Shame and William James’s “sick soul”

“Failure, then, failure!”: shame and William James’s “sick soul”

Jill L. McNish

William James understood that any particular philosophy is in fact “the expression of a man’s intimate character, and all definitions of the universe are but the deliberately adopted reactions of human characters upon it ” (Allen, 1967, p. ix, quoting W. James, Pluralism). James’s acutely sympathetic perspective on the “sick soul” in The Varieties of Religious Experience is certainly a reflection of his intimate character.

The milieu of James’s famous family of origin created, in the case of William, the oldest child, a crisis in his ability to be independent. The emotional, spiritual and intellectual stranglehold that the father, Henry St., had on William initially paralyzed the latter’s ability as a young adult to live independently, to individuate, to establish himself in a vocation, to establish himself in a primary intimate relationship with a partner of his own–in short, to establish a psychologically separate self (Feinstein, 223).

In fact he did not secure his first paying job until he was offered a part time teaching post at Harvard at age 31. Even after he began to teach, he had many misgivings, with his resolve to work seeming to evaporate whenever he entered 20 Quincy Street, the family home (139). He lived with his parents until he was when he married Alice Gibbens after a long and ambivalent courtship, having had no known romantic relationships with women until he met her. It seems significant that Alice was first introduced to his father at a Radical Club meeting. The latter returned from the meeting proclaiming that he had just met William’s future wife. The point being, of course, that Henry, Sr. even seems to have been instrumental in choosing, or at least locating, the woman whom William would fall in love with and marry.

William’s various physical and psychical indispositions are described throughout his journals and correspondence. He once confided to a friend that he felt “separated from God” (quoted in Simon, 297). It is believed that his gravest collapse took place in the early 1870s and is described under a pseudonym in Varieties (disguised in the identity of a “French correspondent”)(1):

While in this state of philosophic pessimism and general

depression of spirits about my prospects…. suddenly there fell

upon me without any warning, just as if it came out of the

darkness, a horrible fear of my own existence…. I became a mass

of quivering fear … I woke up morning after morning with a

horrible dread at the pit of my stomach, and with a sense of the

insecurity of life I never knew before…. It was like a

revelation; and although the immediate feelings passed away, the

experience has made me sympathetic with the morbid feelings of

others ever since. It gradually faded, but for months I was unable

to go out into the dark alone (Varieties, 160-161).

James’s work on the Gifford Lectures from which Varieties is derived coincided with a severe physical and emotional collapse. Much of the writing was done in bed, at a time when he could only work two or three hours a day. In fact it was necessary for the lectures to be postponed from 1900 to 1901, and there was always the fear that he might not be able to deliver them even if he could complete their preparation. Two weeks before the lectures began, he wrote, “I have become like a vegetable, a suffering vegetable if there be such a thing” (Perry, 256). On another occasion while preparing the Gifford Lectures he wrote, “the disgust, the final strangulation etc begin to haunt me, I fear them” (Simon, 296).

Varieties of Religious Experience

In Varieties (508), James contended that a common denominator of different religious traditions was that they are constructed around the following: 1. an uneasiness; and 2. its solution.

1. The uneasiness, reduced to its simplest terms, is a sense that there is something wrong about us as we naturally stand.

2. The solution is a sense that we are saved from the wrongness by making proper connection with the higher powers.

I believe that James is here referring to the transformation of revelatory shame experience. James saw two basic types of religious temperaments: the “healthy-minded” and the “sick soul.” He gave the name of “healthy-mindedness” to the tendency which looks on all things and sees that they are good” (Varieties, 87). The healthy-minded temperament has a “constitutional incapacity for prolonged suffering” and a “tendency to see things optimistically…. in which the individual’s character is set”. In response to persons subject to a perpetual sense of “something wrong,” the healthy-minded person would say something like, “‘Stuff and nonsense, get out into the open air!’ or ‘Cheer up old fellow, you’ll be all right erelong, if you will only drop your morbidness!'” (127)

James left no doubt of his own opinion of the ultimate inefficacy of the unbridled optimism of healthy-mindedness when he wrote:

The method of averting one’s attention from evil, and living simply

in the light of good, is splendid as long as it will work…. But

… there is no doubt that healthy-mindedness is inadequate as a

positive philosophical doctrine, because the evil facts which it

refuses positively to account for are a genuine portion of reality;

and they may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and

possibly the only openers of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth.

