Overcoming Toxic Shame
A memory that remains forever seared into my brain involves a nervous walk to my teacher’s office after school; upon knocking and entering, I explained that I was confused by the material we were learning and asked for her help in its comprehension. She offered to re-explain it to me and as I sat there still with nothing registering, she uttered a sentence that stays with me forever: “how can you be so stupid?”
Maybe you have experienced a similar sweeping character assault by a person you respect, admire, or a person of authority; or maybe you actually did something wrong but continue to relive your past as it swallows you up. Or maybe you were victim to an act perpetrated against you without your consent but have come to believe it was actually your fault. Or maybe you were once a child who believed the conflict of your parents was because of you. Or maybe you look around you and find yourself swimming in a feeling of inferiority…a sense that you don’t fit in; you don’t belong. Whatever the trigger, you are likely familiar with the consequential emotion of shame that abruptly follows it. And shame tells us all the same message: “There’s something wrong with you.”
First of all, there is a major difference between guilt and shame. Guilt is that gut-check feeling that something I did was wrong. Shame is an overwhelming, crushing belief that something I am is wrong. Guilt is healthy and good; it helps to keep us in line, make better choices and move in positive directions. Shame is toxic; it leads to feelings of worthlessness, depression, and makes us avoid facing the things or people we need to face. Guilt propels us to improve ourselves. Shame is immobilizing.
We all have the natural desire to fit in with a community; nobody wants to be the outcast. Nobody wants to be rejected. But the crazy thing about shame is that it creates such an intense fear of rejection, a fear that we will be “kicked off the team,” that we then kick ourselves off the team. Whether by isolating ourselves, avoiding certain people, or just by a lack of authenticity or transparency in our relationships. But this run and hide response not only destroys relationships, but it can exacerbate, and even fuel our shame. This is because shame can become a dungeon of our own making. We lock ourselves in it; but in so doing, we shut the world out. And not only that, but we stay chained up within the prison of our own thoughts, assumptions, and imaginations. We then interpret the world through the lens of that shame. If I believe that there is something wrong with me, or that I am worthless, stupid or a failure, any and every negative social encounter is filtered through that belief and is likely to be viewed as supporting or reinforcing of my own negative self-concept. Regardless of other potential factors at work in a situation, shame trumps all; resulting in an “I knew it” response to an experience. However our perceptions rarely capture reality as it is; and if the shame was not there, it is likely we would interpret the very same situation completely different.
Shame and Trauma
Interestingly, research from The National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine (NICABM) has identified similarities and links between shame and trauma. First of all, the same parts of the brain light up in trauma victims as in those with intense shame: fear, terror, paralysis and immobility. Also of note, the body posture of shame is similar to the posture of trauma because the pain of the shame is so incredibly intense (sulking body, head down, inability to make eye contact, etc.). And finally, the response to shame is similar to that of trauma and PTSD: drug and alcohol abuse to numb the pain; intense anger when that shame is aroused or even slightly triggered; sometimes aggressive arguments to escape a discussion or conflict. So ultimately, shame is traumatic; and can be life-controlling with its crazy grip on the brain.
Strategies for Overcoming Shame
Regardless of shame’s power and its brain-based science, it CAN be overcome. Here are a few strategies:
- The first step is in identifying what Psychologists call your “inner critic.”This is basically the voice in your head that tells you what to think about different experiences you have. Your inner critic is governed by your shame and will consistently feed you shame-based messages and interpretations of your daily life. Once you become aware of this inner critic, you can begin to argue with it by finding alternative explanations for situations you encounter.
- Cultivate self-compassion. Begin to choose compassion for yourself in recognizing nobody is perfect; everybody makes mistakes and everyone experiences pain and hurt. You are not alone in your pain and you are not uniquely messed up.
- Grieve your pain. Your hurts and wounds are real and valid to you. Never for a moment believe your pain doesn’t count. The only way to move forward is to plow straight through the emotion and through the grief.
- Forgive yourself. It is easy to build a house in your past. The problem is that when you live in your past, you are no longer in the present, and the future holds no hope. The past cannot be changed. But you can learn from it. You can make amends if you need to. And you can move forward, a newer and better version of yourself.
