The Terror of Annihilation

The Terror of Annihilation: A Phenomenology of Shame

Andrew Nutt, MA


This paper outlines how shame is created and absolved. Contrasted with drive theory there is a movement within psychoanalysis toward an intersubjective approach that views identity as the sum amalgamation of one’s relationships. Intersubjective theory argues that shame is a result of a breakdown in the interpersonal field. This parallels recent interpersonal neurobiology (IPNB) discoveries that demonstrate the centrality of relationships for psychological health and flourishing. The research in both of these fields points toward a relational ontology that emerges from connections with other subjects. Threatened relationships are experienced as a threatened sense of self. Shame is the terror of annihilation that comes as a result of a perceived powerlessness to relationally connect with others. Though shame is ubiquitous and pervasive, the antidote is found through mutual recognition and empathetic attunement which transforms private alienation into shared grief. It is ultimately through relationships that shame is both created and healed.

Interpersonal Neurobiology

Interpersonal neurobiology studies the social and biological feedback loop of consciousness. In the early 1990’s, at the beginning of what is known as the “decade of the brain,” Daniel Siegel invited approximately 40 scientists from diverse disciplines to answer the question: what is the connection between the mind and the brain? (Siegel, 2012, p. xx). Louis Cozolino (2006) explains how Interpersonal Neurobiology (IPNB) currently engages the study of consciousness:

Interpersonal neurobiology assumes that the brain is a social organ that is built through experience. Through interdisciplinary exploration it seeks to discover the workings of experience – dependent plasticity, or the ways in which the brain is constructed by experience. At the core of interpersonal neurobiology is a focus on the neural systems that shape attachment. And, in turn, interpersonal neurobiology considers how these systems are shaped by relationships. (p. 7)

The emphasis on relationships within IPNB expands the historic paradox of a mind and body dualism.

Daniel Siegel (2012) outlines a simple and helpful trifold model of consciousness. First, “The brain is the mechanism of energy and information flow throughout the extended nervous system” (p. F-7). The brain is the nonconscious physical organ that receives sensory data through the five senses. The brain also produces chemicals that control energy and emotion in the body. Pharmaceutical drugs alter a person’s state of being by engaging the physical mechanism of the brain as it produces and distributes electrical signals and chemicals.

Second, “The mind is the embodied relational process that regulates the flow of energy and information” (Siegel, 2012, p. F-7). The mind receives the sensory data from the brain and interprets it into meaningful patterns or narratives. The mind is both a conscious and nonconscious hermeneutical center that tells the brain what chemicals need to be released to create the appropriate emotion or reaction. The guilt versus shame perspective is one example of this process. When a negative event happens, it is relayed through the senses to the brain. The mind then interprets the data as either guilt (I have done bad) or shame (I am bad.) Depending on which way the interpretation goes, the brain will release the appropriate chemicals which cause the coinciding emotional affect. The mind has existential and immaterial properties unlike the brain’s physical properties.

Third, “When we communicate with one another, we share energy and information flow. Relationships are built from patterns of communication, which are really patterns of sharing energy and information flow” (Siegel, 2012, p. 28-5). Our minds hermeneutic is situated within a relational history. Patterns of being otherwise known as attachment structures are formed from early relationships with primary caregivers. “Emotion lies in the middle of the triangle and are the: Ever-changing states of integration within and between people” (Siegel, 2012, p. 32-7). Emotion is the product of biology, volition, and relationships and is the varying affective experience of being in the world.

The flight of an airplane illustrates the triangle of consciousness. The physical brain is like the physical plane. If a person suffers a traumatic brain injury or a plane loses an engine the flight will not be smooth. The mind is the pilot. If harmful choices are made, or there is a pilot error, a perfectly sturdy plane may experience significant problems or crash. Relationships offer patterns or schemas of how to navigate the world like a flight plan. Even with a reliable pilot and a sturdy aircraft the flight can experience difficulties if the flight data is processed through faulty equations.

It is important to note the absence of the Cartesian split between thought (mind) and matter (brain) in this model. It is also intriguing to note that medical sciences, such as IPNB, are making a shift toward recognizing humankind’s complexity, a perspective typically left to the humanities. Relationships are foundational to consciousness and are critical to the formation, existence and maintenance of health. The next section examines the relational corner of the triangle in more depth.

The caregiver’s response to a child’s need sets the basic attachment structure of the child. An attuned caregiver is able to offer their regulated brain state to an infant who is dysregulated, bringing the infant to a place of regulation (Siegel, 2015). If a pattern of misattunement develops the child will have an insecure attachment. Within IPNB literature, shame is closely related with insecure attachment (DeYoung, 2015). The core concept of shame is an inability to relationally connect. When a child has a significant emotional affect, either good or bad, and is not met with resonance by the parent, the child experiences disconnection which leads to feelings of alienation and shame. This is exponentially more significant if the emotion causes dysregulation or even flooding and is not met with attunement.

