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Tom Moon, M.F.T. Learning and Unlearning Toxic Shame

Learning and Unlearning Toxic Shame

Last time I talked about strategies for healing “toxic shame,” which is a deep and pervasive sense of being defective and unlovable, and which I believe affects many gay people as a consequence of growing up in a homophobic environment. This time I’d like to focus on one particularly painful consequence of toxic shame, which is the hostility to one’s own unhappy feelings.

Alberto finds telling me his story in our therapy hours difficult because he “knows” I’ll have contempt for what I’ll hear. He “knows” he’s a whiner and a complainer. He “knows” that he’s too focused on himself, that he’s all wrapped up in feeling sorry for himself, that he wallows in self-pity, and that “my problem is that I just need to grow up,” He operates, too, on a more-or-less unconscious assumption that there must be some way to “do” life so that you don’t suffer, and that, for some reason, he just isn’t in on the secret. He spends much of his time comparing his insides to other people’s outsides, which creates a kind of optical illusion that other people don’t struggle as much as he does; that they aren’t as fearful, vulnerable, lonely, or confused as he is. What that means to him is that he’s fundamentally alone in his suffering, and that it makes him a shameful person.

He didn’t dream up his hostility to his own pain on his own, of course. When he was a small child, like all children, he was just who he was, without any negative or positive judgments about himself. If he was unhappy, he cried; if he was happy, he laughed. He learned to feel shame though a process that psychologists call introjection. When he went to school for the first time, some of the other boys bullied, hit, and taunted him for being a “sissy and a coward.” He didn’t fight back. He was so shocked and hurt by their hostility that he burst into tears right in front of them, a response that just brought on more jeers and bullying. A well-meaning teacher called Alberto’s father and told him what was happening. His father reacted with rage – not at the boys for tormenting him – but at Alberto for his “weakness” – and he demanded that he go back to school the next day and “teach those boys a lesson.” No one had ever taught Alberto how to defend himself, either verbally or physically, and when the taunting began again, he didn’t know what to do. He just stood as still as a statue, and hung his head. When word of that got back home, his father beat him as punishment. More vividly than the beating, Alberto remembers the look of disgust and contempt in his father’s eyes as he hit him. That was one of the sources of his shame. He “introjected” that look – he took it in and identified with it. He began to experience himself as other than himself, as if he were looking at himself through his father’s eyes. Shame is an emotion that we import from others.

I think this is an important fact to remember, because it has far-reaching ethical implications for all of us. We are far more connected with each other than most of us realize. In a sense, we inhabit one another. And shame is contagious. If I respond to your vulnerabilities with the kind of muscular contempt and ridicule that has become so widespread in our culture; if I dismiss you as a “whiner” because you suffer; if I respond to your pain by telling you to “stop feeling sorry for yourself,” I’m not helping you. I’m not making you a stronger person, as Alberto’s father imagined he was doing for his son. What I’m really doing is spreading the toxin of shame.

And just as shame isn’t learned it a vacuum, it can’t be unlearned in a vacuum, either. It originates from introjected contempt, and heals from introjected compassion. I’ve talked with very few gay people who were fortunate enough not to grow up learning to feel at least some shame for who they were. But many of us are also fortunate enough to remember taking the risk of sharing our “shameful secret” with someone we trusted; and if that person responded with love, respect, and compassion, we were able to introject some of that response, which started us on the road to overcoming internalized homophobia. We didn’t come to self-respect all by ourselves. More than most of us realize, we all have tremendous power both to wound and to heal each other.

Tentatively at first, and then with increasing boldness, Alberto is learning to share his “shameful” secrets, first in therapy, and then with trusted friends. The school bullies and his father awakened his capacity for self-loathing; now his trusted confidantes are helping him discover self-compassion. He’s also learning that self-healing work, which he once saw as self-indulgence and weakness, benefits everyone around him. What we reject in ourselves we can’t accept in others, either. Alberto is finding that, to the exact degree that he embraces his own vulnerabilities, he spontaneously offers the same compassion to the people around him.


Author: Tom Moon