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April 30, 2015
by Joan Childs,LCSW

Bruce Jenner and the Impact of Toxic Shame

April 30, 2015 05:30 by Joan Childs,LCSW

“What I am is me for that I came” Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889)

 What Is Toxic Shame?

Abuse creates toxic shame - the feeling of being flawed and diminished and never measuring up. Toxic shame feels much worse than guilt. With guilt, you've done something wrong; but you can repair that - you can do something about it. With toxic shame there's something wrong with you and there's nothing you can do about it; you are inadequate and defective. Toxic shame is the core of the wounded child. This meditation sums up the ways that the wonderful child got wounded. The loss of your I AMness is spiritual bankruptcy. The wonder child is abandoned and all alone. 

My Name Is Toxic Shame

I was there at your conception
In the epinephrine of your mother's shame
You felt me in the fluid of your mother's womb
I came upon you before you could speak
Before you understood
Before you had any way of knowing
I came upon you when you were learning to walk
When you were unprotected and exposed
When you were vulnerable and needy
Before you had any boundaries

(Booth, L., Bradshaw, J., & Please, D. O.)

The Effects of Toxic Shame on Bruce Jenner

This fractional poem by the above authors, best describes what toxic shame is and how it can inflict havoc upon self-esteem and the psyche.  The recent expose’ on Bruce Jenner is illustrative of how shame can implode into the limbic system of our brain without warning, heaving anxiety and severe depression in the seat of our emotions.

 The issue is not about Jenner’s choice of transitioning, but rather about keeping the secret of his true nature until the shame ravaged and tormented his mind and spirit, leaving him in a state of despair.  We are only as sick as our secrets.  It’s not what has or is happening to us that causes our illness; it’s keeping the secret that hijacks our well-being. (THE DRAMA OF THE GIFTED CHILD, A. Miller, 1997) 

Having to live in hiding and pretend to be the image that had been projected upon him since receiving an Olympic gold medal in 1976 for the decathlon, was more than his mental status could sustain.  A recent study suggests that there is nearly ten times more attempted suicide for transgender people than that of the general population (Clark, 2014).  Dr. Carol Clark, a sex therapist and president of the International Transgender Certification Association, states, “There’s the acceptance of themselves, and then there’s the lack of acceptance from other people.  Then there’s the fear of rejection from one’s own family.” (Carol Clark, In Touch Magazine, May 4, 2015, Vol. 14 issue 18).  According to the media, this is precisely what has happened to Jenner.  It may also have been that the interview with Diane Sawyer was the catalyst that brought out the shame that had been tucked away in hiding for years.  His positive intention of speaking his truth and releasing his greatest secret by appearing on national television may have been too much for his fragile ego and mental state to withstand.

Not unlike Nathanial Hawthorne’s heroine, Hester Prynne, Jenner is now wearing his scarlet letter for the world to see.  When one feels like an object of contempt from family, loved ones and others who may judge them, then one becomes an object of contempt to oneself.  The negative self-talk sparks the shame spiral and the slippery slope can be disastrous leading to depression and even suicide. When shame torpedoes our essence we feel vulnerable and humiliated.  Vulnerability recycles more shame and the dynamic spins a spiral.  Numbing out is often the result.

What is most important in Jenner’s case is learning to love his essence and accept his authenticity as a human being.  Whether he transitions to becoming a woman is not the issue.  Self-love is the priority. Self-contempt perpetuates shame and guilt.  These two destructive feelings may not have anything to do with his transitioning, but rather that he has disappointed his family and feels their loss, rejection and detachment.  Human beings are hard wired for connection, and when we go into disconnect, we go into crisis.  

What is happening to Bruce Jenner is a microcosm of what happens to human beings when they have an identity crisis.  What is an identity crisis?  Theorist and social psychologist, Erik Erikson coined the term identity crisis and believed that it was one of the most important conflicts people face in development (Erikson, 1968).

Identity Crisis

According to Erikson, an identity crisis is a time of intensive analysis and exploration of different ways of looking at oneself. Perhaps the first time an identity crisis may manifest is in the teenage years when teenagers are not yet sure of their roles and gender identity.  They are uncertain of whom they really are and that is quite normal for this stage of life.  It is a time when they try on different uniforms to see which ones feel most comfortable.  It is a time when the need to belong is heightened and more important than most everything else.  As the developmental stages occur, we tend to move into roles that resonate with us.  

