How to Heal Shame
Toxic Shame: In most cases, shame becomes internalized or toxic from chronic or intense experiences of shame in childhood. Parents can unintentionally transfer their shame to their children through verbal messages or nonverbal behavior. For an example, a child might feel unloved in reaction to a parent’s depression, indifference, absence, or irritability or feel inadequate due to a parent’s competitiveness or over-correcting behavior. Children need to feel uniquely loved by both parents. When that connection is breached, such as when a child is scolded harshly, children feel alone and ashamed, unless the parent-child bond of love is soon repaired. However, even if shame has been internalized, it can be surmounted by later positive experiences.
If not healed, toxic shame can lead to aggression, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, and addiction. It generates low self-esteem, anxiety, irrational guilt, perfectionism, and codependency, and it limits our ability to enjoy satisfying relationships and professional success.
Life With Shame
Living with toxic shame can make every day a constant struggle. In many instances, the shame creates anxiety around day-to-day activities and depression can occur frequently, resulting in a state of seeming paralysis or stagnation. Someone suffering from toxic shame may feel like a failure and as a result, they experience anxiety about moving forward (because they are afraid of failing). This often hinders them from taking the steps they need to in order to succeed, and when they become afraid and don’t take them, they then feel like a failure, once again triggering their underlying shame, triggering a shame cycle that spirals into depression. These cycles often lead to addictive behavior.
Aggressive emotional outbursts may also result when the underlying shame is triggered. The person feels emotional pain which leads to an eruption of anger, after which they often feel a sense of guilt and another shame cycle begins.
Shame is pervasive and can affect multiple facets of a person’s life including their thoughts about themselves in relation to their career, their appearance, their relationships, their friendships – it seeps into every aspect of their lives.
Shame and Relationships
When someone feels inherently unworthy of everything life has to offer, the only way they can find worth is by seeking it through approval from another – often a romantic partner. This is where codependency becomes an issue. These people are often placed on a pedestal because the person suffering from shame has such ingrained feelings of worthlessness that they can’t believe someone would love them. In many cases, this results in self-sabotaging behavior and the relationship falls apart.
Codependency: a pattern of behavior in which you find yourself dependent on approval from someone else for your self-worth and identity.
“Codependent relationships signify a degree of unhealthy clinginess, where one person doesn’t have self-sufficiency or autonomy,” says Scott Wetzler, PhD, psychology division chief at Albert Einstein College of Medicine. “One or both parties depend on their loved ones for fulfillment.” –Are you in a codependent relationship?
In codependent relationships, one partner will often sacrifice his or her own emotional needs for the sake of the other, because they rely on the other’s approval to feel good about themselves. It’s important to encourage your loved one’s emotional independence and identity. Support them in their efforts to heal themselves and give them a healthy amount of space, allowing them to cultivate their own identity.
When Someone You Love Suffers from Toxic Shame
Even the tiniest, unintentional comments can trigger underlying negative emotions and feelings of inadequacy in someone suffering from toxic shame, so you can imagine how detrimental it can be for their self-esteem to be in a relationship with someone or interact frequently with friends or family members who don’t understand their emotional instability, particularly if those people haven’t dealt with their own emotional triggers and projection issues.
I’ve written previously about holding the space for healing others and how important it is for an individual to have a great awareness of themselves before they can attempt to create a healing environment for someone else. When it comes to toxic shame, this is even more important.
It is very difficult for someone to hold space for another who hasn’t already gone through the healing process themselves. It also requires a lot of unconditional love to be given from the person holding the space to the person within it. It’s that unconditional love which helps the healing process. If you haven’t already gone through the healing process yourself, then most likely your own shit is going to get in your way and you won’t be as effectively able to hold that space for the other person, especially if the emotions and situations they are attempting to work through are somewhat similar to your own.
This person, above all else, requires love and acceptance and a feeling of safety to be who they really are without fear of judgement. Sometimes who they are is reactive and hurtful, but underneath it all, that’s their way of crying out from emotional pain.
Loving them doesn’t mean you have to allow them to run over you, but what it does mean is that you have to be aware enough of yourself to not also be reactive.
Creating The Space
Positive feedback is of the utmost importance. Focus on building self-esteem. You want your loved one to feel loved and accepted, unconditionally. After all, it’s the idea that who they are at their core isn’t good enough that’s creating their issues in the first place. Reinforce to them that they are a good person and that they are worthy of love – not just with your words, but with your actions. Learn to cultivate vulnerability both within yourself and within them, and allow them to slowly come to accept and love themselves. You may just find that you learn quite a bit about yourself in the process.
Part 1 | Part 2