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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

What is Complex Trauma?

Simple trauma is the result of a single overwhelming event, such as being in a car crash or being assaulted. Complex Trauma arises when: The victimization started in infancy or childhood. The home lacked the consistent nurturing, care, boundaries, and security that help a child develop a sense of who she is and the knowledge that she’s worthy. Such environments can contain:

  • Neglect—Physical and/or emotional needs are not seen, acknowledged, or tended to consistently.
  • Verbal/emotional abuse—Your parents told you you were worthless, wouldn’t amount to anything, weren’t good enough, and denied love and affection.
  • Bullying—Being teased, hurt, and humiliated by other children and having no adult to come to your aid.
  • A parent who is emotionally a child—So s/he needs your care and your reassurance, and your needs to unacknowledged.
  • Physical abuse—Use of physical force and intimidation.

Sexual abuse—molestation or sexualizing of a child.

When you’re hurt as a child or you don’t get what you need, you do what you can inside to make sense of a senseless situation, and you develop Complex PTSD. My favorite most instantly comprehensible description of the experience of CPTSD comes from Pete Walker’s book, “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving”, where he mentions these five common issues folks with complex trauma have:

Emotional Flashbacks – These are feelings in the moment that go back to times in childhood where you felt defective, helpless, abandoned, or despairing. Much of the time that folks have suicidal ideation, they are flashing back to a time in their lives where things felt hopeless. Many times, these flashbacks are characterized by the second characteristic:
Toxic Shame: A sense that you are not okay. Everything about you starts to feel pathetic, or worthless, or simply not good enough. Shame is a sense that there’s something wrong with you, something wrong with who you are. It makes sense that a sense of being so worthless would combine with this third indicator:
A vicious inner critic: This part of you says you’re not worth it, you’re not good enough, that you never should have tried, or that you have no right to your feelings and thoughts. This critic often echoes the contempt people received in childhood. This critic demolishes your sense of self-esteem. This leads to the next symptom
Self-abandonment: You give in to your inner critic, and you give up on yourself. Some folks abandon themselves through “spacing out”, taking care of other people compulsively (without regard for their own needs), getting into destructive or dependent relationships, turning to food or sleep to dull their feelings, or turning to addictions. Giving up on yourself can be accompanied by suicidal ideation, compulsion/addiction, depression, and giving into the wishes of others to the exclusion of your own needs.
Social anxiety: This fear of interaction with other people makes sense when you never developed the sense that you were okay, that people liked you, and that you were worth people’s time and attention.

If these symptoms sound familiar to you, there’s hope for you! In Pete Walker’s words:

First, the good news about CPTSD: It is a learned set of responses, and a failure to complete numerous important developmental tasks. This means that it is environmentally, not genetically, caused. In other words, unlike most of the diagnoses it is confused with, it is neither inborn nor characterlogical. As such, it is learned. It is not inscribed in your DNA. It is a disorder caused by nurture (or rather the lack of it), not nature.

Pete Walker, from “Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving” My clients who have been carrying the burden of complex trauma symptoms express great relief once they understand that they’re not bad or crazy, and that their troubled emotions and relationships make sense. Once you know that you’re not crazy or defective, you can start the work of healing. Healing the effects of complex trauma is a process. It’s a deeply rewarding one, because as you learn to let go of toxic shame, to challenge your inner critic, to notice when you’re in an emotional flashback (and find your way out), and to finally come home to yourself, life looks different. Your anxiety diminishes, your energy increases, and you gain a sense of love, belonging, and safety. Healing can begin to occur in a safe relationship, often with a good therapist. Read my article about what to look for in a therapist for complex trauma here. You can also begin to recover faster by recognizing when you’re in an emotional flashback. Read about that here. People recover from complex trauma everyday. To recover, you’ll need to develop self-compassion, challenge your inner critic, and learn to care for the child you once were. When you recover, you begin to develop a sense that you’re okay, that you can be safe, and that you’re worth it. You stop abandoning yourself and learn to embrace who you are. Healing happens one step at a time.

Are your Worst Feelings Actually Emotional Flashbacks? [Video]

What is an emotional flashback?

Emotional flashbacks are feelings in the moment that go back to times in childhood where you felt defective, helpless, abandoned, or despairing. They can be tricky to identify, because unlike a specific flashback with specific images, you experience very strong feelings of self-hatred, shame, abandonment, invisibility, or rage. And they’re not linked to any one specific memory.

Here’s a video I’ve made on feelings like hopelessness and the feeling that you’re unlovable, and identifying the possibility that you’re having a flashback. Or if you’re looking for strategies to try right now, scroll further down and find my video that gives you three ways to work with an emotional flashback right now.

Times that you felt despair, shame, rage, futility, a sense of being abandoned or unworthy may be signaling a powerful feeling memory of what it was like for you when you were small.  Because these flashbacks often seem to be related to the present moment, identifying the intensity of your feelings as an emotional flashback is an important piece to healing.

When People Are Having Emotional Flashbacks…

Here are some things people tend to feel and do when experiencing emotional flashbacks:

They Feel Toxic Shame

You get this sense that you are not okay. Everything about you starts to feel pathetic, or worthless, or simply not good enough. Shame is a sense that there’s something wrong with you, something wrong with who you are. It makes sense that a sense of being so worthless would propel this next step:

They criticize themselves, Viciously!