The normal processes of life contain moments as bad as any of

those which insane melancholy is filled with, moments in which

radical evil gets its innings and takes its solid turn. The

lunatic’s visions of horror are all drawn from the material of

daily fact. Our civilization is founded on the shambles, and every

individual existence goes out on a lonely spasm of helpless agony.

If you protest, my friend, wait until you arrive there yourself

(163; emphasis added).

The religion of the “sick soul” is one which is more prone to the conviction of sin and sense of”something wrong about us as we naturally stand.” (2) James’s description of the religions melancholic contains the following synthesis which seems to get to the heart of the nature of such an individual:

If the individual be of tender conscience and religiously

quickened, the unhappiness will take the form of moral remorse and

compunction, of feeling inwardly vile and wrong, and of standing

in false relations to the author of one’s being and the appointer

of one’s spiritual fate. This is the religious melancholy and

‘conviction of sin’ that have played so large a part in the

history of Protestant Christianity (170-171).

It would seem that no small part of James’s anguish derived from his sense of the inevitability of feelings of personal inadequacy, and the general futility of human effort. James is blunt in his negative estimation of the degree of satisfaction we are likely to take from our efforts in this life:

Failure, then, failure! So the world stamps us at every turn. We

strew it with our blunders, our misdeeds, our lost opportunities,

with all the memorials of our inadequacy to our vocation. And with

what a damning emphasis does it then blot us out! No easy fine, no

mere apology or formal expiation, will satisfy the world’s demands,

but every pound of flesh exacted is soaked with all its blood. The

subtlest forms of suffering known to man are connected with the

poisonous humiliations incidental to these results. And they are

pivotal human experiences. A process so ubiquitous and everlasting

is evidently an integral part of life. ‘There is indeed one element

in human destiny,’ Robert Louis Stevenson writes, ‘that not

blindness itself can controvert. Whatever else we are intended to

do, we are not intended to succeed; failure is the fate allotted.’

And our nature being thus rooted in failure, is it any wonder

that theologians should have held it to be essential, and thought

that only through the personal experience of humiliation which it

engenders the deeper sense of life’s significance is reached?

(Varieties, 138).

Similarly, in James’s work Pragmatism he wrote:

There are moments of discouragement in us all, when we are all

sick of self and vainly striving. Our own life breaks down, and

we fall into the attitude of the prodigal son. We mistrust the

chances of things. We want a universe where we can just give up,

fall on our father’s neck and be absorbed into the absolute life

as a drop of water melts into the sea (Pragmatism, 1907, 140;

emphasis added).

By reason of the ubiquity of psychic suffering in human life, says James, “The completest religions would therefore seem to be those in which the pessimistic elements are best developed. Buddhism, of course, and Christianity are the best known of these. They are essentially religions of deliverance: the man must die to an unreal life before he can be born into the real life” (Varieties, 165). James was of the essential view that one could not fully develop spiritually without starting at the depths, stating that “man’s extremity is God’s opportunity”; only in psychic suffering can there be the requisite “self-surrender” (Varieties, 210). According to James, conversion depends upon becoming so exhausted with the struggle of the sick soul that “we drop down, give up and don’t care any longer…. There is documentary proof,” James said, “that this state of temporary exhaustion not infrequently forms part of the conversion crisis” (212). (3)