When this inability to connect happens repeatedly, shame goes from a present emotional phenomenon to a deeply ingrained nonconscious structure that often retains no emotional affect.

Infants find emotional regulation through the responding face and gaze of the caregiver. When infants are confronted with a blank or unattuned face of a caregiver the infant becomes panicked and tries to restore the gaze (DiCorcia, Snidman, Sravish & Tronick, 2016). Infants usually mitigate the experience of shame through withdrawing or anxiously acting out which sets their basic attachment structure.

Sartre (1992) proposes the freedom of being-for-itself is removed through the gaze of the other leaving an objectified being-in-itself. This is the same objectification that happens with a caregiver’s unresponsive face or lack of gaze. The infant is perceived as a being-in-itself not as another subject to be relationally connected to with reciprocal impact. The yielding and responsive caregiver’s gaze does not objectify or force a being-in-itself upon the infant; it approaches with a sense of wonder and curiosity allowing the infant freedom of feeling and expression without the risk of objectification through non-attunement. It is important to distinguish the attuning, non-directive, life giving gaze of the other from the objectifying, being-in-itself gaze (or lack of gaze) of the other.

The infant is in a vulnerable position because he cannot restore his mother’s gaze on his own. The desire for engagement from the absent or dysregulated caregiver is interpreted by the infant as being a fault within himself. The child feels like he is bad for having need. Children quickly learn to show “only those parts of themselves that can get along with the range of affective responses that are available to them from important others.” (DeYoung, 2015, p. 22) For the sake of stability, it is more important for the infant to internalize everything negative in the relationship and maintain the dyadic connection sacrificing his belief in his own competency or goodness.

Research on shame and infants done by IPNB displays the startling reality that when presented with the data of a misattuned caregiver the infant unconsciously blames himself rather than face the reality that he has been abandoned. For the infant, isolation is the greatest danger to avoid. Siegel (2012) explains, “Shame is an adaptive response to a negative life situation. By maintaining the important attachment figure as good and competent, the dependent young infant or child maintains an inner sense that someone in the world is able to protect them” (p. 24-3). Infants always choose the narrative of dysregulation not disconnection. The infant blames himself which leaves him still “connected” in the dyad but dysregulated. It seems that the infant perceives disconnection as the greatest threat to safety and wellbeing. It is important to note that infants lack a frame of reference to comprehend the possibility that their parents are fallible which means they are forced into creating a narrative of personal failure. Similarly, survivors of intrafamilial trauma like domestic violence and sexual abuse often choose self-hatred and self-blame over abandonment. In overt and subtle ways, survivors and infants both naturally hold themselves and their bodies responsible for their trauma. This points to personal failure as a less devastating option than disconnection or abandonment.

Misattunement and dysregulation are small “t” traumas that over time can have just as much life altering impact as capitol “T” traumas, such as abuse or interpersonal physical violence. Misattunement over time cements the messages of shame into the brain of the infant confirming the saying: “neurons that fire together wire together” (Shatz, 1992, p.64). These structures or ways of being in the world get played out for the rest of the person’s life. Drawing from these nonconscious schemas of shame, many adults avoid situations and kill desires that remind them of misattunement from their caregiver (DeYoung, 2015, p.44). The betrayal of past abandonments lead to the hopelessness of future security. Most people feel like it’s better to remain “connected” and not really known in relationships than to show up and have to face the possibility of abandonment.

Shame is a way of being in the world that wears many different emotional hats. As the infant matures, coping mechanisms help keep the haunting sense of “bad” at bay by hiding, blaming and projecting. Commitments are formed such as: “I will never allow myself to be vulnerable” or “I will never be in a relationship where the other person has needs I can’t meet.”


There is a broad movement within psychoanalysis toward a relational orientation and away from drive theory. Stephen Mitchell, Jessica Benjamin and Lew Aron write about the mutual encounter and the therapeutic process while George Atwood, Donna Orange and Robert Stolorow tend to focus more on systems theory. The following section will be primarily engaging the work of the latter theoreticians. A few core concepts of intersubjectivity are as follows:

