‘Avatar’, Toxic Shame and Avoidance of Authentic Relationships

At the opening of the movie Avatar, Jake Sully has suffered a severe spinal chord injury that leaves him a paraplegic.  No longer able to perform as a combat marine, and because the military won’t pay for an operation to restore the use of his legs — that is, to return him to his former self — Jake volunteers for a specialized military mission to the planet Pandora.  Through the miracle of medical technology, he learns to psychically link with and inhabit an “avatar” or alternative physical self on that planet.  In contrast to his paraplegic self, this avatar is healthy, fit and stands ten feet tall, with enormous physical prowess and sensory capabilities beyond those of humans. Embodying this avatar allows Jake not only to regain the functions he lost but also to surpass his human potential.  His experience on Pandora ultimately proves to be more real, more meaningful to him than his actual life; at the movie’s end, he finds a way to transcend his human physical damage and move permanently to the realm of his superior Na’vi self.

This story perfectly embodies a dynamic I’ve seen with many clients, where they feel themselves to be so damaged, so filled with basic shame (or toxic shame) that they long to escape into the world of fantasy and become another person entirely.

It’s a particular instance of the dynamic I discussed in my post about hopeless problems, perfect answers. In these cases, avoidance of authentic, realistic relationships is strong; instead, they wish for a perfect relationship with an idealized partner. The Internet has enabled many people to pursue and act out this fantasy — in virtual form, of course, and for a limited time only.

A number of years ago, back when chat rooms and bulletin boards were first heating up, one of my clients became obsessed with the world of online “relationships”.  A short, slightly overweight and physically unexceptionable gay man in his mid-30s, David suffered from extremely low self-esteem. His family background was deeply troubled; his sister had committed suicide in her late teens.  Not long after her death, David dropped out of college, never managed to find and apply himself to any meaningful career and had spent most of his adult life either supported by his parents or working in low-level retail jobs.  Despite a deep longing for one, he’d never had a relationship of any duration; instead, he tended to become fixated upon unattainable men, extremely attractive and successful members of the idealized ‘A’ Gay social world, as he called it.  Often he developed subservient relationships with these people: he’d try to win their love and affection by “doing” for them.  Invariably, they’d take advantage of him, giving rise to feelings of resentment on his part.  Eventually there’d be an explosive confrontation that usually ended the friendship.  David was a deeply unhappy and lonely man.

When he discovered Internet chat rooms, he found a way to become in fantasy the person he’d always longed to be.  As I believe is often the case in anonymous online “relationships”, he completely misrepresented himself.  The online David was younger, taller and thinner than the real one; he had a dynamic career and drove a different car, owned his own home … you get the picture. Often these relationships moved from the Internet to the telephone; he took great pleasure in “meeting” these strangers and getting to know them through hours-long conversations. They’d eventually make plans to get together; he’d re-schedule at the last moment and put off the meeting as long as possible. Eventually he’d either disappear without warning from the other man’s life, or make a shamed confession and beg off.

David was burdened with intolerable toxic shame.  Because he couldn’t face that shame and how he felt about his own damage, avoidance of authentic relationships was inevitable.  The internal damage felt so hopeless that he longed to escape himself entirely, morphing instead via the Internet into Ideal David searching for his ideal partner.

Finding Your Own Way:

Many video games involve selecting your own “avatar” as a prelude to entering the game world. Choice of that avatar and a “handle” are important for establishing a new virtual identity.  Now that we have online gaming communities such as X Box live, where friends and strangers connect to play video games together in real time, it has become increasingly possible to occupy an online persona distinct from and superior to your ordinary self and to inhabit, at least for a time, another more interesting world.  Is this something that appeals to you?  Do you want to transcend your ordinary damaged self and become Intrepid Warrior or Mystic Eagle rather than everyday you?

In a less pronounced way, making new friends or beginning a new relationship offers the same possibility.  For some of us, there’s the recurring hope that we can start over, be somebody new and improved in this new connection.  It’s a kind of avoidance, really; until you’re ready to be the real you in a relationship, with all your quirks and difficulties, it won’t be authentic. Many people are forever hoping that they can attain their Na’Vi ideal self, if only the right relationship comes along.

For psychotherapists, if we’re not on guard, there’s a particular way in which the therapist-client relationship enables us to inhabit and even believe in a highly idealized self, thereby avoiding our own damage.  Sometimes when my clients are going on about how wonderful I am and what a wonderful husband, father, etc. I must be, I’ll say: “It’s easy to be selfless, supportive and empathic when you have to do it for only fifty minutes at a time.”  My clients usually get to see me at my very best because I’m doing my job and focused on their needs.  For the most part, they don’t see grouchy Joe, or resentful Joe who feels like he’s working too hard, or angry Joe who isn’t getting his way at home.  Although the client-therapist relationship is very real in its own way, on another level it’s totally artificial and offers us a tempting illusory escape from our imperfect selves.

