An Endless Void: The Origins of Shame

For years, I talked to men predominantly about their experience of shame. I knew that shame was inherently isolating, and I believed if I “brought it out of the shadows” it would resolve automatically. This was not the case. Sharing experiences may decrease isolation, but it doesn’t necessarily help men disidentify from their shame. Tom may find comfort knowing that Jim also struggles with self-esteem, but this knowledge alone does not reconnect him with his own basic value. In fact, if he stands on Jim’s failures to elevate himself — knowingly or not — he has disconnected from it further.

I eventually realized that speaking of shame as an experience we all have does not reveal the full story. Shame whispers powerful messages about our very nature. Shame, we come to believe, is an essential part of us, one that has always been there. This is shame’s great lie, and speaking of it as something we posses reinforces the assumption that it is wholly ours.

Toxic shame confuses us about its origins. It has to. If it didn’t, it would have no way to thrive. This is part of what makes shame, shame.

If I were to ask most men where their shame comes from, I would get a response like “my failures.” Taking “failure” as the cause of shame leads to such interventions like “let’s find something you’re good at.” Many well-intending friends, family members, and counselors (myself included) have made this suggestion.

Although this sounds reasonable, this is a continuation of the same line of thinking: “Your basic value derives from the things you do.” Pursuing praise can make us feel better in the short-term, but by itself it is insufficient to silence the whispers of inadequacy — what is often referred to as the inner critic. The inner critic eats at us, telling us that nothing we do will ever be enough. And you know what? It’s right.

As long as we continue to believe that we must earn our basic worth, nothing we do will be sufficient to secure it.

I once asked a client if he could describe what it would take for him to feel assured of his own value. He thought for a moment and then reached for a couch cushion.  Holding it against himself like armor he said “if this pillow were how I feel now, you could strap a thousand to me, and I still wouldn’t feel secure.”

It would be hard for me to find a better metaphor for the way many men feel about their own worth. Value is seen not as something that is intrinsically a part of us, but as something to be acquired, even hoarded. Whether it comes in the form of money, status, achievement, or something else, it is altogether outside of us. Its designated purpose is to protect us, or to use my client’s imagery, to cushion the blow of external threats.

“Seems backwards to me,” I plainly tell him.

He looks puzzled. “What do you mean?”

“Well,” I continue, “you wouldn’t bother putting bubble wrap on a cheap figurine, would you?”

“No.” He shakes his head. “I suppose not.”

“So if you’re as worthless as you say you are…”

“…then what am I protecting?”

I nod. I can tell we’ve hit on something, but I don’t know what. I give him a minute to collect himself.

“What if….” He trails off before continuing. “What if we drill down past all this shame, and when we get through it, there’s nothing on the other side?”

“What if we take off the bubble wrap, and there’s not even a cheap figurine?”

“Just…nothing…”

The two of us sit in silence for a moment.

“An endless void,” he says softly.

I remember this client very vividly for the simple reason that I struggled so much to help him. In fact, he left my care shortly after this conversation. While I think we made strides in learning about the shame he carried, our progress stalled when we began making contact with the “void.” I had thought, rather naively, that if he ceased the addictive behaviors (he did) and was willing to work through his shame (he was), his self-worth would break through the darkness like some golden beacon. Instead, what shone through the cracks of shame was something even more terrifying: complete and utter annihilation.

This is not just poetics. Almost all the men I have since worked with have reported feeling, at one time or another, “as if the world were ending.” This feeling usually follows intense shame and is in turn followed by some of their most destructive behaviors: binge eating; drug and alcohol abuse; rage and violence; sexual acting out. It makes sense that this is the case: the aura of impending doom is so noxious and overwhelming that they will go to great lengths to escape it.

I used to believe these experiences of terror represented the extreme end of the shame continuum, but I’ve found it more helpful to think of them instead as the moments when shame “gives out.” Although painful, there is a certain security in being convinced of our own worthlessness. It means that we deserve whatever we are getting, and that the world makes sense in leaving us alone and isolated. In contrast, contact with the void is characterized by an acute lack of safety, hope, and meaning. Because it is experienced as a threat to existence, a retreat into shame (or shamelessness) is a comparative upgrade.

