How Toxic Shame Keeps You Locked Inside a Low Status Straitjacket
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 ", 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 (a 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. 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 told him anything like that. They never yelled at him for being a silly poo-poo head. As far as he knew, there was no real difference between wearing clothes and not wearing them (except for going outside when it was cold, yikes!). So what's wrong with grandma? Why is she making Bobby feel so bad all of a sudden? "You shouldn't run around like that," grandma says. Bobby looks to his parents, messing 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, adding to Bobby's dismay, and what... fear? 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? What's so important about having clothes on?
In the future, anytime Bobby thinks about running around the house naked, he gets a funny, uncomfortable feeling inside him that he doesn't like. The 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! Soon, he won't be comfortable doing it in front of his parents either, and they seem to be okay with that. They never seem to want to play chase my poo-poo bottom with the camcorder any more. Oh well...
Bobby has learned to associate the emotion of shame with being naked in front of other people. In the coming years he will learn that it's also shameful to touch himself down there in public (even though it's been feeling pretty good to do so lately...) and to not let anyone watch him when he's in the bathroom on the toilet, and then in the tub either. Things sure are becoming different than when he was younger.
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 identity with a certain humility that guides our interactions with other individuals in the world around us. Childhood is characterized by a self-centeredness that must yield to a sense of empathy for others as we grow older. We learn to take on more and more responsibility for our actions, slowly becoming aware of how they affect everyone else around us. We need to learn that the Universe doesn't rotate around us as the pivot point.
It's important to understand that the mechanism of shame is one of association, that is, we learn to associate the unpleasant emotional sensations of being ashamed with behaviors that society wishes for us to control or suppress.
Bobby's little sister Betty will also learn to be ashamed to show off her pee pee in public, especially when visitors are over. She will also be taught to cover up her chest in time, even though it looks exactly the same as her brother's at this age. How come? Bobby doesn't get taught to associate shame with his exposed nipples; he feels no shame whatsoever when he walks around with his shirt off. So why does Betty feel so uncomfortable if she lets people see her without a shirt? The world sure becomes weird as we get older...
Shame occurs when we are exposed -- either physically or emotionally -- in a way that diminishes us in front of others in a situation where we are not prepared to experience it.
This negative emotion called shame is very painful and thus very powerful. It's commonly wielded by parents and others in authority to modify and control the behavior of people, especially children and adolescents. 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. We gradually learn to swerve away from actions and behaviors that threaten to provoke this highly uncomfortable feeling.
To a certain extent this is okay, but the grip that shame can take on our soul (Chap 4 -- Pg. 66)
increases with repeated exposures, and this gives this strange, uniquely human emotion the potential to run out of control and become toxic.
It's when shame begins to exceed its normal function within our minds, i.e. to provide us with a sense of humility and ground our identity somewhere between God and the lower beasts, that it begins to create problems for us. Humiliation is an extreme form of shame that is so awful men will put their lives in jeopardy in order to avoid experiencing it, especially in combat or even athletic competition. Physical violence and murders routinely are committed because of shame. Emotionally rigid cultures like the Japanese partake of a form of ritual suicide called hara-kiri in order to absolve themselves of extreme shame or "loss of face"... killing oneself to restore honor to their family name.
How pervasive are the effects of toxic shame? Well, in almost every model of human society, there is no greater punishment than being forcibly ostracized by your peers by having to wear a scourge of shame and humiliation. The Scarlet Letter, so to speak. 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 become trapped deep within himself.
We all carry some dysfunctional shame within us since no one experiences a perfect childhood or adolescence, but this emotion-state can get twisted and distorted way beyond what was intended if we are forced to experience it in major doses. Usually this happens either through a low-volume but unrelenting source (harassment by parent or peers), or by way of an isolated or repeated traumatic event (abuse). A person concealing a great deal of toxic shame within himself will demonstrate increasingly extreme expressions of addictive behavior in an effort to cover them up and make the painful feelings go away.