This part of you, this inner critic, says you’re not worth it, you’re not good enough, that you never should have tried, or that you have no right to your feelings and thoughts. This critic often echoes the contempt people received in childhood. This critic demolishes your sense of self-esteem. This leads to the next issue:

They Abandon Themselves, Recreating Early Abandonments

You give in to your inner critic, and you give up on yourself. Some folks abandon themselves through “spacing out”, taking care of other people compulsively (without regard for their own needs), getting into destructive or dependent relationships, turning to food or sleep to dull their feelings, or turning to addictions. Giving up on yourself can be accompanied by suicidal ideation, compulsion/addiction, depression, and giving into the wishes of others to the exclusion of your own needs.

Fear of relationships/social situations

This fear of interaction with other people makes sense when you never developed the sense that you were okay, that people liked you, and that you were worth people’s time and attention.

Emotional Flashbacks Can be Stopped, and You Can Heal!

If these symptoms sound familiar to you, there’s hope for you! Pete Walker coined the term, “emotional flashback,” and he says:

First, the good news about CPTSD [complex PTSD]: It is a learned set of responses, and a failure to complete numerous important developmental tasks. This means that it is environmentally, not genetically, caused. In other words, unlike most of the diagnoses it is confused with, it is neither inborn nor characterlogical. As such, it is learned. It is not inscribed in your DNA. It is a disorder caused by nurture (or rather the lack of it), not nature.

Pete Walker, from Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving.

Here’s a video I did on ways you can work with an emotional flashback right in the moment you’re experiencing it. You might want to bookmark this page or favorite the video on Youtube so you can find it at a moment’s notice!

 

I work with clients from around the world via Skype video, and locally here in Oregon. Clients suffering from emotional flashbacks express great relief once they understand that they’re not bad or crazy, and that their troubled emotions and relationships make sense. Once you know that you’re NOT crazy or defective, you can start the work of healing.  Healing is deeply rewarding, because as you learn to let go of toxic shame, to challenge your inner critic, to notice when you’re in an emotional flashback (and find your way out), you get to feel at home with yourself.  Life looks different. Your anxiety diminishes, your energy increases, and you gain a sense of love, belonging, and safety.

Healing can begin to occur in a safe relationship, often with a good therapist. Read my article about feeling safe in therapy.  People recover from complex trauma every day. To recover, you’ll need to develop self-compassion, challenge your inner critic, and learn to care for the child you once were. As you recover, you develop a sense that you’re okay, that you can be safe, and that you’re worth it. You stop abandoning yourself and learn to embrace who you are. Healing happens one step at a time.

 Examples of Emotional Flashbacks

Here are examples of emotional flashbacks I’ve seen:

  • Mary comes to a session convinced that I won’t like her, that no one can like her. When we talk about these feelings, it becomes apparent that, even though I and many other people like her, there’s a part of her that keeps remembering the feelings of helplessness and shame and replaying the voices of her parents saying, “No one will ever want to be your friend.”
  • Thomas tells me he “freaks out” every time his fiance looks at him a certain way. When he remembers what “that look” reminds him of, he recalls the sense of impending doom he had as a child when his stepfather gave him a certain look before beating him.
  • Rose can’t stand for someone on the phone to say it’s time for them to go. It brings her back to a time in her childhood where she felt all alone.
  • When Harry hears that his boss wants to talk to him, he immediately panics and believes that he’s going to be reprimanded. When we talk it through, he realizes that he’s flashing back to a time that his mother saying, “Let’s have a talk” could only mean bad things.

Dealing with Emotional Flashbacks

How do you resolve an emotional flashback? First, you recognize the likelihood that it is a flashback.

  1. Recognizing your emotional flashbacks for what they are can save your sense of sanity. By recognizing these feelings as coming from the past, you can begin to let go of the fear or anguish now, and to be compassionate with yourself as you deal with the feelings from then.
  2. Recognize that you are safe now. When you were young, these experiences could feel life-threatening. But now, you’re in an adult body with adult resources. You’re safe now. You might check out my flashback halting protocol video for a format for noticing safety in the here and now.
  3. Understand your flashback as a message from a child part of yourself. This part still needs care and attention and validation, and didn’t get it when you were young. Now is the time to hear that child’s message. Rather than fixating on the current situation, focus on the feeling and tend to that child within.
  4. Recognize that this flashback will pass, and life will look different then. When you’re in the midst of one of these flashbacks, they can feel eternal. Worse, a part of you may criticize you or shame you, and these criticisms can feel like utter truth when you feel this way. They’re not truth. I promise! Right now, take care of you.
  5. Become an expert in emotional flashbacks. The more you know, the more empowered you’ll feel, and having the words to put to what’s going on will to keep you from getting stuck in a feeling. You can find stuff on my website and youtube channel, of course! 🙂
  6. And you can look at stuff that the guy who coined the term “Emotional Flashback” has written. His name is Pete Walker, and he offers a lot of useful information, written very compassionately. Here’s a link to his website, with articles that might interest you right on the left column.
  7. Realize that you can heal from this stuff. A relationship with someone who has compassion and a clue will help a lot, especially if the inner critic or feelings of shame keep taking over your thoughts and feelings, despite your best efforts. So consider seeking help from someone familiar with this stuff. If you already have a support network (Lots of people struggling with this stuff don’t yet have that, and that can change over time!), find someone safe to start sharing a little bit of this stuff with. And if you don’t yet have that, you might seek help from a counselor. One with compassion, and hopefully one who knows some of this stuff and can help guide you to a sense of self-compassion and curiosity. One you can connect with over time. One who can offer you a bit of a roadmap to where you are and where you can go. One who can, most importantly, offer genuineness and compassion in a way that will help you feel those things toward yourself more and more.