Macquarie University
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A theory of shame: from trauma to self development

posted on 2022-03-29, 01:31 authored by Deborah Judith Thomas
This thesis draws upon a wide range of psychoanalytic, evolutionary, functional, developmental and social perspectives in order to present an integrated theory of shame. From within the body of shame literature, uniformities, disagreements and conflicts are identified and reviewed. By theoretically and empirically distinguishing shame from its close relative, guilt, the defining characteristics of shame are identified; most notably its intimate relationship to the global self. By then identifying those aspects of the self most pertinent to the phenomenology of shame, this theory is both theoretically and empirically extended to include perspectives from within trauma, neurobiology, self psychological, defense mechanism, and developmental fields of study. -- The impact of shame on the self in terms of bodily experience and the doubling of consciousness is argued to be highly detrimental. Theoretical analyses identify a pattern of dissolution to lower levels of experience and functioning, such that the highest levels of both consciousness and autonomic nervous system functioning are replaced by the engagement of evolutionarily more primitive operational levels. Empirical studies also identified shame as having a similarly regressive impact on the senses of self-cohesion and continuity in time, as well as disrupting attachment bonds and eliciting the engagement of primitive defense mechanisms. -- In contrast, in spite of its immediate detrimental impact, shame was also found to hold the potential, over time, to facilitate important developmental enhancements; promoting self-awareness and self-knowledge, as well as contributing to the development of a range of both intrapersonal and interpersonal functions. -- Throughout the thesis, an important distinction is made between state shame (the actual affect) and shame-proneness (a characterological disposition), with particular emphasis on the ubiquity of shame as a normal, healthy human experience which is independent of dispositional shame-proneness. Moreover, it is argued that the distinction between immature, dysfunctional shame and mature, healthy shame forms the foundation for the elucidation of a developmental theory of shame. Specifically, this theory identifies the points of divergence in the developmental trajectories of healthy shame and the two most extreme forms of shame-based psychopathology; shame-proneness and shamelessness. The thesis concludes with the identification of a range of clinical and research implications based on the theoretical and empirical data presented.


Table of Contents

Introduction and overview -- Current understanding of shame: a multidisciplinary perspective -- Identifying and differentiating shame and guilt -- Experiencing shame and guilt: study 1 -- Discussion: study 1 -- Shame and the physical self: impact on the autonomic nervous system -- Shame, trauma and the "self" as consciousness -- Shame's impact on self experience -- Measuring self experience: study 2 -- Discussion: study 2 -- Protecting the self from shame: study 3 -- Identifying the beneficial and self-enhancing potentiality of shame: study 4 -- A developmental theory of shame -- The socialisation of mature shame -- Maladaptive socialisation processes: maximising shame's self destructive force -- Clinical and theoretical implications.


Bibliography: p. 399-429 "2005".

Awarding Institution

Macquarie University

Degree Type

Thesis PhD


Thesis (PhD), Macquarie University, Division of Linguistics & Psychology, Department of Psychology

Department, Centre or School

Department of Psychology

Year of Award


Principal Supervisor

Julie Fitness


Copyright disclaimer: Copyright Deborah Judith Thomas 2006.




ix, 463 p

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    Macquarie University Theses