It’s a shame!
On the list of feelings that are the most difficult to deal with, shame holds a leading position. Carl Gustav Jung, one of the founders of the modern psychoanalytical movement, wrote that "shame is a soul-eating emotion", and I think it is a pretty accurate description of what it is going on inside someone who has to live with toxic shame. A person is eaten by a nasty parasite.
'Wait a minute', you will say - you have started with shame and now you are moving on to toxic shame - don’t you think it is cliché to call everything toxic and wrong, since shame is a normal and naturally-occurring emotion? If not for shame, how would we know that we have done something wrong?
Not so noble
Regular shame is a common feeling that we might experience when we realise we have done something wrong, because a part of us is not so noble. Someone might sabotage their colleagues at work in order to get a job promotion; another might engage in an extramarital affair and deeply hurt their families in the process. Everyone casts a shadow - I have not met saints in my counselling room. Fortunately, acting morally wrong may happen only a few times in your life - it is not every day that we are doing something so unforgivable that it generates feelings of shame.
But what if you felt shame every single day? When you look in the mirror; when you have to open your computer to work; when your partner kisses you good morning. What if nothing is ever good or big enough, but simultaneously you feel as though you do not deserve better? Your latest promotion leaves you with feelings of inadequacy; instead of feeling happy about your weight loss, you are uncomfortable with how you look. When your friend tells you she is pregnant, you feel jealous, even though you decided long ago that you do not want to be a mother.
Could it be toxic, chronic shame?
Toxic shame feels like your personality disintegrates when faced with a situation that threatens the subjective sense of self. You might feel blank, incoherent, or humiliated to the point you cannot speak or even think. Some clients report that they feel emotionally shaken or even suffocated. Have you ever felt this heavy, surprising emotion hitting you without warning?
Why would anybody’s personality disintegrate? It is definitely not a sudden process, and it has its roots in childhood. An adult suffering from chronic shame as a child was probably cared for by a dysregulated other. As Patricia A DeYoung explains in her book 'Understanding and treating chronic shame', the dysregulated other failed to provide the emotional connection, responsiveness, and understanding that another person needs in order to be well and whole.
As children, we do not understand that we are rejected because our parents or careers do not know how to self-regulate or be in the world with their children.
As children, we develop the belief (very often a belief that is expressed in recurring emotions or images) that there is something fundamentally wrong with our personalities, bodies, thoughts, and feelings. How do you explain to a child that their closest adults are (often unintentionally) withholding attention and love?
It is rather impossible to let shame just slide. Most people deal with shame in three ways.
The people who suffer from toxic shame believe that the one way of fixing the problem is to improve themselves. That leads to never-ending diets, plastic surgeries, long hours at the gym and working very hard to convince themselves that abusive workplaces and relationships are not so bad after all.
Chronic shame is also fertile ground for any addictions, since the person suffering does not know how to regulate the difficult emotions of disintegration. Many recovering addicts mention that the drug of choice is like a warm blanket that they could lie under and disappear within.
Finally, some lucky people discover that therapy might bring understanding and control over their toxic shame. The dynamic of chronic shame is formulated before the child can speak, and it is almost impossible, without therapy, to recognise and work on. A skilled counsellor who can pay attention to the client’s body and discover any unconscious complexes would be able to translate the childhood preverbal shame into the mature art of recognition, naming, and, finally, acceptance.