Those who have experienced it, agree that psychopath encounters leave you feeling “slimed”. It’s a sticky, contaminated feeling on your psyche. It’s as if you’ve smelled something foul. I’ve come to understand that the feeling of slime is actually shame. Shame is a feeling so often misunderstood and unacknowledged that most of us don’t recognize it even when we experience it. There is a good reason for this: Human beings tend to hide shame more often than they hide in shame. In this article I will look at the nature of shame, how it is hidden and how it’s recognized. I will argue that the psychopath’s pathological behavior is shame in disguise and that the scapegoat mechanism is a method psychopaths have used since the foundation of civilization to deny their shame while establishing control by shaming others.
In this article, I will substitute the word “slime” for “shame” in some contexts, because I think that the average person is so disconnected emotionally from the word “shame”, that they can understand the feeling better by using the word “slime”.
Shame is Hidden.
Leon Wurmser (as cited in Pattison, 2000: 40) explains that the etymology of the word shame refers to hiding or veiling:
“The word shame is derived from a Germanic root skam/skem (Old High German scama, Anglo-Saxon scamu), with the meaning “sense of shame” being shamed, disgrace (Schande).” It is traced back to the Indo-European root kam/kem “to cover, to veil, to hide.” The prefixed s(skam) adds the reflexive meaning – “to cover oneself.” The notion of hiding is intrinsic to and inseparable from the concept of shame.”
Anything hidden must be found by looking for clues of its existence. Michael Lewis wrote, “shame is like a subatomic particle. One’s knowledge of shame is often limited to the trace it leaves.” (1995: 119)
Ironically, shame is often hidden through misdirection. In this case, the typical, downcast, shame postures are not apparent. Instead, other behaviors are observed as a response to a shaming situation. Psychoanalyst, Helen Block Lewis examined behaviors resulting in the context of a shaming situation.
Thomas Scheff writes:
“[Lewis] first discovered the link between hidden shame and anger in her earlier study (1971) of psychotherapy sessions. She used a systematic technique to locate shame episodes in several hundred transcripts, then analyzed each episode, second by second, in the context in which it occurred. Unlike most other shame researchers, Lewis made relationship issues equal to emotional ones. Her analysis of emotions is also considerably more detailed and documented than other studies. For these reasons, it provides one of the main sources for the present paper. ” (2003)
Scheff summarizes Lewis’ findings:
“although shame markers were very frequent, patient or therapist almost never used the word shame or it’s near cognates. Even the relatively mild word embarrassment was seldom used.” (2003)
Helen Lewis noted that there were two possible reactions to shame. In the first case, the patient described psychological pain to the shaming event but misidentified it, much the same way that I had misidentified shame, as “slime”. In the second case, no feeling of psychological pain was reported but the patient responded by “rapid, obsessional speech on topics that seemed slightly removed from the dialogue.” Lewis called this second response, “bypassed shame” (Scheff 2003)
The sign that there is any “sense” of shame is found in other shame markers, such as anger or fury. Lewis discovered that anger was an indicator of bypassed shame. From this research, we can see that scapegoating is a result of bypassed shame turned to anger and directed at a person perceived to be the cause of the humiliation.
There are those who argue that psychopaths have no shame whatsoever, that it simply does not exist in a psychopath. I would argue that it is bypassed shame and that, like a subatomic particle, the trace it leaves can be seen in the psychopath’s constant attempts to slime others with shame. The need to make others feel what they refuse to feel, is evident in their constant projections. Those projections are very often in the form of accusations of guilt.
Shame is Contagious.
A limited psychopathic encounter might leave one with the perplexing feeling of needing to wash oneself. I remember a married couple who always left me with a discomforting need to shower after visiting with them. I didn’t know what a psychopath was, so I couldn’t explain it. I hadn’t come up with the euphemism “slime” yet.
Listening to a psychopath lie when the truth is painfully obvious, can also leave you feeling slimed. This is a feeling of embarrassment for the liar because the liar doesn’t seem to have any embarrassment for himself. I believe this is the psychopath’s intent. He is running a test to see if you will take responsibility for his shame. Are you a willing substitute victim? Will you have enough compassion to shoulder his shame because it’s more embarrassing to watch him be shamed? A psychopath will actually put himself in a compromised position, just to watch how much it hurts you. He doesn’t feel a thing but shame is contagious so his victims do feel it.
The slime is more encompassing when the spath betrays or attacks his victim. On becoming his scapegoat, all of his shame is transferred directly into your psyche and you feel the full force of what can only be described as pure evil. The psychopath I knew, during his last con said, “you know, it’s not good for you to get so much pleasure from other people’s pain.” I recognized it as projection but it still slimed me as I became aware of the feeling he was trying to expel and how horrific it was.
