In service to granting access to qualities, desires, visions, and intuitive sensing split off into the unconscious by shame, it seems one must inquire into the nature of shame from a psychological perspective—what it is, how one gets it, how it operates in the psyche, the effects it has on one’s inner and outer life, and how to heal it. Exploring the phenomenology of shame, throughout the 20th and 21st centuries, has been one of the core endeavors of psychoanalysis and depth psychology (Tangney & Dearing, 2002, pp. 12-13). Symptomatically, shame reveals itself in all forms of addiction and compulsive behaviors, as the source of substance abuse and dependence, eating disorders, obsessive-compulsive disorder, perfectionism, bullying, violence, and sexual abuse (Bradshaw, 1988, p. 35; Brown, 2012a, p. 73). Shame is one of the most excruciatingly uncomfortable states of being, and it is extremely difficult to be in contact with one’s shame without going into a defensive and reactionary impulse in an attempt to not feel the shameful vulnerability and fallibility of one’s existence (Bradshaw, 1988, p. 34).
Shame is a universal human experience; the only people who do not experience shame are sociopaths who are incapable of feeling empathy for another person (Brown, 2012a, p. 68). According to the research of psychologists, June Price Tangney and Ronda L. Dearing (2002), shame serves a necessary relational function as it informs human beings in their moral evolution: “Shame and guilt are thus both ‘self-conscious’ and ‘moral’ emotions: self-conscious in that they involve the self evaluating the self, and moral in that they presumably play a key role in fostering moral behavior” (p. 2).
There has been debate and confusion within the field of psychology on whether or not shame is a healthy or unhealthy emotional state and whether it can serve a positive function in peoples’ lives. Bradshaw (1988) explained that the preverbal origins of shame make it difficult to define and that it is “a healthy human feeling that can become a true sickness of the soul” (p. 5). He defined the difference between healthy and unhealthy or “toxic shame” (p. 5), the debilitating force in the psyche that is the focus of this thesis.
Just as there are two kinds of cholesterol, HDL (healthy) and LDL (toxic), so also are there two forms of shame: innate shame and toxic/life-destroying shame. When shame is toxic, it is an excruciatingly internal experience of unexpected exposure. It is a deep cut felt primarily from the inside. It divides us from ourselves and from others. When our feeling of shame becomes toxic shame, we disown ourselves. And this disowning demands a cover-up. Toxic shame parades in many garbs and get-ups. It loves darkness and secretiveness. (p. 5)
For over a decade researcher and social worker Brene Brown (2012a) interviewed thousands of people about connection and belonging and discovered that there is a direct correlation between feeling disconnected and shame. Brown, from her research, defined shame as arising from the human instinctual need for love and belonging and the fear of loss of connection if we do not fulfill the expectations of others.
First, shame is the fear of disconnection. We are psychologically, emotionally, cognitively, and spiritually hardwired for connection, love, and belonging. Connection, along with love and belonging (two expressions of connection), is why we are here, and it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives. Shame is the fear of disconnection—it’s the fear that something we’ve done or failed to do, an ideal that we’ve not lived up to, or a goal that we’ve not accomplished makes us unworthy of connection. …I’m unlovable. I don’t belong. Here’s the definition of shame that emerged from my research:
Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. (p. 69)
Most simply put, shame, as Brown described it, results from the experience of being rejected, abandoned, or in some other manner excluded from love. Feeling loved is as essential and vital to living as food and shelter (Lewis et al., 2000, p. 70). Shame is what creates disconnection and disconnection is antithetical to human experience because human beings are here for connection and belonging (Bradshaw, 1988; Brown, 2012a).
The reason shame is such a powerful emotion is that when human beings feel a sense of disconnection it literally threatens their survival, since human beings, as a species that is formed out of interdependence, are wholly dependent on one another for survival beginning from the moment of birth through the moment of death (Bradshaw, 1988). The research has shown that toxic shame, shame that causes one to disown oneself (Bradshaw, 1988) leading to a profound lack of self-worth (Brown, 2012a), is a dangerous emotion that is at the root of highly self-destructive behaviors like addiction, violence, and depression, and does not lead to any helpful results of positive behavior or productive solutions (Brown, 2012a, p. 73).
