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For Shame: Why Americans Should Be Wary of Self-Esteem

Those who write about shame like to begin by deploring the shameful neglect of the subject by their predecessors. If they happen to be psychiatrists, they insist that shame has been not just neglected, but actively suppressed. The time has come, they say, to lift the curtain of censorship and “bring shame out of the closet,” in the words of Michael P. Nichols. Their self-conception requires the imagery of bold exploration, of the conquest of forbidden territory. Even when they reject everything else in Freud’s work—and the current vogue of shame coincides with a growing reaction against Freud—the current generation of psychotherapists finds his iconoclasm irresistible: his air of defying accepted canons of modesty and reticence, his insistence on speaking the unspeakable.

Freud had good reason to see himself as a lonely intruder bravely risking his professional life in pursuit of knowledge everyone else preferred Lo conceal. The new archaeologists of shame, on the other hand, enter a field already mined by anthropologists, by the postwar generation of psychoanalysts (many of them refugees from Nazi Germany and well acquainted with the social repercussions of shame), and for that matter by Dale Carnegie and Norman Vincent Peale, who discovered the importance of self-esteem long before psychiatrists and developmental psychologists agreed to define shame as the absence of self-esteem and began to prescribe appropriate remedies. Shame, the latest site of intensive excavation by theorists and clinicians in search of buried treasure, is no longer a neglected, let alone a forbidden, subject. Donald L. Nathanson himself admits that it has become more than a little “trendy.”

Anyway, the charge of concealment looks implausible on its face, is there anything our culture still attempts to conceal—anything, that is, that can be exploited for its shock value? Nothing can shock us anymore, least of all intimate revelations about personal life. The mass media do not hesitate to parade the most outlandish perversions, the most degraded appetites. Moralists advise us that words like “outlandish,” “perverse,” and “degraded” belong to a discredited, excessively “judgmental” vocabulary of hierarchy and discrimination. The only thing forbidden in our culture of exposure is the inclination to forbid—to set limits on disclosure.

Instead of asking how we can lift the conspiracy of silence supposedly surrounding shame, we should ask why it gets so much attention in a shameless society. A part of the answer lies in the double meaning of shame. The word refers to a decent respect for privacy, but also to the fear of disgrace. The first kind of shame becomes objectionable when carried to extremes, but an exaggerated sense of propriety obviously doesn’t rank very high on the scale of contemporary social problems.

Current usage sticks to the second sense of shame, and even that has lost its moral resonance: shame, these days, refers to whatever prevents us from “feeling good about ourselves.” Disgrace implies a failure to live up to internalized codes of honor. Today it is widely believed that people come to grief when they adopt “society’s” standards as their own. They are advised to set their own goals instead of conforming to what others expect of them. Formerly shame was the fate of those whose conduct fell short of cherished ideals. Now that ideals are suspect, it refers only to a loss of self-esteem.

How did shame come to lose so much of its meaning? Some of this shrinkage can be attributed to the “feel-good movement,” as Newsweek calls it, which has made self-esteem a national obsession. Otherwise known as “empowerment,” self-esteem is held up as the cure for everything that ails us. Legislatures appoint special commissions to study it. Schools try to promote it by abolishing failing grades or forbidding the word “bad.” Churches redefine sin as the failure to live up to “your own potential.” An authority on childrearing writes 101 Ways to Make Your Child Feel Special. Gloria Steinem discovers a “revolution from within,” The secret of which is a heightened sense of self-esteem: “Seeing through your own eyes instead of through the eyes of others.” According to Steinem, self-esteem requires the abolition of shame, which makes people feel “intrinsically sinful” or otherwise unworthy.

Clearly shame loses much of its moral content when it becomes merely the opposite of self-esteem. But our current understanding of shame has also been distorted and diminished by attempts to distinguish it from guilt. At first sight, such a distinction seems an important prerequisite of conceptual clarity. Anyone who thinks seriously about shame feels the need for some such distinction. Yet a review of shame’s conceptual career, in the professional discourse of cultural anthropology and psychotherapy, leaves the impression that theoretical investment in this question has been curiously misplaced. No one has ever explained why so much rides on the difference between shame and guilt. When this becomes the overriding issue, both concepts undergo a certain trivialization. Guilt loses the suggestion of conscientious self-condemnation, while the element of self-condemnation in shame comes to be viewed merely as an unfortunate byproduct of unrealistic expectations.