Shame is Sabotage: An unexpected interruption of function.
Shame is bitter irony. It’s the incongruity of expecting one thing and receiving another. Ironically, Eve bit into the fruit expecting to become like God and instead became ashamed. She expected nectar and got maggots. She got slimed.
Irony is defined as “mockery of something or someone. The essential feature of irony is the indirect presentation of a contradiction between an action or expression and the context in which it occurs”
To be fooled or mocked is a shaming experience. If we can see the humor in irony, it dissipates the shame, but if we can’t, it’s described as bitter irony. The element of surprise and incongruity, in shame –as in irony, is crucial. It’s important that the shaming victim was expecting the exact opposite of what they received. The 180 rule applies.
Peter Fonagy et al (as cited by Phil Mollon) ties the concepts of shame and incongruity together. The discrepancy between our perception of the world as we expect it to be and the negation of that reality, creates shame:
“Why should the brutalisation of affectional bonds, whether in the context of relationships with parents or with intimate peers, be associated with such an intense and destructive sense of self-disgust verging on self-hatred? Once again, there is a paradox: the shame concerns being treated as a physical object in the very context where special personal recognition is expected. Overwhelming mental pain is associated with experiencing a discrepancy between the representation of an actual self, based on how one is being treated, and the representation of the ideal shape of the self. The expectation of being seen and understood as a feeling and thinking person, which is created by the attachment context, clashes violently with the brutalised person’s objectification and dehumanisation. Shame is a higher order derivative of this basic affect of pain. Unbearable shame is generated through the incongruity of having one’s humanity negated, exactly when one is legitimately expecting to be cherished. [p 426]”
When your authentic self is revealed and rejected, you feel judged as defective in your core.
Sylvan Tompkins, the developer of Affect Theory, described shame as a sudden interruption of pleasure, a feeling of knocking the wind out of your sails. Tompkins theorized (as cited in Gilbert & Andrews, 1998: 5) that shame is a braking mechanism on focused interest or joy:
“I posit shame as an innate affect auxiliary response and specific inhibitor of continuing interest and enjoyment. As disgust operates only after something has been taken in, shame operates only after interest or enjoyment as been activated; it inhibits one, or the other or, both.
The innate activator of shame is the incomplete reduction of interest or joy.”
Shame interrupts your attention and refocuses it on yourself. Susan Miller (as cited in Pattison, 2000: 72) explains that the shamed person becomes both the judge and the judged as he perceives himself as less worthy than he had assumed himself to be.
‘The particular kind of misery-about-the-self that gives shame its distinctive feel does seem to depend on some sense, however vague, of the self standing before another and potentially visible to another’
Helen Lewis (as cited in Pattison, 2000: 73) also mentions this theme of duality within one person. She notes that the duality interrupts normal functioning as the attention is shifted from external to internal:
“There is a sense of being split between the ‘other’ and the self, between affect and cognition. This inhibits the functioning of the self . Self-functioning is usually smooth, ‘silent’, unnoticed and unproblematic; one is unaware of one’s self most of the time. In shame however, it is disrupted so that the self becomes ‘noisy’ and the sole focus of attention. There is an acute sense of dividedness or doubleness as the self evaluates itself.”
Shame is Recursive.
A shame loop occurs when one becomes ashamed of being ashamed. Without some outlet for the shame, it grows and renders the shamed person dysfunctional. Thomas Scheff explains what he calls “shame spirals”:
“Most emotional responses are very brief. These responses, since they usually serve as signals to pay attention, may last only a second or two. Then how can emotions such as fear or rage last for hours? Silvan Tomkins (1963) suggested that the basis for long lasting emotions was what he called emotion “binds”: one emotion being bound by another, particularly by shame. Helen Lewis (1971) made a similar suggestion. She used the term “feeling traps.” Again, her specific example involved shame: she thought that shame could be masked by anger, but then heightened by shame about being angry, and so on.
Although not stated explicitly by Tomkins or Lewis, both seem to imply that emotions can form closed loops, a self-perpetuating emotional episode that refuses to subside. A familiar example are people who are “blushers.” They are so self-conscious about their blushing that they are ashamed of it. But their shame about blushing increases the blush, and so on. This particular example suggests a loop that is not mentioned by either Tomkins or Lewis: shame/shame. But it is this loop, I believe, that gives rise to the most prevalent form of shame spirals, those that lead to blankness and withdrawal, as in the case of Sennett and Cobb’s working class men.” (2003)
Once a person is over the initial shock of being shamed, there are ways to prevent the shame from becoming a cycle of recursive shame. Probably the most healthy way is to be able to laugh at the irony and at yourself. I’ve actually short circuited a psychopath’s attempts to slime me, by using uncontrollable laughter. He was unable to insert his slime while I was laughing at myself and my situation.
