The Roots of Toxic Shame
Let’s consider the imaginary case of an adult male with toxic shame who grew up in a family with unstable, alcoholic parents. As a young child, our young man never felt safe enough to express his emotions or to ask for what he needed. He received little nurturing, approval, or love from his parents. When he got home from school he never knew what conditions awaited him. Would his mother scream at him? Would his father beat him? Would there be food for dinner? His childhood was an ongoing nightmare. He was preoccupied with conditions that another child, growing up in a stable and loving home, would never have to face. He had nowhere to turn and no one to confide in. There was no safe harbor in his life, no way to reduce the pressures he had to confront everyday. He was alone in the horror of his childhood. This is the kind of environment in which toxic shame takes root.
His solution for dealing with the exigencies of his life was to take the only path available to him, which I have named the path of most resistance. As he trudged down this path he learned to shut off his feelings and numb his system to the constant assaults he faced from his parents. Not feeling was the only way he had to endure and survive. He was well on his way to a living a life consumed by toxic shame.
Shutting Down and Surviving
When there is no one to protect a young child, the only way that child can protect himself from further psychological harm is to shut down emotionally. Shutting down is not really a conscious choice, but is rather an unconscious mechanism to stop the emotional bleeding. Turning off the ability to feel will shut off the pain and silence the inevitable rage, at least part of the time. Unfortunately, it also means that the person who shuts down his feelings has lost his ability to feel and, therefore, to connect with other people in any meaningful way. Instead of feeling connected to his world, he will feel empty, alone, alienated from those around him, and dead inside. In shutting down emotionally he also severs his connection to his soul.
The Inner Victim
While shutting down his ability to feel allows him to survive, that protection comes at a high cost. In addition to feeling empty, he has also made himself into a chronic victim: powerless, unbalanced, and angry. The chronic inner victim will not magically disappear when his childhood ends and he tries to make his way in the world. Instead, the inner victim created by toxic shame will continue to undermine him and make his life a living hell. He will be his own worst enemy. This is the path of most resistance. This is the path of toxic shame.
The strategy that enabled him to survive his childhood then may well poison his adulthood. By burying his pain instead of facing it, he increases the odds that he will duplicate his parent’s dysfunction and like them, become a tortured soul laden with toxic shame. If he becomes a parent one day, without first healing his childhood nightmare, it is highly likely that he will do to his own children what his parents did to him. He will pass the curse of toxic shame on to the next generation.
Passing down the Generations
In essence, when a parental dysfunction penetrates the subconscious of a child, that dysfunction is passed on from the older generation to the younger one and will persist as a dominant family behavior until someone in the family decides to confront and eliminate it in himself. If the children do not eliminate it when they become adults, it will be passed on to their children. If that toxic shame remains firmly entrenched in the subconscious of family members, it can persist for many generations. As it passes down through the generations, it may also become more virulent with each new replication.
When a child shuts down emotionally, there are serious repercussions in the rest of his life. What he shuts down will be difficult to open later. Whenever someone shuts himself down, he locks a strong sense of his worthlessness and toxic shame deep within his core. He will feel that he can never redeem himself, no matter what he does. It’s not that he has made mistakes in his life that he can atone for, as much as it seems to him that his whole life has been a mistake. How does he atone for that? Since that toxic shame is who he mistakenly thinks he is, he may resist facing it with great ferocity. After all, he feels unredeemable. Facing the pain at the core of his psyche is like facing his death.
As time passes, and he attempts to move forward, his imbedded toxic shame will become the shame of which he is no longer even conscious. It will imprison him in the alienation and emptiness of the past and prevent him from finding wholeness and happiness in the present. If he marries and has children, his unconscious toxic shame will be his legacy to the next generation.
to be continued.