How Toxic Shame Can Keep You Locked in a Lifelong Straitjacket

Jul 26 06:59 2010 Mike Pilinski Print This Article

Shame occurs when we are exposed – either physically or emotionally – in a way that diminishes us in the presence of others -- and especially in a situation where we are not prepared to experience such an exposure.  Toxic shame goes even further and is more pervasive in it's potential life-changing effects.  It can come to dominate a person's mind to such a degree that the resulting dysfunction drives him or her into deeply addictive and even self-destructive behaviors.  It is, in fact, at the center of every type of addiction imaginable...

Little Bobby is 2 years old.  He likes to run around the house naked -- laughing and screaming with joy as his parents chase him from room to room with the camcorder.  They tell him to "quit showing everybody that silly poo-poo bottom....",Guest Posting but they think it's hysterical and do nothing to stop it.  Why should they?  Dashing around butt naked is appropriate, healthy behavior for a 2 year old who's just discovered the most delightful means of coordinating the rapid movement of his legs in such a way that he can now run!... (an absolutely transcendent advancement over mere walking, which was last month's big achievement).  Being without clothing is no big deal either, of course -- as long as it's not too cold in the house.  Life is good.  Life is magical.

A year later Bobby is 3, and grandma is visiting.  Bobby decides to run out of the bathroom after his bath and surprise grandma... make her laugh and be silly.  But today it's Bobby who's in for the surprise, because when grandma sees him running towards her au naturel with his ding dong happily bouncing around, she gets an angry look on her face which stops him cold.  She scolds him, "Shame on you Bobby, go put some clothes on!".  Bobby is confused.  Mom and dad never said anything like that to him.  They never yelled at Bobby for being a silly poo-poo head.  As far as he was concerned, there was no real difference between wearing clothes and not wearing them anyway, right?

So what's wrong with grandma anyway?  Why is she making Bobby feel so bad about being naked all of a sudden?  "You shouldn't run around like that, it's not right..." grandma scolds.  Bobby looks to his parents, moving around in the kitchen getting dinner ready, for some support.  "Mom?" he asks quizzically.  But now both his parents have funny looks on their faces too, adding to Bobby's dismay.  Mom quickly grabs Bobby by the hand and takes him upstairs and gets him into his PJ's.  Now when he comes back, grandma is happy again.  But why?  What was the big deal about being naked?

Soon, anytime Bobby thinks about running around the house naked, he gets a funny, uncomfortable feeling inside of him that he doesn't like.  This strange bad feeling goes away if he puts his clothes back on.  And he would never, ever dream of running around the house naked in front of grandma again... that's for sure!

Soon, he won't be comfortable doing it in front of his parents either, and they seem to be okay with that.  They never want to play 'chase my poo-poo bottom with the camcorder' any more anyway.  Oh well...

Welcome to Behavioral Modification 101.

This is of course a very common story that every parent has faced at some point in their children's development, seemingly straightforward... but do you see what really just happened here?  Little Bobby has just learned to associate the emotion of SHAME with the act of being naked in front of others.  In the coming years, he will also learn that it's shameful to touch himself "down there" in public, nor to let anyone look at him when he's in the bathroom on the toilet, and then even in the bathtub.  Things are sure becoming different around here.

Now, Bobby's new sense of modesty certainly may not be considered anything close to being toxic, but he'll have plenty of opportunity for that to happen as the years roll by.  The development of a sense of shame is normal and healthy when it serves to set appropriate boundaries for our actions at various stages in our evolution from toddler to adult.  Shame endows our flowering sense of ego-dominated identity with a certain humility that guides our interactions with other individuals.  It helps us learn to take on more and more responsibility for our actions by slowly becoming aware of how they affect everyone else around us.  We discover empathy in this way.

It's important to understand that the mechanism of shame is mainly one of association, that is, we learn to associate the unpleasant sensation of being ashamed with behaviors that society wishes for us to control or suppress in some way.  Shame is commonly wielded by parents to control the behavior of adolescents, but it is most certainly used against adults as well.  Morals and values and the boundaries of acceptable public and private behavior are all "taught" to us by way of inducing shameful experiences at some point in our lives in order to make them "sink in".

To a certain extent this is okay, but the deadly vise-grip of deeply internalized shame can become stifling over time and fully degenerate into a form known as toxic.  Toxic shame occurs when we are exposed – either physically or emotionally – in a way that repeatedly diminishes us in the presence of others, and especially in situations where we are not prepared to experience such an exposure.

How pervasive are the effects of toxic shame? 

Well, humiliation is an extreme form of toxic shame that is so awful, men will put their lives in jeopardy in order to avoid experiencing it or to avenge it.  Physical violence and murders routinely are committed due to violations of shame boundaries.  Emotionally rigid cultures like the Japanese partake in a form of ritual suicide called hara-kiri to absolve themselves of toxic shame or the so-called "loss of face"... choosing the extreme action killing oneself to restore honor to themselves and their family name -- rather than continuing to live a "faceless" existence.  And most devastating of all, almost every form of addictive behavior has its roots in the desperate need of the afflicted individual to escape from an overwhelming sense of shame that he or she feels has completely consumed them.

You see, it's when shame begins to exceed its normal function within our minds, i.e. to provide us with a sense of humility that grounds our identity somewhere between God and the lower beasts, that it begins to create problems.  Usually this happens either through some unrelenting source (i.e., constant harassment by parent or peers), or by way of an isolated or even continuous traumatic event.  Such repeated shaming events re-enforce themselves over and over and can continue to haunt us for a lifetime.

The most powerful counter force to toxic shame is Self-Compassion and Self-Awareness.  Part of the dysfunction of shame is manifested in a tendency for us to be way too hard on ourselves -- continuing the desire for self-punishment... taking up the mantle of past tormentors.  Just knowing about the effects of shame and becoming aware of how it might be pervasive in out lives is a powerful tool for its' eventual destruction.  That's because one of the great strengths of an over-inflated sense of shame has to do with it's stealth.  The fact that you don't comprehend how deeply it's affecting you allows it to continue to operate unchecked within your mind, silently creating shyness or rage or depression or all manner of other emotionally addictive-type behaviors that could be ruining your life.

This is why we always seek the safe harbor self-awareness: because simply being aware of these hidden subconscious monsters and what they are doing to us drags them out into the bright light of our logical and rational consciousness... where they will often burn up under the heat of reason like vampires in the sunlight.  You can begin your own journey to freedom by doing the self-examination and inner work that will lead you to this elevated state of self-awareness.  Once you are able to "step outside yourself" and see yourself and your deepest motivations from a larger and more objective viewpoint, you will be firmly on the road to self-discovery and permanent inner healing.


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Mike Pilinski
Mike Pilinski

Mike Pilinski is the author of 2 classic books in the men's dating market... his highly-acclaimed original, "Without Embarrassment" and his follow-up: "She's Yours For The Taking".  Read more about them here:

The High Status Male

Mike has also just published a 90 minute, 7 part FREE Online Audio Training Course that teaches you how to develop Instant Self-Confidence On-Demand, take a look here and sign-up:

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