Using Transactional Analysis and Mental Imagery to Help Shame-Based Identity Adults Make Peace with Their Past

By Adams, Susan A. | Adultspan Journal, Spring 2008 | Go to article overview

Using Transactional Analysis and Mental Imagery to Help Shame-Based Identity Adults Make Peace with Their Past


Adams, Susan A., Adultspan Journal


Development of a shame-based identity, also known as toxic shame, can significantly interfere with an adult's ability to form an intimate relationship with another. As adults find peace from their past using transactional analysis and mental imagery, they learn to empower themselves to form healthy, intimate relationships.

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Growing up in a shame-producing environment teaches lessons that extend far beyond the childhood years. Many individuals with this kind of upbringing enter adolescence and adulthood searching for acceptance and love, finding instead that acceptance and love are only illusions, at least as they understand them. Their searching, fueled by haunting memories, creates internal conflict that feeds the damaged monsters lurking in the dark recesses of their mind (Farmer, 1989; Kaufman, 1992). Echoing within the void that exists in their deepest inner core are voices. These voices are not audible in their head, but trigger memories or thoughts often linked to significant people in their past. The voices send hurtful, damaging messages of contempt, disdain, and condemnation. Yet the speakers of these cruel messages are shrouded from physical eyesight, and the messages are never spoken aloud because to do so would cause vulnerability.

Powell (1998) stated a simplistic, yet profound thought when he said, "But if I tell you who I am, you may not like who I am, and it is all that I have" (p. 20). This fear of rejection ignites a never ending, scripted pattern that prevents shamed individuals from experiencing true intimacy with others. Shamed individuals hide their pain behind masks and create scripts to get others to react in prescribed ways. It is comforting for others to fit into the life game because these scripts often fill a void in their life as well (Powell, 1998). How do these shameful scripts get written? How do individuals learn to play this game, hide their pain, and keep their masks securely fastened in place?

SHAME-BASED IDENTITY AND TOXIC SHAME

Kaufman (1992) suggested that shame is one of nine innate affects. When some event creates shame in a young child, the shame amplifies the child's awareness and links whatever event activated the shameful feelings to any and all responses that follow the shame-producing event. "When sufficient shame is generated early in life through developmental failures, the growth process is disrupted, perhaps even blocked, and a secure, self-affirming identity fails to emerge" (Kaufman, 1992, p. 100).

The development of a shameful identity is a four-step process. First, shame is induced in individuals through interpersonal interactions that lead to the generation of shame. Second, shame is internalized into and eventually consumes their inner core. Third, the internalization of shame creates a process of internally disowning parts of the self. Kaufman (1992) labeled this splitting. Finally, this splitting creates painful internal discrepancies that individuals attempt to correct, but without much success. Therefore, the self-hate associated with their disowned, fragmented self is experientially erased and removed from conscious awareness. Thus, a cycle or pattern is established that is repeated anytime the shame is triggered. This four-step process solidifies the formation of a shame-based identity that has its root in unconscious awareness and fuels a destructive pattern that prevents intimacy, promotes low self-esteem, or can lead to destructive behaviors (e.g., a variety of abuses and addictions).

Bradshaw (1988, 1995) identified this cyclical concept as toxic shame and suggested it manifests itself primarily in two common forms. First, the toxic self attempts to be superhuman and strives for perfection (no mistakes), being totally self-sufficient (never needs help), righteous or authoritarian acting (superior), or patronizing. Second, toxic shame may take the opposite form, that is, negatively influencing self-esteem. …

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