Shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough.
~ Brene Brown
Guilt and shame go hand-in-hand. Like guilt, shame is a necessary human emotion as it helps us develop a moral compass. When we feel guilt and shame it is because we have done something wrong that goes against our core values and beliefs. Guilt and shame are positive responses of psychologically healthy people when they realize they have done something wrong. These emotions lead to a correction and change in behaviour.
Toxic shame on the other hand is the feeling of being something wrong. It causes us to feel flawed and defective and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. Toxic shame covers an internal state of inadequacy, unworthiness, or regret. It erodes the sense of self and tends to direct people into destructive behaviours. Feelings of toxic shame produce anger, rage or other irrational behaviours. Fearing rejection, individuals become perfectionists, withdraw from people, seek the approval of others and become overly responsible. Toxic shame is often the experience that underlies violent acts, addiction, infidelity, eating disorders, excessive dependency in relationships, and so many other problematic behaviors.
As children we develop an internalized view of ourselves as adequate or inadequate. If children are continually criticized, severely punished, neglected, abandoned, abused or mistreated, they begin to think of themselves as inadequate, inferior or unworthy. Feelings of inferiority contribute to low self-esteem leading to over sensitivity and a fear of rejection. This is a common emotional response in adult children of alcoholic parents, as well as those who grew up with depressed parents, abuse, religious fanaticism, war, cultural oppression, or adult or sibling death. All of these experiences cause an individual to feel vulnerable, helpless and shamed.
Toxic shame can be triggered by another person or a circumstance and from a failure to meet your own unrealistic ideals or standards. The first step to healing toxic shame is to recognize the feelings of shame in your life. The following statements contribute to a sense of shame and can be spoken by another person or you can say them to yourself:
That was so stupid. I can’t believe you said that!
You will never amount to anything!
Who would want to be with you! You’re ugly and disgusting!
You’ll never be as good as your friends! You’re such a loser!
Can you see how statements like this erode your self-worth and lead to a sense of shame? Are you shaming yourself? Are there people in your life that shame you? If someone else makes these statements, it may be necessary to separate yourself from that relationship. If you make these statements, learn self-compassion. Don’t judge yourself or allow others to judge you. Don’t blame yourself for situations you are not responsible for. Get to know yourself and accept who you are. Forgive yourself and others. Love, respect and protect yourself. Practice compassion. Eventually you will reduce your feelings of shame and increase your self-worth.
Wendy Rhyason, MA Counselling Psychology
Registered Provisional Psychologist
Executive Director, Edmonton Family Violence Centre