Conversely, a psychopath bypasses his shame by becoming angry and directing that anger outward, toward a scapegoat. Very likely, the psychopath is completely unaware of feeling any shame. When he says, “she deserved it” or “he had it coming”, the psychopath has convinced himself that it’s true.
To the debate about whether a psychopath has no shame or is bypassing it, I’d like to add a story from my own experience. A psychopath was driving his car and I was a passenger in it, when we were abruptly cut off by another car. It was a frightening few moments. The psychopath reacted to avoid the collision and regained control of his car. I had expected a curse or other angry reaction as any normal person would have to a near miss. But there was absolutely no sign whatsoever of any affect. He didn’t flinch. His breathing didn’t even change. Yet, our German Shepherd who was in the back of the hatchback, did react. He whimpered and crawled to the back of the car as far from the psychopath as he could, cowering in fear. The psychopath might not feel his emotions but his dog can. It’s likely the dog remembered having been scapegoated before.
There is nothing secret about the fact that shame is a method of control or that power addiction is a classic psychopathic trait. Violence and dehumanization are commonly used by psychopaths in all walks of life to exert control. From dictators to child abusers and all the psychopaths between, shame is the weapon of choice.
The fear of being rejected and outcast from the social bond is innate, even in infants. Humans desperately need to trust that they won’t be abandoned. Psychopaths can never trust, the social bond was never established, yet they are keenly aware of this trust in other human beings and they envy it. This trust in the social bond, establishes each person within the hierarchy of the community. It gives the person an identity with relation to the other members. The psychopaths envy our identities. Without the social bond, they don’t have one.
Their goal is to break our trust in the social bond and they do this by seeding envy. By inciting mimetic rivalry, the psychopath invites us to compare ourselves to another within the community. He tempts us to desire what the other desires. When we do, we are automatically negating our own desires. Obviously, our own desires must not be very good, if we prefer another’s desires. That is the seed of shame: to compare ourselves and find that we don’t measure up in comparison. But what else did we expect to find when we felt the need to compare ourselves in the first place? This is how the hierarchical organization creates a double bind: intrinsically, it invites comparison, which creates rivalry, envy and consequent disorganization. The source of order is then also the source of disorder.
Rene Girard has shown us that mythology reveals to us that civilization was founded on a murder and on the myth which hid the murder. Before the murder, there was envy and shame which compelled the murder of the scapegoat. Mimetic rivalry threatens to destroy the fabric of the social organization but mimesis can also unite the members by polarizing the violence toward one single member or group. Acting as one, the community expels the scapegoat to restore the equilibrium.
Jesus asks, “if Satan expels Satan, he has become divided against himself; how, then, will his kingdom stand?” (Matthew 12:26) In other words, how can violence expel violence? The answer is he cannot but he can hide the violence in ritual violence –the officially sanctioned, “good” violence of the sacrificial victim who is burdened with the responsibility of restoring order, though he was the least guilty of all.
We no longer ask our young men and women to accept the honor of sacrificing themselves at the top of a pyramid to keep the population safe. Instead, we have another ritual which honors our young men and women. We call them soldiers and the ritual is war. It keeps us safe from terror. It is sanctioned violence used to expel violence, Satan to expel Satan. Honor is 180 degrees the opposite of shame, yet soldiers bear the responsibility of restoring order. Sometimes they die, they always come back transformed. Sometimes they’re transformed into a hero or a monster, sometimes with a limp, other times dysfunctional from the inside.
Jesus said, “I will open my mouth in parables; I will utter things which have been kept secret from the foundation of the world.” (Matthew 13:35) Girard discovered that the secret was that civilization is founded on the corpse of a sacrificial victim and on the many other sacrificial corpses which followed. Violence is the source of our order and it always has been. Hidden shame is the instrument used to incite ritual violence. Shame is therefore a weapon for order and control.
Order is not the same as peace. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid.” (John 14:7) By dying on the cross, an indisputably innocent victim, He reveals the scapegoat mechanism. He takes away its power. It cannot restore order when revealed, but we can have peace.
As stated earlier, the root of the word shame is “hidden” or “veiled”. Conversely, the root meaning of the Greek term “apokalypsis” is “unveiling” or “disclosure”. In the apocalypse, the sabotage mechanism built into the founding of civilization is unveiled. That sabotage was shame, built into the hierarchical organization of civilization. The apocalypse of psychopathy reveals shame.
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