Shame as an Avenue into Deep Grief

by Joseph Nicolosi, Ph.D.

Perhaps of greatest concern, unfinished grieving results in a lifestyle of emotional self-protection.


Grief Work is an important part of the psychotherapy process for a considerable number of clients. Such men will benefit from revisiting--from time to time--the painful, despairing place within them.

Most of the clients I see* have experienced a core gender-identity injury. Whenever a person has experienced an injury to the core self, re-experiencing the injury is so deeply unsettling that it feels like a sort of death; it is emotionally agonizing and even physically searing.

In the earliest phase of Grief Work, the client is often surprised by the extent and depth of his buried pain. It is not unusual to hear him say something like, "I can't believe there is so much sadness in me!" The sadness may spill over into his daily life; it is very common for him to report spontaneous crying during the week "for no reason." Yet the benefits of revisiting the pain are powerful. One man explained:

"Grief work is allowing me to generate my true deep sadness--feeling hurt and abandoned--all the loneliness that I wasn't able to explore as a child. I was often very sad; I felt alone in the midst of a large family, and believed that I had no right to express my true feelings of being sad when I was hurt.

In the grief work, I'm able to re-live that pain and experience it in a safe environment rather than bury it and deny it and fear it. I'm gradually working this through now in a healthy way. I know now that we're meant to feel the pain, not to bury it. And when I feel the pain, then my need to use the homosexuality to cover it up is so much less."

Working Through the Abandonment-Annihilation Trauma

Essential to Reparative Therapy's goal of resolving gender deficit is the working-through of the Annihilation-Abandonment trauma that has created this core injury. The injury may have begun with an insecure attachment to the mother. This injury is profoundly felt, yet again, when the boy's gestures toward fulfilling his masculine ambition are not supported by the father. When peer rejection follows, this wound deepens.

Any time a vital attachment bond fails to develop, the person must address the shame of not having felt authentically known and validated. When he becomes an adult, he must acknowledge and grieve this loss. Grief resolution allows him to release these body-held memories, and in the process, to mourn the loss.

Learning to Live in Emotional Authenticity

The literature on the psychology of bereavement reveals the pathological legacy of unfinished grieving in any person's life: particularly, an ongoing fear of emotional closeness, and a constrained capacity for genuine intimacy. This defensive avoidance of authentic emotions, which serves to protect against the core narcissistic hurt, is seen in the Shame Posture (formerly called Defensive Detachment), which we so characteristically observe in the men who come to us with same-sex attractions (SSA).

Attachment Loss Threatens Survival

Attachment researchers, most notably John Bowlby, explain the infantile attachment process as rooted in a primal drive which, when thwarted, leaves as its legacy a sense of loss that is almost equivalent to physical death. Human attachment needs are rooted in the drive for basic survival. Therefore the man who has suffered an attachment loss will re-experience it as something like falling into a bottomless abyss--actually dying.

Understandably, the therapist will encounter significant resistance against approaching this unresolved loss. Seeing his client struggle through this death-like experience may bring up his own discomfort with grief, and perhaps require that he face his own unresolved losses. Further, he must be willing to return with some clients again and again--as necessary--to this same place of profound discomfort. Consequently, Grief Work should never be entered into until there is sufficient positive transference to counter the entrenched defenses.

Yet when we pursue this painful work in Reparative Therapy®, we see profound, durable treatment gains. The more the client is able to penetrate and resolve his attachment loss, the less he feels driven toward homosexual behavior as a form of reparation. The process proceeds as follows:

Task #1: To accept the reality of the loss-- to come face-to-face with it.

Task #2: To acknowledge its meaning, to confront its significance, to feel the emotional impact of the loss with the support of an empathic "significant other" (in this case, an attuned therapist).

Task #3: To admit to oneself its irreversibility, and to accept the reality that there is no going back and undoing the experience.

Pathological Grief Defined

The term Grief Work was first coined by Freud. From his earliest writings, Freud understood this process to involve helping the client abandon his defenses in order to face a deep loss. He said Grief Work must involve "de-cathecting the libido" from the mental representation of the lost attachment, and when this was successfully accomplished, libido would then be reclaimed through re-cathexis into subsequent healthy attachments.