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. Great blog! It made me think of the movie “Surrogates” w/ Bruce Willis. It takes place in the future where people stay in their homes and hook up “matrix” style to their robotic doubles (who are the ideal versions of themselves). The original motivation for this system, if I remember correctly, was to keep one’s human body safe. At first we only see these “avatars” functioning in their real life (jobs, relationships etc). If there is damage, the robotic parts can be fixed and replaced. About mid-way through the film though, we see the characters as they really are, muscles atrophied, barely able to move around to get up to go to the bathroom or eat. I think it’s a great metaphor for our idealized personas out there and how neglect our real selves.

    1. Thanks, Marla, and thanks for that tip — I’ll have to see if I can get “Surrogates” from Netflix.

  2. Help me understand why Avatar has created such a harsh review from you, please. Can you not allow just a little “magical thinking” in your diagnoses of the mind? I found the movie to be captivating, and engaging. While I have a healthy grasp on reality, I enjoyed the movie so much I would have loved to stay in that magical place just a bit longer. The concept I noticed the most was the message that we are all connected. We are one family – interdependent – and effect each other in ways we should be more mindful of. That was the deeper meaning of the movie for me. I don’t really understand your resistance to the movie. I know “magical thinking” is an aspect of psychology that is considered in the DSM, and I do understand your point about virtual reality becoming a vicarious and fictional mode of living for some who are not living in reality. However, I don’t think that this movie should be attacked for that legitimate point. I loved it. Not that I would watch it continuously, but I would like to again:)

    1. I loved ‘Avatar’!!!!! I’m sorry I gave you the impression that I was attacking it as I certainly had no intention of doing so. I loved everything you identified in the movie; I’m an escapist as much as the next person. At the same time, I reserve the right to keep thinking. This film is so potent and appealing for many reasons. Its vision, its uplifting message, AND (not instead of) because it expresses a fantasy held by many people that they can escape personal damage into an idealized world. If it were just an escapist fantasy, it wouldn’t be so great. Great art (in my opinion) expresses deep human truths.

    2. Fellow WordPress Blogger. Ummm… you missed the point. Dr. Joe was creating a point of reference which you obviously didn’t relate to. I don’t see why you had to get offended. I personally didn’t like the movie and thought it was lame, but my opinion isn’t a personal attack on you. Grow up and thicken your skin.

      Dr. Joe, you seem like a nice guy, but I don’t see why you had to go into detail about how wonderful the movie was just to smooth ruffled feathers. Some people will miss your point and feel offended by creating their own loose reference. I would have enjoyed reiterating your perspective perhaps from a different angle. Anyway, you’re correct about people misrepresenting themselves. I lie about my age. I feel old and washed up. Ie past my prime. 🙁

      Keep up the good work Dr. Joe!

      1. It’s interesting that you bring that up, about smoothing ruffled feathers. I don’t think I’d respond in the same way today, maybe feeling a bit more sure of myself and my way here on the website. Also, my reaction to ‘Avatar’ has changed dramatically. The first time I saw, it was during the holidays; we went out to see it as a family and because of the amazing visual effects and beauty, we were all overwhelmed … plus, we had a great time together and had a great conversation about it afterwards. I think my reaction to it had a lot to do with feeling happy and satisfied by the experience I had with my family. When I saw it again at home, I thought it was trite, boring and cartoon-like. But I still think it’s a great metaphor!

  3. I can’t comment on the movie Avatar as I haven’t seen it – however I do know something about creating an ideal self. When I was suffering from depression I continued to work and gave the impression I was far stronger than was actually the case at the time. I would watch how colleagues would react to weak clients who weren’t able to cope and I felt I had to prevent them having similar opinions about me at all cost, so when problems and adversity came around I would put a brave face on and pretend to shrug it off when all the while I was crumbling inside. When I went to psychotherapy after a long absence I did much the same thing only revealing what I felt was acceptable and putting a brave face on the rest. Of course I soon realised that I would and could get no help at all unless I exposed myself and my weakness and asked for what I needed. Now I know I’m not such a bad person, I am very strong and determined in some areas and fragile and weak in others because of my history. Some times it pisses me off that I have some areas so fragile and that I need to take extra care of myself because of it but I know now am a wonderful unique person with a huge capacity for love and understanding of emotions because of what I have gone through and and that’s something I am beginning to cherish and see as special.