In discussing shame it is also important to distinguish here the difference between shame and guilt. The emotion of guilt is not comprised of identification with being wrong or bad, but rather is the self-reflective recognition of a negative behavior or action (Brown, 2012a, p. 72; Tangney & Dearing, 2002). Guilt is the ability to acknowledge and own when one has done something hurtful to oneself or another or when one has not followed through in embodying core values.
The Etiology of Shame
The source of trauma and subsequent shame is a relational wound that runs deep, manifesting when a break or schism happens in the relationship between two or more people (Bradshaw, 1988, p. 31; Brown, 2012a, p. 52). Bradshaw (1988) described how shame occurs when a child looses the mirroring of a caregiver through abandonment by an emotionally or physically absent parent.
Shame is internalized when one is abandoned. Abandonment is the precise term to describe how one loses one’s authentic self and ceases to exist psychologically. Children cannot know who they are without reflective mirrors. Mirroring is done by one’s primary caregivers and is crucial in the first years in life. Abandonment includes the loss of mirroring. Parents who are shut down emotionally (all shame- based parents) cannot mirror and affirm their children’s emotions. (p. 31)
Every individual has a version of being abandoned at some point in his or her life, whether physically, emotionally, psychologically, or spiritually, by another person. Being abandoned has the potential to leave a very deep and scathing wound when left untreated.
Bradshaw (1988) contended that “all forms of child abuse are abandonment. When parents abuse children the abuse is about the parent’s issues and not the child’s. This is why it is abuse” (p. 71). Bradshaw delineated why abuse is abandonment and why children tend to make the abuse their fault:
Abuse is abandonment because when children are abused, no one is there for them. What’s happening is purportedly for the child’s own good. But it isn’t about the child at all; it’s all about the parent. Such transactions are crazy-making and induce shame. In each act of abuse the child is shamed. Young children, because of their egocentricism, make themselves responsible for the abuse. (p. 71)
When children’s needs are neglected they tend to interpret this interaction as a result of there being something wrong with them, and that they are not worthy of care and attention; that they lack intrinsic value (Bradshaw, 1988). This leads to a whole host of dependency issues, causing children to believe that they have no right to depend on anyone, they do not matter, and that they are too much to handle. The child begins to shut down and repress his or her emotional, physical, and psychological needs. This overpowering sense of disconnection from love arises out of not being seen, accepted, and wholly embraced by one’s family of origin creating a sense of shame or what the psychologist John Welwood (2005) termed “unlove” (p. 9).
In the feeling of being disconnected or unloved, a person’s survival is threatened interpersonally, intrapsychically, and transpersonally, on a psycho-spiritual level, because human beings are both individually and collectively wholly dependent on one another for existing in this world (Bradshaw, 1988). “Although this love-wound grows out of childhood conditioning, it becomes in time a much larger spiritual problem—a disconnection from the loving openness that is our very nature” (Welwood, 2005, p. 11). As seen in Brown (2012a), human beings are hardwired for belonging and connection, and when this primal need is challenged in any way the volcanic and terrifying emotion that accompanies it is shame. The crucial importance of being lovingly mirrored in developing health rather than toxic shame was expressed by object relations theorist Donald Winnicott when he voiced, “I am seen, so I exist” (as cited in Sullivan, 1989,
p. 102). Being truly seen gives one a necessary sense of psychosocial existence.
For over 30 years psychologist and cofounder of emotionally focused couples therapy Sue Johnson (2008) explored the cycles of connection and disconnection within the relationships of couples. Johnson pointed toward the necessity of connection from a human evolutionary and biological perspective when she wrote, “Isolation and potential loss of loving connection is coded by the human brain into a primal panic response. This need for safe emotional connection to a few loved ones is wired in by millions of years of evolution” (p. 46). Johnson expressed the inherent vital imperative and necessity for connection with a loved one in light of attachment theory:
Attachment theory teaches us that our loved one is our shelter in life. When that person is emotionally unavailable or unresponsive, we face being out in the cold, alone and helpless. We are assailed by emotions—anger, sadness, hurt, and above all, fear. This is not surprising when we remember that fear is our built-in alarm system; it turns on when our survival is threatened. Losing connection with our loved one jeopardizes our sense of security. (p. 30)
The Psychological Effects of Shame
As discussed by Brown (2012b) and Bradshaw (1988), one way that shame operates in the psyche is that a person begins to believe and feel at the core of his or her being that he or she is unworthy, bad, and primarily flawed. One of the main consequences of believing that one is unworthy and bad is that a person begins to silence his or her voice (Brown, 2012b). In other words, one believes and acts as if what one feels, experiences, or thinks is not important enough to be expressed and shared, let alone valued. One then becomes shut down and split off from self and others. This deep imprinting and template of shutting down tends to become perpetually worse as one develops from childhood into adolescence and then into adulthood (Bradshaw, 1988, pp. 32-33).