First, there is a rejection of the isolated Cartesian mind. Second, there is a move away from drive theory toward affect theory (Hill, 2015) in that intersubjective theory does not have central organizing intrapsychic principles like the Oedipus complex, or depressive and schizoid positions. Third, the psychoanalytic stance is one of phenomenological contextualism. Atwood and Stolorow (1984) elaborate, “Psychological phenomena cannot be understood apart from the intersubjective contexts in which they take form” (p. 64). Fourth, the intrapsychic is always found within the interpersonal (Stolorow, Atwood, & Brandchaft, 1994). Fifth, “An intersubjective field is a system of reciprocal mutual influence” (Stolorow & Atwood, 1992, p.3). Subjectivity arises out of mutual recognition. Jessica Benjamin (1988) proposes that subjectivity begets subjectivity and only as the infant loses his omnipotent objectification of his mother is his own subjectivity realized. Sixth, the definition of intersubjectivity is any “psychological field formed by interacting worlds of experience, at whatever developmental level these worlds may be organized” (Atwood & Stolorow, 1992, p.3). Intersubjective theory helps to fill out a philosophical and psychoanalytical perspective of shame.

Shame deals with one’s perceived sense of self which is formed at the intersections of relational fields. Our ever-changing identity is navigated in a similar way to the sonar navigational systems of a bat or dolphin. We come to know who we are by bumping into others and their relational configurations. The self is an approximation created out of the manifold experiences of being in the world with other people. Atwood and Stolorow (1996) elaborate, “An individual mind or psyche is itself a psychological product crystallizing from within a nexus of intersubjective relatedness” (p. 182). The concept of self is a crystallization of past and present relational exchanges.

When a caregiver repeatedly meets an infant with an objectifying, unattuned or unavailable blank face in a time of emotional affect (either good or bad,) pathological structures are formed (Atwood, Brandchaft and Stolorow, 1994.) Harmful relational interactions form the soft clay of the infant’s subjectivity and can be devastating when there are no other healthy relationships available to the infant. Misattunement over time will cause a shift in an infant’s way of being in the world. Atwood and Stolorow (2014) explain, “When the psychological organization of the parent cannot sufficiently accommodate to the changing, phase specific needs of the developing child, then the more malleable and vulnerable psychological structure of the child will accommodate to what is available” (p. 55). If this type of interaction continues without repair, it will be crystallized into pre-conscious styles of relating marked by defensive measures (Atwood, Stolorow,  and Brandchaft, 1994). Continual experiences of shame become solidified into intrapsychic schema that carry no emotional affect.

Using Hegel’s dialectic philosophy, Aron and Starr (2013) propose that identity and therefore shame are largely held by the other. “The self is only a self by virtue of being defined as such by the other. Selfhood is always a social phenomenon, dependent on the social bond with others and at risk when the self is not recognized” (p. 58). A lack of recognition can trigger the anxiety of a jeopardized self. Melvin Lansky (1992) poignantly explains what shame tells us about our place in the world:

The master regulatory emotion signaling threat to that bonding to others, which empowers the sense of self, is shame. Shame is either a signal of danger to the bond or that end stage affect signaling loss of the bond. Shame may denote either the affect itself or the social component aimed at avoiding the threat to the bond. (p. 9)

Shame is the threat or realization that relational connection with the other has been removed by them.


After studying both of these very different disciplines a type of relational ontology emerges. Without relationships Siegel’s triangle collapses along with Atwood and Stolorow’s intersubjective field. Both of these diverse disciplines argue that relationships are a critical element of intrapsychic existence while also forming what we understand of reality. The existence of relational connection is the prerequisite for the existence of the self. From a Christian perspective, existence is always bound to community through being made in the image of a triune God (Zizioulas, 1985).

Within existence, there is an implicit terror of nonexistence. Our existence or being is inherently vulnerable because our ontology is held by the other. This terror is rarely shown through amygdala hyperactivation, but rather through low grade anxiety. It shows itself as the feeling of being on guard or being watched. It haunts consciousness with questions of: “Am I pretty enough; smart enough; respected enough; powerful enough?” These questions often refer to a specific culture’s standard and with enough toil can be answered positively. Consumer culture offers the perfect situation of commodities to assuage the anxiety that haunts humanity.

The vulnerability of having ontology in the hands of another produces terror when the character or capacity of the other is called into question. The only way to never be shamed is to never be vulnerable and never give people power over you. Yet, without vulnerability you can’t relationally connect. The bind of relational “darned if you do,” definitely “darned if you don’t” is one of the foundational aspects of being in the world. It is necessary to give people power to shame, in order to form relational connection with them.

Relational connection requires joining distinct entities without abolishing or diminishing the personhood of either. Enmeshment is the loss of personal psychic structure for the sake of connection. On the other hand, if relational connection does not in some way affect the psychic structure and trigger the release of the hormone oxytocin, there is no real relational connection. Connection requires both intrapsychic stability and vulnerability, amalgamation and individuation, diversity and unity.

