What is toxic shame?
Shame is often confused with guilt. Sometimes we use the terms interchangeably, but they mean different things.
Guilt is the bad feeling you have when you’ve done something wrong. And if you’ve actually done something wrong, like run into your neighbor’s car, then you should feel bad. Guilt, in this situation, is helpful; it motivates you to apologize, make amends, and learn from your mistake.
Shame, however, is the painful feeling that you are wrong, bad, inadequate, or unworthy. Instead of feeling bad about hitting your neighbor’s car, you believe that doing so means that there is something fundamentally wrong with you and you’re not as good as everyone else.
You may feel shame about a particular event, such as causing a car accident, your child’s addiction, or getting divorced. But more often, shame becomes a core belief about who you are. It’s how you explain every problem, mistake, or difficulty that you have in life. I’m broke because I’m stupid and lazy. My boyfriend hits me because I’m clingy and damaged. My mother only calls when she needs something because I’m difficult and moody. And you don’t recognize that being broke, abused, or taken advantage of, aren’t necessarily caused by your inadequacies.
Where does toxic shame come from?
This kind of toxic or pervasive shame usually starts in childhood. You may have been told you were bad, unlovable, inferior, or that you deserved to be hurt or ignored. Or you may have blamed yourself because you didn’t have any other way to understand what was happening to you or in your family. “There’s something wrong with me” or “It’s my fault” are the easiest ways for children to make sense of abuse, neglect, family chaos, poverty, addiction, and so forth because dysfunctional families usually don’t talk about their problems and dysfunctional adults rarely take responsibility for their poor choices and behavior.
Unfortunately, these feelings of being “damaged” usually stay with you and become the lens you use to view yourself in adulthood. So, as adults, we blame ourselves when bad things happen because we already feel flawed. For example, you might feel ashamed of your husband’s drinking or your wife cheating on you. Neither of these things are within your control or things you caused, but because you already believe there’s something wrong with you, you see these experiences as evidence of your shortcomings. You blame yourself and you fear others will blame and judge you, too.
Healing from toxic shame
We can begin to heal from toxic shame when we talk about our problems, change our thinking, and use self-compassion.
Talk about your shame
When we experience judgment, or are afraid of being judged, we tend to stop talking about our problems and start minimizing, denying, omitting, and lying about them. But shame grows stronger when you keep parts of yourself secret and when you’re too afraid of judgment to share them even with trusted friends or your therapist.
Shame and secrets keep us disconnected and alone. They keep us from asking for help, from getting support, from being understood.
In order to reduce shame, we have to start talking about it. Of course, this is easier said than done. Start with being honest with yourself. And meet your honesty with compassion. Try offering yourself love and acceptance, through caring words and actions, when you feel ashamed and unworthy. From there, you can slowly start to share more about your shame with people you trust. A therapist, sponsor, or members of a 12-step group (such as Al-Anon or Adult Children of Alcoholics and Dysfunctional Families) or other support groups can be safe people to start with.
Change your thinking
We also need to correct the false beliefs that drive our feelings of shame. Even though your thoughts seem true to you, they are likely built on things you were told as a child, opinions, old information, half-truths, or other distortions of reality. Try asking yourself these questions to explore whether there’s evidence to support the belief that you’re bad, wrong, inadequate, etc.
- How do I know this belief or thought is true?
- Where did this belief or thought originally come from?
- Can I find any evidence to the contrary?
- Is it an opinion or a fact?
- Is it possible that this belief was never true or that I’ve changed since I first started believing this about myself?
- Is this belief or thought helpful?
- Am I open to trying to think more positively about myself?
You can also try using some positive self-talk or affirmation such as these.
- I did not cause the problems in my family of origin. No child is responsible for the abuse they suffered or their parents’ addiction, illness, or actions.
- My feelings of unworthiness are based on false assumptions that I made as a child. Over the years, I’ve looked for evidence to reinforce this belief. But now I can look for and find evidence that I have good qualities.
- I’m imperfect, but I’m worthy.
Shame can tell you that you're unlovable. The best way to feel lovable is to start loving yourself. See if you can start doing some of these loving things for yourself.
- Say kind things to yourself.
- Encourage yourself to try new things and challenge yourself.
- Comfort yourself when you make a mistake.
- Notice your progress and effort.
- Give yourself healthy treats (not just food), especially when you’re having a hard time.
- Take care of your physical health.
- Make time for fun activities.
- Seek out supportive people.
- Use a loving touch, such as giving yourself a neck rub or hug.
- Let yourself rest.
I also invite you to try this loving meditation that I wrote to help reduce shame and feelings of unworthiness and inadequacy.
Today, I choose to love myself.
For a long time, I’ve believed that I’m unlovable, unworthy, and not as good as everyone else.
Now, I’m trying to change these self-critical thoughts because I realize they’re built on shame.
I realize that they are the result of toxic shame – shame that I inherited from my family when I was young and unable to understand that I am not the cause of my family’s dysfunction and problems – and shame that I reinforced by blaming myself and accepting responsibility for things I couldn’t possibly control or cause.
Today, I choose to free myself from shame. I choose to believe in my inherent worth.
People have abandoned me and let me down in the past. And this has been very painful. I’ve felt sad, angry, and confused, but haven’t known what to do with my feelings.
Now, as part of letting go of my shame and feelings of unworthiness, I will allow myself to feel all my feelings. Instead of suppressing and numbing my feelings, I will comfort myself in healthy ways. I will invite more self-compassion into my life. I will say nice things to myself and treat myself with loving care.
Today, I choose to love myself.
Because I’ve been hurt, it’s sometimes hard for me to trust myself and others. That’s understandable. But I know that putting up emotional walls isn’t healthy either.
I will try to slow down so that I can listen to my thoughts, feel my feelings, and hear my intuition. I will go slowly in new relationships and let trust develop over time. I will also practice setting clear boundaries so that others know what my expectations are and how I want to be treated.
Today, I choose to trust myself and to slowly learn how to trust others.
I realize that I don’t have to be perfect to be lovable. And I don’t have to be the best or most accomplished. In the past, I’ve based my self-worth on my accomplishments and appearance.
Today, I choose to free myself from perfectionism and all-or-nothing thinking.
I choose to love myself despite my flaws and mistakes and imperfections. Sometimes it isn’t easy, but I will keep trying little by little to notice what’s special about me – not just my accomplishments, but my personality traits and talents and good qualities.
Today, I choose to love myself just as I am.
Today, I choose to let go of shame, self-criticism, and feeling not good enough.
If you would like to download a PDF of this meditation, please sign-up here to join my email list and access my free resource library. There, you’ll find this meditation and lots of other free worksheets, journal prompts, and tools for overcoming codependency, low self-esteem, perfectionism, and more!
You can break free from shame
When shame is a strongly held belief that you’re not good enough, it takes a lot of work to break free from it. However, I firmly believe that if you know how to love others, you can learn to love and value yourself. Keep working at it!
Daring Greatly and other books by Brene Brown
Changing Course by Claudia Black
Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw
The CBT Workbook for Perfectionism by Sharon Martin (especially Chapter 12)
©2020 Sharon Martin, LCSW. All rights reserved.
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Learn more about how to end codependent relationships
Navigating the Codependency Maze provides concrete exercises to help you manage anxiety, detach with love, break through denial, practice healthy communication, and end codependent thinking. It was written by Sharon Martin, a psychotherapist with over 20 years of experience helping people overcome codependency, people-pleasing and perfectionism and find their way back to themselves. For more info and to view sample pages, click HERE.