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The Imposition of Shame and How IFS Helps Heal

When I was ten years old, I had a crush on Donny Osmond. I didn’t know it was a crush at the time, as I was too young really to understand that word; but I did understand how pretty he was and how much I liked looking at him. Donny was 15 and singing “Puppy Love” on TV. I was convinced he was singing it to me, or about me. Donny understood. I was a little bit torn because I was also attracted to David Cassidy. Sorry Donny, but David had much better hair, and I just wanted to gaze adoringly at both of them; and wouldn’t it be amazing if I could touch David’s hair one day.

I discovered, however, that the other boys, for some unknown reason were not particularly interested in talking about how pretty Donny was, or how lovely David’s hair was. Thankfully the girls were available for these conversations, and I was very grateful to Nicola. Nicola was 11 and therefore was afforded a credible sagacity by us mere 10-year-olds. Nicola informed me that you couldn’t like Donny and David, you had to choose. I did not know there were rules about this sort of thing, so, I was very grateful to find that out. A while later, Nicola informed me that boys were not meant to like boys, and this was confirmed by her mother, so it had to be true.

I stopped sharing my interest in Donny and David with both the boys and the girls. I still didn’t understand why the boys were not that interested, but I was beginning to notice that much of what I was interested in was not of interest to the other boys. I didn’t understand why. However, I was smart enough to keep some of my interests to myself.

Two years later, my sense of not belonging had intensified. I had also heard this word: homosexual. I was not clear about what this meant. It was 1974, in small town England. Such words were taboo (as was cancer, as well as suicide). This was a time before Oprah, if you can imagine such a thing.

I was a smart kid though. I knew that when you need information, you go to the authorities. After all that’s why they are authorities, so that we can trust them. At that age and time, the authorities were dictionaries and encyclopedias. I dared not look in my home dictionary. My father was a crossword guy and would use it a lot. My smart 12-year-old realized that it might open up at the “H” page. Too risky.

I went to my local bookstore. In the reference section, I pulled down the medical dictionary. My 12-year-old self looked up the word homosexual and was greeted with the following: “Homosexual: deviant form of sexuality; perversion. Associated with paedophilia.” I duly looked up deviant, perversion and paedophilia and that part of me went into shock. What he now knew to be true about himself (because the authorities had told him) was that he was unnatural, abnormal. He shouldn’t have been born and was going to grow up to become a man who would hurt young boys in sexual ways. The burden of shame that this part took on was almost unendurable. Who could he tell? Nobody, because they would, rightly so, regard him as disgusting.

To work on clearing shame PARTS & SELF suggests taking a look at this video series above (after 2nd video click on link for access to 3rd).

My system carried this weight for two more years, as dawning puberty increased the occasions when this reality would come into consciousness. Then my trusted confidant and beloved best friend, keeper of all my secrets died. Sara the dachshund, my one source of comfort had been killed by parents no longer willing to pay vet bills. She was “replaced” 8 weeks later.

The combination of grief and self-hate proved overwhelming; what was almost unendurable tipped into being fully unendurable in my unsupported 14-year-old system. A firefighter decided if life means living with this kind of pain, then we may as well not be alive. Added bonus: my parents would never see us (in the sense of many Parts) grow up to be a pervert that would hurt children. They would be spared that shame. Had my mother’s sleeping tablets been barbiturates, I would not be writing this. At the time, I thought all sleeping tablets were the same.

Don’t get me wrong, at 17 I had my first boyfriend and my puppy love was fulfilled. Except for the shame that I would experience, after we made love and the worry that he could face jail for sex with a minor (the law at that time said gay men needed to be both 21 years old; for heterosexual sex the age of consent was 16 years).

With the part holding the burden of shame exiled to a corner of my psyche, I was able to thrive as a member of the queer community. As an activist, I cut my teeth in the field of counselling at the AIDS Committee of Toronto in the 1980s, went on the Marches, celebrated Pride and was an out, loud and proud faggot. However, I was vulnerable to homophobia. When homophobic remarks or comments came my way, or I overheard them, there would be a sting inside: an outchie that I would habitually ignore.

As I was approaching 40, a lesbian friend of mine asked if I would consider Co-parenting with her. I had always wanted to be a dad. One of my biggest regrets about being a gay man was that that could not happen. But times had changed. I imagined if I was in a long term stable relationship, maybe we could adopt. The long-term relationship had not manifested, I had resigned myself to never being a parent in this lifetime. When she asked me, my response was, “No.” Only heterosexuals get to have children. It would not be fair to bring a child into this world who would have to explain its parents to people. What if I had a little boy and he was bullied because daddy was a “cocksucker”? How could I justify that? How could I possibly be that selfish?