Family values, mores, norms, social conditioning, religion and school play a very important part of who we are and who we become.  The goal of a healthy adult is to become the person they are intended to be.   Nature wants us to be whole. To have this one and only life and to go to our death never knowing who we are is the tragedy of tragedies.  This is dramatized in Death of a Salesman.  Willie Lowman is the protagonist who never discovers his true self. This loss of self is a universal phenomenon (Miller, 2015).  

The impact that our childhood experiences have on our ability to reach our potential is enormous.  Every child needs to be stroked. They need to be able to have and express their emotions without criticism, judgment and shame. If they are shamed as a result then as they grow, their feelings become hooked with shame. Sadness becomes inconsolable grief.  Anger can become rage.  Fear can become terror.  Emotions become convoluted with extreme acting out or acting in behaviors.

Childhood and Identity

Every child needs structure, space, stimulation and acceptance for the very person they are, and not for what they do.  Every child comes into this world in perfection and it is during the process of growth and development that determines the outcome of their sense of self. Developments stages require affirmation, patience and understanding.   If they have been supported with unconditional love, chances are they will achieve a good sense of self worth. We know who we are by the feedback we receive from others.  Our caretakers are our first frame of reference and set the stage for our developing and self-esteem.  If they have abused, neglected or abandoned us as children, the chances of acquiring a healthy sense of “I Amness” are diminished.

As we go through each developmental stage, we have tasks to accomplish in order to be successful and go to the next developmental stage.  If the first stage is unmet, then it is very likely; the second stage will be compromised.  According the Erik Erickson there are eight stages of life, each building on the previous.  If a disruption occurs in any or all of the first four stages of life, a false self is created in order to survive.  The survival roles are adaptations of the authentic self and as time goes by, the connection with the wounded or lost self grows further away from the survival self and eventually the connection is lost.  

The choices we make are often made by the adapted self with an effort to make us whole.  But, without having access to our authentic self, we perpetuate the need to repeat the past hoping things will improve. Freud called this “repetition compulsion” and Alice Miller the author of THE DRAMA OF THE GIFTED CHILD, called it “the logic of absurdity.” (Miller, 1997) The sad truth is that without a therapeutic intervention, most never do.  In fact, they get worse.  To become a healthy, mature adult is to know and love oneself.  It is essential to retrieve the lost child and re-parent it with our maturity and acquired knowledge and experiences. Optimally, a trained therapist is what is most effective to retrieve the lost child, reclaim, heal and champion it.  

The lost child within us needs to feel the love and approval it may have never received when it needed it the most. The shame remains frozen in our psyche. We need to fight for our psychological lives. Until that shame is discharged it will keep us stuck.   The yearning for that love becomes the fuel to find connection wherever it can.  The need for bonding and connection is the basis of human needs and if not received, can become the set up for addiction and compulsive behaviors.   

The Truth Hurts, but it Sets You Free!

So what does all this have to do with Bruce Jenner?  It’s about self-love, self-acceptance, self worth and being proud of whom he is.  If his family, friends or the world cannot accept him in his true essence, he will need to detach with love and find those who will.  This is what deserves the gold medal!


Booth, L., Bradshaw, J., & Please, D. O. TOXIC SHAME.

Bradshaw, J. (2013). Homecoming: reclaiming and healing your inner child. Bantam.

Erikson, E. H. (1968). Life cycle. International encyclopedia of the social sciences, 9, 286-292.

Hawthorne, N. (1992). The scarlet letter. Wordsworth editions.

McGarry, K. A., Clarke, J. G., Landau, C., & Cyr, M. G. (2008). Caring for vulnerable populations: curricula in US internal medicine residencies. Journal of homosexuality, 54(3), 225-232.

Miller, A. (2015). Death of a Salesman. Bloomsbury Publishing.

Miller, A. (1997). The drama of the gifted child: The search for the true self. Basic Books.


About the Author

Joan Childs Joan Childs, LCSW

I have been in private clinical practice since 1978 specialing in individuals, couples, families and group therapy. I am eclectic in practice using many modalities that potentiate personal growth and development and re-connect couples towards healthier relationships.

Joan Childs can be found at
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