In my experience over the years as a psychotherapist, many individuals have come to me in despair over their troubled relationships. They tell me that their partners profess to love them and yet treat them with disdain, contempt and disregard.
They are deeply confused because their partners downplay their hurtful behavior and accuse them of causing the trouble.
They struggle with daily inner conflict on how they may have caused such difficulty in their relationships. What often comes up for them is, If only I could improve myself, my relationship would get better.
This is faulty thinking. The trouble in an abusive relationship is not the abused partner’s fault. There is never any good reason for emotionally abusive behavior.
What my clients haven’t yet realized is that their partner is most likely suffering from toxic shame acquired in childhood. Toxic shame causes a profound sense of inadequacy, deficiency, and worthlessness from an early age and survives into adulthood.
Toxic shame is life-destroying shame that lives in darkness and secrecy. When feelings of shame become toxic, we disown ourselves and hide our shame with behavioral disguises and cover-ups. Abusive behavior is a major psychological defense against toxic shame.
Healthy shame is different. It creates appropriate boundaries in our lives and gives us the ability to distinguish between right and wrong. It gives us permission to be human.
How Parents Fail to Meet Their Child’s Emotional Needs
Children are dependent on their parents for their emotional well-being. As they develop a sense of self, they rely on their parents’ reflection and admiration of their true selves. Children must be able to express their actual feelings, wants, perceptions, thoughts and imaginings. In turn, parents must mirror those feelings with acceptance, validation, and protection.
When parents fail to fulfill these vital needs, children create distorted beliefs about themselves. In their emerging minds, they believe if they can’t have their own feelings, needs, and wants, then something must be wrong with them.
Children are also egocentric. That means they take everything personally. If their parents shame them every time they feel fear, sadness, anger, excitement, sexual, or need attention, these same feelings become shame-bound in adulthood.
Even loving and caring parents can harm the emotional health of their children. They subconsciously use their children to fulfill psychological needs that weren’t met in their own childhoods.
Shamed Children as Adults
Underlying children’s anguish from the painful experiences imposed by their parents is the belief that they must be defective for their parents to hurt and neglect them.
These unexpressed feelings of hurt, rage and shame fester over time. As adults, emotions become so intensely painful that they create a false self. They take on so many layers of defense and pretense that they lose all conscious awareness of their authentic self. They have no grounding in reality and are unable to generate good feelings about themselves from the inside.
People who were shamed as children spend their lives searching to fill the profound sense of emptiness they feel where there should have been a healthy sense of self. They may obsessively strive for financial success, status, or fame. They may perpetuate the tragedy of early suffering with risky and compulsive behaviors such as substance abuse, sexual perversions, or identification with extreme ideologies or cultural groups. They may develop an anxiety disorder or descend into depression.
Because they feel vulnerable and powerless, they expect others to hurt them. This victimhood state justifies any means of protection, regardless of how it affects others. Hiding from their own feelings prevents them from being able to acknowledge the feelings of others. They can’t be open and honest with themselves or anyone else.
Emotional Abuse as a Defense Against Toxic Shame
People who emotionally abuse their partners are caught up in a self-defeating cycle.
They want to love and be loved. But when they feel vulnerable or bad about themselves, they subconsciously turn to their partners as the cause of their anguish. By defeating and humiliating their partners, they can temporarily fend off painful feelings of deficiency and desolation.
But their behavior deeply hurts their partners and makes them feel confused, abandoned, unsafe and unloved. Those who use abusive behavior to numb their pain don’t understand why their partners can’t forgive them and move on.
They feel justified in their harsh treatment and have an intense aversion to taking responsibility for ruthless behavior because that would confirm their feelings of worthlessness.
Daily life in such a relationship is fraught with difficulty. Abused partners naturally show their humanity by having different needs, feelings, and opinions. But individuals with toxic shame can easily interpret their mate’s differences as rejection or criticism. This is acutely painful for them because it proves what they fear the most, that they are defective, unwanted, and unlovable. They conceal their shame by fighting back with controlling tactics.
People who emotionally abuse their partners are still children in some ways. They turn their lovers into parents to take care of the needs their own parents neglected to meet in their childhood. But they can’t turn back time to get what they didn’t get from their parents.
The Effect of Toxic Shame on Families
Being with someone who is emotionally abusive harms everyone in the family: the partner who is the target of abuse, their children, other family members, and even the abuser.
For those on the receiving end, emotional abuse can result in a loss of self. Abused partners are emotionally, mentally and physically drained due to their preoccupation with surviving in their relationships. They have little energy for personal growth or fulfillment. Living in such an oppressive environment causes heightened anxiety and depression and can lead to physical ailments and disease.
Parents can’t be fully present for their children when they are so emotionally worn down. Perverse role modeling and the terrible tension that’s always present in the household profoundly affect children.
Growing up in this atmosphere inhibits children’s emotional development and well-being. They are at a higher risk of being abusive or tolerating abuse from others.
Getting Beyond Emotional Abuse
Partners on the receiving end of abusive behavior must face the hard reality of what’s actually going on in their relationships. They must stop describing their partner’s behavior as an anger problem, moodiness, or a negative attitude. They must stop blaming the abusive behavior on themselves.
Knowing that emotional abuse is psychological intimidation as a defensive cover-up for shame, they can more easily recognize the many tactics of emotional abuse such as:
- Frequent blaming
- Excessive demands
- Unjustified criticism
- Disregarding a partner’s needs and feelings
- Unwarranted anger and raging
- Extreme moodiness
- Humiliation and contempt
- Weaponizing a partner’s vulnerabilities
- Body or sexual shaming
- Financial or religious control
The abused person must accept that their partner has a serious psychological condition that is highly resistant to change without appropriate therapeutic intervention. Once they are informed about what they’re up against, they can begin to protect and heal themselves and their families.
If abusive partners are willing, a skilled psychotherapist can help them stop re-enacting their blocked feelings over and over again in destructive ways. They can reconnect with their original pain, grieve their lost childhood, learn new life skills and have corrective experiences. If they commit to therapy, they can eventually reintegrate their hidden selves and stop inflicting their pain on others. As Alice Miller says in her ground-breaking book, The Drama of the Gifted Child, “This path, although certainly not easy, is the only route by which we can at last leave behind the cruel, invisible prison of our childhood.”