Can You Die of Shame?

I recently came across a free webinar in Psychology Today by Janina Fisher on “Overcoming Trauma-Related Shame and Self-Loathing.” Her argument led me to consider how Lacan’s theory of psychoanalysis offers a valuable and much needed contribution to the current discourse around the problem of psyche and body. People today are often very hesitant to apply French theory to actual practice outside the cultural field. However, I believe psychosomatics must be considered through the lens of the science of psychoanalysis, though it has been wrestled from its hands.

In her hour long video, Fisher discusses the potentially beneficial function of shame, which may serve as a signal notifying us of interpersonal dangers that could result from our actions and so help us to correct our behavior. Fisher is not alone; even psychoanalysts talk about “normal” shame which, unlike its pathological counterpart, is credited with an important adaptive function. Lacan, however, suggested that shame might be one feeling worth getting rid of altogether:

“In the mean time, to die of shame is the only affect of death that deserves -deserves what? -that deserves to die.” – Lacan The Other Side of Psychoanalysis 1969

Lacan asks a question: can shame kill? For him, shame is directly related to the death drive, which is a tendency to desire symbolic stability, even at the cost of one’s life. This is the foundation of somatization in general: preferring to feel physical discomfort and pain rather than actually experience tabooed psychic content. Shame often points at a raw, Real reality and unconscious content that interferes with an individual’s imaginary conception of their world. It is not an innocent adaptive function, but a repetitive attempt to integrate the difficult Reality of the experience into coherent structure that does not too deeply disturb the patient’s symbolic universe. Psychosomatic problems are symptoms of the failure of this process.

What I find really striking and problematic in Ms. Fisher’s approach was how she manipulates physiological terminology on the concepts of the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems to prove her point. She claims that the sympathetic system is related to high excitation, and the parasympathetic system to low excitation. She then claims that because shame is related to feelings of submission and depression, it should activate the parasympathetic system, and thus prevent maladaptive behavior and acting out. However, even mainstream research shows that though depression might be debilitating, but it is not relaxing like the parasympathetic nervous system, as Ms. Fisher claims. And according to the 1994 study published by the researchers from Veteran Affair’s Geriatric Research, Education, and Clinical Center, depression actually activates the sympathetic, not parasympathetic nervous system.

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I completely agree that depression is related to shame. Lacan speaks of depression as a moral failure during his television appearance in early 70s:

“[depression] is simply a moral failing, a moral cowardice, which is, ultimately, only situated by thought, that is, by the duty to speak well or to find oneself again in the unconscious, in structure.”

Controversial as this may sound, I believe that it is essential to acknowledge the extent to which the need for belonging, which always involves locating oneself as a part of the symbolic structure, is a key element to consider in discussions around both shame and depression. What shame responds to and renders unbearable is one’s uncertainty, feelings of rejection and exclusion, and incomplete sense of self.

Simply speaking, shame and moral failure are terrifying, and produce a fight-or-flight response, even if it is internalized into psychosomatic manifestations. Lacan points out that shame originates in early childhood, when a parent, as the big Other, maps the child’s place in the world through language-based communication. Children internalize this image of the law-forming Other as a monstrous omnipotent figure which Lacan even compares to a giant praying mantis that might or might not rip off your head. This image of an unpredictable and strong parent fantasized to be punishing one for a real or imagined transgression that produced shame is exactly the projected gaze of the monster from which one is physically readies to fight or flee from. That is why both shame and depression elicit sympathetic, figh-or-flight reaction. A fixation of early childhood anxiety which reappears in social interactions throughout one’s adult life, it is this traumatizing gaze that constitutes the indiscernible kernel that such irrational somatization is attempting to defend against to preserve the integrity of the ego. I will expand on relation of ego and psychosomatics in the future posts.


However, there is nobody really behind you and this fantasy of punishment is most likely far removed from the actual consequences of your actions. Nonetheless, even without actual or self-inflicted (in case of perversion) physical punishment, constant activation of the sympathetic nervous system does have consequences to longevity, as the other name for it is stress.

Being ashamed is stressful, but that tells us little about the mechanism of its psychic function. Parasympathetic nervous system activation, also known as relaxation, might be an ideal, but claiming that it can be fostered by submitting to healthy shame is just physiologically false. Shame is an experience of a malfunction in the symbolic matrix which is always accompanied by the fight-or-flight reaction of sorts. Perhaps in the case of post-traumatic stress disorder this failure is amplified by the traumatic experience, but it may be causing even more covert harm in the bodies of people with no signs of disability.

The way out is not through the dissection of the body, but by facing the looming symbolic monstrosity, the gaze everybody is so eager to escape, but whose presence is even more ever-present in the disintegrating society of our times.

'My Mama tried to eat me but I didn't taste good enough. Where was my Daddy?'

Can Lacan Help You With That Back Pain?

