The Bullied Boy Goes Missing

Dig down and recall an acutely embarrassing memory, and then notice how you experience it in
your body. Your face might briefly sting. You might flinch and clench your eyes shut. If you’re
like me, you might also clench other parts of your body, including your anal sphincter. I have a
number of memories that affect me this way, and I refer to them as “cringing shame moments.”
I use the word shame because for me (and Francis Broucek who first explained it), shame is an
entire family of emotions sharing “a painful awareness of self.” Embarrassment, self-
consciousness, chagrin, humiliation, mortification … these are all members of the shame family
of emotions, some more enduring and intense than others. All human beings experience shame
in one way or another on a regular basis, and more often than we care to admit, even to
ourselves.

Now imagine that your experience of shame intensifies to an excruciating degree. It came upon
you suddenly and has become so overwhelming that you desperately want to run away or
disappear. If it’s really bad, you might even want to die, wishing for the earth to open and
swallow you whole. The memory of this event may haunt you for the rest of your life; going
forward, you’ll do whatever you can to avoid ever again facing such an experience, and that’s
understandable. The prospect of even mild encounters with shame leads most of us to take
evasive action, and self-protective efforts to elude shame lie behind many common anxiety and
avoidant disorders. Social anxiety is a fear of feeling self-conscious or embarrassed in the
presence of others; what we refer to as “performance anxiety” is actually the dread of falling
flat on our faces (humiliation) which is always a risk whenever we perform before an audience.
Effeminate boys who’ve been bullied (publicly shamed) at school often resort to a permanent
vanishing act in reaction to it: when we find ourselves the butt of cruel jokes and mockery,
treated with contempt and called derogatory names, or sometimes physically bullied for being
who we naturally are, we learn to disappear in order to escape further abuse. “Keeping your
head down” is the way more than one client has described it. In brief, making yourself invisible
to the other kids at school is a survival strategy when the prospect of even more shame feels
intolerable. You can’t hurt me again if I’m no longer here to be hurt. The price, of course, is
intense isolation and loneliness.

When you’ve been repeatedly teased or laughed at for being yourself, you can easily come to
believe you must be a freak, or that you’re deformed, or a piece of damaged goods. Self-hatred
sets in and can become a torment when the outside bullies take up residence within. Sadly,
there’s no escape from the inner bully, and he despises you simply for being who you are. With
some of my clients, it has often seemed as if they wanted to hate themselves out of existence.

If only they attacked themselves viciously enough, the hated self might disappear and they
might then be reborn as an entirely different person.

Is it any wonder that young gay men these days sometimes identify as transwomen? If you hate
yourself for being who you are, the wish to become someone else is understandable.

It took me many years to understand that such self-hatred can also work as a defense, as a kind
of self-protective mechanism when lifelong shame is profound. I’m thinking of one client in
particular who I’ve worked with for a number of years. In the early days of his therapy,
whenever he tried to escape his lonely isolation and reach out for basic human contact, for
friendship, and sometimes for dating, he would suffer an attack of self-hatred so brutal that it
confined him to bed. It was a breakthrough when we came to understand that these attacks
prevented potential exposure to more shame; as painful as the internal assault was to endure,
it shielded him from an experience he feared would be far worse. Once again, the price of this
“self-protective” approach was loneliness and isolation.

In working with young men and women who’ve realized that transition didn’t actually save
them from self-loathing and who subsequently turned back, a psychotherapist needs to help
them face the original shame that drove the wish to transition, and at the same time learn to
cope with the added shame of choices they now rue. It’s a double dose of shame and a large
burden for one person to bear, even with a supportive therapist.

For this reason, you have to admire the detransitioners who are now speaking out because they
want to save others from the same pain. It always takes some courage to acknowledge your
mistakes and face the shame you might feel about them, but even more when you carry a
lifelong weight of shame from having been bullied as a child and for always feeling defective.
Their courage in facing the truth can and should be a source of authentic pride, the only real
antidote to shame.

Such an understanding also helps us to feel compassion for the many others who have
detransitioned and remain silent. Becoming visible often means experiencing a degree of
shame beyond enduring. I trust they’ll find other ways to feel good about themselves. Taking a
difficult public stand against perceived wrongs isn’t the only way to build pride

Joseph Burgo has been a practicing psychotherapist and psychoanalyst for more than thirty years. More about his work can be found on his website www.josephburgo.com.

Joseph Burgo
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