For many that struggle with anxiety, depression, alienation or self-doubt, uncovering toxic shame as the root cause can be one of the greatest discoveries on our journey towards wholeness and liberation.
What Is Toxic Shame?
Shame is a natural reaction – it signals to us our limits. It, however, becomes corrosive to our lives when shame transforms into a permanent state of being. This permanent emotional state is what is referred to as ‘toxic shame’. To have toxic shame is to believe that there is something defective about you that needs to be replaced or remain hidden.
When you live with toxic shame, it feels like you are prayed upon. As if there is a hunter at your shoulder ready to strike. Toxic shame is all about secrecy. You are constantly on guard, hiding the aspects of you that you don’t want to have exposed or seen.
Anxiety and inauthenticity are often a byproduct of toxic shame. Toxic shame will drive us to create a completely inauthentic identity – a performer that stays with us throughout our lives. A facade that requires vast amounts of energy to maintain.
It is only when we come into alignment with all aspects of the self. In particular, those aspects which we have rejected and hidden, that we begin to live life in a deeper state of grace. This process involves ‘shadow work’ and ‘integration’.
Difference Between Shame And Guilt
It’s important to decipher the subtlety between guilt and shame. Guilt means you recognize that you have done something wrong. Toxic shame involves the belief that something is inherently wrong with you. If shame becomes internalized into one’s identity then we live in a permanent state of feeling inadequate, inferior, unworthy and not good enough.
Guilt is about doing, shame is about being.
How Is Toxic Shame Created?
Parents that haven’t processed their own toxic shame will consciously or unconsciously pass it onto their children. It can also be passed on through the culture or society we are born into depending on its value system. From an evolutionary standpoint, connection with our family or “tribe” directly correlates with our survival. In order to fit into the structure of our family and larger society we disown, suppress or reject the aspects that are not deemed acceptable. We trade parts of ourselves in order to feel connected, accepted and therefore safe. This process creates fractures within the developing psyche of the child. In doing so they are unable to completely accept and love themselves.
Children’s self-esteem is developed through a mirroring process. In other words, they learn about themselves through the way others react to them. Reactions such as rejection, abuse, criticism, withdrawal, lack of support, disapproval or invalidation give children the message that there is something undesirable about them.
It is usually through the meaning they assign to these moments that they begin to create a negative self-image which includes beliefs such as I am insignificant, I am not lovable or there is something wrong with me.
This negative self-image can gradually develop into self-hate and an ongoing internal critic. No matter how you much try to please this inner critic, nothing will ever be good enough. It will demand more and it will place unrealistic expectations upon you that burden you with anxiety. The internal critic demands perfection that isn’t realistic. For example, it may be that after a perfectly reasonable social interaction, your internal critic scrutinizes every detail of your behaviour in the interaction. “You are so stupid.” “I can’t believe you said that.” “Your facial expression was so awkward.” “She must now think that you’re a loser”. “There’s no hope for you – you’re a lost case!”.
These beliefs and internal narratives create the lens through which we perceive the world and ourselves.
Toxic Shame And Addictions
Toxic shame leads to self-hate which if left unresolved, eventually can result in some type of self-harm or harm to others. Self-harm can take a variety of different forms including addiction, self-punishment or in its extreme form – suicide. Harm to others can take the form of emotional, physical or mental abuse.
Self-harm is generally a cry for help or an attempt to escape emotional pain. Addictions provide a means of accessing temporary relief from emotional pain. Although addictions may provide temporary relief in the moment they have debilitating effects over the long term. Addictions can take the form of binge eating, alcohol, drugs, self-harm, workaholism, sex, even entertainment and social media. At the end of the day they all have one thing in common – they are trying to mask the symptoms of a problem instead of addressing the root cause.
Dysfunctional Family Dynamics
Shame is generally used as a weapon of control in dysfunctional families. Perfectionism, criticism, blame, righteousness, rage or power are some cover methods in which we divert our shame onto others instead of facing it within ourselves.
Parents that are unable to handle their emotions create mistrust in their children. If parents are unable to regulate their emotions it creates an unpredictable dynamic that is unsettling for children.
You will usually find that the scapegoats or sensitive individuals within a family structure become the recipients of deflected emotions that parents cannot face themselves. This is an especially difficult dynamic for empaths who have a hard time establishing boundaries and who can internalize other’s emotions as their own. They become the unconscious storehouse for the family’s emotional problems. As a result, they often develop into adults who feel at fault for anything negative. In order to avoid taking the blame for everything, ask yourself the questions: Is it mine or theirs? Could it be that someone didn’t reply to your message because they are busy? It doesn’t have to mean that you have done or said something wrong. Could it be that someone is rude because they are having a bad day?
This is also one of the reasons why empaths generally become some of the greatest healers. Through resolving the complexity of these dynamics, they are able to attune and guide others who are in the process of healing and liberating themselves from wounds of the past.
Other byproducts of toxic shame in dysfunctional families can be narcissism or codependency.
The person who is narcissistic is obsessively preoccupied with themselves. A narcissist’s external search for approval, admiration, superiority and significance is a continuous attempt to find self-worth and validation. This external pursuit for success is an attempt to fill a deep void and feeling of unworthiness which stems from the toxic shame. It is an endless pursuit that won’t be satiated until the original wounds have been addressed.
Emotionally neglected, shame-based children often become adults who form co-dependent relationships. Such relationships are characterized by an over-attachment and an extensive focus on the needs of the other. If our sense of emotional worth comes primarily from our relationship, then we become highly dependent upon that relationship. It is important to point out that considering the needs of others and being of service forms part of a healthy personality. It does, however, become unhealthy when we ‘self sacrifice’ to our own detriment or to the detriment of the other (through enabling their dysfunctional behaviour) or when it is used as a form of manipulation to indirectly meet our own needs. This is the difference between healthy interdependence and unhealthy codependency.
To read more about how to release toxic shame, click here.
(if you recognize yourself in these dynamics, you can find out more about narcissistic and dysfunctional family dynamics in this article – How The Wounded Inner Child Continues To Affect Our Adult Lives)