The story begins in the 1930s, when comparative studies of socialization patterns prompted anthropologists to distinguish between shame cultures and guilt cultures. Shame, they argued, sets up a purely external sanction for good conduct, whereas guilt internalizes a sense of right and wrong. This interpretation soon proved untenable, but speculation about shame, which passed from anthropology to psychology, continued to be dominated by the effort to distinguish it from guilt. In 1953 Gerhart Piers and Milton B. Singer demolished the distinction worked out by cultural anthropologists and replaced it with one drawn from Piers’s elaboration of the psychoanalytic theory of the superego.

They argued convincingly that shame was just as deeply internalized as guilt. But whereas guilt internalized the fear of punishment, in their view, shame internalized the fear of rejection—the parent, say, who simply turns away in disgust. If the unconscious image of the castrating father haunted the guilty conscience, shame rested on the even more terrifying threat of abandonment. In technical terms, guilt took its cue from the punishing aspect of the superego, shame from the loving and beloved aspect (the ego ideal). Guilt issued from defiance of the father, shame from the failure to live up to his internalized example.

This distinction had a twofold effect: it robbed shame of its transgressive dimension, now reserved for guilt alone, and it encouraged a legalistic understanding of transgression itself. Piers and Singer were quite explicit about the first of these effects: “Guilt anxiety accompanies transgression; shame, failure.” The second implication became unmistakable in Helen Merrell Lynd’s study On Shame and the Search for Identity, which appeared in 1958. Elaborating on the interpretation advanced by Piers and Singer, Lynd associated guilt not simply with “transgression of prohibitions” but with “Violation of a specific taboo,” a feeling therefore concentrated on “each separate, discrete act.” In Lynd’s account, guilt moved away from its old association with sin and came to be assimilated to the category of crime—and finally to any kind of merely unconventional conduct. In an older moral tradition, sin referred not only to violations of the moral law, but also to a failure to keep faith with God. It referred not only to specific actions, but also to a disposition of the will, a chronic state of rebellion against God and the human condition. Lynd’s secularized conception of guilt reduced it to the fear of punishment that follows violation of community standards, which were themselves trivialized and partially discredited as “taboos.”

Cultural anthropologists made guilt, the inner voice of conscience, seem more weighty than shame; but “guilt feelings,” according to Lynd, actually “result from efforts for social adjustment” and carry very little “self reference.” Now it was shame that appeared more deeply internalized. “The deepest shame is not shame in the eyes of others but weakness in one’s own eyes.” Shame called one’s entire identity into question, shattered “basic trust” in the world, and thus could “be said to go deeper than guilt.” Shame was more disturbing than its cousin, more deeply felt, more urgently in need of treatment. “It is worse to be inferior and isolated than to be wrong, to be outcast in one’s own eyes than to be condemned by society.” This remarkable statement, uttered in casual disregard of the accumulated weight of moral and philosophical tradition, casts a flood of light on the current preoccupation with shame and self-esteem. We fear weakness more than a troubled conscience. Indeed, conscience disappears from our conceptual order: guilt becomes condemnation by “society.”

Helen Block Lewis added a few details to this emerging consensus in her Shame and Guilt in Neurosis, which appeared in 1971 and is often over praised today as a pioneering work in the field. Lewis devoted most of her attention to variations in “proneness” to guilt or shame. Men’s aggressiveness, she decided, predisposed them to guilty fears of retaliation. Women were more inclined to shame, thanks to their eagerness to please. “Girls’ self-esteem is neither so objectively nor firmly grounded as boys’.” Later commentators would extend this line of thinking to underprivileged groups in general. Shame could be eliminated, they maintained by improving their collective self-image.