I recently received a phone call from someone who found my profile on Psychology screen-shot-2014-03-30-at-11-50-30-amToday. A woman, speaking in Russian, told me she has abdominal pains, and asked if I am a therapist. I told her that yes, I am a psychotherapist. She was not satisfied: “But are you a doctor therapist?” (Врач Терапевт in Russian). I explained to her that I am not a medical doctor, but that I do work with psychosomatic and stress related issues. She apologized, and quickly hung up.

While it is possible that this woman was seeking a doctor for pains that she believed to be purely physical in origin, the fact is that she used the Psychology Today database, which lists only mental health practitioners, indicates that she had some intention of treating her condition as psychosomatic. In asking if I am a doctor, she was likely referring to a medical doctor or a psychiatrist (Russian speakers usually do not refer to PhDs in Psychology as doctors). If this is indeed the case, the situation is symptomatic of the kind of medicalization discourse that dominates the treatment of psychosomatic conditions.

I increasingly observe medical research and centers dedicated to the treatment of psychosomatic issues, but almost no representation of such issues in the mental health system. The so-called field of holistic medicine takes pride in all-encompassing approaches to health, but they are often inaccessible, and lack any resemblance of scientific processes. The lack of a unifying theoretical approach, and often-mystified Eastern practices, renders it even more difficult for this group to escape the grip of marginality and obscurity.

Some of the more scientifically oriented approaches, which attempt to mix all existing research together under the pretext of objective neutrality, also appears to have hit the wall. I think the fall of the Titan of empty, empiricist, neuropsychosmatic theory, Bessel van der Kolk, is a symbolic event in the world of the American psychosomatics. He was fired from the position of a medical director that he was holding for workplace harassment of female coworkers. I believe that such opportunists appearing as leaders in the field is symptomatic of the lack of a coherent scientific process oriented towards developing a theory that would deal with the subject in relation to the body. Unfortunately, true scientific process is often substituted with the rule of “experts”, who often appear as figures possessed with ultimate authority, thus further mystifying the field.

Historically, psychoanalysis played an important institutional role as the grand “theory of everything” in the treatment of psychosomatics symptoms, but it has lost almost all influence in the medical field. These days, psychoanalysts seem to share the commonly held belief that psychosomatic problems are mostly related to phantom projections, and ought to be treated as fantasies with little significant material effect on the body. Juxtaposed to such dismissive attitude are medics, who tend to forget about the causes of a problem once it becomes life threatening or debilitating. Mental health is reserved for treating the “stress caused by the medical condition”, rather than the condition itself. It is frequently believed that a mental health practitioner cannot help cure somatic illnesses, reducing their role to aiding the patient in coping with re-adjustment after medical procedures and stressful life changes.

So, the question is: can psychotherapists play a more substantial role in curing psychosomatic conditions? French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan claimed that there is a reason to believe that psychoanalysis can be of help, even when the impact of psychosomatic symptoms is very real in the body. He insists that psychosomatic neurosis is always related to some kind of traumatic excess that lies beyond the individual’s ability to speak it. Lacan invented the concept of the Real with a capital R to signify the part of our psyche that cannot be imagined or conceived in thought by the conscious subject but must inevitably be dealt with by every speaking being. He claims that psychosomatic problems emerge when there is something traumatic in our psyche that resists integration into our understanding of ourselves and the world. Psychic sexual energy affects the internal processes of our body in unpredictable ways, as they are dragged into unconscious conflicts that form around this traumatic kernel that resists symbolization.


Lacan was a structuralist who claimed that language plays a central role in structuring of the psyche, but he also was against mind body dualism, and demonstrated how language has very material effects through the way it structures our drives and enjoyment. Lacan argued that psychosomatic problems appear when something that is situated beyond the reach of language interferes with the functioning of signifying chains in our psyche. For Lacan, what is situated beyond language points to the limits and lacks in our symbolic understanding of the world. The fundamentally important thing is how one copes with these gaps. In case of psychosomatic complaints, the subject is coping with unresolved traumatic experience, by repeatedly re-traumatizing his/her body in ways that cannot be even traced until they cause serious medical problems. How the psyche affects internal bodily processes remains largely unknown, but there has been increasing interest in this subject.

Psychosomatic conditions, if truly caused by psychological trauma, cannot be easily cured through medical interventions. Fixation of traumatic libidinal energy can relocate to a different organ if the previous one is unable to hold tension after medical intervention. I have worked with numerous clients with trauma history whose psychosomatic problems transformed but did not disappear after surgeries, and in some cases got even worse.

If Lacan’s claims are true, the psychoanalytic approach should be as important in treating psychosomatic problems as it is in the treatment of psychological traumatism. Approaching psychosomatic problems from the psychoanalytic perspective allows one to work with the underlying libidinal economy, which I believe is the way to the cure. I will be writing more on psychoanalytic work with trauma and the body in future posts.