Toxic Shame, the Trance of Unworthiness

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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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
  4. 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.







Safety in Therapy: 4 things that help my clients, and can help you

When you’ve been betrayed and hurt by those you had to trust the most, trusting a therapist with your deepest feelings isn’t necessarily the easiest thing to do!

And, even though you might know in your mind that you’re safe with your counselor, your feelings may be giving you entirely different signals!

Here are 6 things that my clients and I have done to build a sense of safety. Find the ones that resonate for you, and bring the ideas/techniques into your own therapy!

1. Honor the part of you that’s learned to be vigilant to potential safety concerns. I’ve learned that, when a client of mine has been betrayed, especially when it’s happened over and over again, that there’s usually a part of her that watches me pretty closely. That part sometimes might pressure a client to be late, to test boundaries in therapy, or to miss appointments. I always tell the client to honor the part of them that’s looking out for their safety. Once that part knows that I get that she’ll be watching me closely, we’re often able to work much better together. I invite a client’s protective parts to challenge me outright if they don’t like or are scared by something I say, do, or suggest. Some clients I’ve worked with say that one of the biggest changes they make in therapy is learning to listen to and appreciate the part of them that’s so watchful. It’s good that a part of you has learned to protect you and to watch out for you.

2. Let yourself pay close attention to what happens in session. When you’ve been through lots of bad stuff, it makes sense that, when you feel uncertain, you might automatically “zone out” or “check out” or feel disconnected from what’s happening for you. The problem is, if you disconnect from what’s really going on, it also makes it more likely that fearful parts of you will stay stuck in the past. In order to find out if it’s safe now, you need to take the risk of connecting, at least a bit, with what’s happening in the moment.

In order to do this, let yourself look around the therapist’s office. Notice anything on the walls. Look at the books on the bookshelf. Feel the floor or the rug under your feet. Let yourself notice the chair you’re sitting in. Letting yourself stop to notice what’s really happening will let your body get the signal that you’re safe. And, as it feels safe, notice your therapist’s reactions to you too. You may find a caring or a humor or something new there, something that helps you to feel safer if you let yourself notice it.  Cultivating this awareness of the present moment also help you to notice anything that makes you feel less than comfortable so you can speak up or get out of anything that’s not good for you!

3. Bring an object that helps you to feel safe. Some of my clients like to always bring a beverage. (I also have coffee, hot chocoate, and cold water in my waiting room, and clients sometimes find a cold or warm beverage to be helpful to them.) You might bring a stuffed animal (A friend of mine brought a favorite stuffed animal to therapy with her for years, but kept the stuffie out of the therapist’s sight in her purse. It was her own private comfort object!). or a blanket or anything that feels right for you.

4. Record your sessions. I have clients who like to record our sessions on their phones, and this helps in a few ways:

  • It allows them to have a record of everything that happened in session, which is especially helpful if you have dissociative barriers or sometimes don’t remember things well. Their ability to record our sessions and to then review them and ask questions helps them to feel safe with me, and to know for sure what happened in our time together.
  • Clients can listen to useful sessions over and over again, and this helps to reinforce the good stuff that’s happening. It solidifies their feeling that I care about them, because they hear that caring over and over again, in multiple ways, throughout the recording.)
  • It lets clients take in feedback and suggestions at their own pace. Some of my clients do some of their most major work in secret, away from my eyes! And that’s okay. They can always thank me for a suggestion, and then decide later, in the comfort of their own homes, whether they want to consider it or try it!

When you find ways to feel safe in therapy and find a therapist who honors your needs to build this sense of safety, your newfound sense of safety will extend outside the therapist’s office, and that will lead to more feelings of safety and connection for you, both inside and outside your therapy.