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Are you ashamed of feeling ashamed?
Shame is a feeling and it’s neither positive nor negative.
Shame is just an emotion that helps us keep in tune with social norms.
There is nothing wrong with feeling shame.
Take this as an example. Let’s say your friends are coming over to your house over the weekend. To avoid being perceived as a lazy and unkempt person, you spend the whole week cleaning your house. You don’t want your friend to have a bad impression of you.
Is shame good or bad in this case?
Cleaning your house is a good thing. It shows that you respect your guests and living in a clean environment is good for your health too.
However, shame can become toxic when we are too obsessed with it and we do all we can to prevent our vulnerabilities from being uncovered.
What Is Toxic Shame?
The term “toxic shame” originates from a psychologist and personality theorist, Sylvan Tomkins. Unlike normal shame, toxic shame is when a person internalized shame and makes it part of their belief system and identity.
Shame becomes toxic when we let it run our lives.
Using the same example of the house visit, some people become so extreme once they know their friends are coming over. They suddenly become a perfectionist. Everything has to be in a specific order for that one week. Their anxiety might skyrocket and cause them to lash out at their children for not putting back their things properly or their spouse for not helping them out.
Usually, they aren’t like these. But when they are at risk of losing or hurting their self-image, they will do everything they can to hide their defects from others and protect their image. This is what I mean by toxic shame.
Toxic shame doesn’t just lead to low self-esteem, self-loathing, depression, and suicide. For most of us, it shapes our thinking, controls our behaviors, affects our relationships with others, and results in codependency. What’s underlying is a constant need to impress people.
Regardless if you appear successful or not, shame can affect everyone and it is mostly developed in our childhood. But before we learn how to overcome our toxic shame and what causes it, let’s understand the difference between shame, guilt, embarrassment, and humiliation. Most of us used these terms interchangeably, but they are rather different.
The Difference Between Shame, Guilt, Embarrassment, and Humiliation
Shame vs. Guilt
In her book, I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), shame researcher Dr. Brené Brown, defines shame as follows:
“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging.”
So how is this different from guilt?
When we feel ashamed, we feel bad about being us or our weaknesses. People with low self-esteem are more likely to experience shame because they are already convinced that they are flawed. It just takes a small trigger or an event to remind them that they aren’t good enough and they will feel shame.
On the flip side, when we feel guilty, we feel bad about what we did or did not do. It has nothing to do with who we are as a person. It’s about our behaviors not meeting social or moral expectations.
“Shame is about who we are and guilt is about our behaviors.” Brené Brown
The same situation can evoke different emotions in people. Here’s a simple example to illustrate. Let say’s you are held up at work and you are super late for a gathering. If you feel guilty, you feel bad about not being on time and making your friends wait for you. You might regret not planning your work in advance and finish it on time. But these guilty feelings you have are for your action and inaction.
However, if you feel ashamed, you blame yourself for being a bad friend and worry about how your friends will perceive you for being late. You don’t want to be judged for being someone who can’t handle both your work and relationships. When you apologize, you are apologizing not because you are late, but your innate defects as a person.
Shame is more difficult to bear because it reaffirms that we are unworthy. It defines us. For misbehavior, we can always correct our actions or make amendments. But when it comes to our identity, most of us have fixed beliefs about who we are. We find it hard to change ourselves because we are so used to judging ourselves in a certain way. Changing requires us to let go of our deep-rooted, perceived sense of self.
Shame vs. Embarrassment
Another feeling that people often confused with shame is an embarrassment. Similar to guilt, embarrassment is also a result of our behaviors. However, those behaviors are often unintended. For example, when your zip is undone or when you slip and fall down. Unlike guilt too, it has little or zero impact on other people and evokes laughter or disgust. For example, when you farted in the lift or when you are caught picking your nose.
Are you the only one?
Embarrassment is not as intense a feeling of shame because you know you are not the only one. Others might do the same too. Furthermore, it doesn’t define you as a person. The discomfort you experience with embarrassment will subside as time passes when you forget about the incident.
But the feeling of shame lingers because you hide your vulnerabilities from others. You feel isolated and alone, thinking you are the only one who is flawed in this way.
Shame vs. Humiliation
Humiliation is somewhat similar to shame because our identity is being attacked. However, these two feelings are different from each other. Someone who feels humiliated doesn’t think he deserves it. He thinks that he is wrongly accused. On the other hand, someone who feels ashamed believes he truly is flawed and deserves criticism.
Do you believe it or not?
Here’s an example. If someone were to tell you that you are incompetent in something, you will feel humiliated because the person tries to shame you publicly. However, you will not feel ashamed of yourself if you think the insult is not credible. It still hurts your pride though since others might perceive you differently now. But your self-perception doesn’t change. Instead, you might feel insulted and angry with the person for being over-critical or a need to defend yourself.
Shame makes you feel like running away and hiding rather than defending yourself. Unlike humiliation, shame doesn’t have to be felt in the public too. You might feel shame even when no one is criticizing you.
Read my book, The Disbelief Habit, to learn more about how to deal with your inner critic and your shame-based beliefs.
What Causes Toxic Shame?
Direct Shaming from Others in Childhood
When we were young, we derived our sense of self from the people around us. If your parents or caretakers have been shaming you since young, it’s likely you will feel ashamed of yourself growing up too.
Some parents judge their children instead of their behaviors.
Shaming statements such as “shame on you”, “you are so naughty“, “you are a bad boy/girl”, or “how could you be so lazy?” doesn’t help to change the children’s behaviors. They focus on the person and not on their behaviors.
Yet, parents who are shame-bound use them all the time because they don’t want to see these traits in themselves. They see their children as an extension of themselves. If their children are flawed, so are them. Therefore, their children are not allowed to be like this because it evokes shame in them.