Let's talk about addictive behavior for a moment, since it's likely your failures with women have found an escape route from the resultant pain via some form of addiction. There are three distinct categories in which addictions manifest themselves:
1) Ingesive addictions... these are the most well known forms, characterized by individuals putting something directly into their body (ingesting) by drinking, eating, snorting, smoking or injecting it, in order to modify their mood in a way that makes it impossible for them to engage in too much painful self-introspection. Drugs, alcohol and food are the usual suspects here. You know how out of control some poor bastards can get with these substances. Hopefully you're not one of them. Next are...
2) Activity addictions... sexual preoccupations (fetishes) and gambling are commonly recognized activity addictions, but the list is long and includes such seemingly innocuous things like being a workaholic or a compulsive clean freak. Some people distort the true value of religion and become religious addicts, obsessing endlessly over Biblical passages or seeking evidence of miracles. This form of addiction includes any sort of activity that a person engages in excessively (like golf!!!) to the detriment and neglect of other more important aspects of his life (i.e., family and primary relationships). Finally, there are the less well recognized but very common...
3) Emotional addictions... where a person's character becomes defined by a particular kind of emotion which they've become addicted to expressing over and over again. Some people are so angry they can get addicted to the power of their rage and become "rageaholics" -- whereas a depressed person finds himself addicted to his sadness, a serial philanderer is addicted to being in love, etc.
I'm trying to shine a bit of light on the reasons why you may have acquired many of the social difficulties that you are burdened with. Understanding is one of the first steps along the road to permanent change because it cuts through the fog of emotion that prevents you from seeing yourself and your own thought patterns - and by extension, your problems - in an objective light. Knowledge allows you to step outside of yourself and become your own therapist. The mind has an interesting way of calming itself by adapting to whatever sort of behaviors it has created and declaring them to be "normal". This is a self-delusional (probably protective) mechanism that everyone exhibits and is in itself not bad -- but it can become a problem if it grows too elaborate and transforms into what's known as a shame cover-up.
Cover-ups occur when a person chooses to completely immerse himself in his favorite addiction in order to keep his mental demons from causing pain.
Sometimes the more violent among us direct the product of our shame outwards at a world we feel has wronged us. Men of this breed can become very dangerous. Ted Bundy killed over 40 women by viciously bludgeoning them to death with a club. Every one of them resembled a girl who'd rejected him in high school! Shame... never forgotten, festering, growing highly toxic. Serial killers commonly become addicted to the actual thrill of killing.
I mention this monster Bundy only to demonstrate the frightening power of shamed emotions. His madness ostensibly grew from a single rejection that became so reinforced by repeated replaying within his tortured mind that it drove him to commit gruesome crimes borne of a need to exact a kind of twisted vengeance over and over and over again. Each killing only gave him temporary relief from his agony and so it needed to be cloned many times. I doubt his rage subsided until they finally gave him the gas.
Although Bundy is an extreme example, it demonstrates just how potentially devastating the act of being rejected by a woman can become for any man. Why?... Because rejection equals shame. Being romantically accepted by a woman validates a man's sense of self. Likewise, rejecting him causes him to question his sense of manliness -- threatening to consume his identity as a person and leave him somehow less human. Sub-human garbage. I know you've had these searingly painful thoughts when you've been rejected.
Women don't seem to understand the depth of damage they do to men by rejecting them. They think men are basically brainless lugs being led around by their dicks and that they'll just bounce away from rebuffs like a pinball and keep working on other women until they finally "get lucky" with some other slut who lives further down the food chain. No harm, no foul... they think. But they're wrong.
Rejection is painful because it's humiliating and thus toxically shaming by nature. Encountering too much of this mental poison threatens to destroy us, paralyzing us to take further chances with women. Many men are sensitive to rejection because they hold a very dark and pervasive foreboding within their hearts that the next rejection might just send them over the edge. Too Bundy-like to contemplate. Better to just watch our pornos and whack off and keep our distance. And our sanity.
What a huge price to pay... a dehumanizing lifestyle of loneliness and isolation that takes us on a prolonged journey to a place we always feared we would end up anyway. As long as you are a prisoner of shame, you will manifest behaviors that flag you as a low status male, especially if it's your affection needs that have become shame-bound.
Study this next section with an open mind and a little courage, it might just be the first time in your life that you gain a genuine insight into why your fear of being rejected goes beyond normal nervousness into the realm of "off-the-scale" social paralysis.
Was this article helpful?