This “self-surrender” ultimately included “the overcoming of all usual boundaries between the individual and the Absolute [which] is the great mystic achievement. In mystic states we both become one with the Absolute and we become aware of our oneness. This is the everlasting and triumphant mystical tradition, hardly altered by differences in clime or creed” (419). A mystic becomes conscious of good in him that “is coterminous and continuous with a MORE of the same quality, which is operative in the universe outside of him, and which he can keep in working touch with, and in a fashion get on board of and save himself when all his lower being has gone to pieces in the wreck” (508; emphasis in the original), In mystical experience, “the conscious person is continuous with a wider self through which saving experiences come” (515). One of the numerous testimonials of religious experience for which James’s book is well known expresses the experience as follows:

I remember the night, and almost the very spot on the hilltop,

where my soul opened out, as it were, into the Infinite, and there

was a rushing together of two worlds, the inner and the outer. It

was deep calling unto deep…. I did not seek Him, but I felt the

perfect unison of my spirit with His. The ordinary sense of things

around me faded (66).

James himself, while denying any “living sense of commerce with God” occasionally admitted to a belief in a “continuum of cosmic consciousness, against which our individuality builds but accidental fences, and into which our several minds plunge us in a mother sea or reservoir” (Perry, 364). In a 1908 letter he wrote, “I am as convinced as I can be of anything that this experience of ours is only a part of the experience that is, and with which it has something to do, but what or where the other parts are, I cannot guess” (quoted in Myers, 606). James maintained, in words echoing those already quoted from Varieties, that his faith lay in his “mystical germ” (quoted in Myers, 455). He lamented that he had never had a bona fide mystical experience, but he did recall experiences that resembled mystical events. He said that a feature of these episodes was “the sense of a tremendous muchness suddenly revealed” (477).

The Affect of Shame

I believe that the sense of “something wrongness” described by James as being a frequent precursor to religious conversion experience, and, indeed, the experiences of psychic anguish described by James in Varieties (both his own and those of others) were, most fundamentally, experiences of the affect of shame. Furthermore, the experience of unity with the Absolute comes from negotiation of personal boundaries that can only occur when shame experience is honestly confronted and allowed.

In the latter half of the twentieth century, the affect of shame became the subject of much discussion and research. In 1963, Sylvan Tompkins identified “shame-humiliation” as one of six innate “negative affects.” By the word “affect” Tompkins means “a physiological mechanism, a firmware script” that is dependent on “chemical mediators that transmit messages, and on the organizing principle stored in the subcortical brain as the affect program.” Thus, “no matter what shame or any other affect ‘means’ to us, it is essential for us to keep in mind that we are dealing first and foremost with a mechanism that is initially free of meaning” (Nathanson, 149).

Tompkins is often quoted for the following powerful description of the affect of shame, which is evocative of James’s discussion of the sense of “something wrong” and of the inevitability of the sense of failure and humiliation in human life:

[S]hame strikes deepest into the heart of man. While terror and

distress hurt, they are wounds, inflicted from outside which

penetrate the smooth surface of the ego; but shame is felt as an

inner torment, a sickness of the soul. It does not matter whether

the humiliated one has been shamed by derisive laughter or

whether he mocks himself. In either event he feels himself naked,

defeated, alienated, lacking in dignity or worth (Tompkins, 118,

emphasis added).

At the most basic level, shame is “connected with one’s humanness” (Nussbaum, 196). It arises out of the existential experience of being a creature, out of nature, yet feeling somehow that one is spirit, and of God as well. It most likely begins with an infant’s dawning realization of its helplessness and dependency, coupled with its desire for omnipotence. “For shame involves the realization that one is weak and needy in some way in which one expects oneself to be adequate” (Ibid.). Affect theorists following Tompkins opine that shame is the most recent affect to develop through the process of evolution (Nathanson, 136). Thus, we may consider it as one of the attributes that define us as human.

There is a distinction to be made between guilt and shame. Guilt has reference to an action perceived as wrong, whereas shame has reference to the self (“self-consciousness”). When a person feels guilt, she has a sense of having made a mistake; of doing something that her culture or her own superego says is wrong, or that she has failed to do something dictated by one’s culture or superego. Shame, on the other hand, is self-referential. Regardless of a person’s sinful acts or omissions, to a greater or lesser extent he experiences himself as inherently, ontologically flawed in the core of his being.