People with toxic shame tend to develop strategies, by which they move away from, toward, or against others, to cope with an ongoing fear of abandonment and disconnection that arises from the belief that one is fundamentally flawed and unacceptable (Brown, 2012a). Brown shared the research of another colleague who expressed the different ways that shame operates in people’s lives and relationships.
According to Dr. Hartling, in order to deal with shame, some of us move away by withdrawing, hiding, silencing ourselves, and keeping secrets. Some of us move toward by seeking to appease and please. And some of us move against by trying to gain power over others, by being aggressive, and by using shame to fight shame. Most of us use all of these—at different times with different folks for different reasons. Yet all of these strategies move us away from connection—they are strategies for disconnecting from the pain of shame. (pp. 77-78)
Shame-based relational strategies, aimed at protecting a person from re-experiencing shame, end up keeping the shame secreted inside, thereby perpetuating its effects. As was shown in the research on love conducted by physicians Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini, and Richard Lannon (2000) in their book, A General Theory of Love, no human being can exist, let alone thrive, without love and belonging. The “I” is utterly dependent on a “Thou” for survival. If the “I” senses at all that the “Thou” is rejecting it in any way, then the “I” is driven into survival mode. From this place of the fight or flight mechanism, the “I” is forced back into its primal origins as a wholly vulnerable, desperate, and even wounded animal. The “I” will do anything to ensure its survival and to not be left behind. The experience of shame creates desperation for connection and a sense of worthiness. As Brown (2012a) articulated, “When we’re hurting, either full of shame or even just feeling the fear of shame, we are more likely to engage in self- destructive behaviors and to attack or shame others” (p. 73). Whenever one begins to descend into a spiral of shame the likelihood that one will do whatever it takes to get out, including shaming another, dramatically increases, causing even more damage in the wake of one’s already destructive behavior.
People learn to adapt to the early wounds and traumatic places within the psyche, and find what protection they can, whether through rage, judgment, blame, withdrawal, or disassociation. This defensive or protective armoring reflects the ways in which people adapt, doing the best they can with what they have in order to survive and avoid or tolerate psychological pain. Brown (2012a) put it clearly when she wrote,
As children we found ways to protect ourselves from vulnerability, from being hurt, diminished, and disappointed. We put on armor; we used our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors as weapons; and we learned how to make ourselves scarce, even to disappear. Now as adults we realize that to live with courage, purpose, and connection—to be the person whom we long to be—we must be vulnerable. We must take off the armor, put down the weapons, show up, and let ourselves be seen. (p. 112)
In shame the impulse is to split-off from and silence the aspects of self that are perceived to have brought about the disconnection. Shame needs three things to survive and thrive—secrecy, silence, and judgment (Brown, 2012b). Therefore, the antidote to shame is to bring into the light what has been hidden and repressed out of fear of rejection and abandonment. As Brown’s (2012a) research revealed,
If we can share our story with someone who responds with empathy and understanding, shame can’t survive. Self-compassion is also critically important, but because shame is a social concept—it happens between people—it also heals best between people. A social wound needs a social balm, and empathy is that balm. Self-compassion is key because when we’re able to be gentle with ourselves in the midst of shame, we’re more likely to reach out, connect, and experience empathy. (p. 75)
Vulnerability: The Antidote to Shame
If shame needs secrecy and judgment to survive, then the antidote to shame and the way to begin to heal it is by being vulnerable enough to tell one’s story to someone who can be a compassionate listener and loving witness (Brown, 2012a, p. 82). Because shame is a social and relational wound, it can only be truly healed through relationship.
