Feeling Bad About Yourself? Understanding Toxic Shame
Does shame feel like a bully, constantly beating you up for no good reason?
Does it cause you to feel bad about yourself and make you feel like a failure? Does it disable your ability to stand up for yourself so that other people end up walking all over you?
For many of us, this is exactly how shame operates. But I would argue that this isn’t how shame should be, but rather shame gone bad.
Toxic shame crushes us and destroys our self-confidence, makes us feel small, not good enough, not worthy of love, success or anything. It can also cause us to take responsibility for what really isn't ours, to always feel that it's our fault if others are upset.
If we always find ourselves apologizing for things that we shouldn't be apologizing for, that means that our shame is effectively causing us to disable and disrespect our boundaries (which means that others will end up doing that too). Taking on this extra load, this extra burden, means that we end up walking around with the weight of the world on our shoulders.
That's not a sustainable situation, and it's not fair.
We should only ever have to take responsibility for what is truly our responsibility, and we all need healthy boundaries that are respected by others. The funny thing is, when shame is healthy it’s the precise emotion that lets us know when something truly is our responsibility, and it’s what motivates us to accept that responsibility.
Shame is almost universally considered to be an unhealthy thing to feel, but the problem with that belief is that no emotion is inherently unhealthy. Otherwise why would we have evolved to feel it in the first place?
It’s imperative that we make a distinction between toxic shame and healthy shame, because a lack of shame is just as toxic as too much shame. After all, shamelessness is a key characteristic of narcissism, and we don’t want to become that!
The alternative to toxic shame is not demonizing shame entirely and trying to never feel it again (which for most of us, wouldn’t work anyway), but transforming our shame back into the healthy and balanced emotion it was always meant to be.
But before we can do that, we have to understand why shame becomes toxic in the first place.
Usually we acquire toxic shame from messages that we internalize throughout our lives.
Even seemingly innocuous things that people say about us can have a lasting impact, like “you talk too much,” “you throw like a girl,” or “you look like a dork.” But when they are repeated, or when we’re repeatedly criticized (such as for not being considerate enough, or not being a good enough student), we can end up with lifelong complexes.
Religion can be really bad about this, making us feel like we're sinful or bad for any number of things - or even simply that we have a sinful nature, as if there's something inherently wrong with us. And these shaming messages come from our wider society too. Old school marketing is all about making us feel bad about ourselves as we are - making us believe that we lack something - so that we’ll buy things.
All of these sources conspire to make us feel shame about ourselves, in one way or another. And most often this occurs completely outside of our conscious awareness. Even when our conscious mind knows that these feelings are completely irrational, that does nothing to stop the feelings and thoughts that arise out of our subconscious as a result of those internalized messages.
This is why simply affirming something else usually isn't enough to reprogram toxic shame. Positive affirmations can be helpful to bolster us up and give us temporary relief (sometimes!), but that rarely lasts because the conscious mind has nowhere near the power of our subconscious. And as long as those messages remain firmly embedded in our operating system, they will continue to influence the way we think and feel about ourselves.
In the model of emotions that I'm licensed in, Dynamic Emotional Integration®, we call this inauthentic shame. Any shame that results from ideas we’ve taken on from other people - ideas that aren’t right and true for us - is inauthentic. In contrast, authentic shame holds us to internal standards of behavior that are healthy for us, and helps us to become the kind of person that we truly want to be (vs. what we feel others want us to be).
Authentic shame is what motivates us to be a good person.
It’s the emotion that drives us to be kind, to be responsible, to be considerate, to be a hard worker, and so on. In contrast, inauthentic shame motivates us to become anorexic, to over-work ourselves, to throw ourselves under the bus.
This happens because whether our shame is authentic or not, it will hold us to whatever ideas we have about ourselves - whether reasonable and positive, or damaging and completely unattainable. Shame does this by making us feel bad about ourselves whenever we don't live up to that internal standard.
Depending on the standard, this can be a good thing or a bad thing! If we never felt bad about ourselves when we’re truly at fault, we would never be motivated to recognize our guilt, say “I’m sorry,” or choose to make amends.
So healthy shame is all about getting us to be a good person in the world, to have a positive impact on the world, and to treat others with kindness and respect. It is the foundational emotion that makes our society work.
All those words that allow us to be in right relationship with other people, like “please,” “thank you,” and “I'm sorry” would not exist if we didn’t feel any shame at all. Which really shows what it means to be shameless: not being willing or able to take responsibility for anything, being completely self-centered and unreliable, and never apologizing for anything.
You may know someone in your life who is like this, who has a really hard time admitting that they’ve done something wrong, and who doesn’t seem to care (or even notice) when they’ve negatively impacted other people.
If someone isn't able to access their shame (because they’ve learned to avoid it or repress it), you probably can't rely on them, because they may or may not do what they say they're going to do. And whenever you try to hold them accountable, they refuse to own up to it.
It's as if the standard they're holding themselves to is so low - or doesn’t even exist - so they literally feel that they can do no wrong.
Shamelessness causes an over-inflated ego, and thinking so highly of yourself that you can never do any wrong. Healthy shame is what keeps the ego in check, and that's a good thing because if our ego gets too big for its britches we become insufferable and really hard to be around.
Shameless people can be toxic in relationships (even if they have wonderful intentions!), and they can even become dangerous. If a person feels entitled to take whatever they want, to do whatever they want, that’s a clear sign of a lack of healthy shame.
Sure, many people boost their ego really far out because they truly feel horrible about themselves inside. But rather than let themselves feel that shame, they protect themselves from it by going in the opposite direction, and cutting themselves off from their shame altogether. This is how someone with a fragile ego ends up coming across as arrogant and egoic.
But what happens when the standards we’ve set for ourselves (and that we’ve adopted from others) are too high, or simply unattainable?
Our shame will become too overbearing, constantly beating us over the head to achieve something that’s impossible no matter how hard we try. It will never let up (causing us to feel shame all the time, which isn’t fair or healthy for anyone), because the goal is never reached.
If the standard is reachable, but simply isn’t healthy, our shame will end up causing us to sacrifice too much of ourselves, to essentially damage ourselves in the pursuit of that goal. Even if we’re successful (and our shame goes away), the end result won’t be pretty.
One of the most damaging shame messages that we’re taught to internalize is the idea that we should always put others’ needs ahead of our own.
This idea sounds lovely on the surface, but when our shame is holding us to it, we will constantly feel an internal pressure to yield our boundaries to the demands of others - to help people out regardless of our own wants and needs, and to always put ourselves last. Women in particular are enculturated to do this, which is why so many women have difficulty maintaining healthy boundaries and balanced relationships.
Not only does shame make us feel bad about ourselves for setting boundaries or saying no, over time we can stop respecting ourselves and end up feeling ashamed about being a walking doormat. It’s truly a no-win situation - for us, at least. (And it bears thinking about who does benefit from this situation. Hmm…)
But luckily, we have the power to release ourselves from the burden of toxic shame. It isn’t as easy as many coaches and healers would like us to believe, but it isn’t as hard as endless therapy sessions might cause us to believe either.
This may seem surprising, but your shame doesn’t actually want to work so hard all the time. It will be just as happy as you to finally get a break. And you both deserve it!