5 Important Things to Know About Toxic Shame
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.
When we courageously share something about ourselves that we believe is the most terrible thing, and yet we hear responses like, I am that way too or That’s no big deal, or That's okay, we are transformed by that experience.
3. We are not born feeling bad about ourselves, it’s a symptom of an inadequate environment.
As adults, we will likely not remember how our shame developed. However, when our bids for love, physical/emotional care, and acceptance were consistently met with indifference, disdain, neglect, humiliation, or retaliation, we develop toxic shame. Additionally, when we feel criticized or rejected for who we are as an individual, and what we need, and what we feel, we develop toxic shame.
4. Shame is excruciatingly painful.
Evolution is clever. It designed the emotion of shame to be so awful that we do almost anything to avoid that shrinking feeling of badness. What else could make us deny our primal gratifications and selfish needs to conform to the needs of others?
What happens when shame is triggered? You might relate to the experience of wanting to hide, run away, or cover yourself. You might relate to feeling unworthy, bad, inadequate, embarrassed, or not fitting in. You might relate to feeling alone, isolated, or disconnected. You might relate to the experience of disappearing or feeling annihilated. These are all various manifestations of shame.
When we are about to say or do something in the present, that in the past was met with disdain or disapproval, shame sends a signal to our nervous system to shut us down. We either withdraw or get aggressive. Other chronic defenses like arrogance, workaholism, eating issues, addictions and obsessions may distract us (and also plague us) to prevent the unbearable feeling of shame.
5. Relief from shame is possible.
When we are impaired by shame, we must name it, and then work to loosen its grip. We have to separate from our shame in order to heal it. We must not believe what our shame tells us about ourselves. We have to see our shamed parts as if they were separate from us. Once some separation is achieved, we can begin to relate to our shame with curiosity and compassion.
The Change Triangle is the tool I use and teach to heal from toxic shame. Working the Change Triangle guides us in discovering the core emotions that underlie our shame. When we loosen shame's grip to re-connect with our authentic self, we feel much better and can more easily prevent being wholly overtaken by shame.
If we don’t talk about shame, we cannot learn about it. If we don’t learn about shame, we won’t understand it’s a reaction to inadequate parenting, societal injustices, abuse, neglect, bullying, and more. If we don’t engage with the parts of us that hold shame, we cannot heal them. If we cannot heal, parts of us remain in hiding, suffering in silence.
As modern humans, we have the ability and opportunity to grow, evolve, and advance our mental health in significant ways. Identifying and healing shame is an important part of that journey.
Below is a gentle exercise to help you begin to safely connect and work with a part of you that holds shame:
You are worth it!
Further reading on shame:
It's Not Always Depression, Sometimes It's Shame (New York Times OpEd)
It's Not Always Depression: the Change Triangle Self Help book (Random House)