A difficult fit between mother and child is often so detrimental to the formation of Self. If we have to split off parts of ourselves in order to adapt to or please a parent the split can be huge and the sense of shame and anxiety when the true or real self tries to emerge later in life can be overpowering. The crux of the dilemma of thus being burdened with a sense of being a ‘bad’ self filled with toxic shame has enormous repercussions for us later in life. It is covered in an excellent paper, which I am indebted to Mawr Gorshin linking to in a recent post.
I have encountered other instances in which the patient has not suffered overt abuse in childhood, but the mother’s rejection of the child’s own communicative initiatives and his or her needs for understanding and empathy have been so profound that the potential authentic self is pervaded by shame and its development is blocked. In such instances the early environment was perceived as fundamentally opposed to the child’s actual authentic self and as intent on replacing it with a preferred alternative. I have written about this in a paper on ‘psychic murder syndrome’, using the metaphor of a ‘Stepford Child’, derived from the film ‘Stepford Wives’, in which the wives in a small respectable town were all killed and replaced with identical replicas that behaved in ways more to the liking of the husbands. In these circumstances the child may internalise the psychically murderous environment and the murder of the authentic self then continues internally throughout later life – the process being particularly activated whenever genuine emotional intimacy and attachment threatens.
In optimum development, the mother provides selfobject functions of showing interest and pleasure in the child’s natural exhibitionistic display. When this is not the case, the exhibitionism becomes a source of anxiety and shame – the flow of energy outwards is thrown into reverse and the subject is filled with painful tension (shown literally by the response of blushing); in place of the wish to exhibit there is an urgent wish to hide – to disappear. To be overwhelmed with shame is to be in a state of disorganisation; the shame-filled person cannot function coherently.
Even more profound is the toxic shame and fragmentation resulting from abuse by a caregiver. For the purpose of this discussion, I define ‘abuse’ as the deliberate and knowing withholding, distortion or perversion of the normal selfobject responses for reasons of the caregiver’s own sadistic gratification – gratification that might include the projective evocation in the victim of unwanted feelings and images belonging to the perpetrator; a process of emotional violence that I have termed ‘imposed identity’ is also an aspect of this abuse – the insistence on viewing a person in a particular way irrespective of their own subjective experience, thereby imposing an alien identity. This definition can incorporate physical, emotional and sexual abuse. Toxic shame resulting from abuse is worlds away from the normal shame, embarrassment, chagrin and disappointment in the self that we can all experience from time to time. This toxic shame can be lethal, poisoning the soul and corroding any vestige of self-esteem. Fonagy et al (2002) refer to this as ‘ego-destructive shame’, which they see as resulting from severe interpersonal trauma that cannot be processed and alleviated by ‘mentalisation’. The latter, as I interpret it, involves two components:  recognising that people (both child and mother) have minds, with intentions, thoughts and feeling;  giving meaning to experience and to the other’s behaviour. For the abused child, the recognition of the abuser’s mind and hostile intention may be too disturbing and so mentalisation is defensively blocked. Without mentalisation, shame is experienced in a very concrete and absolute way. The desire to disappear – a normal component of shame – is experienced as a compelling annihilation of the self.
“Why should the brutalisation of affectional bonds, whether in the context of relationships with parents or with intimate peers, be associated with such an intense and destructive sense of self-disgust verging on self-hatred?
Once again, there is a paradox: the shame concerns being treated as a physical object in the very context where special personal recognition is expected. Overwhelming mental pain is associated with experiencing a discrepancy between the representation of an actual self, based on how one is being treated, and the representation of the ideal shape of the self. The expectation of being seen and understood as a feeling and thinking person, which is created by the attachment context, clashes violently with the brutalised person’s objectification and dehumanisation. Shame is a higher order derivative of this basic affect of pain.
Unbearable shame is generated through the incongruity of having one’s humanity negated, exactly when one is legitimately expecting to be cherished.
Another possibility is that the child does become able to perceive the abuser as bad, but then has to organise his or her self around this denigrated figure. Then, in contrast with Kohut’s description of the idealising position, in which the child feels ‘you are perfect and I am part of you’, the formula becomes ‘you are bad and I am part of you’. Again this means that shame pervades the core experience of self.
The false representation of self, based on an identification with his mother’s desire, could also be seen as a form of grandiosity in which his own potential spontaneous expression was hijacked by his mother’s narcissism – the kind of situation portrayed in Kohut’s diagram of the vertical and horizontal splits in The Analysis of the Self [page 185]. Jim would imprison himself within his role and image and would also be fiercely protective of the image of his parents. [He was allowed to criticise his parents but the analyst was not.] He secretly saw himself as superior and aloof from the common mass of humanity. However, he gradually came to see that this narcissistic grandiosity was not truly his own but was a distortion of his own self based on excessive accommodation to his mother’s desire. It could be regarded both as a narcissistic haven – a retreat from the emotional rough and tumble of life in relationship with others – and as a narcissistic prison which prevented him from expressing himself authentically.