Simply put, one feels guilt for making a mistake. Shame is a felt sense of being a mistake. “Shame is a matter of identity, not a behavioral infraction…. For many people shame exists passively without a name” (Fossum and Mason, 5-6).

Tompkins and others conclude that the feeling we know as guilt is a derivative of the shame affect. Researchers have not located a distinct physiological mechanism, “an innate affect, that would explain guilt in any way other than its relation to shame” (Nathanson, 144). Guilt is often fused with shame; we may feel shame for an action committed. Shame and guilt are in no sense opposites, and they often enter into the same situation. Other subparts of shame include discouragement, self-consciousness, embarrassment, shyness and humiliation (Kaufman, 21). James’s descriptions of the “sick soul” are full of allusions to the horrors attendant upon feelings of dread, horror, failure, discouragement and humiliation, and generalized angst, an experience of the depths of the existential abyss. This is the experience of the shame affect writ large, and William James was well-acquainted with it and saw it as religious in character.

Shame is profoundly isolating, yet it has the unique paradoxical quality of making it possible to be part of community by inclining us to adhere to societal norms, while at the same time creating boundaries between ourselves and others. Leon Wurmser in fact makes the convincing argument that the shame affect guards inner reality, allowing for privacy and creativity in thought and primary process thinking (Wurmser, 65).

Indeed, shame is best understood as a boundary phenomenon which both separates and joins.

The anguish of William James, as best as we can see from the written record of his psychic experience together with what we know of his family of origin (especially his father whom he simultaneously worshipped and loathed), presents a paradigmatic example of the operation of shame as a boundary phenomenon. James longed for unity and intimacy–with his family of origin, with his wife, with his friends and colleagues, with the God he never felt wholly united to–and at the same time passionately longed for separateness and individuality. This was a constant tension in his life and, I believe, was at the very root of his neurosis. The work of Otto Rank, who broke with Freud over his contention that the central trauma of human life was separation, is helpful here. Rank held that every newborn human comes face to face with his first object, his mother, only to begin gradually to lose her. This primal catastrophe is the harbinger of all the losses and separations that await in human life, and indeed is paradigmatic of all of life’s later suffering including the Oedipal complex which occurs later (Rank, 1924). Rank speaks of “the blessedness of child and mother in union” as an echo of a lost identity with the cosmos, “the All, which once existed and is now lost” (see Kramer, 4-6), The unconscious never gives up this desire for unification, which the ego has set aside (with varying degrees of success) in favor of social adjustment. This shows up in thumb-sucking, bed wetting and dirtying oneself.

For Rank, the conflict and tension between a desire to return to the whole, and the healthy human impulse to separate oneself from the collective by living creatively in art, music, invention, writing, literature, etc., is lifelong. We re-experience this trauma at every liminal point along life’s journey: birth, weaning, toilet training, first steps, first day of school, leaving home, working out a meaningful vocation, marrying, loss of loved ones through death or rejection, and, ultimately our own deaths and illnesses and the physical limitations that presage them.

According to Rank–and here is where we meet William James at various stages of his life–the neurotic person refuses to embrace life because he is afraid and fearful of separation from his mother, his family of origin, his community, his culture. He turns into a pillar of salt–Lot’s wife–frozen, looking back, afraid to move forward. He thinks he can cheat death by refusing life–i.e., refusing to “live creatively” (as Winnicott would later put it). This is essentially what we see in William James’s inability to leave his parents, his late marriage, his constant debilitating infirmities, his long-delayed ability to commit himself to a choice of a vocation, his fleeing of his own marriage for long trips abroad, etc. on the occasions of the birth of each of his own six children. Rank wrote that life is a loan, with death the repayment. “The neurotic cannot willingly accept the loan with its limits. He refuses the loan (life) in order thus to escape the payment of debt (death)…. ” (Rank, 1929). “At repayment time, the neurotic hopes–pathetically-to flout the limit. ‘I haven’t begun yet. I should not have to die–I have not really lived'” (Lieberman, 302). Again, we are brought back to James’s words: “We want a world where we can just give up, fall on our father’s neck and be absorbed into the absolute life as a drop of water melts into the sea.”

