For many who 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 toward wholeness and liberation.
What Is Toxic Shame?
Healthy 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. ~ John Bradshaw
Anxiety and inauthenticity are often a byproduct of toxic shame. Toxic shame makes us 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 the larger society, we disown, suppress or reject the aspects that are not deemed acceptable.
In other words, we trade parts of ourselves 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 and low selfesteem 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 ongoing internal critic. No matter how much you 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 and negative thoughts.
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 behavior in the interaction with negative selftalk.
The inner dialogue may look something like this:
“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.
What does toxic shame feel like?
Shame feels as if you were shrinking. It makes you want to disappear. It makes you feel you’re unworthy
Toxic Shame And Addictions
Toxic shame can lead to self-hate, which, if left unresolved, eventually can result in other coping mechanisms, such as self-harm or harm to others. Self-harm can take various forms, including addiction, self-punishment or in its extreme form – suicide. Harm to others can involve emotional, physical or mental abuse.
Self-harm is generally a cry for help or an attempt to escape emotional pain. Addictions are coping strategies that provide 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 eating disorders, substance abuse, 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.
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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. To avoid taking the blame for everything, ask yourself these 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. By resolving the complexity of these dynamics, they can attune and guide others who are in the process of overcoming toxic shame and healing 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 that stems from unhealthy 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, 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 toxic when we ‘self-sacrifice’ to our own detriment or to the detriment of the other (through enabling their dysfunctional behavior) 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.
Discovering toxic shame as a potential root cause of anxiety, dysfunctional patterns, fragmentation and addictions can be the first step toward liberation.
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How to Heal Toxic Shame?
Healing toxic shame requires honesty, courage, self-awareness and shadow work. Let me explain what I mean by that.
If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence and judgment. If you put the same amount of shame in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. ~ Brene Brown
Confession / Speaking Up
Honesty with the self is the first step towards releasing you from the bonds of toxic shame. An effective way to start this process is through the act of confession.
You cannot address any problem unless you’re honest about what that problem may be. There is a reason why the first rule of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) is to introduce yourself to the group and acknowledge that you are an addict. Courage is necessary for this process. You have to be ready to face and own your toxic shame in order to transcend it.
During this time, you have to fully embrace and feel your emotions, however difficult this may be. You need to allow yourself to be vulnerable. This process can be especially difficult for men. As society has programmed them in such a way that expressing vulnerability equates to weakness. This, however, couldn’t be further from the truth. To feel and face difficult emotions is a courageous act that requires a different type of strength.
Remember that the only way out is through.
Being part of intentional healing groups or working with skilled practitioners where you can open up and speak freely without judgment can have a great impact on releasing shame. The fundamental aspect of this healing process is a safe container in which space is held.
Within this space, others have the opportunity and support to explore vulnerable aspects of themselves. It is essentially a ‘remirroring’ process whereby the aspects of us that were originally wounded are seen and accepted. This can be a miraculous process to witness.
Spontaneous healing is akin to a rebirth process, whereby the sparkle within one’s eyes returns. You see a complete shift in the energy and the state of being. The participant will experience a huge liberation of energy as if the chains which ensnared him/her before no longer exist. This is very, very powerful – both to witness and to experience.
*If participating in a healing group seems like too much of a stretch, you can start by expressing your toxic shame through writing. You can write about your life story and your low points or even have a dialogue from your inner child’s point of view. Express yourself freely. This gives a voice to your pain. Sometimes that might be enough in order to get relief or to meet your inner child needs.
Notice yourself in moments when you feel triggered or insulted. It is usually an indicator that there is some aspect of you that you are not fully aware of. Remember that when you feel insulted, you become defensive.
But the question is, what is it that you are defending? In many cases, when you feel insulted, it reveals to you an area that you are insecure or ashamed of. An aspect of you that you may have deemed ‘unworthy’ from childhood conditioning. Owning your toxic shame is the key to releasing triggered reactions.
What also helps to gain more self-awareness is understanding toxic shame symptoms and causes. I recommend books from Brene Brown or John Bradshaw who wrote on this topic extensively.
Within holistic health circles and, in particular, within modalities of shamanism, there is a process referred to as “soul retrieval”. It is the process of reowning back “lost parts of our soul”. “Soul loss” is triggered by experiences we did not have the emotional capacity to handle at a time of the experience.
Feeling shame can be so difficult that it’s easier to abandon parts of us that we feel ashamed of. These parts of the ‘soul’ then reside in the subconscious, waiting for integration.
In order to achieve internal integration, we need to break through the facade and face our shame/pain. Once we have done so with honest self-inquiry, we can then begin to reintegrate those vulnerable aspects in a gentle and compassionate way.
This integration process requires shattering the old and redefining the new. Instead of hating ourselves for being broken, we can seek to find beauty and potential in reconnecting lost parts of our soul in a new and unique way.
In Japan, there is a method of repairing broken pieces of pottery with gold. This process is called kintsugi, and it is understood that the piece of pottery becomes more beautiful and valuable after having been broken.
This metaphor portrays the potential of how our wounds can turn into our greatest gifts. Our most difficult experiences can become a catalyst for developing internal powers such as resilience, empathy and compassion for others and liberation. In transcending our suffering and circumstances, we can become an inspiration for others to do the same.
Another aspect of transcending these cycles of toxic shame is the incorporation of compassion. Shame and trauma are transgenerational byproducts that are passed down. It is only when a member within the family or this ancestral lineage becomes aware of these patterns and consciously chooses to change them that these cycles can be broken.
In order to find peace and liberation from these intergenerational patterns, we need to forgive. By understanding the reasons for our pain, we can relate to our parents’ pain and become more compassionate. Forgiveness is an act of self-love that liberates us from the bondage of emotions such as shame, resentment and anger. If we hold onto these emotions, the same cycle will perpetuate in our children.
Toxic shame may feel like a deep cut in our hearts. It separates us from ourselves and others because it causes disowning aspects of ourselves. As toxic shame often lurks in the darkness of our psyche, it’s up to us to learn and recognize its many faces.
When we heal our toxic shame, we can improve how we perceive the world, how we interact with others and ultimately, how we view ourselves. It is a journey back to wholeness. The more we are truly ourselves, the more we can access our natural gifts and live more fulfilling lives.
There is no such thing as an ideal self or perfect self, but we can be perfectly imperfect. There is beauty in embracing all aspects of our being, including our quirks, insecurities and fears.
(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)