Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Healing Shame

According to John Bradshaw, "Toxic shame results from the unexpected exposure of vulnerable aspects of a child's self. This exposure takes place before the child has any ego boundaries to protect himself. The early shaming events happen in a context where the child has no ability to choose. The felt experience of shame is the feeling of being exposed and seen when one is not ready to be seen." Toxic shame often manifests itself in the form of dreams in which a person appears naked or in their underwear in inappropriate places. These dreams can also involve being unprepared, as in being in front of a large group and being unable to deliver a speech, being in a classroom and not having studied for an exam, etc.

In addition to dreams, toxic shame takes shelter in our primary ego defenses. Sigmund Freud was the first to define "an automatic process used for self-preservation which is activated in the face of severe threat." Freud called this process the primary ego defense.

Defense Mechanisms

Primary Ego Defenses:

Denial and Fantasy Bonding
Denial is the primary ego defense. It is common for anyone faced with any form of threat or shock (rape, death of a loved one, abuse, assault, etc.) to at first deny their true feelings about what’s going on or the real impact it has on their life.

Robert Firestone has researched further and elaborated on Freud's original ego defense of denial and calls this fundamental defense the "fantasy bond." The fantasy bond is an illusion of closeness the victim creates with their shaming abuser. Bradshaw and Firestone believe that "the more a child is violated, the more she creates the fantasy bond." In a world of unpredictable abuse, a child's sense of worth is diminished and shame is induced. Finally, an abused person feels they have no choices and they cling to their abuser. Once this denying fantasy bond is set up, "it
functions automatically and unconsciously. Years later when reality is no longer life-threatening, the fantasy bond remains."

John Bradshaw says that "any intolerable event is signaled by strong emotions. Emotions are a form of energy-in-motion. They signal us of a loss, a threat or a situation. Sadness is about losing something we cherish. Anger and fear signal us of actual or impending threats to our well-being. Joy signals that we are fulfilled and satisfied. Whenever a child is shamed through some form of abandonment, (Remember, abuse = abandonment because when a child is abused, there is no one there for them.) feelings of anger, hurt, sadness arise. Since shame-based parents are shame-bound in all their emotions, they cannot tolerate their children's emotions. Therefore, they shame their children's emotions. Repression is the way children numb out so they don't feel their emotions."

Bradshaw believes that dissociation is the ego defense "that accompanies the most violent forms of shaming--sexual and physical violence. The trauma is so great and the fear so terrifying that one needs instant relief. Dissociation is a form of instant numbing." There is more than one ego defense involved in dissociation. The mechanics of dissociation involve denial of what's happening or what happened in the past and may also involve a form of regression. It most certainly involves a distracting form of imagination.

"An incest victim simply goes away during the experience of violation..." I know that I did this, because there are large blocks of time that I cannot remember to this day. The pain of my abuse and torture was too horrific for me to bear, so I went away. The conscious memories are often irretrievable. Abuse survivors often report a sense of leaving their body during the unbearable pain and subsequent humiliating shame.

I want to reassure everyone here: Dissociation is one of the reasons we get so frustrated during our recovery process. Our memories were numbed/blocked during some of our abuse, but our feelings about it remained...buried deep inside us. Sometimes years, decades later, these feelings can come out and we might not know why...at least not at first. We often feel like we are "crazy," because we don't understand the intense feelings that appear to have no cause. But, trust me, the cause is real! What's happened is that the connection between the abuse, the trauma, the violence and the normal response to that violence has been severed. We think that the shame is about us, instead of what happened to us. THIS SHAME IS NOT OURS! THE REAL, JUSTIFIED SHAME BELONGS TO OUR ABUSER/PERPETRATOR! LET'S LEARN HOW TO GIVE IT BACK!!!

Displacement is associated and closely related to dissociation. It usually occurs while we are asleep, dreaming or having lucid dreams. Before I retrieved detailed memories of incest, torture and other types of abuse at the hands of my father, I would often have recurring nightmares of dark, shadowy "monsters" standing in the doorway of my bedroom or hovering over my bed. This is called displacement. Until I progressed in therapy and could admit to myself what had truly happened, my father appeared as a shadowy, faceless monster in my dreams.

Depersonalization is closely related to displacement. Bradshaw describes it as a "behavioral manifestation of being violated." It most often happens when this violation is perpetrated by a significant other...a parent, spouse or other close relative. The victim sees herself as an object rather than a human being. As an object, we no longer believe we are worthy of love, warmth, positive attention or appropriate affection.

