Toxic Shame: How Children Cover Up Toxic Shame With Primary Ego Defences.

For a child who grows up in a dysfunctional environment where shame and possible abandonment issues are present, the feelings that are associated with this are worse than death. Children of an early age are not developed enough to cope with these big feelings and as shame is acquired, self trust reduces and self-judgment increases as the child starts to doubt its feelings, thoughts and needs. This is the typical scenario of a child growing up in a shame-based environment. Toxic shame is acquired before a child has any ego boundaries to protect itself. Childhood shaming events happen before a child has a chance to choose a response, mainly because they are too young to choose and toxic shame shines a light on vulnerabilities in a child that they have no defence against. This is done through interaction with caregivers who use shame-based parenting to control their children. It has a devastating effect on the development process.

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The result of shame-based parenting is a split Self in the child. It leaves the genuine authentic, playful, curious child behind and is replaced by a protective Self that is defined by the need to cover up the toxic shame felt. These cover-ups were named by Freud as primary ego defences that once in operation function automatically and unconsciously. They exile the true Self and replace it with a false Self that means we lose our basic identity and we develop a personality of compensation that usually means that we end up with many false Selves that we bring forward in different situations to protect ourselves. This is done because of a core base of shame acquired from caregivers and develop into our thinking parts. It is basic psychological protection in an environment that is emotionally threatening for a child.

As no parenting style is perfect, all children will in some way experience the above. However, they can often get through developmental phases relatively unscathed if parents are aware and use an appropriate method of parenting, which means being there, being observant and applying a positive parenting style. This is not always the case and neglectful, abusive and controlling parenting also happens. Also, a parent can be ill, addicted or relationships break up causing a similar impact on bonding. Many clients I have spoken to have experienced their parents not being there in the early years of their lives through work related absences or just leaving the child with others while they travel for long periods. In these cases, children will apply ego defences to protect themselves from the feelings associated with a lack of connection. What results as childhood moves into adulthood is a range of conditions that can be attributed to early defence mechanisms, including codependency.

Shame is generational. We were all shamed by people who were shamed themselves and we are more likely to convey that on to future generations unless we deal directly with the toxic shame we feel. This is not an easy process as we do our level best to hide it and often employ secondary defences such as anger, people pleasing or denial to counter it. Bringing shame into the light and dealing with it is an essential process.

John Bradshaw, in his excellent book « Healing the Shame That Binds You », describes primary ego defences well. This book is well worth a read if anyone wants to deepen their knowledge on the development of toxic shame and what to do about it. He says, quite rightly that children developing need to understand their world and the limitations and boundaries associated with it. To do this, they need parents they can learn from and will teach and practice those boundaries. Children can then mirror good behavioral practices. In the absence of this, ego defences are formed to protect the child and as a way to survive what it sees as danger and threat.

Bradshaw describes Denial and Fantasy Bonding as « the primary ego defence ». This means, in essence that if a child is being abused or feels neglected, it will deny this is happening. Children need connection with their parents and if they don’t have it, they will create a fantasy of connection believing that they are there for them and love them, leading to a form of trauma bonding that will often be played out later in adult relationships, especially codependent relationships. Adult children who have fantasy bonded, often have a compulsion to protect their parents when looking back at their childhood.

Bradshaw also describes a further set of ego defences in Numbing Out and Dissociation where children’s emotions are denied them by parents who are protecting themselves from their own shame. Many clients that I deal with are not in touch with emotions such as sadness or anger as they were denied them as children. They were forced or ordered to subdue or exile these feelings in order to survive around their parents. Children will either numb out when their emotions are shamed or will dissociate when abuse and shame are at their highest level, often meaning that the events are forgotten but the feelings remain. It is not without reason that many people state that they cannot remember much about their childhood because it is basically true.

One of the most common defense mechanisms is Projection. Hidden and subdued emotions need an avenue eventually and when that happens, we do our best to avoid facing and feeling them. We then project them onto the people and situations around us in order to express them. If we feel anger, we may even ask someone why they are angry; Bradshaw states that projection is possibly the biggest issue that we face in human relationships.

While there are other deeper ego defences, the ones mentioned above are the most common in adult thinking and relationships I deal with on a daily basis. Facing shame is not as simple as just recognizing it, it is also about dealing with all the associated issues that arise from it.

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Dr. Nicholas Jenner

Dr. Nicholas Jenner is a counseling psychotherapist in online private practice working with individuals, couples and groups, dealing with codependency issues, severe depression, bipolar, personality disorders, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders and other mental health issues. He has been practicing online for many years and recognized early that online therapy was a convenient method for people to meet their therapist. Working outside the box, he goes that extra mile to make sure clients have access to help between sessions, something that is greatly appreciated. He also gives part of his spare time up to mentor psychology students in a university setting.

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This Post Has One Comment

  1. This is how it is/was.

    But then also add onto this all the decades of people not believing or understanding you. Making fun of/or pretending like nothing happened. Blaming you…its your fault…everything is…
    Then add on all the other really messed up traumatic events and toxic relationships, and loss that further compounded the first ones…
    Add on the years of abuse of different kinds, the betrayals and brainwashing and psychological torture from those you trust, the complete and utter hopelessness of it all…
    Pile on the years of stress, the heartache and everyday pure misery of it all… and yet still trying to somehow carry on in the normal things of life, struggling as you keep breaking down again and again, needing more medication, more therapy…more doctors visits…psychiatric help… even mental hospital…

    Keep going until you cannot feel anymore…

    Push all those feelings down and then abuse yourself in different ways…

    Keep going still until you no longer exist…and no longer even recognise who you are…

    Keep going…

    And some more….

    I am somewhere down here…