Leon Wurmser resisted such simplifications in The Mask of Shame, the best of the psychoanalytic studies of shame and quite possibly the last, given the probable collapse of the whole psychoanalytic enterprise. By 1981, when it appeared, the reaction against psychoanalysis was in full swing: a chorus of critics denounced Freud’s ideas as unscientific, elitist, patriarchal, and therapeutically useless. Within psychoanalysis, Heinz Kohut and his followers had shifted the emphasis from intrapsychic conflict to the “whole self and its relations with others.” The need to counter these tendencies led Wurmser to undertake a much deeper analysis of the inner conflicts leading to shame than anything offered by his predecessors.

Thus, although he built on the work of Piers and Singer, he cautioned against excessive emphasis on the ego ideal. “A mere falling short of ego standards or even of the postulates of the ego ideal does not evoke shame.” No less than guilt, shame had to be seen as a form of self-punishment, a fierce condemnation of the self that is rooted, in the case of shame, in the “absolute sense of unlovability.” If this element of self-torture was missing, it was appropriate to speak only of a “loss of self-esteem.” Wurmser’s refusal to confuse this with shame made intelligible much that otherwise remained obscure.

Psychoanalysis, as Wurmser understood it, was above all the interpretation of inner psychic conflict and the inner defenses against it. His insistence on the “centrality of conflict,” in the face of an “incessant pull away” from conflict that was making the psychoanalytic method increasingly superficial, had the added and unexpected advantage of restoring some of the moral and religious associations that once clustered around the concept of shame. Wurmser asked himself, in effect, how the same word could refer both to the impulse to pry and to the impulse to conceal. Mindful of Freud’s dictum that opposites share an underlying affinity, he found that his patients were simultaneously obsessed with seeing and with being seen.

One of them, a woman suffering from anxiety, depression, and a consuming suspiciousness, told him: “I want to find out the hidden, forbidden truth about who creates and who does not create”—a statement worthy of Faust or Prometheus. But she was also consumed with the fear” that her own secrets would be revealed. Penetrating other people’s secrets (those of her parents in particular) became a way of presenting her own. Her fear of defilement and dishonor made her wish to defile others—a striking illustration of the connection between shameful disgrace and the shameless act of exposure. Another patient wished to hide her face from the world—the characteristic stance of shame—but also bad a compulsion to exhibit herself. It was as if she were saying: “I want to show the world how magnificently I can hide.” Here the rage for exposure was redirected to the self, in the form of an exhibitionism that “knew no shame,” as we used to say.

Beneath the contradictory wish to hide and to spy, to see and be seen, Wurmser detected a deeper set of paired opposites—the “polarity” between the “yearning for boundless union” and a “murderous contempt.” Both arose out of an underlying fear of abandonment. What Wurmser’s patients experience as shameful is the contingency and the finitude of human life, nothing less. They cannot reconcile themselves to the intractability of limits. The record of their suffering makes us see why shame is so closely associated with the body, which resists efforts to control it and therefore reminds us, vividly and painfully, of our inescapable limitations, the inescapability of death above everything. It is man’s bondage to nature, as Erich Heller once said, that makes him ashamed. “Anything that is nature about him, ... anything that shows him to be enslaved by laws and necessities impervious to his will,” becomes a source of unbearable humiliation, which can express itself in seemingly incompatible ways—in the effort to hide from the world, but also in the effort to penetrate its secrets. What these opposite reactions share is a kind of outrage in the face of whatever is mysterious and therefore resistant to human control, “Shame,” said Nietzsche, “exists everywhere where there is a ‘mystery.’”

When psychoanalysts reject the temptation to dismiss shame as the vestigial remnant of an outmoded prudery, they have much to tell us about its moral and existential implications, Wurmser’s study owes its power and its clarity not only to his sensitive reporting of case histories, but also to his insistence on the philosophical dimension of psychoanalysis. He conceives his work as a “dialogue with the best minds that still speak directly to us across the abyss of death and time.” It disturbs him that “the vast symbolic fields of the humanities no longer form the shared matrix in which psychoanalytic work is organically embedded.” The newer studies of shame and self-esteem—only a few of which will be considered here, a small selection from a huge outpouring—owe very little to the best psychoanalytic tradition and suffer accordingly.