Freud noted that success can be blocked, however, by the continuance of conflicting feelings toward the loved one; i.e. when unresolved anger remains, which is then turned back against the self.

Freud's earliest formulations regarding grief remain central to our work, in that we understand homosexuality and its associated symptoms to commonly represent a defense against attachment losses incurred in childhood, often within the Triadic-Narcissistic family.

Grief is a natural human state which should have not only have a beginning, but also an end. Yet there is much personal variability in this emotional process; no two people grieve in the same way. Some people remain trapped in an intense and prolonged reaction against the loss of an emotionally important figure. Others, however, feel little need to repeatedly reenter the loss.

But until the grief is resolved, all emotional roads will lead the man back to the original Annihilation-Abandonment trauma. Perhaps of greatest concern, unfinished grieving results in a lifestyle of narcissistic self-protection.

Healthy grieving is a fully felt and conscious experience that does not involve prolonged suffering. Pathological grief, however, is marked by self-defeating, self-destructive, maladaptive behaviors.

Not surprisingly, the person with a homosexual problem shares traits characteristic of persons stuck in pathological grief: excessive dependency upon others for self-esteem, subclinical depression, maladaptive behaviors, suicidal ideation, emotional instability, as well as difficulty with long-term intimate relationships.

We have observed all of those symptoms to exist at a high rate of frequency among our homosexually oriented clients. In fact, a much higher-than-average rate of psychiatric disorders has been shown, in recent studies, to exist among homosexual men as a group--not just within clinical populations, and not just in cultures that are hostile to gay relationships, but in gay-tolerant societies.(1)

In fact, the extent of the maladaptive behaviors of gay men is so broad that it argues persuasively for the existence of an early, profound injury.

When unresolved grief is a ground-source of same-sex desires, we can understand why we would observe so many self-defeating, maladaptive behaviors. Homoeroticism masks the anguish of this profound loss and serves as a temporary, if ultimately unsatisfying, distraction from the tragedy of a core attachment injury.

The Triadic-Narcissistic Family and Traumatic Loss

Gender is intrinsic to the structure of self in the same way that support beams are intrinsic to a building.

As we have seen, within the Triadic-Narcissistic family structure, the boy's attempts at individualization and gender actualization are not adequately supported within the family. The results can be disastrous for the temperamentally sensitive boy, whose peers will be quick to reinforce the implicit message that he is somehow defective.

The pre-homosexual boy experiences this attachment rupture differently with each parent: He commonly reports that he felt ignored/ criticized by his father, and manipulated/ emotionally over-engaged by his mother. Both parents may indeed have loved the child within the limitations of their own personalities. However, their interactions communicated to the sensitive child, on some level, that who he really was, was somehow not acceptable.

When an attachment loss is experienced, the child can neither share his distress, nor even accurately conceptualize the nature of his loss. Yet his unmet needs persist, and the loss stay stored within his body memory.

The developmental sequence is therefore -

(1) core attachment loss;

(2) resulting gender-identity deficit;

(3) compensation through homoerotic reparation.

Homosexual acting-out, for such men, is a narcissistic defense against truly mourning the loss of an authentic attachment to one or both parents. (One might say it is ironic that "gay" is the word used to describe a defense against profound sadness.) The homosexual condition can, for these men, be understood as a symptom of chronic and pathological grief.

Whenever we as therapists return the client to his unfinished bereavement, he will be increasingly freed from the grief and shame that have been paralyzing his assertion and propelling him into a life constrained within the False Self.

* Perhaps 80% of the clients who come to the Thomas Aquinas Psychological Clinic (Encino, CA) fit the model described (suggestive of a core gender-identity deficit); about 20% of cases we see have different histories.


(1) See, for example, Sandfort, T., R. Graaf, R. Bijl, P. Schnabel (2001) "Same-Sex Sexual Behavior and Psychiatric Disorders: Findings from the Netherlands Mental Health Survey and Incidence Study (NEMESIS)," Archives of General Psychiatry 58: 85-91. (

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