Releasing Toxic Shame

December 21, 2009

“To feel shame is to feel seen in an exposed and diminished way. …you turn your eyes inward, watching and scrutinizing every minute detail of behavior. This internal critical observation is excruciating.”                                                                                                                                     John Bradshaw

There is perhaps no human emotion more paralyzing than shame, greater even than fear itself. Unfortunately, many of the people who walk into my office are consumed with an overwhelming sense of personal shame. The reasons are as varied as the people themselves.
• I have not succeeded in school because I am too lazy.
• I was victimized as a child and I believe I should have done something to stop it from happening.
• I gamble because it’s the only way I can imagine finding financial freedom, but when I lose, it only makes things worse.
• I don’t speak to my wife the way I should.
• I don’t trust other people.

For one such shame-filled client, I put a sign up in my office which reads:
Attention: You have just entered a shame-free zone
The wording of this sign is purposeful since I believe that therapeutic progress cannot be made if one is mired in that sense of shame. The coat of shame needs to be taken off and left at the door before the real work can be done.
It is important to define the type of shame I am referring to. When we mess up, whether it’s joking with someone in an insensitive manner, or something more egregious, embarrassment assists us in the process of recognizing our mistakes, taking responsibility for them and then making amends for our transgressions. Shame, on the other hand, is a toxic belief that we are unworthy, loveless or unredeemable. “Toxic shame feels much worse than guilt. With guilt, you’ve done something wrong; but you can repair that – you can do something about it. With toxic shame there’s something wrong with you and there’s nothing you can do about it; you are inadequate and defective.”                                                                                                                                                                                                               (Leo Booth/John Bradshaw)

Toxic shame seems to condemn us to an existence of self-loathing, endless emotional pain or existing in a state of numbness to the world around us. Shame anesthetizes us to the possibilities of growth and relationship with others. Shame binds us and holds us captive, no different than a prison cell. It is the toxic shame that we need to recognize as destructive and unhelpful if we ever hope to find peace and connection.
There is always a reason why we do the things we do. The fact that we blame ourselves or see ourselves as defective is a construct that most often other people gave us. Take my examples above.
• I have not succeeded in school because I am too lazy.
o If, like many of my clients you have ADHD, you weren’t organically designed to be immediately successful in a classroom. If teachers and parents keep telling you that you just need to work a little harder, what option did you have other than to blame yourself and feel shame?
• I was victimized as a child and I believe I should have done something to stop it from happening.
o This is common reaction of children who have been abused. Adults have the power. It is their responsibility to keep a child safe; not the child’s, and yet most victims take on the burden of trying to figure out how they could have prevented the abuse.
• I gamble because it’s the only way I can imagine finding financial freedom, but when I lose, it only makes things worse.
o When we find ourselves in this type of financial bind, it is easy to understand how desperation drives us toward unlikely hopes about how we can be delivered from our anxiety and fear. Most people don’t confront overwhelming challenges with rational thoughts. And while it is normal to wish financial woes away by gambling, it virtually never works. These are times to ask others for help and ideas about how to move forward to resolve the dilemmas.
• I don’t speak to my wife the way I should.
o While there are many reasons why this may be true, there is usually some environmental factor which fuels this difficulty. If we lacked role models, for example, on how to speak with a spouse, or we struggle with a low self-appraisal, intimate communication with others is never easy.
• I don’t trust other people.
o Trust is something we learn from our parents and other important people in our early years. If adults proved to be untrustworthy, why would we trust anyone? In my experience, most individuals with this type of history have a “wish/fear” related to intimate connections with others. They both long for intimacy and, given the dominant, fearful expectations held tightly within, they reject it. The promise of intimacy and unconditional love is experienced as nothing more than a shallow or empty gesture. The recipient of such an offering, in order to keep themselves safe from the harm of disappointment, believes that they must reject the overture and assume it is not real. They remain “safe” but alone, isolated and shame-filled that they cannot obtain that which they crave.

All of these situations involve people who are simply doing what they were programmed to do, or are responding to painful situations the way most of us would. Why then, is it appropriate to feel guilt and shame for doing what makes sense? I don’t like it when I see people misunderstand their capabilities, or blame themselves for being victimized, or utilizing flawed strategies to make things better, or keeping a distance between themselves and others, but I understand it. I don’t judge it, rather, I attempt to help those “afflicted” with shame understand where it came from and how to put it down! If there is “fault” to be assessed, usually the fault sits with someone or something else. And when people are caught up in shame and guilt, they almost always fall back on the very behaviors and attitudes that keep them in distress or alone.

Once freed from the shame, individuals can then utilize all of their cognitive energies to managing their lives more effectively. No one deserves to sit with crippling and paralyzing shame. Shame doesn’t move people forward, it merely keeps them held back from experiencing life in its fullest form. While we all need to learn from our mistakes, we all too deserve to live an existence free of toxic shame.

Walter Sherburne, LICSW
68 Park Street
Andover, MA 01810


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