Toxic Shame: Tara Brach calls this shame a “Trance of unworthiness.” It’s increasingly being recognized as a legacy of relational trauma, and one that often isn’t identified as such. Toxic shame is an emotional flashback that feels like a truth. Not only is it a memory, it can get to feel like a necessary feeling, something that helps us avoid feeling devastated by rejection. It’s complicated, but it can be worked through. To make how it develops clear, let’s start by picturing a child, perhaps a little girl.
She, like all children, has a need to reach out to her parents. She has a need to express herself and to have people hear and accept her. She needs to be heard and met often enough that she gets the message over and over again, “Hey, you’re pretty cool! You are a member of our family. We love you. Your desires are acceptable. Your hugs are delightful. Your stories, your laughter, your tears, and your interests matter to us.” These messages are messages this little girl needs to get daily. No parent is perfect, and no child needs a parent who responds with 100 percent affection and attention all the time. But this little girl needs these to occur often enough that she really gets the message, “I am okay.”
Now, say that this little girl has parents who are busy, preoccupied with their jobs, or with another child. Or that one or both of her parents grew up in homes where they themselves weren’t validated and met. Something goes terribly, terribly wrong in this little girl’s environment. It happens on a daily basis, in little ways that make a huge hole in her heart over time. She says, “Hey, look what I can do!” And her mom says, “Can’t you see I’m busy right now?”
Later the same day, she comes to Mommy to give her a hug. And mom says, “You made a big mess in the living room, and you need to clean it up.”
This little girl is in a bind, big time. She needs her parents. When they push her away, or criticize her, her mind and body get messages that are unbearably painful. She learns:
- I have to be perfect to be loved.
- I am unlovable.
- I am unworthy.
- I’m not quite good enough.
- My presence isn’t welcome.
Notice that none of the messages this girl takes in reflect on her parents’ inability or their issues. When we’re little, we are unable to reflect on the whole situation of those around us. If our reach isn’t reciprocated, we decide it’s about us.
Some children try desperately to be perfect, good enough, lovable enough.
Some children learn to pretend needlessness, having given up on getting care from those around them. Their shame endures underneath their facade of independence.
Some children alternate between reaching out and retreating deep inside into disconnection, distraction, escape.
Some children develop an inner critic that shames them and stops them from reaching out so that they won’t get hurt.
Children don’t have the option to leave. They don’t have the option to stop needing either, not really.
Children whose needs aren’t met, whatever their strategy is, grow up to be adults who still have a deep sense of shame and unlovability. They carry a deep feeling, a visceral one, that their reach cannot be met with love and acceptance. They carry a deep fear of being exiled.
This fear, this shame, carries different disguises. Some people who are mired in shame are very aware of their feeling of unworthiness. They have a fierce inner critic that reminds them, “Stay quiet. Stay small. Don’t reach out. You’re not good enough.”
Others carry the fear but aren’t consciously aware of it. They retreat from their feelings, or they blame others when things go wrong. They become masters at “prejection”: “I’ll reject you before you can reject me.”
Shame can be healed. It takes careful, gentle guidance to undo shame.
Shame lives in the body and the mind as a trauma. And an often unavowed one.
A person who is locked in this shame, this “Trance of unworthiness” (Thanks to Tara Brach for that phrase!), does not recognize that she is in a trance.
She has not identified the shame she feels as an imprint from long ago, from the heartache of a reach that went repeatedly unmet.
Further, shame is an emotion that exists within a childlike kind of tunnel vision. Shame is a sign, in other words, that we are still carrying the burden for people’s inability to meet our needs. And that we still have the childlike conception, “It’s all my fault, because I’m bad and worthless.”
Toxic shame like this leaves people frozen in a childlike state. Shame is an emotional memory of being rejected. But it doesn’t feel like a memory. It feels like the truth of who we are.
So let’s say that, in some way, you were this little girl. You now carry a sense of shame.
So how do we work with shame?
Here is a set of steps we can take:
- We calm our bodies and help counter the trauma response somatically. Here’s a tool to do that: Place one hand over your heart and another on your belly. This triggers a calming response in your body. As your hand is on your heart, call to your memory one experience of love and connection. Could be with a pet, or with a close friend, or a teacher. Pick one that’s solid, and let your body really sense into that feeling of love, safety, validation. Once those feelings are strong, breathe them in and out, with your hand over your heart. Let your body and mind take it in for 30 seconds. Linda Graham says, “Doing the one-minute Hand on Heart exercise 5 times a day will actually begin to heal the heart and re-wire the brain.”
- We get mindful — Noticing body sensations (Start with positive or neutral ones!), emotions, thoughts. Name a thought as just a thought, a feeling as just a feeling. This will help you to get some distance from your shame.
- We get in touch with a sense of compassion. Self compassion can be a tough one when you’re dealing with a sense of shame. So don’t start with yourself. Start with a sense of compassion toward someone else in your life. And experiment with turning that sense of compassion inward. If you can do this even a little bit, it will help
- Let that feeling of shame within you meet the feeling of compassion. When you let the experience of love touch that experience of shame, the experience of shame will begin to transform.
These are simple steps, but that doesn’t make them easy! Shame is a sense of disconnect from relationships, and hence from ourselves.
Hence, one of the most powerful ways to transform shame is in an accepting relationship.
If you have people in your life who support you, you may start bringing this sense of support into your heart with the hand on heart exercise, and bringing that feeling back to the part of you that feels that shame.
If the feeling of shame tends to keep taking over and making it difficult to take in loving feelings, from yourself or from others, it may be time to get help. No matter what your shame tells you, there is truly no shame in seeking support for yourself. With the right kind of support, you’ll feel and know for yourself very soon what I already know:
You are lovable.
You are worthy of connection.