Rank implicitly recognizes the fundamental existential dilemma of human existence that is so central to the ontological shame phenomenon: the finiteness of human life, the creaturely dimension of human life, the fact that we are out of nature, yet we are conscious of our finiteness, and that we long for the experience of unity with the whole even as we dread it because we fear self-annihilation. The fundamental tension, then, in human life according to Rank is the fear of life, which is actually the fear of having to live as an isolated individual, and the fear of loss or non-development of individuality (death fear). Thus, there is a fear of separation from the whole and paradoxically a fear of the loss of whatever dearly bought individuality one has achieved, which is dissolution again into the whole.

Even as one fears life, one is impelled toward life by the phenomenon that Rank calls “will.” Will is a “positive guiding organization and integration of self which utilizes creatively, as well as inhibits and controls, the instinctual drives” (Rank 1929, 111-112). It is the “vehicle for individual differentiation, the separation of the self from ‘the other’ or from the mass” (Menaker, 44). There is ample evidence that William James feared life, separation and individuality, while also fearing unity. The concept of “will” was also a dominant and recurrent theme in the life and work of William James. In 1870, at age 28, he made an entry in his personal journal stating:

Yesterday was a crisis in my life. I finished the first part of

Renouvier’s 2nd Essay, and saw no reason why this definition

of free will–sustaining of a thought because I choose to when

I might have other thoughts–need be the definition of an illusion.

At any rate I will assume for the present–until next year–that

it is no illusion. My first act of free will shall be to believe in

free will. (Simon quoting William James journal entry, 127)

James muscularly used will on many occasions to wrest himself out of incapacitating, paralyzing shame neurosis, and he urged others to do the same. For example, confronted with one of his sister Alice’s many well-documented collapses, William advised her to “[k]eep a stiff upper lip & snap your fingers at fate” (Simon, 243). In Will to Believe and Other Essays in Popular Philosophy (1897), James puts forth one of his most distinctive and influential doctrines: the view that faith requires willpower to shore itself up against science and logic, and that it also requires emotional and intellectual surrender to what James called “the instincts of the heart.” Faith requires one to trust in one’s own yearning to believe; the intellect is fallible (Simon, 275-6; Gale, 93).

Rank insisted that the exercise of will necessarily involves “guilt” as well as fear. In any case, Rank wrote that guilt (/shame) is a “special emotion” lying on the “boundary line…. between the severing and uniting feelings; therefore, it is also the most important representative of the relation between inner and outer, I and Thou, the Self and the World.” This feeling of guilt (/shame)

occupies a special position among the emotions, as a boundary

phenomenon between the pronounced painful affects which separate

and the more pleasurable feelings which unite…. [In love

relationships], guilt feeling certainly disturbs the harmony …

which separates the lovers. Yet … we also see clearly its uniting,

binding power. It compels one to devote oneself to the object, to

surrender to the object. For many, especially neurotics, guilt

feeling is the only way of expressing feeling at all…. (Kramer,

158 quoting from Rank’s American lectures).