    1. Stephanie, you’re addressing the other half of the problem: our society is so geared toward Winners and Losers (see my post on that subject) that it’s very difficult to feel safe exposing one’s needs and damage. In the wrong environment, it will only elicit contempt and superiority from others. The challenge is to find people who are honest about their own limitations and difficulties and to develop friendships where you can both be honest and accepting.

  4. Really? I appreciated my therapist for the fact that I related to her as a real person, and her I. I didn’t see her as perfection or omnipotent, but rather as a neutral (as neutral as any human can be, I suppose, as we all impart a piece of our ego into anything/everything we do.) party. Personally, I enter every new relationship intentionally without the guise of a reinvention. I don’t have the energy to wear that many hats – or, rather, I do – I choose not to.

    My hope is that the individuals that have benefited from productive psychotherapy will go on to use the tools they were given during their time there to better their lives & as a result, bring some positivity into others’ lives.

  5. I really enjoyed reading all the posts on this topic….interesting insights. I, too, loved the movie and found that I was swept up with feelings of wanting to be right there with them flying high and free…it was magical.. My inner child was very involved in watching and living this fantasy..However, I am grounded in reality and understand there are no magical answers….just to continue the work of healing, a life long work in progress. And interestingly enough, it’s the shame, the deep shame I’ve carried forever that continues to be my nemesis….But, each day of reading, prayer and meditation, journaling…reading and contributing to blogs just like this one, simply doing the work of healing instill in me a powerful and positive knowing that it is working !!!!

  6. What you say is true, I feel everyone “fantasizes” at one time or another, however, the mentally healthy person realizes that it is indeed a fantasy and can return to reality at will. The biggest symbolism I true from Avatar was that of the Na’vi representing the American Indian. Reality can be and often is harsh but we must deal with it. We also have to realize that we, ourselves, play a big part in creating our reality through the choices we make during our lives. Something are unavoidable, however, something are a matter of choice. That’s my thoughts.

    1. I agree about the American Indians. The movie is wonderful because you can read it on so many different levels. When I first saw it, I thought it was like a retelling of our experience in the American West, only this time the Indians won!

  7. I agree about ‘Surrogates.’ I don’t know whether you’ve seen it yet, but you might like it even more for your example because it is about a pathology. The transcendence journey in ‘Avatar’ is beautiful and certainly fanciful, but it’s almost built on a base of Soviet Realism where there are disbelievers and opponents to progress, maybe ‘moral imperialists,’ who glorify both an inferior past and attempt to prevent a superior future.

  8. Hi,

    I can empathise with David feeling shame at mis-representing himself online because of low self-esteem.

    I have just met, and spent a couple of days with a friend I met on facebook. She is the first friend I have met on the internet before meeting them in person, usually it would be the other way around. We had some time to chat online and check out each other’s profiles before meeting, which broke the ice, I think, for both of us.

    I am happy not just because I have a new friend but because I am seeing the results of my recent focus on right thinking and application of the law of attraction.

    I think it is important to represent oneself in a true light with online friendships because you just might attract a good friend who will like you for who you are. We have both shown ourselves online and were ready for the person that we met, if you catch my drift.

    1. The only meaningful relationships are the ones where you can be real, even when that means being damaged in some way, with all your quirks and difficulties. I have a friend, another therapist, who sometimes says to her clients (the ones who want to present an ideal self to the world), “Are you willing to sit at the table with the other “losers”? She doesn’t mean that the client is a loser; it’s just a way of trying to break the “winning” dynamic and get them to be more authentic.

  9. I think your blog has changed my life forever – I find that I fall into almost all of your posts like eating candy for most people. Only this candy has all the right nutrients as well.

  10. I had a seven month fantasy relationship in my mind with my therapist, for all the reasons you describe; a chance to start over, be different, receive all the love and empathy I ever needed. I worked hard to come out of it and back to reality, and I have. Now I feel like crap.

    1. Sometimes you have to go through the “feeling like crap” part for genuine growth to occur. The alternative is just … well, as you said, a fantasy.

  11. I really enjoyed reading the blog. I haven’t seen Avatar so I really can’t comment on the movie. But I can say that I often “fantasize” about the outcome of a very challenge on-going situation that I am involved in. It doesn’t keep me from acknowledging the everyday reality of the situation but while fantasizing I can envision fairness and accountable prevailing. I don’t fantasize about winning but just that truth and justice will prevail. For me the fantasy is real and keeps my hope alive for a better world. I give myself the time every week to fantasy to keep this hope alive.