The decline in quality is immediately evident. The value of Donald Nathanson’s Shame and Pride, the most ambitious of these studies, is inversely proportional to its pretensions. Nathanson wants to show that shame performs certain functions that contribute to psychic equilibrium. There may be some truth in this, but it hardly qualifies as an “entirely new way of thinking” about shame, an “entirely new theory for the nature of human sexuality,” an “entirely new mode of study.” Nathanson’s ambitious system often seems to yield more than banalities. “Shame will occur whenever desire outruns fulfillment.” “Shame affect is triggered any time interest or enjoyment is impeded.” “Life is full of impediments to positive affect.” “It seems that nearly everybody needs an inferior.”

Nathanson thanks Wurmser for unstinting “support and assistance”—a tribute to Wurmser’s generosity if not to his judgment. Nathanson’.s approach exemplifies precisely the behaviorism that Wurmser cautioned against. It treats “shame affect” as a “unique biological mechanism,” It aims to “return psychology entirely to biological science” and to banish “mysticism.” It rests on a mechanistic model of the psyche as a comptiter, a system for processing information. Evidently struggling for scientific precision, Nathanson writes much of the time in a barbarous jargon in which “startle” becomes a noun and “dissmell” refers to the recoil from unpleasant odors. He is deaf to the conversation of the ages, and perhaps to his patients as well, since he reports no case histories. As for his therapy, it seems to consist largely of drugs. “We stopped the medication, and the symptom disappeared,” “All of these symptoms vanished when he began to take the drug fluoxetine.” “She was astonished to see these feelings of shame disappear when she resumed her medication.”

In place of the interpretation of intrapsychic conflict, Nathanson offers a mechanistic theory, derived from the work of Sylvan Tomkins, in which affect acts as an “amplifier,” informing the organism of unruly appetites in need of intelligent management. Shame, an essential component in our “basic wiring pattern,” protects the organism “from its growing avidity for positive affect.” By forcing us to “know and remember our failures,” it acts as a “teacher.” Just what it teaches remains a little unclear: to modify our expectations? to pursue more realistic goals? Whenever his prose veers too close to clarity, Nathanson interjects an explanation that defies explanation: It [shame] is a biological system by which the organism controls its affective output so that it will not remain interested or content when it may not be safe to do so, or so that it will not remain in affective resonance with an organism that fails to match patterns stored in memory. In plain English, shame keeps us from taking ourselves too seriously.

This seems to be the gist of it. Whereas Wurmser pleads for the “heroic transcendence of shame” through love and work, Nathanson recommends a kind of inoculation against shame—a healthy dose of shame in manageable amounts, such as we find in the therapeutic comedy of Buddy Hackett, that keeps it from becoming lethal. What he finds appealing, I take it, is the lowering effect of Hackett’s bathroom humor. The reminder that no one escapes “the call of nature,” as our grandmothers used to put it so delicately, serves both to deflate self-importance and to mock false modesty—all the more effectively, Nathanson seems to think, when it is couched in coarse, uninhibited language. Hackett’s “comedy of acceptance” reconciles us to our limitations, according to Nathanson. I think it merely encourages us to lower our sights. There is a crucial difference between the acceptance of limitations and the impulse to reduce everything exalted to its lowest common denominator. “Acceptance” becomes shameless, cynical surrender when it can no longer distinguish between nobility and pomposity, refinement of taste and social snobbery, modesty and prudery. Cynicism confuses delusions of grandeur, which call for moral and therapeutic correction, with grandeur itself.

Cynicism, of course, is the last thing Nathanson intends to promote. He wants only to replace shame with what he calls pride—a sense of accomplishment based on acceptance of our limitations, but his vaccine is worse than the disease. By recommending the deflation of ideals as the prescription for mental health, he proposes, in effect, to cure shame with shamelessness. This is itself a well-known defense (and, as such, hardly a cure)—the strategy cogently identified by Wurmser as the “lifelong reversal” of the “‘shameless’ cynic,” the transvaluation of values by means of which “narcissistic grandiosity and contemptuousness defend against a fatal brittleness and woundedness.” As Wurmser points out, this defense now sets the tone of our culture as a whole: Everywhere there is an unrestrained exposure of one’s emotions and of one’s body, a parading of secrets, a wanton intrusion of curiosity.... It has ... become hard to express tender feelings, feelings of respect, of awe, of idealization, of reverence. It almost belongs to the “good tone” to be irreverent. It is no accident that in German and Greek, words for shame are also words of reverence. The culture of shamelessness is also the culture of irreverence, of debunking and devaluing ideals. Trust in life carries the risk of disappointment, so we inoculate ourselves with irreverence.