The thesis of this paper is: Shame is the terror of annihilation that comes as a result of a perceived powerlessness to relationally connect with others. There are two important parts to this definition. First, shame has an initial parallel emotional affect to anxiety or fear. A social blunder triggers a fight or flight response and the release of adrenaline. A threat to relational standing causes terror because ontology is bound up in relationships. The denial of another’s subjectivity is objectification, which is really a strike to the heart of their ontology. A threat to ontology is also a threat to existence. In other words, if relationships are jeopardized, so are the organizing structures that form a coherent sense of self. The loss of relationships threatens an annihilation of the sense of self. Most people avoid collapse because they have a diversity of relationships and enough positive relational equity from past relationships. This secure foundation does not change the nature of shames message which is the threat of non-existence while existing. It is the possibility of being a living dead.

The second important part of the definition deals with powerlessness. There is no way for the shamed person to restore the gaze of the other, it must be given to them. The impact of shame is linked both to the level of powerlessness a person has and their desire to relationally connect. In social economies there are many ways regain power or earn back the gaze of the other, which takes shame away. The greater the powerlessness to restore the gaze, the greater the shame.

Shame holds the perception that being authentic and allowing others to see flaws will cause rejection. This bind leaves two options which are usually answered in a largely nonconscious manner. The first option is to be authentic and isolated. The second and more common option is to be inauthentic and connected; which is really not connection because it is the presentation of a pseudo self. The powerlessness of shame removes voice and efficacy. It is impossible to restore the gaze of the other because connection requires the other’s desire to attune. The powerless nature of shame often leads to hopelessness and addictive behaviors that attempt to numb and cope with broken connections rather than to fight for new connections.

Shame should be addressed through attunement. If non-existence and the removal of subjectivity are the threat, the cure must involve the gift of existence and the recognition of subjectivity. This is exactly what attunement is. It is the restoration of the gaze, the offer of recognition and connection. Siegel (2012) says attunement is the apprehension of “internal emotional and bodily states” in a way that causes the observed person to feel resonated with (p. AI-8). This resonance is accomplished through “interconnected neural regions that enable a person to tune into others and align his or her internal states with those of another person” (p. AI-69). Siegel (2015) also says, “When we track the signals of another person, we focus our attention on his communication and stay present with his changing states from moment to moment, in an open and responsive way” (p. 313). Attunement offers a secure neural integration and the willingness to take on another’s dysregulated state (DeYoung, 2015.) When a person is going through a shame state, they need attunement; a being-with, being-for, and a being-through type of presence. Attunement to a person experiencing shame is a willingness to feel what they feel and traverse their personal pit of hellish emotions.

The IPNB movement has a definition of shame that is too narrow. Patricia DeYoung (2015) defines shame as: “An experience of one’s felt sense of self disintegrating in relation to a dysregulating other” (p. xiii). The problem with understanding shame as dysregulation and disintegration is that it only address the affect shame brings. Shame does bring dysregulation, and a feeling of being marked or rejected, but why is this the case? Why does it matter if a person has the feeling of being marked or unable to enter into relationship? It matters because being marked or seen as not worth being attuned to is a move against the structure of human subjectivity. Feeling marked or unable to connect relationally carries weight because personhood emerges from relationships.

IPNB is limited within a system and language of biology. Fundamentally, however, humans are not only biological, but also ontological. The category of biology that IPNB operates under is far too narrow to understand the human situation in totality. The category of ontology holds within it the narrower, subcategory of biology. From an ontological standpoint, shame is the threat of non-existence which inevitably includes biological dysregulation.

In light of this distinction between ontology and biology, attunement does not just offer regulation (Siegel, 2012), but also the gift of my current temporal existence on behalf of the other. Within a framework of finitude, existence is one of the most sacred things that can be given to another human due to its finite quantity.

Attunement and kindness remove the threat of alienation and therefore annihilation within shame. They destroy the bind of not being able to be authentic in order to be connected. In the presence of kind attunement, the shamed person is able to be authentic with their flaws, while remaining relationally connected. This opens the door for them to develop a sense of being worthy to be in relationships. Attunement with relational connection reveals the trauma of being objectified which has been crystallized into nonconscious schema and allows it to be engaged instead of adsorbed or dissociated. Attunement is the key to transforming private alienation into shared grief.

Shame is always unwarranted; there is no person that deserves alienation. Interpersonally and ontologically, every person has equal standing and right for relational connection. Attunement reveals the fiction of deserved alienation that shame loudly proclaims. Within the context of attunement, the mind undergoes a hermeneutical transformation that allows data to be interpreted differently. Situations and themes that once brought shame can now be placed in the categories of trauma and guilt, freeing a person to grieve what is broken while maintaining a positive orientation toward relational connection. It is through relationships that we are most profoundly wounded and most beautifully healed.


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