"When victimization takes place...the victim often identifies with the persecutor." I personally believe this is one of the main reasons for the continued, generational cycle of abuse in families. This is a defense mechanism to avoid feeling one's own shame. Instead of giving the shame back to the perpetrator by healing the shame, the victim identifies with their abuser and often becomes one themselves. I firmly believe that both of my parents were previous victims who identified with their own offenders.

Conversion is a complicated ego defense. For a more in-depth description of the types of conversion, I recommend reading John Bradshaw's book, "Healing the Shame that Binds You." He details the different types of conversion on pages 77 & 78. For our purposes here, I can best describe it as a way of converting real, legitimate feelings associated with abandonment, abuse and neglect into other often inappropriate feelings, thoughts or behaviors.

For example, if you were shamed as a child for crying when you felt sad, alone or afraid, you may have converted this legitimate emotion into a more acceptable feeling of anger. My husband was physically abused as a child by his father who shamed him mercilessly if he ever cried. He was praised and inappropriately rewarded when ever he got into a physical fight with any of the neighborhood boys or even his brother! Their father rewarded black eyes and the like with verbal praise for being "manly" or "gutsy." So, every time my husband felt like crying, he converted his original, legitimate emotion of sadness, grief or fear into anger.

Bradshaw says that projection is one of our most primitive defense mechanisms. "Once we are shame-based, projection is inevitable." Even if we disown our true, legitimate feelings, wishes, needs and desires, they still clamor for expression. These are parts of our true self and cannot totally be ignored. "One way to handle them is to attribute them to others." Projection is most often used when, for whatever reason, repression fails to numb our feelings of shame.

You may have heard that people often complain about "faults" they themselves are most guilty of. This is a form of projection. If a man is "cheating" on his wife, he will often suspect her of committing adultery herself, when this is the farthest thing from the truth. If I have disowned my legitimate feelings of anger, I might ask you what you're so pissed off about.

Projection can also happen with less "negative" emotions. For example, when a child is shamed by abusing parents they may begin to deny their positive aspects...their power, worth and lovability are projected onto the abusing parents...it can't be my parents fault, so it must be mine. They are good, I'm bad and deserve to be punished.

Secondary Ego Defenses:
Freud described secondary ego defenses that he believed take over when the primary ego defenses fail for any reason.

By inhibiting our physical mechanisms, we can safeguard ourself against further experiences of shame. In the example of my husband who was shamed as a young boy for crying...he became inhibited against crying. Prior to therapy, he would never let himself cry for any reason in order to avoid further experiences of shame.
Reactive Formation
Bradshaw describes this as insuring "that a repressed disturbing feeling which would trigger shame is kept out of conscious awareness." I believe that my mother is an expert at using this secondary defense mechanism. I often felt that my mother was fake, but this explains much of her behavior. Often an undesired trait is replaced with its opposite. When my mother felt the impulse to be cruel, but was afraid to be shamed by acting cruelly (like in public, in church, etc.) she replaced this impulse with the exact opposite trait of kindness. Mother's voice would change to this sing-songy falsetto tone when she replaced her impulse to be cruel with an attitude of kindness.
Bradshaw calls undoing "magical behavior" which cancels out feelings, thoughts or behavior we fear will cause shame or has caused shame in the past. Some obsessive/compulsive rituals are believed to be an ego defense of undoing. Some "religious" shaming for natural sexual urges can result in this type of undoing. When a child is dramatically shamed for masturbating, for example, he can later try to "undo" his wish to touch himself with elaborate "untouching" rituals. Not stepping on cracks in the sidewalk or making sure different foods don't touch on the dinner plate, could be examples of magical undoing.
Isolation of Affect
This is a way of converting a shame-based feeling or impulse NOT into another, non-shame-based feeling, but to a non-shame-based thought. By doing this, the shamed person disowns any responsibility for the original feeling or impulse. These converted thoughts can be seemingly bizarre and can be very confusing to the abuse survivor who feels like these thoughts just pop into her head for no reason. These thoughts are usually described as being devoid of any feelings and act as a distraction from the true feelings associated with the painful shame. These distracting thoughts can be in the form of counting or repeating thoughts. I think it's another form of dissociating. When I have tried to block or numb painful feelings about my past, I often find myself counting random, insignificant things or "typing" the spellings of random words on an imaginary type writer. Before therapy and learning about this ego defense, I just thought I was crazy or had OCD.
Turning Against Self
This is a form of self harm or can manifest itself in self-injury. It is a way of deflecting hostile aggression from another person and directing it onto ourselves. Bradshaw says that this defense is very common among people who have been severely abused. Since "a child so desperately needs his parents for survival, he will turn his aggressive rage about his abuse into abuse of himself." The ultimate extreme of this defense is suicide. Common examples include: cutting, nail biting, scratching, head banging (this is my "preferred" method of self harm), being prone to accidents and other forms of self-harm and self-mutilation. In any case, the rage one feels at their offender is so terrifying that it is turned against the self instead.