    1. That would represent a positive function of fantasy — envisioning future possibilities so that one can work toward them … in contrast to the other kind of fantasy, that stands as an alternative to reality and gets in the way of realistic action.

  12. I have just recently found you through a friend who was preparing a sermon on the subject of shame. Everything I’ve read thus far had resonated deep within me, often bringing me to tears. Your last comment, to Carla Collins, hit me hard. I am “addicted” to fantasy. I began creating worlds which I could control, at the age of 4. Because of this, and my conscious decision to live “in there” instead of “out here”, I have cheated myself out of a “real” life. I came to believe that being in fantasy was the only way I could survive in this world. I have never has a therapist, in my 64+ years of living, who ever seriously addressed this issue, but to be honest, I’m not sure it would have made a difference, because I know for certain that, without a “conscious decision” to heal my “addiction”, I will never have the life I’ve envsioned over and over again, in fantasy. As a side note to your segment on “Attachment Theory”, I have had “relationships”, in fantasy, with every therapist I’ve ever had (all females), and attempts to address this with them were very disatisfactory, mainly because of the obvious discomfort I sensed from them. When it happened with my last therapist – when I finally got brave enough to tell her that she was the object of my fantasies, she replied, “I kind of thought that was the case”, never mentioned it again (nor did I), and she retired from the Co. Mental Health system 2 months later.
    Thank you for the wisdom and empathy. Maybe when I get brave enough to try therapy again, I’ll find someone like you….

    1. I hope so. I’m surprised to hear that your last therapist actually understood about the fantasies but never took them up in treatment. I guess most professionals still see the transference as a source of interference rather than a tool.

  13. I appreciate your use of movies to explain a concept. In my own life, the recent Batman trilogy reigns supreme. Bruce holding onto hate, pain and (toxic/basic) shame for so long combined with him taking the blame for 2-Face, because he can take, reminds me of most of the decisions I’ve made in my life. Don’t get me started when Catwoman tells Batman that he doesn’t need to fight Gotham’s battle anymore since he’s already given everything. The 1st time I saw that scene, I dropped a few tears in the theater.

  14. This is late, but if you would allow it…

    The unspoken backstory I am left to assume, is that David experienced profound rejection at some point when younger. Maybe he felt like his sister rejected him by committing suicude—that him just being “David” wasn’t good enough for her. Maybe he was rejected by peers. But at some point, he learned that being who he was wasn’t good enough.
    I don’t really know if “shame” is the right word for this type of experience. To me, it feels like David is trying desperately hard to meet an external responsibility he feels placed on him, rather than filling an internal emptiness. Maybe he has no idea of what “good enough” is, only that he isn’t it? Maybe he doesn’t feel narcissistic enough to say his sister was wrong, or his rejectors were wrong? Some people feel that putting the blame for rejection back on the world is inherently narcissistic? Maybe all he really wants is to be like everybody else, but all everyone tells him is that he isn’t good enough?
    Yes, too many stupid questions.

    Another thought about Avatar. The hero might have transcended his former body, but his new one was not extra-ordinary. The Nav’ii bleed, gow old, and die like humans. They live with primative technology, without access to medicine or education. Sully would not have had any chance of survival as a paraplegic on Pandora.
    So why did he choose that life?
    The Nav’ii needed him. He had purpose, a role, a chance to learn and be “just another Nav’ii”. In many ways, he was less than a typical Nav’ii, because his learning was “like a baby”. He had to start at square one, from a blank slate—just like every other Nav’ii. And just like everyone else, he made alot of mistakes, and learned, and made some more mistakes. He was literally decades behind his same-age Nav’ii peers, and yet they showed him patience and didn’t kick him out for not being perfect.
    His fellow humans, on the other hand, had no use for him at all. The service wouldn’t repair his legs, so he was out of that life. The only reason he didn’t starve was because he luckily had a dead twin brother with an empty role to fill. You heard what he said about Earth—” …we killed our Mother…” Now how useful is one more “broken” individual once a culture degenerates that much? When the Earth itself is disposable, individual life is also disposable. Humanity was a half-step away from disposing of Sully because he had become imperfect & unusable. The Nav’ii did not offer him transcendence, they offered him true humanity: being seen, belonging, the chance to once again bleed & feel pain. The chance for real relationship, which was not possible for him as a “useless” person among the corpratized human culture. All the humans valued was money, with little thought to what they destroyed or disposed of. Where was Sully’s chance for authentic relationships in a world where he had no right to exist because he was too “expensive”?

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