Thankfully, I was able to work with that part. My daughter Maya is now 19.

I was able to come back to the kid in the local bookstore, let him know I was there. I asked him to tell me how come he felt so badly about himself, how on earth could it be that he felt he was so dreadful? As I witnessed him with enough Self-energy, he was able to share with me the unendurable distress that he was holding, release it, and then be open to both what he knew to be true, and what I could confirm for him: how he loves is wonderful and beautiful; and love is never, ever wrong.

What was wrong, what is wrong, are authorities whose voices are informed by the heteronormative patriarchy, with its homophobic, transphobic and misogynist ideology, pervading all of our social institutions, including the family. Add white privilege, lookism, ableism, discrimination based on neurodivergence, other beliefs that give us permission to be unkind to others, and we can see the toxic ideological soup in which we learn and grow; in which our well-intentioned manager Parts learn their values.

Hopefully it’s clear how our shaming managers take on their positions informed by these beliefs.

Shaming is endemic, it is both a legacy burden as it is passed down from generation to generation within the family and it is a personal burden.

Why is shaming so ubiquitous? Because it is a very effective form of behavior control in children. We will do almost anything to avoid being shamed. There are very few things worse for a human soul then believing that we are fundamentally unloveable.

We can see how deeply the shame runs in our systems when we consider how important it is for us to be “good people.” Our managers strive to ensure that this happens. Yet consider: if we know that, at our core we are good, that Self is who we are, then there is no need to be concerned about being and doing good. Like all protective Parts, these managers point to the existence of the Exiles holding shame. Dick Schwartz refers to these as “core exiles,” often linked to survival fear. The younger the exile, the more likely it will not survive if it is displeasing to its caregivers, on whom it is wholly dependent. We learn the conditions under which we are considered to be acceptable, and yet this conditional love is profoundly unsatisfying. Consider the amount of poems, literature and songs that speak to our longing for unconditional love. Thankfully with IFS, Self as the inner attachment figure, is able to provide that unconditional love.

Not only are all Parts welcome, all Parts are loved.

Having released that exiled part’s distress, I am no longer vulnerable to homophobia. I am clear, when I’m subject to homophobic views, that they merely give me information about the person expressing the views and their homophobic Parts. They have no purchase, except for landing on my social justice part. That part realizes the damage that shame causes and does what it can to counter that damage.

What can we do in light of this understanding? Our personal work of course. This is attending to and clearing the burdensome beliefs of shame that many of our young Parts may hold, which inhibit our manifesting in the world. We can look at the Parts of us that benefit from systemic inequities and make repairs that feel authentic. We can callout hate when we experience it, if it is safe to do so, and be aware that the opportunities afforded us by toxic power structures only serve to distance us from each other. They sever the “C” of connection, disallowing the joy and safety that can be found in the recognition of our common humanity.

The more we are able to clear shame from the system, the more we are able to call out the unacceptability of making people wrong in some way. The less shame we bear, the more we contribute to the Self-energy that we so need on this planet and that we will need to call upon greatly in the coming decades.

PARTS & SELF creates a platform for featuring and exploring, where appropriate, innovative and interesting IFS-oriented or related methodologies and philosophies of practice. By sharing them, the magazine is not endorsing them, making a statement about their validity, or advocating for their use.


Derek Scott is founder and CEO of the Internal Family Systems Counselling Association (

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  1. Derek, this is such a touching, poignant and well-written review of your tender process of learning who you are and who you like to look at. I’m ‘sub-group’ing with the shame of crushes – for me, on girls. It wasn’t even an option in my family who had more bewildering bias and prejudice than I could count.

    Moving through the process of self-acceptance was tough, and like you, I’m eternally grateful to the part of me that persevered through it. I’m indebted to my kid, now 36, who has always been my biggest teacher and who came out as lesbian at 13 (although we knew as a young kid) and later as non-binary and trans-masculine.

    I’d love to Hi5! you for this sentence as it gives me even clearer language: “I am clear, when I’m subject to homophobic views, that they merely give me information about the person expressing the views and their homophobic Parts. They have no purchase, except for landing on my social justice part.” Instead of “it’s feedback about them,” your language offers a softer more influential tone that I hope you’ll be OK with me borrowing!

    Thank you!!

  2. Hi Derek, thanks for the wonderful article. Only now, in my sixties, am I dealing with the unbearable shame of being a gay child. Having tried many different therapies through the years, IFS is the one that resonates the most and is beginning to bring me resolution from shame. Maybe a book for LGBT youth from an IFS point of view, helping them to deal with shame etc would be a great help!

  3. Wow, what a great article Derek, so touching, personal and informative. Please take good care, and thank you.

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