You are born. You are basically a blob. Don’t get me wrong-your parents probably think you are an adorable blob, but you are, nonetheless a blob. The doctor puts you through some reflex tests, and gives you a score. I’m not even kidding. It’s a good thing, actually. The APGAR score alerts the doc to health issues best caught early. So, don’t feel too bad about being judged so young. The nurses cooed over my babies while flicking them and turning them over, maybe so as to not inflict any shame damage while scoring how they startled and other various things.
If you’re healthy, you go home with your parent(s), and are nurtured into adulthood with a healthy sense of shame. Yes. Shame can be healthy! It can act as guardrails for our existence. We tend to tow the social lines to avoid feeling shame. We wear clothes in public, go to the bathroom in private, observe the norms of the society in which we live. Some of us though, are brought home to households that have dysfunction. Some parents were deprived, and raise us in the shadow of their own shame.
Toxic shame develops in families where the reflection of the child is damaging. As we form from blobs to people, we look for signs of who we are reflected by those around us. Our parents, there or absent, siblings, peers, teachers and others close to us teach us how to define ourselves. They act as mirrors. If what is reflected back to me is positive and accurate, I develop healthy shame as I learn the rules of living. If, on the other hand, what is reflected to me is the dysfunction of the mirror, then I adopt those beliefs, and toxic shame takes root.
So, what is toxic shame? Toxic shame is a fundamental belief that to a core of a person’s being they are unlovable. For people who were abandoned in childhood, whether it was through parental addiction, or a literal abandonment, the only explanation that makes any sense to the child is that that the abandonment was caused by the child. If a parent mocks or teases in a damaging way, the child can internalize these messages, and not only believe them, but weave them into their personal definition of self. Another source of toxic shame is found in peer group interaction. Therapists work all the time with adults who were profoundly damaged by bullying in school. This is especially true when those same kids were traumatized, and left marked by the trauma, become a likely target in other contexts. The damage becomes not only hardwired into the brain, but woven through the soul. We are no longer feel ashamed because of a thing we did, we are ashamed of our being.
Toxic shame is so painful, that humans devise really ingenious ways to protect themselves from themselves. Think of that! We can already see that creating layers of protection to hide our fundamental selves is a set up for real problems. Addiction, people pleasing, adopting social masks, codependence, and paranoid and narcissistic disorders are all linked to toxic shame.
Can we heal this wound of toxic shame? Can we feel worthy of love, success, and living free from internal struggle? Yes. With proper self care, and a bit of derring-do, these early ideas of self can be corrected. One thing to keep in mind is that toxic shame is formed after repeated exposure to damaging ideas. Clients will often recall what I call “flash bulb” moments. But that moment took place within a context of being, a larger pattern of life that made the offending moment possible. This is where we begin the exploration. We seek out our parts that must be welcomed back into the fold of who we are. We must grieve what we have lost. We must celebrate the little kid we were, and come to a new understanding of who we really are. And who are we? Perfect human beings, designed to fall and get back up. Designed to learn through our mistakes. Designed to not be perfect. So, let’s start by quieting that awful critical inner voice, and replace it with self loving coos. It’ll lessen the blow of living in a world all too eager to score our every move.