For Rank, will and guilt (/shame) are inseparable, and they shape each other. The more we become distinct from the herd, the more pain we experience. When not too severe, guilt serves as a harmonizing factor between the will to separate and the will to unite. The fully functioning, mature person “must learn to live with this conflict, this split, which no therapy can take away, for if it could, it would take with it the actual spring of life” (Rank, 1929, 47). This tension is the shame experience that was so central to William James and to the “sick soul” he describes in Varieties. The “ultimate mystic achievement” of unity with the Absolute springs from direct confrontation of this shame experience and surrender, the negotiation and temporary relinquishment of boundaries between I and Thou and the establishment of a distinct individual personality. The excess of suffering comes from the failure of the emotional life in its task as a uniting factor. As a consequence the emotion of separation, of isolation, becomes agonizing. Its essential symptoms are anxiety, an excess of shame or guilt feeling, of the feeling of failure, discouragement or inferiority so exquisitely described by William James. Rank wrote, “The mere fact of difference, in other words, the existence of our own will as opposite, unlike, is the basis for the self condemnation which manifests itself as inferiority or guilt feeling” (Rank, 1929). We can see this playing out in the pain/shame/guilt attendant upon William James’s attempts to break away from his father and the family home–to establish himself as an individual, while remaining a part of the larger whole and seeking a sense of continuity with “the MORE” or the “muchness.”

Rank’s work provides important jumping off points for thinking about how shame mediates, facilitates and interferes with the development of personality and the concomitant longing for union. Shame is the boundary phenomenon that provides a “way in” for God. Confrontation of shame issues is a predicate for the “surrender” and the letting go and giving up that James speaks of as being necessary for mystical union.

Shame makes us painfully aware of our limitations, even as it causes us to long for union with the source of being. It creates a liminal space, a godless space, the vacuum that is at the core of the most profound religious experience.

Shame’s Revelatory and Transformative Potential

Our first reaction when we hear the word “shame” is that it is something to be gotten rid of, but this is not possible. As previously discussed, shame is an inborn affect and can hold many gifts for the development of authentic spirituality and personality. This, I believe, is a primary subtext of Varieties. In James’s words, it “may after all be the best key to life’s significance, and possibly the only opener of our eyes to the deepest levels of truth” (Varieties, 163). This conclusion seems to be borne out by the work of depth psychology theorists and clinicians. The pioneering work of Helen Lynd was the first to address the revelatory, transformative potential of shame. Building upon Erik Erikson’s formulation of the two formative stages of autonomy vs. shame and doubt and of initiative vs. guilt, Lynd distinguishes between personalities based primarily on a “shame axis” from those based primarily on a “guilt axis.” Lynd agrees with Erikson that shame is an earlier experience than guilt, and that:

shame is doubt, including diffused anxiety, an overall

ashamedness, a consciousness of the whole self, a feeling that life

is happening to the individual. Anxiety is peculiarly associated

with shame. In every potential crisis of development anxiety is

possible, and each new conflict may revive latent anxiety. But

anxiety has special relation to the conflict between shame and

doubt and the developing sense of … autonomy (Lynd, 207).

In shame “there is doubt, a questioning of trust” (Ibid.) However, because shame is an affect so close to the experienced self, direct confrontation of experiences of shame provides important clues to identity. Identity based primarily on experiences of guilt derives from “the prohibiting superego.” Individuals whose identity is formed by guilt “tend to find continuity in their lives …,by means of what others have taught them they should do and–more especially–should not do” (230). Identity based more on confrontation of shame experience, on the other hand, “may go deeper and be more of a continuous process of creation.” This is because shame experience, when honestly confronted, “requires an ability to risk, if necessary, to endure disappointment, frustration and ridicule” (232).

Many theorists have undertaken to catalogue defenses against shame. These include withdrawal, violent acting out, rage, perfectionism, misuse of power, contempt, defeatism, blaming, righteousness and addictions. Writing from the therapeutic perspective of an analyst, Helen Block Lewis talks about the dangers of “undischarged” shame–i.e., shame feelings and experiences that have not been directly acknowledged. She found that effective therapy required direct confrontation and acknowledgement of shame experience. Only this confrontation, she says, can allow for transformation of personality and healing. Many other clinicians agree.