Since it was personal relationships that set up our toxic shame, we need personal relationships to heal our shame. This is crucial. We must risk reaching out and looking for nonshaming relationships if we are to heal our shame. There is no other way. Once we are in dialogue and community, we will have further repair work to do. But we can’t even begin that work until affiliative relationships are established. (Brown, 2012a, pp. 154-155)
Affiliative relationships and intimacy can only be established through the courage to be vulnerable, allowing the authentic, inner, but shamed, self to be seen, affirmed, and reintegrated. Because shame splits one off from one’s authenticity and inner source of one’s life, the vulnerability required to heal it reconnects one with others and with one’s own vitality, meaning, and purpose. As Brown (2012a) proclaimed,
Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path. (p. 34)
Feminine depth psychotherapist and author Barbara Stevens Sullivan (1989) explained that interpretations of a client’s symptoms and insight into his or her psychological reality are not healing. Rather, insights are the by-product and confirmation of “the mutual process of empathic sharing and emotional accompaniment” (p. 89) that led to healing the intrapsychic and interpersonal disconnection. Thus, “Insight is more fruitfully understood as a product of the psyche’s healing than it is the cause”
If things are ever going to change from the purgatorial cycles of pursuing and distancing to a place of connectivity and belonging, then vulnerability is the guardian of the threshold into the realm of experiencing love. There is a curious yet exquisite beauty in vulnerability. As is shown in Brown’s (2012a) work it is through being vulnerable to feeling one’s shame and sharing it with another that one finds one’s way back to oneself and to relationship. It is empathy and connection that makes this move possible. In order to begin to heal shame one must engage in the practice of being vulnerable. First, one must understand the nature of vulnerability and begin to decouple this word with the false belief that to be vulnerable is to be weak. As Brown discussed,
Vulnerability isn’t good or bad: It’s not what we call a dark emotion, nor is it always a light, positive experience. Vulnerability is the core of all emotions and feelings. To feel is to be vulnerable. To believe vulnerability is a weakness is to believe that feeling is weakness. To foreclose on our emotional life out of a fear that the costs will be too high is to walk away from the very things that gives purpose and meaning to living. (p. 33)
As Brown (2012a) stated, vulnerability is at the heart of all emotional states, whether experienced as positive or negative. To be human is to be utterly vulnerable. Vulnerability is the courage to expose oneself. The constant armoring against vulnerability in Western culture stems from the association of vulnerability with dark or challenging emotions of “fear, shame, grief, sadness, and disappointment—emotions that we don’t want to discuss, even when they profoundly affect the way we live, love, work, and even lead.” (p. 33). Brown noted that it was only after a decade of research that she learned that “vulnerability is also the cradle of the emotions and experiences we crave” (p. 33). The human experience includes the entire multivalent spectrum of emotions. As it turns out when, when one blocks oneself from feeling pain and suffering one also becomes blocked from feeling joy and belonging (Brown, 2010).
The etymology of vulnerability comes from the Latin word vulnerare, meaning “to wound” and “capable of being wounded” (Brown, 2012a, p. 39). Weakness, on the other hand, is defined as “the inability to withstand attack or wounding” (p. 39). Vulnerability and weakness, then would seem to be not only contrasting concepts, but also antithetical to one another by their very nature. Given these definitions, one could understand that learning to fear vulnerability, when wounding is associated with abandonment and a belief that one is inherently bad, is psychologically weakening, making one more dependent on defensive and dissociative strategies. On the other hand, the experience of being met empathically and lovingly in the presence of one’s vulnerability would be psychologically strengthening, building resilience and self- confidence.
Vulnerability is the way through the threshold of pain and suffering into connection and intimacy, what humans are hardwired for. Connection occurs when people feel authentically seen, heard, and valued. A sense of belonging, meaning, and purpose are the fruits of connection to others, to self, and to something much larger than one’s ego (Brown, 2012a, p. 146). However, intimacy can only truly occur by presenting one’s truest, most authentic self, including the more challenging emotional states that most people are afraid to share like shame, fear, sadness, and grief. It is only through deep self-acceptance that one can experience a true sense of intimacy and belonging.
Women’s Voices, Shame, and the Patriarchy
Voice is how human beings connect, it is the expression of one’s authentic self, and without being heard one does not learn the capacity to hear oneself. It is an ethical imperative, in other words, a vital necessity for people to be able to share their own story and speak for themselves. To have voice is antithetical to the silencing of toxic shame. “To have a voice is to be human. To have something to say is to be a person. But speaking depends on listening and being heard; it is an intensely relational act” (Gilligan, 1982, p. xvi). From this perspective, to not be heard, to be emotionally abandoned, is dehumanizing, robbing one of personhood.
