysis on the theme of lethal look. The relation between the fear of being discovered, disgraced, and that physical reaction out of control, of “being red faced”, evokes the original sin of Adam and Eve.
Could we take this scene that portrays the “primitive” nature of what is lived by human being, as shameful?
Kilborne. Genesis is particularly evocative with respect to shame. After all God is supposed to be looking, watching every action of Adam and Eve. Yet he missed the crucial temptation and had to ask Adam why he was hiding. To which Adam replied that he felt naked. Then God got the idea. So it was Adam’s nakedness along with the feeling of disgrace that was seen by God, and not the temptation. This suggests that when our nakedness is felt to be seen by others, we are ashamed. Also, perhaps, it can be felt (and known) only when seen by others: which brings us back to the quandary about identity, shame, and the look of the other.
Di Cioccio. This feeling of being naked, of being discovered by another that unveils what is hidden, because nobody has to see it as what concerns us instead, introduces your interpretation about the double dimension of shame in its way of being toxic or humanizing.
Could you explain the difference?
Kilborne. When shame becomes toxic it is evaluated negatively as the mark of a degrading weakness or deficiency. By contrast, when it can be born as an expression of human weakness and limitation to another human being, it can be humanizing. In the first case, shame drives one inward, to greater and greater humiliation and intolerance of weakness which others continually threaten to make palpable. With toxic shame, as Sartre said (1944), hell is other people, and other people are hell. With humanizing shame, feelings of limitation carry with them the recognition of dependency (along with gratitude for the dependability of another). These feelings nourish relationships and strengthen human bonds.
Di Cioccio. The Body lives shame as the time of maximum subject’s embarrassment.
How can the importance of body image in the development of the individual identity, help us understand shame as what comes to be felt since birth?
Kilborne. Like identity, body image is made up of what we know and imagine others see of us combined with what we see and imagine of ourselves. But with body image we are faced with physical manifestations and what these are felt to mean.
In the case of eating disorders, the physical manifestations are mis-perceived; in the case of anorexia, people see themselves as fatter than they are.
Often we point to anorexia as the prime case of distortion in body image. But all body images are distorted in one way or another, since we can never “see” how we feel about our bodies, and others can never “feel” as we do what they see when they look at us. So the very idea that body image can be absolutely accurate is a myth. It comes alive only in the imagining.
Di Cioccio. We can say that body image comes alive only in the imagining, since child starts to look at oneself in the mirror, and takes his body as object. This seems involved in the experience of the inner condemnation that lives in shame and that is not guilt, but it is associated with the discrepancy between the way one fears one will be seen, and the way one wants to appear.
Could you say how this inner condemnation can assume a traumatic value, with regard to disappearance and the illegitimacy felt when we are not recognized as subjects?
Kilborne. The inner condemnation associated with shame can be related to the harshness of the superego which evaluates feelings. With toxic shame, as I said earlier, the superego condemns the fragility that the feeling calls up.
What is useful to emphasize here is that there are no feelings that do not come packaged with evaluations which generate other feelings.
Sometimes we think that it is possible to judge without feeling, and we represent Justice as blind. But this is not the way we live.
So the harshness of inner condemnation can traumatize because it catches us horrified at what we feel and unable to loosen the noose; inadvertently we tighten it further, like Oedipus.
Also, Oedipus is frightened of having others see him as he is (abandoned in infancy, alone, vulnerable and betrayed) rather than as the powerful king they think he is. However, he cannot rely on what others see him to be to know who he is. And in blinding himself paradoxically he asserts his identity and strikes out at the illusions he himself has nourished. As king, he can be seen by all, but he himself disappears; as a blind man he feels himself to be dependent, disgraced, helpless and abandoned.
Can there be therefore a chance that he can be recognized for the person he feels himself to be?
Clearly his tragedy moves us which, as Aristotle said, gives his persona the power to connect to others. We see ourselves in his plight. It does underscore how easily we are caught between wanting to disappear, on the one hand, and longing to be recognized, on the other.
Di Cioccio. Shameful experiences are often related with the feeling of not having a place in which stay with one’s body, and also those shameful experiences nourish an interest in what others feel: it would seem that such an interest itself depends upon a sense of place.
How then can an interest in the experience of others be encouraged while anchoring such an interest in a sense of place and identity?
Kilborne. This is a very interesting question, since it links identity and place. If we take place as meaning a place for oneself within oneself, then it would seem that it is portable and not necessarily dependent on physical place or the place another would make in his or her heart. But we know that not to be true. A place for ourselves within ourselves requires experiences (real and imagined) of feeling we have a place in another’s heart. The lines of Dickens from Bleak House (1853) come to mind. Esther remembers: “I went up to my room, and crept to bed, and laid my doll’s cheek against mine wet with tears; and holding that solitary friend upon my bosom,, cried myself to sleep. Imperfect as my understanding of my sorrow was, I knew that I had brought no joy, at any time, to anybody’s heart, and that I was to no one upon earth what Dolly was to me” (Dickens, 1853).
What this quote drives home is her imagination that this might have been otherwise, and how sad it is that it was not.
Di Cioccio. About the possibility to change toxic shame into its humanizing dimension, group therapy works since and on, this feeling. Persons who accept to start a group therapy, know what means being ashamed but decide to face the fear of being seen for what they need to hide instead, exposing themselves to the other’s look. It is interesting to see how in this field of treatment, the experience of shame can be shared with others that felt ashamed for their history as for their symptoms, in a kind of homogeneity as for example, happens in mono symptomatic groups. Then, we know how the work to “put in words shame” will help subject to leave his pathological identity: it is a first step toward the conquest of a new one, an own identity, not more pathological.
Could you say something about this transformation into humanizing shame?
What position, the psychoanalyst needs to occupy to make this change possible?
Kilborne. There are many possibilities. No doubt I will only be able to adumbrate a very few.
One approach is to call attention to a patient’s dress, body posture, voice quality, etc, so as to allow these bodily expressions to be gently and respectfully explored in the intimacy of the analytic relationship. This is difficult for many reasons. One is because of the analyst’s shame at being seen to inquire about intimate bodily experiences. As analysts and therapists, we can imagine our own shame as in part responses to our patient’s fears of shame reactions. We tend to react to toxic shame by feeling ashamed (or, conversely, by denying feelings of shame).
If patients comment on our bodies or posture or how tall we are, etc., our analytic training has taught us to treat such comments as material for transference interpretations. When we do that it becomes difficult to recognize what we are actually feeling.
Our own shame reactions as therapists who are seen to be looking are essential in the process of detoxifying the shame of our patients.
A second approach is to use tact along with sensitivity to how we may shame our patients. Our concept of tact entails fantasies of touching and being touched, fantasies that are essential in responding with tact to our patients.
These are all the more important when patients feel ashamed, that they are alone, untouchable, repugnant, dangerous, pathetic, etc.
At such times as therapists we need to be able to touch them metaphorically and sometimes literally. It is a way of reassuring them that they are human.
If we react to a patient suffering from toxic shame with avoidance or with interpretations that can be felt to be putting up a wall, we will inadvertently torture our patient with his or her toxic shame, and make it more unbearable.
On the other hand, if we can help our patients to feel that we are not backing away from them, but are, so to speak, “right there”, if we can touch them emotionally and make it clear that we are doing so out of a feeling of humanity and not of mere professionalism, then the shame can be more easily born.
Dickens, C. (1853). Casa desolata. Torino: Einaudi, 2006.
Kilborne, B. (2002). Disappearing Persons: shame and appearance. Suny Press.
Kilborne, B. (2003). Oedipus and the Oedipal. American Journal of Psychoanalysis 63(4).
Kilborne, B. (2007). The Evil Eye, Envy, and Shame. In L. Wurmser, Jarass H. Jealousy and envy. Analytic Press.
Sartre, J. P. (1944). A porte chiuse. Milano: Bompiani, 1991.
BENJAMIN KILBORNE: training and supervising analyst of the International Psychoanalytic Association, practicing in West Stock bridge, MA. PhD at the Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes/Sorbonne in Anthropology/Ethnopsychiatry, he studied with Roland Barthes. He was a Former professor of Anthropology (UCLA) and of the History and Philosophy of the Social Sciences (Sorbonne, He-SS). His second PhD in clinical psychoanalysis was awarded by the Southern California Psychoanalytic Institute. In the last twenty years he focused his research on shame dynamics, integrating literature, anthropology, and psychoanalysis with theories of human tragedy.
Author of many works, one of which is the most known Disappearing Persons: shame and appearance. Suny: 2002, has been also translated into Italian [Persone che scompaiono (2005). Roma: Borla].