Shame and the Numinous Abyss

In her book, Turning the Gorgon: A Meditation on Shame, Sandra Edelman examines the numinosity of shame. Here again we meet the experience of William James and many of the other testimonial witnesses in Varieties. Edelman notes that in its extreme form, shame evokes “terror, awe, the threat of annihilation, the obliteration of one’s existence.” Such words “point beyond the natural, human sphere to the realm of the supernatural, the non-human, the archetypal; in short, to the divine” (35). Shame has been likened to “a wound made from the inside by an unseen hand” and an “almost indescribable fear” (Ibid.). The punishment expected by the shame carrier, “whether expected from within or without, contains an uncanny elementary force” (Ibid.). At its most intense, shame is experienced as dread–what Rudolph Otto called “daemonic dread.”

This puts us in proximity with the mysteriurn tremendum. “The tremendum consists of ‘all the sources of terror,’ all threats which exist or are sensed” (Edelman, 76). The author of Hebrews says, “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (10:31). Paul Ricoeur has written that “the Sacred is perceived, in the archaic stage of the religious consciousness, as that which does not permit a man to stand, that which makes him die” (Ricoeur, 43). It seems to me that these descriptions match the dread we find in the “sick souls” whose experiences are given voice in Varieties: “there fell upon me…. a horrible fear of my own existence”; “I became a mass of quivering fear”; “I awoke with a horrible dread at the pit of my stomach…. it was like a revelation….”

Although William James confessed to the experience of a “mystical germ,” he lamented never having had a full sense of mystical unity. I wonder if the reason for this is that he was unable to risk falling into the vortex of shame without chronic resort to shame defenses including depression, withdrawal, envy, and more than occasional contemptuous judgmentalism toward others? Cosmic narcissism brings into play the sense of awe felt in the presence of God. Again, James noted that the experience of “being continuous with a MORE” required “self surrender.” Self surrender and conversion experience must include a letting go of shame defenses–in a process that includes a kind of “exhaustion” and “indifference.” If the shame defenses could have been relinquished, feelings of inadequacy and discouragement that were so much a part of James’s inner landscape might have been replaced by a sense of being part of, contained and held by the tremendum that is Godself.

The “sick soul” that William James describes so vividly and with such personal understanding in Varieties possesses the temperament of one suffering from profound shame. Religious conversion experience is often the result of direct confrontation and externalization of shame because such confrontation leads to clarification of individual boundaries, even while it conveys a sense of continuity with what James calls the “MORE.” Since James’s work, depth psychologists have discovered that externalizing and confronting shame issues without undue resort to shame defenses is revelatory of identity and an expanded sense of self. The “sick souls” whose religious conversions are described in Varieties confronted shame issues by what James refers to as “self-surrender,” and what I would call letting go of shame defenses. This led to an expanded sense of identity which in turn led to the “great mystic achievement”–the experience of unity with the Absolute. In any event, shame and the ineffable sense of horror and dread it sometimes produces possess a numinous quality in their own right.


(1) One account has it that William James told a friend that this particular anecdote was auto-biographical (Feinstein, 242). Another source states that James confessed this to his son Henry (Allen,165).

(2) This sensitivity, says James, may exist at two levels. There are those for whom evil consists of “a maladjustment with things” while for others evil is a “wrongness or vice in [their] essential nature which no alteration of the environment … can cure.” (Varieties, 134).

(3) Indeed, this aspect of Varieties provided Bill W. and other founders of Alcoholics Anonymous with hope that the “personal shipwreck” which is often the state of the alcoholic who has hit “rock bottom” could be the beginning of conversion and sobriety. See discussion of Varieties’ influence on Alcoholics Anonymous in Christopher Ringwald’s book, The Soul of Recovery (Oxford 2002), 12-13.

(4.) The other five innate negative affects posited by Tomkins are: fear/terror, anger/rage; distress/anguish; disgust; and dismell (the experience of revulsion triggered by smell). The two positive affects posited by Tompkins are interest/excitement and enjoyment/joy. There is one “neutral” affect–surprise/startle. See discussion in Nathanson, 136.

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Jill L. McNish received a Ph.D. in Psychiatry and Religion at Union Theological Seminary. She is an Episcopal priest engaged in parish ministry and adjunct teaching and is on the faculty of the pastoral studies program of the Blanton-Peale Institute.

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