Paul T. P. Wong, Ph.D.
“Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.” (Genesis 3:7, NIV)
According to this biblical story, shame, guilt, and anxiety are the tragic triangle of existential emotions that have plagued humanity ever since Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and became conscious of their sin and the need to cover themselves from God and each other. Human beings gained their independence and became as wise as God at a heavy cost: Our ancestors became conscious of their shame and guilt for the first time after breaking the divine covenant and felt anxious when they faced an uncertain future after expulsion from the Garden of Eden.
The metaphorical truth in this ancient narrative is that shame is a deep-rooted existential emotion which stems from the human condition of being conscious of our own nothingness, aloneness, and insignificance in this vast cosmos as helpless orphans.
Shame is indeed a deep-rooted emotion, hiding behind all kinds of negative emotions (Malik, in this book). “It encompasses the whole of ourselves; it generates a wish to hide, to disappear, or even to die” (Lewis, 1995, p. 2). It is the normal part of the human nature. Shame is also “among the most intense and painful affects” (Andrieux, in this book). Thus, any effective therapy would benefit from an existential positive psychology perspective (Wong, 2009), which both normalizes shame and affirms that the greatest potential for growth only comes from the most intense pain.
An Existential Perspective of Shame
The existential perspective of therapy (Wong, 2017a) has at least three advantages. First, it recognizes shame as a universal condition of human existence; therefore, all therapies need to address this fundamental existential issue. Second, it recognizes the common humanity and human frailty of all human beings; therefore, this consciousness should contribute to our empathy and compassion for all people, regardless of their race, culture, socioeconomic status, or physical condition. Third, it also makes us aware of the existential-spiritual core that exists in all individuals; therefore, it behoves us to tap into this spiritual resource to address mental health issues. In other words, all therapists can benefit from existential competency.
The book makes it very clear that shame permeates our entire existence, from the unconscious to the collective; and it is experienced in all situations—when we feel out of place, inferior in our social standing, inadequate in our performance, deficient in our body image, or humiliated and rejected by others. Even in places where no one is watching, we can still be haunted by fear that someone may find out our dark secret or have witnessed our shameful act.
Shame is the mother of all negative emotions. We may become angry, when we are humiliated or shamed; depressed and even suicidal, when we are ashamed of our own existence; rude and arrogant, when we want to cover up our inferior feelings; lonely and isolated, when we feel too ashamed of ourselves to reach out; addicted, when we are too ashamed to live with our failure and guilt. Aging and dying pose further challenges; we feel ashamed of the physical changes that come with advanced age, and our sense of shame becomes even more painful when we become totally dependent on others during the last stage of life. In fact, dignity therapy (Martinez et al., 2017) has been increasingly used to reduce this existential crisis in palliative care. In short, in every stage of development, we cannot achieve wholeness without first finding healing for our existential shame regarding our brokenness and nothingness.
Thus, shame is pervasive in various mental health issues. Our shame can turn into social withdrawal, helplessness, depression, addiction (Baharudin, Sumari, & Hamdani, in this book) or aggression and self-harm—all inadequate attempts to deal with the problem of shame. Therapists need to have the clinical skill to identify the source of shame and treat it as an existential emotion common to all human beings.
External and Collective Shame
Gilbert (in this book) differentiates between external and internal shame. The former refers to our thoughts about other people’s perception and opinions about us; the latter refers to self-evaluation and self-criticism. Different intervention strategies are needed for these two kinds of shame. While mindfulness and reframing can reduce both types of pain, external shame also requires challenges to a toxic culture, such as discrimination and stigmatization.
External shame is often associated with social sanction and collective shame, as shown by Mayer’s chapter (in this book) on the German society. Her chapter reminds us of the importance of a historical understanding of collective shame. For example, the best way to understand Chinese sensitivity to slights from the West as well as the current Chinese nationalism is to remember the 100 years of painful humiliation in the hands of foreign invaders starting from the Opium Wars. At a deeper level, collective shame is related to the tribal mentality and territorial instincts with evolutionary roots in the struggle for survival. In other words, collective shame reflects the existential shame of people who exist as social herd animals.
Another example of collective existential shame is Sueda’s chapter (in this book) on the repatriation training of Japanese returnees to their homeland. This chapter is relevant to the broader existential need of feeling fully accepted by the country accepted as one’s new home. A sense of shame because of one’s language and cultural handicap is a big part of acculturation stress, which happens to all people transplanted to a different country, whether as refugees, immigrants, or returnees.
Second Wave Positive Psychology and the Transformation of Shame
This book is a logical next step since Vanderheiden and Mayer’s (2017) first book on the nature of shame across cultures. Their shift from pathology to health and wellbeing is consistent with the perspective of second wave positive psychology (PP 2.0; Wong, 2011). More specifically, I (Wong, 2017b) have pointed out that their first book on the nature of shame recognizes that all emotions are dualistic in nature, with both healthy and unhealthy sides. Instead of focusing on the up side of negative emotions, PP 2.0 maintains that well-being is based on how we manage the polarities of each emotion in order to achieve optimal wellbeing. Moreover, their first book also recognizes that there are both intrapsychic and interpersonal dimensions of the dark side of human existence. The intrapsychic dark side may include abuse or a damaged ego due to personal handicaps. The interpersonal dark side of existence includes the accumulated toxic experiences of rejection, bullying, marginalization, and alienation. Thus, PP 2.0 emphasizes the need to embrace the dark side as a necessary gateway to resilience and flourishing.