Once shame is internalized, we do not feel shame, we feel we are it.
Bradshaw says, "Once internalized, we no longer have the feeling of shame -- we are it. Because we experience ourselves as flawed and defective, we cannot look at ourselves without pain. Therefore, we must create a false self." For more detailed information, I highly recommend getting a copy of John Bradshaw's book, "Healing the Shame that Binds You" and reading pages 82-86.

Family System Roles
All families have roles that each family member fills. In healthy families, the father and mother model what it is to be male and female, a father and mother, a husband and wife. Parents should model in healthy ways what it is to be intimate, how to maintain healthy boundaries, solve problems and discipline in appropriate, loving ways. The role of children is to be curious and learn.

Healthy families have flexible roles that any one member may take on at any given time. For example, Mom might be the hero one day because she changed a flat tire. Daughter might be the hero another day because she volunteers to cook dinner. Brother might be the hero on another day because he voluntarily does the laundry. Dad's the hero when he takes the family on vacation. These types of flexible roles are healthy when they are taken on voluntarily and spontaneously.

However, dysfunctional families require unhealthy roles that may be inappropriate for the age of the family member, particularly children. You might want to think about your own family of origin and consider what role you played in order to keep the family together. I was Daddy's Little Princess for awhile and then my sister took on that role. Both my sister and I were the Family Sacrifice. My mother was the Martyr and Chief Enabler. My brother was often the Scapegoat. Many therapists feel that it is beneficial to explore the role you played and to put a name on it.

It's important to realize that when we take on these dysfunctional roles, we give up our true, authentic self and take on a false self. These roles help to create a shame-based family system. As survivors, we often carry on in these false, dysfunctional roles into adulthood, because they give us a sense of identity, but they also keep us stuck in our toxic shame.

A third layer of protection against feeling our toxic shame is acting "shameless." Acting shameless can take the form of several behaviors that alter our sense of shame:
Perfectionism is learned when a person is valued only for doing. I once heard this referred to as becoming a humandoing instead of a humanbeing. A perfectionist has no sense of healthy shame or internal limits...they never know how much is good enough.

In my family, perfectionism was a multi-generational means for passing the "hot potato" of toxic shame. My maternal grandmother was a perfectionist in the strictest sense of the word. Her house would have passed anyone's "white glove test" at any given time of the day, week, month or year! She had her fireplace sealed off from the chimney and it was never used. It was not good enough that there be no smoke or ashes from the fire, she was determined to keep every speck of environmental "dirt" outside her house. Having the fireplace flue closed was not good enough. She had the chimney cemented shut. The windows in her house were painted shut as well. Before my grandparents were able to afford central air conditioning, they sweltered in the summer heat with nary a window open! Grandma was afraid that dust and grime from the street would soil her curtains. While my mother was not much of a housekeeper, she used this perfectionistic measure against my sister and me as we performed our weekly household chores. No matter how hard we tried, we never quite measured up!
Power & Control
You've heard the expressions: "control freak" and "power junkie." These are direct references to this defense mechanism that is a part of shamelessness. Striving for power is a way to control other people. As Bradshaw says, "Those who must control everything, fear being vulnerable...because to be vulnerable opens one up to being shamed."
Bradshaw believes that rage is the "most naturally occurring cover-up for shame." It protects us in two ways: keeping others away or transferring our shame to others. NOTE: This is not the same a justified rage. However, even justified rage at being abused, abandoned, neglected or violated can be internalized when not expressed. What was originally meant to protect us against further experiences of shame, can become a state of being. This kind of rage can turn into hatred and result in violence and criminal behavior.
Webster's defines arrogance as being overbearing and acting self-important. It is a defense mechanism for covering up shame.
Criticism and Blame
Bradshaw believes that criticism and blame "are perhaps the most common ways that shame is interpersonally transferred." It is a way of reducing the feeling of humiliation and shame a person feels by criticizing and blaming someone else. "Children subject to criticism and blame are shamed to the core. Children have no way to decode their parents' defensive behavior." Children interpret criticizing and blaming in this way as "I'm bad." They come to believe that all the fighting and arguing is their fault.
Judgmentalism and Moralizing
These are the offspring of perfectionism. Condemning others as "bad" or "sinful" is a way to feel morally correct and righteous. Bradshaw believes that children who are the victims of perfectionism, judgment and moralizing are not only victims of emotional abuse, but also spiritual abuse. He reasons that since God alone is perfect; "God alone is shameless...to act shameless is to play God" and therefore, "Children of shameless parents are given a distorted foundation for experiencing God."
Contempt involves complete rejection of someone else who is viewed as utterly disgusting. This is another defense mechanism that is often passed down from one generation to the next. "The child condemns others as he has been condemned."
To patronize is to support, protect, champion or help someone who does not have the same knowledge, benefits, power or prestige as you. That sounds like a good thing, right? The difference is that we patronize when we do these things WITHOUT the other person's request, desire or permission. It is a way of feeling as if you've one-uped another person.
This is a form of co-dependence. It is NOT the same as a spirit of helpfulness and giving. Instead the caretaker helps others as a way of helping themselves. The goal of the caretaker is to feel good about themselves, NOT to take care of someone else
People Pleasing
The goal of the people pleaser or nice person is to look good. Her image is what's important. They hide their shame-based true nature behind a facade of being friendly and well-liked.
The most common definition of envy is "discomfort at the excellence or good fortune of another." Envy is usually thought of as "bad" and even referred to as one of the seven "deadly sins." As such, it is usually kept hidden from others as well as the envious person himself. Sometimes envious people will reveal their hidden feelings with a "back handed" compliment. First, they'll say something nice about the person they are envious of and then they'll take all the positive things back with some disparaging or belittling words or a question. Teenagers are famous for this kind of thing. One girl might say to a rival, "I love your outfit, but didn't you wear that yesterday?"