Indirect Interpretations from Childhood Events
Apart from name-calling or labels that our parents have given us, shame can also be caused indirectly by our interpretations of childhood events. If we have suffered from abuse or neglect, we might blame ourselves for it. For example, we might blame ourselves for not being strong enough to save or protect ourselves from the sexual, physical or emotional abuse or we might see ourselves as the cause of the abuse or neglect.
When we are not able to fully express our anger at the abuser or understand the cause of these events, we shame ourselves instead. Someone has to be blamed for what happened. It’s convenient to blame ourselves because as children, we are at the stage of figuring ourselves out and defining ourselves.
We easily associate any events with our self-worth.
Even when our parents compare us with our siblings, this might make us feel inadequate or feel that we are unable to measure up to our parents’ expectations. Some children might also model and internalize the feeling of shame in their parents who feel unloved, depressed, or unworthy.
How to Deal with Toxic Shame
1. Know how you react to shame.
Shame doesn’t just make you feel small inside. It controls your behaviors subconsciously.
Are you avoiding certain activities? Sometimes, people avoid certain activities not because they have no interest in them. It’s because they are afraid of revealing their flaws to others. For example, some people might love singing and dancing, but they are afraid to perform in front of others because their parents told them that they are bad singers when they are young. So they don’t want to show others how bad they sing.
Are your behaviors and habits a result of avoiding shame? To prevent yourself from feeling shame, you might have constantly blamed someone else for your mistakes and misfortune or people-pleased. You might also be addicted to food or alcohol, using them to stop or distract these feelings of shame.
Uncover your automatic behaviors.
Having awareness of your habitual reactions give you insights on how your toxic shame is controlling your life. With this information, you can change your habits and stop yourself from doing these things unconsciously.
2. Feel your shame, don’t avoid it.
Like any other emotion, it’s important to feel your shame. Numbing, avoiding, and suppressing it doesn’t do the job. When you set to avoid shame in your life, you end up designing your life around shame and let shame controls your life.
Don’t design your life around shame.
Even if what you have designed appears to be positive, what are you going to do when the protection you built against shame is destroyed? For example, your endless pursuit of external achievement and success to avoid feeling shame, what if one day you fail miserably like me? How are you going to face the full impact of the shame you have been avoiding for all these years?
Furthermore, it takes energy to push the feelings down and protect yourself from the feelings. If shame is something that you don’t want in our life, why do you focus and waste our energy on it? Not feeling the shame will just let it fester into something bigger and menacing in the future. It might no longer be a feeling but a part of your identity.
3. Resolve the problem you have as a child.
To overcome and cure our shame, a lot of times we need to revisit our childhood because that’s where our shame origins. You might have experienced something unhappy or traumatic in your home or your school that you don’t wish to remember. However, your shame can only be healed when you resolve and work through some of these issues from the past.
Resolve doesn’t mean you have to fix the problem you have in the past. You can’t change the past, but you can provide closure. You can go back to the past, heal the pain, and close the chapter. Now that you have grown up, you have the wisdom and strength to help the old you (i.e. your inner child). What would you tell him or her to do differently?
Be compassionate to your inner child.
Maybe our inner child had misinterpreted the situations in the past, we can help them understand the context better and let go of their beliefs. Perhaps our inner child still feels ashamed of themselves and unable to forgive themselves, we can be there to comfort the child and let them know that it wasn’t their fault. We can also help our old selves forgive our parents and heal their wounds by helping them understand that our parents’ actions are sometimes unintentional. Their behaviors might be controlled by shame too without their awareness.
Read my book, Parent Yourself Again, to learn more about your inner child.
4. Share your feelings with someone who supports you.
Shame is about secrecy. It’s about hiding and not letting people know about your defects. But the more you hide it, the stronger your shame gets.
To remove shame in your life, you need to have the courage to share. Having the courage to share doesn’t mean you have to announce everything about yourself publicly. Find someone who doesn’t judge you and is empathetic. It could be a friend, a sibling or a therapist. Ask them for help and share your feelings. You might be surprised that some of them actually feel the same way as you do.
When we reveal our flaws to others, our ego dies a little.
Our egos want to protect and maintain a positive image in front of others. But maintaining this perfect, false front makes us feel alone with our weaknesses. Talking to someone about our flaws destroys this image our egos have built for us and helps us connect with others. The emotional pain can’t survive the light and empathy; it can only live in darkness and secrecy.
5. Stop judging yourself or others.
Unlike guilt, you don’t even need to do anything wrong to feel ashamed of yourself. I used to feel ashamed of being quiet. That was before I know I am an introvert. People would ask me questions and I would blank out and don’t know what to say. I would blame myself for not being interesting and involved enough.
There is nothing with our imperfections except for our own self-judgment. Our imperfections are only imperfections when we judge ourselves so.
Allow yourself and others to be different and imperfect.
One way to get over and release shame from our lives is to not judge yourself for anything. No matter how different you are (a different body, sexual preference, personality, career, habits, and etc), allow yourself to be different. One reason why we feel shame so frequently is that we keep comparing ourselves with the social standards of what the perfect image should be. We thought we need to be what society wants us to be.
But we don’t have to, we can be different and feel good about it.
To really lose shame, not only do you have to stop judging yourself, you have to stop judging others too. You can’t conclude that the people who are different from you are bad. It’s just the other side of the same coin. Judging others is as good as judging yourself because you have to follow the same criteria you impose on others.
Most importantly, judging others will only perpetuate shame like what some of us had experienced in childhood. So please don’t pass it on. Please don’t shame others for being different than you or pressurize others to be like you. Let them be themselves.
Featured Photo Credit: No more tears / Joe Diaz