Shame is an insidious sensation of feeling flawed and inadequate. Shame based beliefs constantly whisper in our ears “you are not enough, therefore, you are unworthy of love and connection.” Toxic shame can negatively impact many aspects of our lives, including our relationships, parenting, jobs, life experiences, etc. Shame could be the underlying factor for many other mental health issues including narcissism, chronic anxiety, eating disorders, codependency, substance abuse, anger issues, and perfectionism to name a few. This blog discusses some of the ways we can set ourselves free from identifying with the destructive voice of shame in our heads.
What is Toxic Shame?
Brené Brown, a research professor who has spent the past two decades studying courage, vulnerability, shame, and empathy defines shame as an insecurity that attaches to self-identity and gets in the way of action or vulnerability. Brené highlights the difference between shame and guilt. She believe that there is a profound distinction between the two as guilt is adaptive and helpful – it’s holding something we’ve done or failed to do up against our values causing some psychological discomfort.
She defines ordinary shame as the intensely painful belief that you are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging. Guilt says “you did something bad” according to your moral values and standards. It encourages you to apologize and makes things right. Shame on the other hand says, “you are bad” and wants you to isolate and hide. In her book, “Daring Greatly”, Brené argues that differences between shame and guilt are critical in informing everything from the way we parent and engage in relationships, to the way we give feedback at work and school.
How Does Toxic Shame Show Up in Relationships?
Toxic shame could be triggered in many ways. It can make you feel isolated, keep you from connecting with others in an authentic manner, and prevents you from asking for help when you really need it. Feelings of shame can manifest itself in forms of gaslighting, blame, judgment and projection of the shame on to the people around us. It also keeps us from being authentic version of ourselves because it’s a constant reminder than our authentic self is not good enough and is unworthy of belonging.
People have different ways of responding to shame. According to Dr. Linda Hartling, when people encounter shame they tend to cope in one of the below three ways, which she describes as “strategies for disconnection”. These strategies include: “move away, move toward or move against shame.” When we move away from shame, we may isolate, keep secrets, avoid conflict at all costs, withdraw, and avoid speaking our truth.
When we move toward shame it could show up as codependency, people pleasing, and becoming a social chameleon. We avoid the fear of being rejected or disappointing others by becoming who they want us to be and as a result we start to lose our sense of self.
When we move against shame, we try to use shame to fight shame. We go into fight mode and hurt others before they can hurt us. These are all strategies of disconnection that shame encourages us to do to mask how much we are actually in pain.
How to Heal the Shame in Your Relationships
Shame invokes other negative thoughts and emotions and keeps us feeling stuck. It tells us we don’t belong and pushes us into isolated darkness by making us feel small and unworthy.
It’s important to note that the goal is not to try to completely get rid of the shame which might be an impossible task, but rather to be an empathetic observer to your experience when you are having a shame based spiral or a shame attack, it’s not about becoming completely immune to shame and trying to get rid of it fully, but rather to develop shame resiliency.
As Brene Brown puts it so befittingly: “You’re in it. That warm wash of “not good enough” has taken over. It doesn’t matter how you get into shame; the trick is getting out in one piece. Also, doing so without sacrificing your authenticity. As a shame researcher, I know that the very best thing to do in the midst of a shame attack is totally counterintuitive: Practice courage and reach out!”
If you’re arguing with your partner and they start to criticize you and the internalized shame feels so unbearable that you want to lash out or completely shut down, you might be having a shame attack. It could be helpful to take a pause and reflect on what you’re feeling internally. Are you going down the shame spiral? What is the shame telling you? What healthy coping mechanisms can you use?
It’s very important to recognize it and understand your triggers so you are not blindsided by them. This way you can respond to it with awareness and understanding. Notice physical manifestations of shame. Do you feel a pit in your stomach, are you avoiding eye contact? Is your mouth dry all of a sudden? So, next time you find yourself in a shame spiral with your partner, try to slow down and name it.
Externalize your shame – Pick a name for it and envision what your shame looks like. Try to identify some of things it’s telling you. This way it will be easier to recognize when it happens and shame becomes a part of you as opposed to you becoming shame.
Embrace vulnerability– Create a culture within your relationship to talk about what it means to let your guard down and be vulnerable. What are some of your hopes and fears around that? What would it take for you to let your defenses down? Are you able to celebrate imperfection and talk about your mistakes without feeling flawed?
Mindful Awareness– Call yourself out when shame is paying you a visit. Remember to be compassionate, curious and non-judgmental about it. Ask yourself why you showed such a strong reaction to an external event and why it’s such a big deal to you internally? Developing conscious awareness could help with not overly identifying with our shame. Be patient with yourself because healing from toxic shame takes time and effort.
Reality Check- Try to shed some light on shame which wants to hide by nature. Examine how true some of the things it’s telling you are. Are these old stories? Try to develop new insight and understanding around your insecurities. You can even ask the people you trust for some feedback if you need some help crawling your way out of the shame pit.
Proceed mindfully- Try to acknowledge that perhaps shame has good intentions, maybe it wants to protect you or stop you from making a fool of yourself. Thank it and let it go. By releasing shame, you create room for more empowerment to change the narrative.
Seek out help- If the shame attacks are too powerful and you often find yourself being stuck at the bottom of the shame pit, it could be a great idea to start therapy. Your therapist can assist you with creating some distance between you and your shame to understand its purpose and develop effective coping strategies. You don’t have to do this alone.
“When we bury the story, we forever stay the subject of the story. When we own it, you get to narrate the ending.” –Brene Brown