Compulsive/Addictive Behaviors:
Another layer used for covering up toxic shame are compulsive and addictive behaviors. John Bradshaw thinks that society in general over focuses on addiction to alcohol and drugs, overlooking other serious, life-damaging addictions used to numb, block out and cover up toxic shame. Pia Mellody defines addiction as, "any process used to avoid or take away intolerable reality." Bradshaw divides addictions into five groups:
1. Ingestive Addictions
a) Alcohol and Drugs - Some chemicals are inherently addictive. This group includes nicotine (the
addictive chemical in cigarettes); legal prescription and over-the-counter drugs; illegal, "recreational"
drugs; and caffeine.
b) Eating Disorders
1) Food Addiction - Obesity - The statistics on this addiction are staggering! Back in 1988, when
Bradshaw published his book, "Healing the Shame that Binds You," there were over 34 million
obese people. Some current estimates show that this figure has doubled!
2) Fat/Thin Disorder - Unlike obesity, this eating disorder is not visible. The mood alteration is the
same in that you obsess...first about eating, then about NOT eating. Some people refer to this as "yo yo" dieting. It's a cycle. First you obsess about eating (for me its sweets!)...you binge. Then
you feel guilty about binging and obsess about what you've done. You feel like you've blown it, so
you might as well eat some more and this continues until you can't fit into your clothes any more.
What follows is a cycle of dieting, exercising and depriving yourself of your craved for food. The
difference between this and healthy dieting is that there is no balance. It's all or nothing, fat or thin.3) Anorexia Nervosa - Anorexia is the most immediately (other eating disorders cause health
problems over a longer period of time) life-threatening of all eating disorders. Anorexics are most
commonly girls who come from affluent families dominated by perfectionism. It involves fasting and
starvation. It is a very complicated addiction that can include the use of laxatives, forced vomiting
(purging) and/or excessive exercise. At the core of it is the desire to be more than human. Trying
to live without nourishment is the ultimate rejection of a person's humanity.
4) Bulimia - Anorexics can also suffer bulimia, but it can also develop without any preceding anorexic condition. Bulimia is not as limited to females as anorexia. Many male athletes and "fitness addicts" will resort to binging and purging to maintain a desired weight.
2. Feeling Addictions
a) Rage Addiction - When we are raging, we feel powerful. If you felt powerless during your abuse,
violation or trauma (which you most likely and understandably would), feeling rage can lead you
to believe you are getting your power back. We no longer feel inadequate and defective when we are raging. If people around us let us get away with it, rage can become our preferred method for altering our mood. After repeated use, we can become rage addicts. If we limit our raging to limited, constructive release sessions, this can actually be healthy. (Please click here for healthy ways to release rage.) However, most people addicted to rage are not able to do this. Like any other addiction, the rage addict is usually out of control, utilizing no boundaries. Most likely, eventually,a rage addict will lash out at those around him...usually those closest to him, with whom he feels safe.
Raging, screaming, yelling and more obviously, hitting, pushing, etc. are abusive. Without help, the
rage addict will most likely become the type of abuser he himself feared when his own abuse was
going on.
b) Other Emotional Addictions: fear, excitement, religious righteousness - Any emotion can be addictive. People addicted to excitement are always looking for their next emotional high. In my
opinion, addiction to religious righteousness can be the most heinous of these feeling addictions,
