Shame is an emotion designed to inhibit our impulses and the expression of our authentic Self. This powerful emotion ensures we conform to fit in with our family, peers, community, religions, and any group in which we wish to belong.
Groups offer many survival benefits like collaboration, protection, support, and safety. Healthy shame ensures we aren't too greedy, covetous, aggressive, abusive, or neglectful. Healthy shame motivates us to be good people. When we act in accordance with the values of our groups, we feel good. When we don’t, we feel fear of retribution, banishment, and we feel the excruciating pain of shame.
Alternatively, toxic shame is a symptom of a toxic environment where we develop entrenched negative beliefs like I am bad, I am not good enough, I am unlovable.
Toxic shame is not necessary for the survival of our species. In fact, we’d all do better without it. Yet sadly, it exists in abundance. It is the root cause for much of our individual and collective suffering, destructive impulses and actions, and relationship conflicts. Toxic shame leads to depression, addictions, eating disorders, personality disorders (like narcissism and borderline personality disorder), and more. Shame underlies perfectionism, contempt, arrogance, and grandiosity—all defenses we use against insecurities caused by toxic shame.
When we are in a state of shame, we are not open to sharing our authentic Self. Our shame tells us we have something to hide. Shame tells us we are broken, defective, or different. Furthermore, shame tells us that if anyone finds out who we really are, we will be rejected.
Toxic shame can and needs to be understood and healed to improve our individual and collective emotional health. The first step is learning more about this insidious and destructive emotion. Here are 5 important things to know about shame:
1. We all have it.
Not one of us has been spared the feeling of shame. At one time or another, we were rebuffed, rejected, ignored, or punished at a time of true need. If we were abused or neglected, we carry the shame of our abuser inside us along with our own. Shame can be deeply buried by defenses like arrogance, hubris, aggression, and righteousness. But that doesn’t mean it’s not still deeply affecting self-esteem and other aspects of a healthy Self.
2. No one wants to talk about shame.
Talking about shame isn’t easy. Talking about shame can actually trigger shame—we can begin to sense our body reacting as soon as we hear the word. However, talking about shame can be made much more comfortable by creating a judgment-free zone in a home or classroom. Once we start sharing why we feel unlovable or unworthy, the burdens of our toxic shame releases.