Caustic Cycle of Shame

1. Denial of one’s own reality. When one is shamed, the bond of trust is shattered. One denies the actuality of one’s own experiences; or minimalize the impact of them, even in the face of evidence to the contrary (e.g., “Your daddy didn’t really mean to hit you. It was an accident”; or “I’m not really hurt that badly”).

2. Confusion and doubt. Simultaneous with one’s denial, one necessarily feels confusion and doubt about one’s ability to perceive and/or the quality and nature of one’s perceptions, especially as the shaming incident(s) is directly related to a former person of trust.One begins to disbelieve what one has actually seen, heard or experienced.

3. Submission. When repeated lies, slurs, curses and other forms of repudiation are internalized (often in the face of actual or threatened violence), one may come to accept them and endorse one’s own innate unworthiness as a direct negative evaluation of the self as “true.”

4. Being shamed for wanting to have one’s own reality. Every individual has an innate drive for self-expression related to one’s birthright of autonomy—the absolute right to be “self-naming.” Children are often viewed as “willful” for wanting to express themselves or having solid ideas about what they want. They may be further shamed when they address any truth that is inconvenient to an important adult figure who wishes to suppress it, or not acknowledge it at all because it is threatening. Conversely the child’s expression may be incongruent with the image the adult wishes the child to believe or express (e.g., “Your mommy isn’t drunk. She’s sick”).

5. Introjection. Having been injured, one may internalize the injury—even to the extent that one may feel that one was at fault for the original damage. This projection inward further warps one’s perceptions (even though intendeds a self-protective mechanism). Internalizing lies and untruths, one may then begin to believe that harming oneself is protecting oneself (e.g., cutting and other self-harming; or losing is winning, in an effort to please or placate the other). I call this “losing to win.” Depending on the severity of the injury, it is also possible to develop delusions of either Persecutions (“they’re out to get me”) or grandiosity (“I am The King of the Universe.”)

6.Projection of shame/blame. At this point too, one may be overwhelmed with shame and negative affect that one may project this energy onto others in an attempt to self-manage it. This extreme aspect of denial may take the form of identifying with those who have harmed one, and becoming a perpetrator, even to acting out aggressively against those who harmed one, or others who are perceived as weaker. Or one may act inwardly against oneself, perhaps believing it is one’s just due. The former is related to what Ferenczi called “identification with the aggressor.” Thus, the cycle comes full circle.

Dr. Stefan J. Malecek
Author – Veteran – Psychologist

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