Shame – a soul eating emotion

The Expulsion from the Garden of Eden by Masaccio – this is before (on the left) and after restoration. 

It was the analytical psychologist Carl Jung who wrote that ‘Shame is a soul eating emotion’, and it certainly is something that lingers long after anger, or sadness or happiness have passed. In the next few posts I’m including some of the ideas that came from a talk that I gave about ‘Shame’.

I distinguished between an inner shame and outer shame, and used the biblical story of the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Paradise which is the most influential myth in our culture dealing with shame. In it we are told that, after eating from the Tree of Knowledge, Adam and Eve suddenly felt ashamed of their nakedness. Before this incident, they had been naked without feeling ashamed. But the fruit of knowledge gave them the capacity to distinguish between ‘I and Thou’, subject and object, and thus they awoke to the realization that they were two separate beings – her naked body was different from his, as was plain to see.  Feeling ashamed, and ashamed in front of God about what they had done, they stitched together garments of fig-leaves to cover their ‘private parts’.

In the famous painting of the expulsion by the Renaissance artist Masaccio you can see the particular gestures of Adam and those of Eve that depict the primeval couple’s shame according to traditional gender stereotypes. Adam, distraught, covers his eyes with his hands. Eve, agonized, clutches one hand over her breasts and the other over her pubic area. This shows the potential for clash and shame regarding ‘passive elements’ of the female as the subject of Adam’s masculine ‘active’ looking. In these stereotypes, the man, seen as a primarily rational being, experiences intellectual (or spiritual) shame and thus covers his face (or head) as the seat of reason, whereas the woman, seen as a primarily carnal being, experiences sexual shame and thus covers her erogenous zones.

Using analytic language the cherubim that guards and indeed blocks the way to the tree of life can be seen as a superegoic figure. In the picture the cherubim is painted floating above the couple and carrying a flaming sword looking judgementally down and reminding Adam and Eve of their shame. It can also be seen as the self-critical and self-conscious internalised figure of the parent or father God, which is projected out into the gaze of the other. The effect on Adam and Eve will be to inhibit, and withdraw, and curtail their ability to live fully without self-consciousness.

Interpreting this archetypal story, we may conclude that shame arises with the awareness of being seen by others. Shame motivates us to protect our intimacy, physical and emotional, under the cover of a symbolic fig leaf or loincloth, to keep for ourselves what is ‘no one else’s business.’ In this way, it reinforces interpersonal distinctness and a sense of one’s own individual identity. The fear is about vulnerability, and exposure of where we are defenceless. In this way it confirms that we are apparently different from each other with our own identity. But, at the same time, shame actually acts as a powerful inducement toward conformity.