We live in a society that’s historically been emotionally and sexually repressed. The psychological mechanism by which we repress our socially unacceptable emotional and sexual impulses is unconscious shame. This shame encompasses all the feminine aspects of our being—our emotions, our physical body and our sexuality.

Three kinds of unconscious shame

  1. Emotional shame—the shame of having feelings in a patriarchal society that has traditionally despised, denied, suppressed, repressed and punished emotional expression
  2. Body shame—the shame of physical appearance (e.g. not beautiful enough) and the shame of bodily functions (urinating, defecating, menstruating, etc.)
  3. Sexual shame—the shame of having genitals and having sexual feelings, wanted or otherwise, in a society that has traditionally despised, denied, suppressed, repressed and punished sexual expression

These three types of shame are separate yet inseparable. In Healing the Hurt Within, self-harm therapist Jan Sutton describes how a self-harmer hated the region between their genitals and their breasts. They wished that part of their body did not exist. All three forms of shame are present in this hatred, yet they can be teased out into their separate components.

For more information on sexual shame, click here. This post focuses on characteristics common to all shame.

Invisible

Unconscious shame is a layer of invisible ‘emotional concrete’ that overlays the whole of society. It’s so widespread that its effects are considered totally normal and generally pass completely unnoticed.

Unconscious shame is a layer of invisible ‘emotional concrete’ that overlays the whole of society. It’s so widespread that its effects are considered totally normal and generally pass completely unnoticed.

Because this shame is unconscious, it’s also invisible—to the extent that it’s not even recognised in our dictionaries. Throughout this site I present the psychological evidence that unconscious shame not only exists but is a key force shaping all our lives.

“Wrong or foolish”

The Oxford English Dictionary defines ‘shame’ as follows:

1 a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behaviour:

  • a loss of respect or esteem; dishonour
  • a person, action or situation that brings a loss of respect or honour

2 a regrettable or unfortunate situation or action

What’s notable about this definition is that it ascribes shame to isolated actions or incidents. Only when we behave in a “wrong or foolish” manner do we experience feelings of humiliation or dishonour. The word “unfortunate” suggests an element of luck, as if shame occurs by accident, an occasional booby prize in the lottery of life.

The general understanding of shame—if there’s one at all—is that we are all free of it except for those irksome moments of “wrong or foolish behaviour.”

Unconscious shame

Why aren’t we aware of unconscious shame? The clue’s in the name. We don’t know what we don’t know. We are unconscious of our unconscious. Carl Jung said that humanity’s task is “to become conscious of that which presses upward from the unconscious”. What’s he referring to?

Our conscious and unconscious minds can be understood as follows:

  1. Conscious mind—our clear, rational mind that can make decisions without unconscious bias or interference.
  2. Shame layer—a layer of emotional concrete that we can neither see through nor think through. It shrouds all our unconscious wounds in emotional fog and represses emotional pain through numbness.
  3. Sexual-spiritual split—a term coined by Michael Picucci, PhD, for “a deep psychic schism” within us that judges which parts of ourselves are socially desirable (e.g. strength, intelligence) and which are undesirable (e.g. emotions, sexuality).
  4. Collective conditioning—unconscious social agreements to repress the behaviour prohibited by the sexual-spiritual split.
  5. Current-life trauma—unique wounds, traumas and unprocessed pain from our current life.
  6. Generational trauma—unique wounds, traumas and unprocessed pain inherited from our recent ancestors, typically our parents and grandparents.
  7. Ancestral trauma—wounds, traumas and unprocessed pain inherited from our distant ancestors, typically going back several thousand years to the dawn of patriarchy. Although they happened at different times and in unique ways, these ancient wounds are common to all members of patriarchal societies.
  8. Mother wound—the original core wounding of humanity, including the traumatization of everything feminine, that separated us from oneness with nature, the universe, and from healthy emotional and sexual connection—initially from our mothers and subsequently from everyone else.

Everything below the conscious part of our minds is walled off by unconscious shame.

In general, healing the contents of the unconscious proceeds from the most recent to the most ancient.

