Identifying toxic shame - a step towards healing
Toxic shame has been associated with depression, addiction, suicide, aggression, bullying and eating disorders.
What is shame?
It is normal to have a level of shame. It can help us to keep a good conscience and to be more socially sensitive. However when someone experiences toxic shame they believe that they are unworthy of love, unwanted and flawed. Shame is an incredibly powerful emotion. It leaves emotional wounds and robs us from having a good relationship with ourselves and others. It also plays an important role in shaping our personality. Shame convinces us that there is something wrong with us, we are not good enough and that we cannot do anything about it. This can be painful, limit our choices and potential in life.
How does toxic shame arise?
Shame usually starts in early years. A child of an emotionally unavailable caregiver may feel shame and rejection when they consistently experience that their basic needs for love and connection are not being met. Also, shame can be passed on from parents to children. For example, a child of an alcoholic parent may be taught to keep it secret because of the public shame that the addiction can bring upon the family.
Shame can also arise from any form of abuse. Someone who experiences abuse may feel that they are essentially bad or disgusting.
What does toxic shame look like?
Paradoxically, when then we internalise shame, we tend to go on to activate it ourselves by means of self-criticism, setting up high standards or by comparing ourselves to others. We look at our imperfections and tend to generalise them. A particular flaw becomes proof of our inferiority or defect. It’s not unusual to feel easily judged, rejected and defensive. When someone gives advice the tendency is to view it as reproof, a disagreement means disapproval, a question feels like blame or other expressions as criticism. Shame distorts an innocent offer for help into pity, a word of praise into manipulation.
Shame is not the same as guilt
Some people confuse shame with other close feelings such as guilt, shyness, embarrassment and humiliation. One of the most common misunderstandings is that shame is the same as guilt. This is not so true and here is an example. Guilt says: “I made a mistake" whereas shame says: “I am a mistake”. Guilt is about doing something wrong. Usually when the behaviour changes there is a relief from guilt, a clean conscience is restored and guilt goes away. However, shame is about us being wrong. Early in life, we form beliefs about ourselves such as “I’m unlovable”, “I’m flawed”. These negative beliefs are the basis to develop toxic shame.
Healing from shame
There is hope to heal from chronic shame. Empathy is a great neutraliser to shame. You can start by talking to someone you trust about it and learn to practice self-compassion. Therapy can also offer you a warm friendly environment for further exploration. There you can challenge the core beliefs that were formed early in your life and create new beliefs that support your true self. This takes time but it can be done with a therapist that is compassionate and can be present with acceptance, respect and non-judgment.