Through the work of Carol Gilligan (1982), an American feminist, ethicist, and psychologist, one finds a connection between a woman’s individual shame and loss of voice and the neglect and silencing of the feminine voice in the field of psychology. More specifically, Gilligan observed that the dominant and largely unconscious model and measurement of mental health in the field of psychology is based on male psychological development. It neglects adequate understanding of female psychological development, viewing it from a male perspective. Gilligan, in her research, began to define what voice means from a feminine perspective placing it in the context of connection.
By voice I mean something like what people mean when they speak of the core of the self. Voice is natural and also cultural. It is composed of breath and sound, words, rhythm, and language. And voice is a powerful psychological instrument and channel, connecting inner and outer worlds. Speaking and listening are a form of psychic breathing. This ongoing relational exchange among people is mediated through language and culture, diversity and plurality. (p. xvi)
To have voice, as Gilligan (1982) conveyed, is to speak and express one’s feeling tones, one’s inner world, and one’s emotional capacities. Voice connects inner and outer; connects a person to themselves, to the world, to others in their lives in a deeply meaningful and revelatory way. The connection between voice and language originates at the mother’s breast (Reis, 2006, p. 227). As the baby becomes a child and differentiates from the mother’s breast, language develops. Language is the way the child begins to communicate with the mother about its own individual needs and desires as separate from the mother. It is a holy longing for simultaneous connection and differentiation (p. 228).
Historically, there has been a profound fear, on the behalf of women, to speak their truth. As the black feminist lesbian poet Audre Lorde (2007) affirmed, “And of course I am afraid, because the transformation of silence into language and action is an act of self-revelation, and that always seems fraught with danger” (p. 43). Speaking one’s voice is an act of self-revelation. And, as has been shown by the research of Brown (2012a, 2012b) and Bradshaw (1988) on shame, to reveal or expose oneself is frightening due to the potential of being utterly rejected. However, as Gilligan (1982) stated, “Relationship requires connection. It depends not only on the capacity for empathy or the ability to listen to others and learn their language or take their point of view, but also on having a voice and having a language” (p. xx).
The larger encompassing backdrop to the shame that exists in peoples’ lives is a patriarchal worldview that consciously and unconsciously has dominated and subsumed the zeitgeist of Western civilization for at least the past several thousands of years (Reis, 2006). Patriarchy is a complex cultural institution that pervades, permeates, and informs every aspect of contemporary existence. Reis gave voice to one understanding of patriarchy in quoting Adrienne Rich:
Patriarchy is the power of the fathers: a familial-social, ideological, political system in which men—by force, direct pressure, or through ritual, tradition, law, and language, customs, etiquette, education, and the division of labor, determine what part women shall or shall not play, and in which the female is everywhere subsumed under male. (As cited in Reis, 2006, p. 11)
In a culture of patriarchy, women are regarded fundamentally as property of men, as a possession to conquer and control; this includes women’s bodies, minds, spirits, and voices. Women are treated as inferior to men and therefore must submit their will, power, and authority to men (Murdock, 1990; Reis, 2006). Patriarchy is a cultural institution that has manifested a rational model of relating structured by male domination, hierarchical power, and subordination, in which the male experience and perspective is the normative measure by which all else is valued and judged. Reis (2006) teased out what patriarchy has come to represent within the collective psyche.
What is patriarchal thought? It is the “objective,” emotionless, “scientific,” and religious discourse on which Western civilization has been built—the ideas, treatises, and laws which imply Truth and claim authority, spoken in a paternalistic voice. Patriarchal thought is premised on dualism and separation— between women and nature, man and woman, humans and animals, body and soul, mind and emotion, matter and spirit. (p. 210)
Within the context of the patriarch, Reis (2006) explained, a woman’s internalization of her father creates a powerful inner figure that affects her belief in herself, her capacity for mastery, and the trustworthiness of her perceptions and thinking. The significance of the father’s presence and attitude toward her is magnified by “the cultural, institutional, and spiritual father giving the figure of the father, in general, an unnaturally inflated importance and exaggerated significance in our inner and outer lives” (pp. 15-16). For a woman, this complicates “the process of thinking for oneself, finding one’s voice, [and] creating authentic work (p. 15).