Even the most obtuse students of shame understand, in principle, that shamelessness is a defensive strategy, not a real solution. In No Place to Hide, Michael Nichols warns that “shamelessness is a reaction formation against shame, a defiant, counter phobic attempt to deny and overcome a profound inner fear of weakness.” But Nichols and his like recognize the affinity between shamelessness and shame only in its most blatant form. They can see shamelessness in “defiance” but not in their own ideology of “acceptance,” The deflation of “extravagant expectations”—Nichols’s favorite remedy for the oppressive sense of failure—amounts to a milder version of Nathanson’s strategy of existential distrust. Thus he warns against religion, which purveys “oversimplified messages about right and wrong” and holds up impossible standards—”a vision of righteousness that remains forever out of reach.” The old religions preached the sinfulness of sex and divorce, discouraged “understanding and acceptance.” Fortunately “today’s enlightened ministers and rabbis are preaching a humanistic acceptance of the self and the body.” Indeed, they are “more attuned to humanistic concerns than most psychiatrists”— surely a backhanded compliment, though Nichols intends it as high praise.

“The story of Adam and Eve,” in Nichols’s retelling, “reflects the general awareness that children of nature don’t know shame; they have to be taught.” From this Panglossian point of view, we can rid the world of shame and many other evils simply by treating children with “empathy,” engineering settings in which they can “feel good about themselves,” and “validating their right to think and feel whatever they wish.” There is some value in the advice to “let them be themselves,” if it helps to discourage over management of children by adults. We do children a terrible disservice, however, by showering them with undeserved approval. The kind of reassurance they need comes only with a growing ability to meet impersonal standards of competence. Children need to risk failure and disappointment, to overcome obstacles, to face down the terrors that surround them. Self-respect cannot be conferred, it has to be earned. Current therapeutic and pedagogical practice, all “empathy” and “understanding,” hopes to manufacture self-respect without risk. Not even witch doctors could perform a medical miracle on that order.

The early Freudians warned against “prophylactic” misapplications of psychoanalysis, as Anna Freud called them. They knew that a superficial reading of Freud encouraged the notion that enlightened methods of child-rearing could do away with suffering and neurosis. They countered this foolish optimism with the reminder that growing up is never easy, that children will never achieve maturity unless they work things out for themselves. But the helping professions paid no attention to this realism. In order to justify the expansion of therapeutic authority over the family, the school, and large areas of public policy, they made extravagant claims for their expertise. They set themselves up as doctors not only to sick patients, but to a sick society.

By 1937 Karen Horney, one of the first of the Freudian revisionists, was already insisting that “neurosis and culture” were problems “not only for psychiatrists but for social workers and teachers,” for “anthropologists and sociologists,” and for all those professionals, indeed, who had become “aware of the significance of psychic factors” in social life. Therapy was no longer the business of psychiatrists alone; nor could it be confined to individuals. In an influential essay published in the same year, the sociologist Lawrence Frank took the position that society itself was the patient.

It is significant that this consensus took shape in the ‘30s, when the designers of an emerging welfare state were trying to convince the public that poverty and unemployment should not be attributed to lack of individual enterprise, that the system (not the individual) was at fault, that dependence on public relief was no disgrace, and that self-help was an illusion. The first step toward economic recovery and social justice, it appeared, was to “absolve the individual from guilt,” as Frank put it, To the chagrin of reformers, however, many Americans, even those victimized by unemployment, clung to an ethic of self-help and refused to acknowledge the state’s responsibility to relieve suffering or the individual’s right to relief. For liberals, the debates touched off by the Depression and the New Deal appeared to confirm the wisdom of therapeutic as opposed to ethical analysis of social problems. The “conception of a sick society in need of treatment,” according to Frank, was far more useful than conceptions stressing “human volition, human autonomy, and individual responsibility.”