second only to rage. While rage addiction can lead to violent physical abuse, religious addiction can emotionally scar others, especially children to the core! It can be particularly confusing and destructive if you have one parent who is sexually and/or physically abusing a child and the other is a religious addict. "They hide their shame with patronizing self-righteousness and transfer it to their children..." In my case, Father forced sex on me and Mother condemned me for being "bad", "dirty" and "evil." She hid her shame from not protecting me and my sister by blaming us for the incest! In her self-righteous eyes, we were doomed, beyond salvation because we "liked" what our father did to us. c) Shame Addiction - Believe it or not, we can become addicts to our own toxic shame. John Bradshaw goes so far as to say that "shame-based people are always addicted to their toxic shame...Everything is organized around preventing exposure." Without healing, we "cannot let our guard down for one second." This is no way to live!
d) Guilt Addiction - Toxic guilt is even more pernicious than toxic shame. Toxic guilt says we have no right to be who we are. We spend every waking hour analyzing everything we do and trying to solve our internal problems. There is no time for rest.
3. Thought Addictions - Thoughts and mental processes can also be addictive. "Thought processes are a part of every addiction. Mental obsession, going over and over something, is a part of the addictive cycle," but it can also be addictive in and of itself. Some of this can be closely related to dissociation.
By obsessing on our thoughts, we can avoid painful feelings and hide our shame.
a) Detailing - One way of using thought processes to alter our mood is by detailing. Many people who have been diagnosed with OCD use this type of mental obsession. People who are addicted to detail usually give you more information than you need or desire during a conversation. If you are involved in conversation with a detail addict, you will most likely start to tune them out or become bored half way through their minutely detailed recollection of something. These people are addicted to detail.
Although listening to a detail addict can be annoying, it's important to remember that these people are hurting inside. Detail addicts stay in their head to avoid excruciating feelings.
b) Obsessive/Compulsive Disorder (OCD) - There has been a lot of media attention to this disorder, so I won't go into a lot of information here, but people with OCD are similar to detail addicts. They stay in their heads to avoid painful feelings. For more information, please click here.
4. Activity Addictions - Another way of altering mood is through behavior/activity. The compulsion part of OCD has to do with activity. Instead of just staying immersed in thought and verbally detailing, activity addicts must actively behave in certain ways as a means of distraction. While OCD is not that prevalent, the more common forms of activities that alter mood and cover up shame are the following:
a) Gambling
b) Sexual Addiction
c) Buying ("Shopaholic")
d) Hoarding
e) Working ("Workaholic")
f) Exercising
g) Watching TV
h) Video Game Playing
i) Internet Addiction
None of these activities are necessarily inherently addictive, however, all of these can become life- damaging addictions if used to alter one's mood by participating in the activity. Toxic shame is the culprit when any of these activities become an addiction.
5. Will Addictions - Bradshaw says that, "The human will loses its cooperative relationship with the intellect because of the contaminations resulting from the shame-bound emotions." This means that our "intellectual operations of perception, judgment and reasoning are crucial to the will in its choicemaking duties." These intellectual "operations" allow us to see alternatives available to us when we make choices. When our "emotional energy is frozen and shame-bound, the intellect is seriously biased and impaired." Our will loses its ability to see those alternatives. We begin to act willful...which can have serious, life-damaging consequences. "Such willfulness is the core of all addictions. All addicts are ultimately addicted to their own wills." Without reason, perception and judgment, we make choices based solely on what we want.
As they say in AA, "I want what I want when I want it." As John Bradshaw explains, "Addiction to one's own will is the way that toxic shame causes spiritual bankruptcy. This is why spiritual healing is necessary when it comes to healing the syndromes of toxic shame."

This book has done so much for me, even though I don't have chemical addictions. I have any anxiety one though!


Mishka said...

Sarah, Everything you post resonates with me! Thank you so much for sharing! xoxo mishka

Sarah Elise Stauffer said...

thanks honey!!