The reasons for this clue us into the origins of the void and the shame that blankets it. It turns out that the fear of annihilation is rooted in very real survival concerns. Inevitably, the most shame-ridden men have suffered serious traumas in their upbringings, many of which threatened their emotional, if not physical, existence. Shame developed quite simply as a way of surviving. While most men can tell me they understand intellectually that the world isn’t ending in these moments, this doesn’t stop them from feeling that way. That’s because it is not the adult who feels threatened, but the child that resides within him.

Shame is adaptive. It develops early on in the absence of safety in order to keep us alive.

There’s a saying in AA: “Drugs aren’t the problem, they’re the solution.” It’s a tongue-in-cheek way of saying the work isn’t done when an addict stops using. The problems that led to drug abuse still need to be addressed — this time, hopefully, without the “aid” of drugs. I believe something similar can be said about shame. The “problem” that shame purports to solve is the discrepancy between a child’s needs and what is provided by the environment. Shame, despite all the trouble it causes us, is actually a very elegant solution.

As children, we cannot possibly understand the world the way adults do. When a part of us is rejected or harmed by the environment, we will naturally learn to conceal that part in order to survive. The idea that our caregivers would harm us is overwhelming — our literal existence depends on them. Thus, the safe option is to assume any deficiencies belong to us alone, a belief that is codified in the form of shame.

The void represents, in a very real manner, those parts of ourselves that were lost along the way — “the forgotten self.” It is a collection of scrapes, nicks, and cuts congealed into one massive wound. Shame is the filler that scars over to give us some semblance of wholeness.

This process begins prior to the development of speech and is one of the reasons it is so difficult for men to describe their experience — the foundations of shame were formed in the absence of language. Traditional masculinity calls males to disconnect further from their bodies and their emotions, in effect cutting the lifelines that could otherwise aid in reconnecting them with these lost parts.

The void is created when the environment cannot or will not satisfy a child’s biologically-based neurorelational needs. Shame is the natural response to such injury, an imperfect effort to mend the wound. Toxic shame is a reflection of environmental failures, not personal ones.

As children, shame develops concurrently with the void. If it does its job, we arrive at adulthood battered but not broken. Inevitably, however, while going through our daily lives, we find ourselves thrown not just into shame, but back into the wound. When this happens, we are not remembering the initial injury in the traditional sense, but reexperiencing it.

Given all this, I can now understand my client’s reluctance to relinquish his shame. Doing so would thrust him headlong back into the overwhelming pain of deprivation. As a clinician, I had the benefit of assuming my client had value, and that it was merely hidden by shame and addictive defenses. In my client’s eyes, however, he hadn’t cobbled together these defensive behaviors to protect himself. The defensive behaviors were himself.

I have since heard this sentiment echoed through numerous voices. It seems that many men are loathe to relinquish their shame for fear of what might lurk beneath it. Addiction specialist Jed Diamond calls this “The Black Hole,” while family therapist Terry Real speaks of “Crossing the Wasteland.”  I choose to use this client’s terminology, “The Endless Void,” because it reflects the futility of our efforts to fill our emptiness from the outside. No matter what words we attempt to put to it, the experience is the same: the terrifying sense that some essential part of us is missing.

In order to fully heal our shame, we must ultimately be willing to brave the void. The void, although infinitely deep, has a finite width. It cannot be filled, but it can be traversed. In the same way a skilled surgeon brings two edges of a wound together for suturing, the void begins to close as we align those intact parts we’ve retained. Doing so first requires us to discern what is ours and what is not.

Toxic shame always — always, always — derives from outside of the individual. This is by definition and is non-negotiable. Accepting the premise that you were born inherently valuable means that any notion otherwise had to have come from somewhere else. Period.

Realizing this, we can start to see that the shame we carry is not wholly ours. We can begin to speak of shame as not simply experienced, but as acquired. Understanding where shame comes from, and who gave it to us, we prime ourselves to begin relinquishing it for good.

More to come,

Hayden