Origins

Unconscious shame originates in our patriarchal past when the need to survive dictated that people maximised their masculine warrior abilities and minimised their feminine, nurturing aspects. I’ve written about this in more detail in A brief history of shame.

This created an overwhelming pressure for people to repress the aspects of themselves that conflicted with social standards—chiefly our emotions and our sexuality. They shamed others for exhibiting socially undesirable qualities and felt ashamed of themselves for sensing those qualities within themselves.

The diagram below shows how the separation of personal qualities into acceptable and unacceptable created an internal psychological schism. The horizontal line represents this schism, which is the sexual-spiritual split. We are conscious of everything above the line. Everything below the line—and the line itself—is shrouded by the fog of unconscious shame.

Sexual-spiritual split aspects
© 2020 Michael H Hallett

The presence of these shamed/shameful aspects within ourselves created a permanent sense of shame, which needed to be repressed to (a) avoid the pain of the shame and (b) prevent socially unacceptable behaviour.

Shame creates anxiety over the repressed aspects of being, and a consequent fear of discovery and punishment. As a repressed society, we have little idea what ‘normal’ emotional and sexual behaviour is—for the simple reason it hasn’t existed in human societies for thousands of years.

“What we call ‘normal’ is a product of repression, denial, splitting, projection, introjection and other forms of destructive action on experience.”

R.D. Laing

Carl Jung echoed this when he said, “Show me a sane man and I will cure him.”

Epigenetic inheritance

Shame is handed down from one generation to the next via a process known as epigenetic inheritance. This trans-generational shame effectively operates as a low-grade, hard to recognise form of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

During adolescence, social institutions, including families, schools and churches reinforce this inherited shame by rewarding ‘good’ behaviour and punishing ‘bad’ (emotional/sexual) behaviour.

As society has become more prosperous and we live ever more comfortably, we increasingly come into contact with our repressed emotions and sexuality—particularly if we’re overly sensitive. Elaine N. Aron, PhD, has written about high sensitivity in her book The Highly Sensitive Person.

Increasing sensitivity has resulted in a soaring rise in anxiety (particularly among women) as well as skyrocketing porn addiction and other forms of sexual dysfunction (particularly among men). The journey out of shame is planetary just as much as personal.

Symptoms of unconscious shame

Shame-based social conditioning is a factor in the following beliefs, behaviours and issues:

1. Physical conditioning

2. Emotional conditioning

  • Anxiety, stress, panic attacks
  • Lack of confidence
  • Inability to cope
  • Fear of change
  • Fear of public speaking
  • Dislike of having our photograph taken
  • Depersonalisation disorder

3. Sexual conditioning

  • Vanilla sex only
  • Sense of sex as ‘dirty’
  • Sexual phobias of all kinds
  • Difficulties in discussing sex
  • Difficulties in initiating sex
  • Erectile dysfunction
  • Premature ejaculation

4. Cyclical issues/addictions

For more information, please see the Are YOU Ashamed? toolkit.

Porn addiction, unconscious shame, inherited traumas | Michael H Hallett
Unconscious shame can clearly be perceived in the lives of troubled celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Amy Winehouse. It is invariably present in cases of sexually-motivated criminal behaviour. These examples show that unconscious shape not only powerfully shapes people’s lives but can destroy them.

“Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will rule your life and you will call it fate.”

— Carl Jung

Releasing unconscious shame

To clear unconscious shame we must:

  1. Penetrate the shame layer
  2. Heal the ‘sexual-spiritual split’
  3. Heal current-life unconscious trauma
  4. Clear trauma inherited from recent ancestors (generational trauma)
  5. Clear trauma inherited from distant ancestors (ancestral trauma)
  6. Heal the mother wound—our core separation from life

For further information, please see the Releasing Unconscious Shame toolkit.

Porn addiction, unconscious shame, inherited traumas | Michael H Hallett

My experience is that recognising, accepting and releasing unconscious shame through personal development work can alleviate or entirely resolve many shamed-based issues. This is not achieved overnight, nor is it achieved without painful soul-searching. But it can be done.

Read more

For further information on unconscious shame, please see: