By Norman M. Brown, Ph.D.

This the third in the series, Shame is Especially Useful. To make good use of this novel approach to relationships the other two blogs are essential. Blog 2 mapped the compass of shame: four clusters of habit patterns that normally respond to shame–withdrawal, attack-self, avoidance and attack-other. There we explored the first two, with some of their results and healthy ways of acting on them. Now we’ll survey the other two.

Avoidance as Character Building

In contrast with withdrawal, that pulls back from the shame scene, and attack-self, that takes on blame and depression, avoidance stays near the shame, but avoids seeking to repair the problem but seeks instead many ways to replace unpleasant feelings with good ones, like pride, excitement, creative flow, pleasure, laughter and even ecstasy. Little boys are bound to feel deficient compared to bigger kids and adults (shame), so they turn to anything they do well (like joking) or love (like bicycling) to shelter in enjoyment. These juvenile habits are threads they’ll weave into their character as they grow up.

Beset by play-shaming from other boys and feeling helpless to talk to girls, as boys we pieced together self-esteem from what we were good at. I made out with academics and tennis, but I barely spoke to any girl in all of high school. Lots of guys did athletics or got good at computers and video games, and many pumped up their muscles or fooled around with alcohol and drugs. We climbed out of our pit of loser and wimp by intensely honing our own personal skills, like carpentry, mechanics, electronics, graphics, rock music or rap, something to be proud of. Most of us found either groups of mutual admirers or a friend or two who liked what we liked.

We also had—and still have–solo activities that are shame-sculpted because they repeatedly restore us from social wounding to fascination, flow and serenity, such as reading or writing, admiring or making art, and immersing in or making music. Muscular workouts also dissolve the day’s shame-bruises by literally sculpting us through absorbing our bodies in rhythmic fulfillment.

Sexuality is Related to Shame

Similar to physical workouts for positive feeling is self-loving sex with its slow, sensual rhythms and enchanting erogenous touch. For the structure of sexual self-love is rooted in the syntax of excitement, pleasure and shame derived from childhood arousal. Boy toddlers’ sexual arousal is far more intense and demanding than girls’, despite the precarious privacy in which they live. Thus some early experiments with self-stimulation or “doctor-play” are sure to be interrupted by chance or intrusive others, thus triggering shame moments prior to conscious memory. From these encounters between arousal and shame we build habitual sex fantasies that move us into trance and ecstatic joy.1 That’s why we seek complete privacy to enact our favorite scenes. But for our sexual style to mature we must modify the solo performance to achieve a satisfying pair dance. And as a ripple effect, anything that arouses shame in public can trigger an urge to withdraw and seek a habitual sex trance. And an interruption or mismatch in pair sex relations can trigger painful shame that leads to withdrawal and further compass of shame reactions, unless we can express our vulnerability and then restore our intimacy instead. In fact a thorough and welcoming understanding of shame in intimate relations can enhance both sex and love relations.

Not only workaholism in pursuit of excellence but any habit that reliably replaces negative with positive feelings can become addictive, whether via endorphins or aided by an intoxicant. Both pleasure and excitement can become addictions. Thus extreme sports, with high physical arousal (as in bicycle racing, cocaine and speed) and flirting with fear, as well as sensory trance (as in massage, music-making and alcohol or opiates) enable us to avoid the vulnerability of dealing with social discord. So we don’t get the practice we need when it comes time to repair our most needed relationships.

Avoidance in Pandemic Confinement

Our pandemic-based social isolation produces a subtle but extreme emotional ostracism that pushes avoidance strategies into working overtime. Thus beyond self-pleasuring and intense devotion to work we are driven to escape into any intensely focused activity. So many also binge on food, music or entertainment. Binging on episodic entertainment makes us entrained by or addicted to a story, that is hypnotically entranced in an alternative reality that frees us from accumulating deprivations of our solitary confinement. The most successful episodic stories keep us swinging between many strong emotions in rapid succession: fascinating searches, arousing sex, tense uncertainty, clashing loyalties and feelings, life-threatening emergencies, and sudden surprises, plot twists, disgusting extremes of gore and violent attacks. Yet this turmoil makes more precious the vicarious video moments of longing, grief, courage and pure love.

The Attack-Other Shame Response is a Central Issue for Men

Testosterone may foster early preschoolers’ sex differences in dealing with shame: A videotape study of toddlers (1.5-3 years old) at play in a New York preschool2 showed boys who were responding to their observing mothers’ disapproval (shame) were far more likely than girl toddlers to intensify their play while ignoring Mom’s disapproval—an avoidance  response. But if their mother got more confrontive, boys would play even more furiously or throw the toy against a wall, apparently in an attack-other response, though not aimed specifically at Mom. In fact, early childhood research has found that anger can emerge without responding to another person’s anger, but just from boys’ testosterone and a frustrating sensory and emotional overload, that is accumulated pain, fear, sorrow, shame, etc. And if a preschool boy doesn’t learn to express his emotional overload to safe, receptive adults, he will keep it inside and develop an attack-outward expressive habit as a man. When emotionally overloaded, women are likely to cry; men who habitually repress crying will enrage instead.

If we enter adulthood without learning how to recognize the shame, sorrow, and other social emotions that lead to anger and seek out their sources we won’t be equipped for repairing relationships. For anger is the primary fuel for conflict, from pairs to families and nations, and the direct path to destroying relationships.

Though we may normally be less aware than women of rifts in our relationships (avoidance) we can begin to regularly inquire into our habitual avoidance and attack-other responses as possible signals of discord in our social context. For then we can begin working with shame, fear, sorrow, empathy etc. as the wider emotional repertoire needed for repair. Instead of normally guessing whose fault the pain must be, we will get farther restoring our harmony with others if we approach with intention to build a bridge across the fault-zone that has opened between us. The common emotional differences between men and women will also be less troubling and our gender relations more rewarding if we begin to welcome and be curious about our own experiences of shame, sorrow, fear and surprise.

  1. Stoller, RJ “Pornography: Daydreams to cure humiliation” in DL Nathanson (Ed) The many faces of shame. New York: Guilford, p292-307.
  2. Olesker W (1990). Sex differences during the early separation-individuation process. J Am Psychoanalytic Assoc 38(2), 325-346. Here is very early evidence for women’s lead in social maturation that many men don’t realize and learn to embrace until old age.
3. Shame’s Role in Character Building and Conflict. Avoidance and Attack-Other.

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