This has remained the dominant view, right down to the present day. It has come to be widely shared even by “religious and ethical groups,” singled out (along with lawyers) by Frank as bastions of the old ethic of individual accountability. As Nichols says, the contemporary church is just as “enlightened” as the helping professions. “Pastors ... speak out about healthy self-esteem. You wouldn’t have heard this twenty years ago.” His description of pastoral speech is accurate enough, but his memory is much too short. The clergy began to see the light a long time ago. The social gospel, an important influence in American Protestantism since the turn of the century, had prepared them for the idea that society is the patient. Henry J. Cadbury, a critic of the social gospel, observed in 1937 that it had become the “staple diet of American liberals,” who “affirm with one voice that society, not individuals merely, is the subject of redemption.” Thirty years later the Harvard theologian Harvey Cox argued in The Secular City that “the achievement of health in place of neurosis on the individual level cannot be separated from the restoration of wholeness to the entire society.” Freud “concentrated on the sick individual in his therapy,” Cox complained; but the sick individual could no longer be treated apart from the “sick society.”

Low self-esteem is merely the latest form of social pathology commending itself to specialists in the cure of souls. Il should not surprise us when the new pathologists of shame announce that a “more articulated theory” of shame, in the words of Michael Lewis, has “applicability to the social as well as to the individual level.” Lewis readily embraces the cliché that blacks and women are “shamed by the culture in which they live,” in need of “understanding rather than humiliation.” Raising their self-esteem, he thinks, would “eliminate many social problems.” “The solution I propose,” he writes, “is a cognitive affective program designed to reduce shame.”

Gloria Steinem, like Lewis, dwells at length on the social implications of low self-esteem, especially in women. Feminists have criticized her new book as a retreat from political involvements, but it is better understood as another plea to the effect that politics and therapy are indistinguishable. It is completely consistent with the dominant brand of liberalism, a liberalism obsessed with the rights of women and minorities, with gay rights and unlimited abortion rights, with the allegedly epidemic spread of child abuse and sexual harassment, with the need for regulations against offensive speech, and with curricular reforms designed to end the cultural hegemony of “dead white European males.” “Social justice,” as liberals have come to define it, now refers to political therapies intended to undo the unwholesome effects of “authoritarian,” “patriarchal” attitudes and to prevent anyone from “blaming the victim.” The therapeutic discovery of shame finds its political expression in remedial programs administered by caretakers professing to speak on behalf of the downtrodden, but concerned above all to expand their own professional jurisdiction. Steinem’s “revolution from within” does not signal a flight from politics, only a continuation of politics by other means.

Her therapeutic assault on shame requires political action for its completion. As a salutary example, she recommends California’s Statewide Task Force to Promote Self-Esteem. She maintains that although journalists and politicians have ridiculed this noble experiment, it showed that almost every social problem can be traced to a failure of self-esteem. Self-contempt, the task force discovered, was a “primary causal factor” in “crime and violence, alcohol abuse, drug abuse, teenage pregnancy, child and spousal abuse, chronic welfare dependency, and failure to achieve in school”—the “very problems,” Steinem adds, that “Americans fear most.”

She does not bother to explain how the California task force arrived at this finding—that is, by ignoring the reservations that were advanced by the experts on whose testimony its report was based. Papers prepared for the task force repeatedly spoke of the “paucity of good research” linking low self-esteem to social pathology; but the chairman of the body, John Vasconcellos, dismissed these reservations on the grounds that they came from “those who only live in their heads, in the intellectual.” The importance of self-esteem, he said, was confirmed by “our intuitive knowledge.”

