In the past few posts, we have examined the different types of shame and the malignant effects it can have on our brains. In this piece, we are going to explore the different ways that we can overcome shame to become who were always meant to be before shame drove us into our self-imposed cages.
Shame is Only Toxic When It Runs Your Life
As we discussed in a previous post, shame is a fundamental emotion that is necessary for us to understand our relationships with others. Without shame, we would have a tough time knowing what is and is not appropriate to say and do in our dealings with the people with whom we have relations. Shame keeps our tendencies to want to run other’s lives in check and allows us to know when we need to apologize for something we have said or done.
However, if we grow up in homes where we are made to feel inadequate or have problems with other children where we are bullied, shame becomes a prison where we can get lost.
The term toxic shame was first coined by John Bradshaw in 1990 to describe the person whose thoughts, feelings and behaviors of who grew up in homes where they were repeatedly shamed in early life become shame-based. Shame becomes part of the individual’s identity. Shame is the belief that “I am a flawed human being.”
In Dr. Bradshaw’s book, Healing the Shame that Binds You, he is quoted as saying:
“If our primary caregivers are shame-based, they will act shameless and pass their toxic shame onto us. There is no way to teach self-value if one does not value oneself. Toxic shame is multigenerational. It is passed from one generation to the next. Shame-based people find other shame-based people and get married. As each member of a couple carries the shame from his or her own family system, their marriage will be grounded in their shame-core.
The major outcome of this will be a lack of intimacy. It’s difficult to let someone get close to you if you feel defective and flawed as a human being. Shame-based couples maintain non-intimacy through poor communication, nonproductive circular fighting, games, manipulation, vying for control, withdrawal, blaming and confluence. Confluence is the agreement never to disagree. Confluence creates pseudo-intimacy.”
How do we know when the shame we are feeling is toxic and when it is not? The litmus test for shame is to ask yourself, is the shame I feel helping deal well in life or is it running every aspect of who I am?
Incidences of Non-Toxic and Toxic Shame
For instance, you are in a friend relationship with another and you get annoyed when they are late. You put up with their poor behavior for weeks, but one day you lash out at them without warning. Afterward, you feel ashamed of how you treated your friend, and call them to humbly apologize for your actions and ask them to forgive you.
This is an example of non-toxic shame that is helping you to deal with another in a relationship.
Now let’s look at two incidences of toxic shame in action.
Incidence One: You have a good friend who you know has just received a much-deserved promotion and pay raise from the company where you both are employed. Instead of feeling happy and congratulating her for her accomplishment, you feel angry and insolent. So, when you hear two co-workers discussing their amazement at her promotion, you join in the conversation telling them private things about your friend’s life that you should not expose. Soon the office is buzzing with the information you shared. Your friend hears the rumors and learns you are the source and confronts you for what you did. Instead of reacting with humility and apologizing, you lash out and angrily deny the accusations. You part ways with your friend and find a new job because you cannot allow yourself to admit to yourself or others that you made a mistake.
Clearly, the toxic shame from your past fogged your ability to deal with current shame appropriately and toxic shame is running your life.
Incidence Two: You have been invited to the birthday of a close friend and she informs you that at the also invited to the party is a very nice person she things would make a great partner for you. The morning of the party you get up and go into the bathroom to take a shower and see yourself in the mirror. You stand there for several minutes feeling deeply ashamed at your appearance and decide to call your friend and take a rain check on her invitation.
The self-loathing you felt while looking in the mirror was an echo of the way your parents and friends from childhood made you feel. They said you were fat, ugly and those messages became cemented in your mind and now you believe them to be true.
Toxic shame can also underlie a constant need to impress other people and never, ever be wrong.
Also, toxic shame also leads to self-loathing, depression, suicidal ideation and actions.
Toxic shame can run our lives by coloring our thinking and behaviors.
The Four Requirements to Overcome Toxic Shame
In former pieces, we have examined neuroplasticity and how we can change our brains by changing our actions. Basically, fake it until you make it activity.