For the present book by Vanderheiden and Mayer, I also want to mention that, in addition to existential positive psychology (Wong, 2009), PP 2.0 also include a cross-cultural positive and indigenous psychology (Wong, 2013). PP 2.0 acknowledges that although there is only one human nature, there are many expressions and experiences across different cultures.
This book is encyclopedic in coverage, covering nine major themes involving different contexts, theoretical frameworks, and modalities of shame therapy. To name a few, this book covers the elective approach (Malik, in this book), cognitive-behavioural therapy (Merkin, in this book), motivational interview (Andrieux, in this book), appreciative inquiry (Nel & Govender, in this book), mindfulness (Vanderheiden, in this book), art therapy (Sherwood, in this book), dream work (Mayer, in this book), narrative theory (Nel & Govender, in this book) and failure management (Baumann & Handrock, in this book).
It not only covers “body shame, group shame, empathetic and intimacy shame, traumatic and more shame” (Mayer & Vanderheiden, p. 31, in this book) but also discusses the extensive role culture plays “in the definition, development and experience of shame and how it is addressed, managed, and transformed” (Mayer & Vanderheiden, p. 31, in this book).
It is refreshing to see so many contributors in this book introduce their indigenous ways to treating shame (e.g., Wang & Sang; Kunin; Baharudin, Sumari, & Hamdani; in this book). Seldom does one see a clinical handbook where “researchers as well as practitioners from different countries all over the world have been invited to contribute… and explain how they address shame from within their theoretical stance, their professional practice, and their cultural perspective at various levels” (Mayer & Vanderheiden, p. 30, in this book).
Regardless of their cultures and preferred treatment modality, all contributors bring out different facets and methods of the transformation of shame from a painful experience to resilience, wellbeing, and personal growth through its remedial function (“I want to change my shameful existence and overcome my feeling of inferiority”), protective function (“I don’t want to violate my conscience and normative ethical rules”), and motivational function (“I want to become someone who no longer needs to hide from others”).
Conclusion: Existential Competency in Shame Therapy
I want to conclude my forward by returning to the theme of existential positive psychology. The painful ontological aspects of shame indicate that shame is analogous to physical pain, signaling that some injury or deficiency, such as experiences of rejections, imperfections, limitations. and brokenness. As such, it serves as “a survival strategy” (Geldenhuys, in this book). But shame is also “a life-serving signal” (Larsson, in this book), which safeguards our dignity (Boness, in this book) and motivates us to move up from the bottom of the pyramid (Ungerer, in this book). Thus, shame is a double-edged sword in therapy.
Existential competency in therapy deals with both the negative and positive aspects of shame. I can readily distill several basic skills in existential competency from various chapters. These clinical skills include:
- Self-awareness, acceptance, and acknowledgement of one’s failures and limitations
- Self-forgiveness and self-compassion
- Self-affirmation through re-authoring and reframing
- Self-affirming the intrinsic value and sacredness of life
- Taking personal responsibility for positive change
- Seeking a support group
- Focusing on the meaning people attach to events
- Seeking deeper meaning and self-transcendence
- Seeking deeper understanding through verbalizing one’s emotions and dreams
Most of the above skills are rooted in humanist-existential psychology and have been incorporated into PP 2.0 (Wong, 2016, 2017c). This book provides further evidence that therapy is more effective when it moves from a pathological focus to an existential positive psychology approach in treating shame.
- Lewis, M. (1995). Shame: The exposed self. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.
- Martínez, M., Arantzamendi, M., Belar, A., Carrasco, J. M., Carvajal, A., Rullán, M., & Centeno, C. (2017). ‘Dignity therapy’, a promising intervention in palliative care: A comprehensive systematic literature review. Palliative Medicine, 31(6), 492-509. https://doi.org/10.1177/0269216316665562
- Vanderheiden, E., & Mayer, C-H. (Eds.). (2017). The value of shame: Exploring a health resource in cultural contexts. Cham, CH: Springer.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2009). Existential positive psychology. In S. J. Lopez (Ed.), Encyclopedia of positive psychology (Vol. 1, pp. 361-368). Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2011). Positive psychology 2.0: Towards a balanced interactive model of the good life. Canadian Psychology, 52(2), 69-81. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0022511
- Wong, P. T. P. (2013). Positive psychology. In K. Keith (Ed.), Encyclopedia of cross-cultural psychology (pp. 1021-1026). Oxford, UK: Wiley Blackwell.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2016). Self-transcendence: A paradoxical way to become your best. International Journal of Existential Psychology and Psychotherapy, 6(1). Retrieved from http://journal.existentialpsychology.org/index.php/ExPsy/article/view/178/141
- Wong, P. T. P. (2017a). Existential theoretical framework. In A. Wenzel (Ed.), The SAGE encyclopedia of abnormal and clinical psychology (pp. 1375-1378). New York, NY: Sage.
- Wong, P. T. P. (2017b). The positive psychology of shame and the theory of PP 2.0 [Review of the book The value of shame: Exploring a health resource in cultural contexts, by E. Vanderheiden & C. H. Mayer] PsycCRITIQUES, 62(34). https://doi.org/10.1037/a0040971
- Wong, P. T. P. (2017c). Meaning-centered approach to research and therapy, second wave positive psychology, and the future of humanistic psychology. The Humanistic Psychologist, 45(3), 207-216. https://doi.org/10.1037/hum0000062
Wong. P. T. P. (in press), From shame to wholeness: An existential positive psychology perspective. In C.-H. Mayer, & E. Vanderheiden (Eds.), The bright side of shame: Transforming and growing through practical applications in cultural contexts.