Steinem says nothing about the controversy surrounding the Vasconcellos report. It is enough for her that California’s dubious example has been initiated by other states and by California’s fifty-eight counties, almost every one of which now has its own task force on self-esteem. She, too, prefers to rely on “intuitive knowledge.” Her book overflows with it. Children, she explains, should “feel loved and valued from the beginning.” Most of us, however, were ignored or abused as children, and since we all “continue to treat ourselves the way we were treated as children,” we therefore abuse ourselves as adults. But a “unique and true self resides in each one of us,” the discovery of which will set us free. “The moment we find the true reason for some feeling that has an irrationally powerful hold over us... the spell is broken.”

It is hard to see how anyone could take such stuff seriously, but it commands automatic assent in many quarters and it provides much of the rationale for an expansion of the welfare state. That liberal “activists,” as Steinem refers to them admiringly, now find themselves reduced to such slogans may indicate that welfare liberalism is suffering from terminal fatigue. Is it really necessary to point out, at this late date, that public policies based on a therapeutic model of the state have failed miserably, over and over again? Far from promoting self-respect, they have created a nation of dependents. They have given rise to a cult of the victim in which entitlements are based on the display of accumulated injuries inflicted by an uncaring society. The politics of “compassion” degrades both the victims, by reducing them to objects of pity, and their would-be benefactors, who find it easier to pity their fellow citizens than to hold them up to impersonal standards, the attainment of which would make them respected. Compassion has become the human face of contempt.

Democracy once meant opposition to every kind of double standard. Today we accept double standards—as always, a recipe for second-class citizenship—in the name of humanitarian concern. We hand out awards indiscriminately, hoping to give the recipients the illusion of accomplishment. Having given up attempts to raise the general level of competence, we are content to restrict it to the caring class, which arrogates to itself the job of looking out for everybody else. The professionalization of compassion does not make us a kinder, gentler nation. Instead it institutionalizes inequality, under the pretense that everyone is “special” in his own way. And since the pretense is transparent, the attempt to make people feel good about themselves only makes them cynical. “Caring” is no substitute for candor.

If psychotherapy has failed as politics, most recently as the politics of self-esteem, it has also failed as a replacement for religion. The founder of psychoanalysis believed that men and women would outgrow the need for religion as they came to depend on their own resources. He was wrong about that, as it turned out. Still, his kind of therapy encouraged introspection, and it aimed at moral insight; and it was not entirely unreasonable, therefore, to suppose that psychiatry could take over the healing functions performed by priests and confessors—performed very clumsily at that, according to Freud.

For some time now, however, the psychiatric profession has been moving toward therapies aimed more at behavior modification than insight. Whatever it has gained in the management of symptoms, often with the help of drugs, bas been achieved at the expense of introspection. This trend may be regrettable, but it is easy to see why psychoanalytic therapies, in their classic form, no longer have much of a following in the profession as a whole. They cost too much, last too long, and demand too much intellectual sophistication from the patient. Even the most enthusiastic admirers of the psychoanalytic method might be disconcerted to read that one of Wurmser’s patients “abruptly” broke off analysis “in the 1,172nd session.” Another patient of Wurmser’s remained in analysis for eleven years. Still another “eventually killed herself by jumping off a bridge.” When psychoanalytic treatment threatens to become interminable and often ends in failure, sometimes after years of intensive self-exploration, both doctors and patients understandably turn to methods promising fast relief, even at the price of deep understanding.

At its best, psychoanalytic theory exposes the moral and existential dimension of mental conflict; but even then it cannot compete with religion. Wurmser’s book on shame, a work in the grand tradition of psychoanalytic speculation, reminds us that psychoanalytically informed interpretation can reclaim ageless moral wisdom and deepen our understanding of it. Reading Wurmser, we see why shame and curiosity have always been so closely linked in people’s minds, why shame ought to evoke feelings of awe and reverence, and why it refers, above all, to the irreducible element of mystery in human affairs.

But this very depth of moral understanding, so compelling at the level of moral theory, can also render psychoanalysis useless not only for therapeutic purposes but also as a guide to the conduct of life. The more it infringes on the territory once occupied by religion, the more it invites unflattering comparisons with its rival. Can psychoanalysis really do anything for people who suffer from an inner conviction of “absolute unlovability”? Maybe religion is the answer after all. It is not at all clear, at any rate, that religion could do much worse.