Thankfully our brains are pliable, and we can teach it new ways of functioning and train our minds to think more positively and change our lives.
Healing from toxic shame is no different.
To heal our brains and thus our minds from toxic shame, there are four different tasks we must cultivate.
The first is to develop self-love. Developing self-compassion sounds easier than it is in practice as we have grown up believing such negative messages. However, it is vital if we are to conquer toxic shame.
Next, we need to listen to what we are saying, both verbally and non-verbally the words we use in our dialogue to ourselves.
Third, we need to mourn the wounds from our past. This includes the ability to identify what happened and how those past hurts are affecting how we feel about ourselves.
Last, we need to learn self-forgiveness. No, we did not harm ourselves nor did we give ourselves toxic shame. However, we have done many things since we became adults that have further harmed us such as drug or alcohol use or allowing ourselves to remain in toxic relationships. It’s time to forgive ourselves and to move on.
Doing these fake-it-until-we-make-it fundamentals can start us on our way to conquering toxic shame.
Therapeutic Aspects of Conquering Toxic Shame
Toxic shame is caused by so many different types of harm by others that one might think there is not a single option that can help. While it is for sure that people are different in the length of time it will take to overcome toxic shame, the basics are the same for each of us.
First, let me say here and now that if you are dealing with toxic shame you will most likely need a mental health professional to successfully heal. Find a counselor that is a good fit and it would help greatly if they are trauma-informed. However, I understand very well that trauma-informed therapists are hard to come by in rural America, but at least find someone who you feel cares for you as a person.
After finding your mental health professional, here are the three very helpful aspects to conquering toxic shame once and for all. While reading these suggestions, examine how they fit into the four requirements listed above.
Rewrite History. I’m not suggesting here that you can literally go back in time and change history. However, what I am saying is you can rewrite what happened to you in childhood on paper and in your mind.
With your therapist, choose one of the experiences from your childhood where you were made to feel ashamed of your body (or other memory). Think of how you would rewrite that scene.
For me, I went back in time and, as my adult self, rescued me from that situation. I told my childhood self that I was taking her home with me and that she would never feel ashamed like that again. I removed her from the care of the parents who shamed me and took her home and continued to tell her how pretty she was and how much I loved her.
I didn’t do this extremely powerful exercise just once, but over and again until my inner child felt happy because she knew she was safe, loved and most of all, unashamed.
Allow others to compliment you. To begin this exercise, pretend someone is complimenting you on how pretty you are and any other attribute you can think of about yourself. Allow yourself to hear the words and notice how good they make you feel.
Then the next time someone gives you a compliment, do not allow it to just roll off your back or make an excuse to them why it is not true. Instead, allow their words to enter your consciousness and relish in them. Thank them warmly for their kindness and enjoy the moment.
Do mirror work. Stand before a mirror and take a real good look at yourself. I mean all of you! Take a hand mirror and lay on your bed naked and look at yourself.
Pay attention to the fact that you are a woman/man, not a monster or ugly like you thought. No matter how big or small you are or any scars you see, you are a human being, no more, no less.
It is NOT a sin to love yourself, all of you, flaws and all.
I won’t lie to you, this is extremely hard at first. When my therapist encouraged me to do this, I couldn’t for several weeks. However, once I did I made an amazing discovery.
I’m not an ogre nor am I someone who needs to be locked up. I am a flawed human being just like everybody else.
I realize that toxic shame is telling you that you don’t deserve to heal. It is a liar. You are worthy of self-love, respect and dignity just as every human being on planet earth.
The messages you were told in childhood need not control who you are today. Like any words in any message, the negative ones should be and can be changed into positive messages of love and self-acceptance.
It may take some time, but the release and joy that follows conquering toxic shame is amazing.
In our next piece, we will bring all we have discovered and discussed about toxic shame together. In the meantime, say something lovely to yourself because you deserve it.