‘Shame' is a sickness of the soul. It destroys our self-esteem and denies us a fulfilling life. It's like a feeling of being broken, a burning sensation in the tummy, a sense that the body is shrinking, spiraling down, the throat is constricted, speaking and breathing are difficult and there’s a heaviness on the chest.
It spawns many ‘children': paranoia, loneliness, self-doubt, self-loathing, compulsive behaviors, and feelings of failure, inferiority and inadequacy.
Toxic shame comes as part of the package of depression. Some experts would suggest that shame is at the root of all depression. Essentially shame is when we feel brutally bad about the person we are. It's when we feel the agony of acute self-consciousness. We feel so awful that we have to disown the part of ourselves that holds the shame. We may feel so ashamed about ourselves that we have to hide it from everyone, which makes us ashamed about our shame. We have to keep it a secret and because our shame is so toxic, we spend the whole time running away from it!
Let's start by differentiating between shame and guilt: guilt is a feeling we get when we think that we did something bad. Shame is a feeling we get that we simply are a just a bad person regardless of anything we did and that nothing can be done about it.
The good news is that shame is a learned habit and can be un-learned. Recovering our sense of self by diminishing and healing the part of us that feels the toxic shame will help us to become whole again. By accepting and reuniting with this hidden self we learn how to overcome this toxic shame habit.
It's difficult to define shame because originally it was a healthy emotion. Healthy people allow shame to work in their lives. Shame, in its pure sense, is a stabilizer and helps us to recognize when we've made a mistake. It's also a catalyst for us taking responsibility and putting the mistake right. Shame is particularly helpful for children. It helps a child to understand the difference between right and wrong.
Healthy shame works like a set of traffic lights: The bigger the mistake the more vibrant the red light. Healthy children come to rely on shame to tell them how far to go. Shame tells us when we've gone far enough and when it's time to make tracks back again. It allows us to make amends for our mistakes and say sorry. An adult’s shame is a moral compass showing us what's appropriate and what is discouraged. Our shame tells us that it's not good to steal something from the office or cheat on an exam. It helps us stay on the straight and narrow, own up and be honest.
Toxic shame however is a very different matter. This type of shame is at the core of people who are raised in dysfunctional families. It's a feeling of not being good enough, feeling unacceptable and feeling that the very center of us is rotten to the core. Toxic shame is a life destroying poison that eats away at our soul, telling us that everything we do is a mistake, everything we say is a mistake and in fact we are a mistake. It's very secretive and prefers its host to keep it hidden away from anyone else. If we make a small mistake shame will tell us that we are useless and flawed. It tells us we have no rights, no value and are completely unlovable. Toxic shame plays a life and death game with us by tormenting us. It plays a scenario over and over again until we submit to its abuse.
We begin by listing every incident that we can think about when we felt shame as a child. Being shamed can happen in calm moments as well as screeching moments but it can also come camouflaged as a compliment. For example, when a parent says good boy or good girl, they are expressing their pleasure. The flip side, however, is when they express their displeasure with bad boy or bad girl. These subtle but devastating approaches to parenting can create shame and harm the child. We need to identify them in this shame list below:
List the incidents when you felt shame as a child. Make each example detailed with who, where, when and how you reacted: