The Shame Response to Rejection

by Herbert E. Thomas, M.D.

Excerpts from the book; notes by JFR

Only about 50 pages in length, this book gets right to the point.


“Man seeing man as only an object has ancient roots.” (p3) (to name a few: slavery, serfdom, industrial revolution, civilians and soldiers in WWI&II, mass murders in Rwanda)

Murder of “those we know” is considered wrong; “objectifying those killed” and “taking from them their humanity” allows us to “protect ourselves against the guilt their deaths would otherwise occasion.” The more we objectify, the less guilty we feel. (p3)

“Can we learn to not treat others as objects?” (p3)


“Rejection is, in effect, the communication of an idea, whether verbal or non-verbal. The five separate elements that determine the strength of the rejection are as follows:” (p16)

Experiences of rejection can accumulate, and eventually reach a level of pain that is not tolerable, and can be triggered by even a slight rejection thereafter.

“To avoid this pain, the person who lives in this state of high vulnerability may withdraw and live a solitary existence. This withdrawal may be to such a degree that in time others see the person as eccentric, the person becomes paranoid, or, when touch with reality is lost, the person is diagnosed psychotic.” (p24)

If not enough separation from parental authorities or other significant childhood relationships has occurred, “the potential for an intense experience of rejection at their hands therefore persists.” (p24)

“Pseudo-separation” occurs when an individual “attempts to minimize the significance of such authoritarian figures … [gaining] some protection from pain, yet the price of protection is a subsequent inability to feel close to others.” (p24)

“Rejection based on hierarchy persists because of our need to see others as different from ourselves. To think otherwise might put us at risk of being rejected. The fear of physical pain of the shame response is one factor which cements a hierarchical society in place.” (p50)

Shame Response

Shame response = “a primitive physiological response to rejection by another person. The individual who experiences the rejection […] may feel anything from intense physical pain to a sensation that is remote and barely noticeable. When the pain is sufficiently intense, however, it can be a source of great anger.” This response “can vary greatly in intensity.”

May include physical responses such as:

“It appears that the pain of the shame response acts as a traumatic event, a wounding, as it is located, or stored, in a specific area of the brain, either in the cingulate gyrus or nearby. This area at the base of the brain has been associated with post-traumatic stress phenomena; it is where feelings associated with various traumatic events are stored. When stimulated by an additional increment of pain, the energy stored in this area can be automatically and rapidly discharged. This phenomenon of a rapid and uncontrolled discharge … [can be outwardly manifested as] an outburst of anger or even rage.” (p27)

“…[the shame response] ends when the person becomes angry. The pain does not recede before the anger however. It can last indefinitely.”


May be turned against oneself, displaced onto others, or directed at the reject-or. “Should the anger exceed the threshold of the person’s ability to contain it, he or she may become violent.” (p18)

The threshold for violence is affected by vulnerability, which is in turn affected by:

“The energy associated with the anger flowing from a shame response is directly related to the energy associated with the pain of the shame response that precedes it. If anger is discharged through acts of violence, there tends to be a return to the resting state, homeostasis, that was present before the rejection occurred. When there is no discharge of energy in violent acts, the energy associated with the anger will most likely be directed into one’s body. Whether or not the energy associated with the pain of the shame response and the succeeding anger is discharged, the psychic trauma caused by the experienced pain remains.” (p18)

Defense Mechanisms

Two defense mechanisms that our minds use to keep us from “becoming fully aware of the experience of a shame response”:

Revisiting past rejections:

“Generally, when the pain [of the rejection/shame response] is slight, it will be repressed or isolated, and it will be forgotten. When it persists, it may be possible to share the experience with trusted others. In doing so, we open up the possibility of understanding what occurred in a way that allows us to distance ourselves from it. Relief comes only if we are able to objectify the experience of rejection (i.e., objectify the objectification).” (p42)

“… the more intense the shame response, the greater will be the perceived need for secrecy.” (p42) “No one is as critical of our own behavior as we ourselves. … The need for secrecy is based on the belief that everyone will be as rejecting of our behavior as we are. When we are rejected by a significant other for something we have said or done, the intensity of the shame response is supported by our own rejection. When we reject our own behavior, we can experience a shame response even when we are alone.” (p42)

Given examples:

Societal / Cultural Issues

“If anger and the failure to control it were the principal problem presented by adolescents who commit violent acts, then the only appropriate response by adults would be strict discipline. If the real problem, however, is the pain of accumulated shame responses, then adults must respond with something more than just discipline. Merely to enforce discipline is to cause further rejection. This is not to say that discipline is somehow rendered unnecessary or undesirable, but operating alone it has a negative power.” (p30)

“What is required is a new sensitivity on the part of those in authority. A trusting relationship must be developed in which acts of rejection are carefully, and consciously, avoided. The adolescents described above have a desperate need for acceptance, and this need must be acknowledged. … [If the focus of care includes] active acceptance, then a new path to healing opens.” (p30)

“Most societies use the threat of rejection, as well as some form of expulsion, such as imprisonment, as a means of maintaining law and order. In many ways, the threat of rejection forces us to learn to live together and thus provides a level of social conformity, perhaps even a certain harmony.” (p30)

“Archaic Greece and early twentieth century Japan have been described as shame cultures, whereas the United States has been thought of as a guilt culture. In the former societies, elaborate patterns of behavior evolved to protect individuals from random, unforeseen acts of rejection. As these patterns came to function more effectively with the passage of time, thus increasing the level of protection against rejection, they became powerful determinants of behavior and, in the case of Japan, extremely rigid. By contrast, such patterns in the United States are ill-defined, if present at all.” (p30) “In this country, Puritanism focused attention on guilt for committing a wrong and sanctioned rejection of those who did so. Patterns of protecting individuals from experiencing random acts of rejection have received little attention. Recently, the idea of shaming those who have been convicted of a crime has gained widespread attention. Should this practice gain currency, it promises that some who will be deeply pained will simply bide their time until an opportunity presents itself for them to displace their anger onto other victims.” (p39)

“The story of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden dramatizes our inner conviction that we are somehow deserving of rejection. That an angel with a flaming sword is stationed at the gate only confirms this belief, as the angel is there to prevent our return.” (p46) “[We] may have misinterpreted the story … [Another interpretation, that does not include rejection, might be:] Adam and Eve depart from the garden in order to go out into the world and experience it, to grow in understanding of it, and, most of all, to be challenged by it.” (p46)

Healing / Helping

“The antidote to the shame response is acceptance by another.”

“[To help] one heal following an intensely painful shame response requires great patience and, more especially, a deeply felt acceptance of the person.”

“We reduce the pain of rejection by first focusing attention on the one who has rejected us. Once having done so, we then focus attention on ourselves. … Yet the usual reason for individuals rejecting others is that they are in pain themselves. Understanding this simple fact makes it easier to focus attention on the other person when experiencing rejection.” (addendum)

“In our daily lives, in our encounters with one another, the possibility that we may be seen as rejecting, particularly when we have no such intent, must be always in the forefront of our conscious awareness. If we need to confront someone about his behavior, we can do it in a way that allows him to experience acceptance and not rejection.” (p46)

“When [people in positions of authority] see someone respond in anger, blush or cry, they must realize that that person may be experiencing a shame response.” (p47)