Worldviews shape the beliefs, values, ideas, modes of relating, epistemologies, and ontologies of entire peoples (Tarnas, 2006). The collective values of any worldview carry into personal and interpersonal relations, noticeably between parents and children. For young girls born into a patriarchal worldview there is the instantaneous devaluing and oppression of that girl’s innate human value. In such an atmosphere, a woman speaking in one’s authentic voice is difficult if not impossible. Gilligan (1982) noted,
As we have listened for centuries to the voices of men and the theories of development that their experience informs, so we have come more recently to notice not only the silence of women but the difficulty in hearing what they say when they speak. Yet in different voice of women lies the truth of an ethic of care, the tie between relationship and responsibility, and the origins of aggression in the failure of connection. The failure to see the different reality of women’s lives and to hear the differences in their voices stems in part from the assumption that there is a single mode of social experience and interpretation. (p. 173)
Healing the Shame
Part of the shadow of patriarchy is the fervent belief and blind declaration that there is a single mode of experience and interpretation. This means that centuries upon centuries of women’s voices being silenced and women being disconnected from their sense of self needs to be grieved. Because of the patriarchal context, and its internalization by girls in part through the cultural and personal father, this loss and grief resonates through the shame in which paternally abandoned girls have been trapped.
The need for grieving. Grieving seems to be a central path toward being liberated from one’s own inner imprisonment (Welwood, 2005). One must face and feel the great losses of other and self, the ways one has been abandoned by other and self in order to regain a sense of connection and belonging.
What lies at the core of all grievance is deep pain and grief about loss of connection. Because we have never fully and consciously grieved this hurt, it becomes coagulated in our mind and body. What we fail to grieve turns into grievance. To extract the medicine that can heal the poison of grievance, we need to acknowledge and allow this grief, instead of running away from it. This means bringing our grief about loss of connection out of the shadows into the daylight of openness and warmth. (p. 76)
The way through is by feeling and wholeheartedly acknowledging the pain and suffering of being abandoned and rejected by one’s culture and more deeply, by one’s parents who are also a product of the patriarchal culture. To continue to avoid the pain of abandonment is to perpetuate the very state of isolation, alienation, and despair that lies at the heart of one’s deepest suffering (Welwood, 2005). The way to heal is to unearth and liberate the feelings of loss of connection that remain in one’s psyche and soma in order for them to be metabolized, and a state of well-being restored. As Welwood described, the interpersonal loss of the other, such as in the emotional, physical, or psycho-spiritual abandonment by a parent, often leads to an intrapersonal abandonment of oneself.
Yet deeper still is the loss of connection with ourselves that happens when we spurn our own hurt, confusion, or despair. This creates inner division and discord that prevent us from fully recognizing our intrinsic beauty and lovability and establishing a blessed connection with ourselves. (pp. 76-77)
For women living in patriarchy there is a terror in speaking one’s truth that stems being mirrored as inferior to men. Lorde (2007) expressed this truth when she wrote,
As women, we have come to distrust that power which rises from our deepest and nonrational knowledge. We have been warned against it all our lives by the male world, which values this depth of feeling enough to keep women around in order to exercise it in the service of men, but which fears this same depth too much to examine the possibilities of it within themselves. So women are maintained at a distant/inferior position to be psychically milked, much the same way ants maintain colonies of aphids to provide a life-giving substance for their masters. (pp. 53-54)
Love and difference. The distrust of a women’s deepest sense of self is a loss that creates an inner abandonment that directly correlates to a lack of self-love and acceptance. Brown (2012a) shared her definition of love and its relationship with shame developed from the data she collected from thousands of people’s stories:
We cultivate love when we allow our most vulnerable and powerful selves to be deeply seen and known, when we honor the spiritual connection that grows from that offering with trust, respect, kindness, and affection.
