3 Steps to Letting Go of Toxic Shame
Shame can feel like the cruelest of emotions, like Cinderella’s stepmother and stepsisters combined. And sometimes it’s even worse, making us see ourselves not the way we see Cinderella, but the way her step-family did - as ugly and worthless.
Shame isn’t supposed to work that way, as I explain in this article about understanding the difference between healthy and toxic shame. But the reality is, when our shame gets activated beyond what is healthy for us, it can cause us to feel like the worst person in the world.
Whether our shame is telling us that we should be more successful, more attractive, more intelligent, or more compassionate, it all comes from trying to meet a standard that’s either impossible, or simply isn’t right for us. The bar we’re subconsciously setting for ourselves is simply far too high.
If you think of our emotions as programs, the shame program’s job is to hold us to our internal standards for how we want to act and who we want to be. And it always does its job, no matter what - which means that if our internal standards aren’t healthy for us, our shame won’t be healthy for us either.
Shame’s job is to make us feel bad about ourselves in order to motivate us to do better.
There are many legitimate reasons to not feel good about ourselves (like when we hurt someone’s feelings or don’t follow through with a commitment), and people who never feel bad about themselves end up with a dangerously inflated sense of self. (After all, isn’t that what makes people narcissistic?)
But if the idea of “better” that our shame is pushing us towards isn’t healthy - or even possible - then our shame will be making us feel bad about ourselves for no good reason at all.
So the key to getting our shame to become a healthy emotion, where it is working for us without damaging us, is to change our internal ideas about the kind of person we need to be.
Throughout our lives, we internalize many beliefs and ideas about who we need to be and how we need to act in the world, in order to become a good person (and to be lovable and worthy). Some of those ideas make sense, like being honest and trustworthy, to act with kindness and integrity, and so on. When shame holds us to those kinds of standards, it’s working properly.
But we also receive many messages from our culture, our family, and even our spirituality, that simply aren’t helpful. They may be straight up toxic, like “you have to be thin in order to be beautiful,” but they might simply be unrealistic, like the common belief that we need to forgive instead of feeling anger.
That one’s a toughy because it sounds wonderful on the surface. But because forgiveness isn’t a simple choice - and we feel anger for a reason - this idea sets us up for a constant struggle with our anger, and to feel shame when our anger wins.
To make sure that your shame is working well for you, and to transform the toxic shame that isn’t, follow these 3 steps:
#1) Identify the beliefs and ideas behind your feelings of shame.
This goes back to the idea of emotional mindfulness, and the ability to pause, go inward, and listen to what our emotions are saying. One way to work with shame in this way is to notice whenever it pops up throughout the day, and take a “time-out” from life to sense into what your shame is communicating.
Once you notice that you’re feeling shame, try to have a conversation with it rather than analyzing it from your head. It can help to relate to your shame feeling as a separate part of you, residing in your body. Connect to it and ask it to let you know what it’s really wanting you to do (or how it’s wanting you to be). What is it not happy with? What does it want to be different?
Let’s take an example of feeling shame come up while you’re at work. You notice it and check in with it, and it says you’re not working hard enough. At first you think it’s telling you that you’re lazy because you chose not to do a task your co-worker asked you to do, but as you sense into it more deeply, you realize that it’s wanting you to follow your co-worker’s example and stay late after work every day. Because your shame says that if you don’t, you’re a lazy worker!
It's especially important to notice the feelings of shame that seem mysterious, that pop up without any obvious cause. Our emotions often drive our actions and decisions in very subtle ways, so by doing this you’ll be bringing these emotional influences to light, giving you more conscious control over your life.
Whenever you discover a shame message (the idea or belief behind your shame) make sure to make a note of it. You can write it down in a journal that you keep with you, or simply put it in a note on your phone. This is important because while awareness is always the beginning, more work is needed to transform them!
#2) Identify which shame messages you want to keep, and which have got to go.
Once you’re aware of the messages driving your shame, then you suddenly have a choice that wasn’t there before. You can choose to keep them, if you feel they’re holding you to an honorable and healthy standard, or to discard them if they’re causing your shame to go overboard.
To identify which category a belief or idea should fall into, you can use the felt sense of your inner truth to discern which of them are reasonable and help you to be the kind of person you truly want to be. You can also feel into the impact they would have on your self-esteem and confidence.
Would they cause your shame to constantly beat you up, or would you only feel shame about failing once in a while? In other words, does this belief or idea create a healthy goal for you to try to live up to?
To illustrate this, let’s continue the example above. You’ve identified that your shame is wanting you to stay late after work, in order to be a diligent worker and not be lazy. Does this feel like a healthy thing for you to do consistently in your life? Does it feel fair (would you be paid overtime)? And even more fundamentally, does this belief that “not working overtime means that you’re lazy” feel true to you?
If not, then you’ve identified a toxic shame message that needs to be cleared out of your psyche. Anytime you do this, it’s good to clarify what the alternative belief is that you’d like to replace it with. Beliefs are the psychological equivalent of code that runs our operating system, so simply trying to delete them never works as well as replacing them with a different belief.
Sometimes toxic beliefs are obvious, but sometimes a belief might feel partially true, but need tweaking for it to be healthy. Let’s use the example of the idea that “a kind person is willing to help out a friend.”
This may be true in general, but if your shame is saying that you always have to be willing to help out, regardless of your own situation (and even if your friend is asking for too much), it would fall into the toxic camp because that’s not a healthy standard to uphold. But perhaps this belief would be healthy if it was just a bit more reasonable? If so, ask yourself what the reasonable alternative would be?
#3) Delete the toxic shame message, and replace that belief with a healthier one.
This step is simple, but also tricky. There exists many ways of clearing false beliefs, but not all of these work.
Now, if all that’s needed is to dismantle the toxic belief, many of them will work just fine. This can be as simple as listening the belief, letting it fully explain itself, and getting the full picture of it until you find the flaw in the logic (the place where it clearly isn't true). Once you’ve identified that flaw, then all you do is affirm the truth to yourself (really feeling it) until the belief simply vanishes, and you sense it’s no longer within you.
But if the shame message is rooted in a wound from our past, it will often take more than that simple process to clear it. This is where emotional healing comes in.
The kind of emotional healing that I do allows us to track whatever we’re working with back to where it’s rooted in the past, so that it can be healed there. We do that by giving ourselves whatever we needed (and didn’t receive) in that moment in time, so that our past no longer impacts our present.
One way to tell whether an emotional healing is necessary is if the simple method (above) just doesn’t seem to work - if you still feel the belief as true inside of you, despite your best efforts. This is where it’s important to be honest with ourselves, when we feel into whether it is cleared effectively or not.
Another way to tell if an emotional healing is needed is if working with the belief makes us feel like a child again. If we feel like a 6 year old, then something about that time of our life is probably involved!
If toxic shame is seriously beating you down, I encourage you to put these steps into practice. And if you do and you find yourself stuck in any step of the process - or simply needing more support - I offer complementary Emotional Breakthrough sessions, with the intention of giving you clarity about what you need to move forward and start seeing change in your life.
May your shame become the honorable ally it was truly meant to be!