So ultimately, we all make mistakes. We all fail. But mistakes don’t make you a mistake. Failures don’t make you a failure. The errors that we do make DO NOT define us. It is one part of our journey. It is not our destination. And if you’ve done something wrong, then make it right. Don’t run from it. Don’t hide from it. I promise if you continue to run or hide, you will end up alone. Research has shown that the best antidote for shame is honesty and transparency with those you trust, followed by their empathy and social acceptance. If you are feeling shame for something someone else did to you (abuse, neglect, etc.), I strongly recommend and encourage that you seek support and possibly some professional help. You could be experiencing false guilt and false shame when you feel bad about something that ultimately you had no control over. So please don’t let shame enslave you anymore. Don’t stay trapped in its dungeon of false assumptions and beliefs. Don’t run and hide from the world. Freedom comes in authenticity. Freedom comes in no longer allowing your past to dictate your future. Embrace guilt; but reject shame. Don’t let it steal another moment of your life.
**GOING DEEPER: A Spiritual Perspective**
For the Christian, shame is frequently a byproduct of sin. We know that what we have done is wrong, and we can so easily become trampled under the weight of shame and self-loathing as a result. But the truth is that Jesus came to set the captives free…not only from sin, but also from shame. We must beware of the false belief that Jesus and other Christians would reject us in bitter disgust if they knew the truth about what we have done. Believe it or not, shame actually comes from Satan, God’s archenemy. Satan lures us into sin with false promises of good feelings, happiness and fulfillment; but then almost immediately after we fall for it, he turns around and accuses/shames us. Revelation 12:10 calls Satan “the accuser” because HE is the one whispering lies into our heads that God has rejected us, that we are truly worthless and broken. And he does that because 1) he knows how immobilizing shame is and he wants to hold you back from all that God has for you, and 2) he wants to keep you either completely away from God and other Christians, or away from authentic relationships with God and other Christians (because they would tell you the truth about your worth and about REAL freedom). Now certainly there are “Christians” who judge and condemn. But understand that Matthew 7:15 points out that there are also “wolves in sheep’s clothing” within the walls of every church. They work for the devil but are disguised as Christians in order to cause division and turn people away from God. The mark of a true believer is how closely they follow the teachings of Jesus AND the true presence of undefinable peace, joy, and profound love in their lives.
In John 8, the famous story of the woman caught in adultery, we see the true heart and character of Jesus. She was brought before Jesus because the Jewish law required death by stoning for her sin. However Jesus, the only one present “without sin” who actually had the authority to condemn her and “throw the first stone” DID NOT. But. There is still a very relevant moment that followed: Jesus said “go and leave your life of sin.” So here’s the difference: if your thoughts are condemning (shame), they are from Satan. If your thoughts are convicting (guilt), they are from God. Jesus doesn’t condemn; but he does require and lovingly plead for repentance and change in the heart of the true believer.
Ultimately, change is necessary because it’s the only real path to freedom, peace, joy, and light. Sin has a way of enslaving us in dark, depressing and isolating bondage. Once we fall into it, the lying whispers of the devil cause us to believe either we absolutely need it to survive (like the slavery of addiction), or that we will be condemned if we seek help or seek God within the walls of a church. Thus, entrapment. Now if you have already repented and made a true life change but still wrestle crushing feelings of shame, please know that your enemy the devil is keeping you there because he fears the passion, purpose and power within you if you were to be released and set free from your shame. Give that shame to God! You are not who you were. If you are currently in bondage to sin, please know that you are loved. God loved you so much that He gave his only son to die in your place, while you were still a sinner (Romans 5:8). He died so you could be set free. So you could taste the fullness of a liberated life and spend eternity existing in the presence of original love…because God IS Love (1 John 4:8). No matter what you have done. No matter how long ago or how recent. If you are alive and reading this, it is not too late to get right with God. It is not too late to make things right in your life…in your decisions, in your relationships, in your destiny. His arms are wide open. Don’t wait another second. Leave your life of sin. Taste the fullness of freedom. Experience the deep well of authentic love. And kiss shame goodbye.
-O Come to the Alter by Elevation Worship (Listen here)
“So now there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus. And because you belong to him, the power of the life-giving Spirit has freed you from the power of sin that leads to death.”
Romans 8:1-2 NLT