Love is not something we give or get; it is something that we nurture and grow, a connection that can only be cultivated between two people when it exists within each one of them—we can only love others as much as we love ourselves. Shame, blame, disrespect, betrayal, and the withholding of affection damage the roots from which love grows. Love can only survive these injuries if they are acknowledged healed, and rare. (pp. 105-106)
Yet, paradoxically, as shown by Bradshaw (1988) and Brown (2012a), the shame that prohibits human beings from believing they are worthy of love and belonging can only really heal in, by, and through relationship since it was originally internalized through a relational wound, or a “broken mutuality” (Bradshaw, 1988, p. 31). In order to experience love and connection, one has to make the choice to put down one’s weapons of blaming, judging, criticizing, withdrawing, or disassociating, and to make the vulnerable move. As has been repeatedly illustrated by Bradshaw (1988), Brown (2012a), Johnson (2008), Tangney and Dearing (2002), and Welwood (2005), it is through one’s ability to feel safe enough to be vulnerable and share one’s deepest wounds and pain with another as a loving and caring witness that begins to heal the deep schisms in psyche bound to shame. It is through facing pain and suffering that one can begin to gain a deeper and more authentic connection with self and other.
Out of our pain can come strength and a deeper sense of connection—if we can learn to use the power of love. “Someday, after mastering winds, waves, tides, and gravity, we shall harness the energy of love, and for the second time in the history of the world, man will have discovered fire,” wrote the French Christian mystic and writer Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. This “fire” is not the one that burns and terrifies, but the one that gives light and warmth. It is love that can change not just our relationships, but our world. (Johnson, 2008, pp. 250-251)
Lorde (2007) contended that vulnerability, empathy, and mutuality in relationships must stretch to acknowledge and embrace differences in order to hold a safe ground for the emergence and reintegration of what has been shamed and for the gathering of insight from silenced voices, both inner and outer. When difference is not welcomed, the human instinct for belonging and the need for love, may further shame one’s unique perspective, experiences, and creativity. Lorde daringly asserted,
Within the interdependence of mutual (nondominant) differences lies that security which enables us to descend into the chaos of knowledge and return with true visions of our future, along with the concomitant power to effect those changes which can bring that future into being. Difference is that raw and powerful connection from which our personal power is forged. (p. 110)
Lorde was pointing to the fact that when people feel safe with one another there are whole worlds that can be accessed in the liminal space between them as a result of their differences. The dilemma is that although the need for love and connection drives the impulse to be the same as others and the shame that leads to disconnection, it is in the differentiation of each person’s own psychology and self-expression and the meeting between them, that is the necessity for eros to flow.
This chapter began by defining toxic shame as distinct from both healthy shame and guilt (Bradshaw, 1988; Brown, 2012a), and exploring the roots of toxic shame related to the human need for love, dependence on interdependency, and the psychological impact of emotional abandonment of the child by the parent (Bradshaw, 1988; Brown, 2012a; Johnson, 2008; Lewis et al., 2000; Tangney & Dearing, 2002; Welwood, 2005). As the psychological research of Bradshaw (1988), Brown (2012a), and Welwood (2005) has shown, the key to healing shame and moving through the pain of being vulnerable is not by avoiding, masking, numbing, or escaping, but by uncovering, revealing, exposing, and unraveling to get closer to the center of one’s true being and desires.
However, for a shamed daughter of an abandoning father, finding her voice and finding empathic relationships in which her uniqueness will be received and honored is complicated by having internalized the patriarchal culture that tends to define the nature of the relationships and world in which she lives (Gilligan, 1982; Lorde, 2007; Murdock, 1990; Reis, 2006; Tarnas, 2006). The need to grieve in order to heal extends to both the cultural oppression of the feminine and women’s voices, and the individual woman’s loss of self through the internalized repression of toxic shame (Welwood, 2005). To heal toxic shame, and to prevent its spread, love must welcome difference and empathically support the differentiation and development of each person’s unique perspective and voice (Bradshaw, 1988; Brown, 2012a; Johnson, 2008; Lorde, 2007). Giving voice to one’s story from one’s unique perspective and life experience is one means by which to begin to heal toxic shame and move from a place of hiding to the courageous act of self-love. The next chapter is a humble endeavor to model the beginning of such a journey.
This chapter has been exceptionally helpful to me as I am in the midst of trying to reintegrate the part of my self that I disassociated as a fatherless and largely motherless child.
I very much want to read more and wonder where I can find chapter one? Is this a blog being written as we speak or can I find access to the entire book / work? Thanks very much.
I am touched that this piece is helpful for you right now. You may find the entire master’s thesis under the “writings” section of my website. You are welcome to download the piece from there. It is a total of four chapters.
Wow, what an extremely insightful article. I grew up in an orphanage and then came into a very dysfunctional family at 14. It has taken years, I am 56 now – for me to truly find my voice.