Toxic Shame and the Damage it Fuels
What is Toxic Shame?
I want to talk to you all about something that I know clings to all of us on a daily basis. Shame. Toxic shame and the damage it fuels in our lives is something that most would consider a silent epidemic. Toxic shame is shame that has no basis or foundation in reality, yet it taints and defines the person dealing with it completely. Very often this kind of shame develops in our early formative years, aka childhood, leading to a life of internalized insecurity and lack of self-worth.
Warning, this is an uncomfortable subject, and rightly so. Every single person deals with something they are ashamed of. I’ll repeat that for the crowd in the back, EVERY SINGLE PERSON deals with something they are ashamed of! If you ever look at someone with envy (we’ve all done it) and think they have it easier than you, remember we all deal with it. It’s emotion that fuels all of our insecurities, our self-doubt, self-worth, and most importantly fear. It clings to the vision of our selves, both physical and mental, and warps what we see and how we feel about who we are.
Why fear and rejection are so painful.
We live in fear of judgment everywhere we go. It’s in every action we take. Toxic shame fuels damage inside of us in so many ways. It’s what pushes us to hate our bodies, constantly comparing ourselves to others and always coming up wanting. Fearing rejection is a HUGE byproduct of letting shame have its way with us. We stop taking risks, afraid of judgment or rejection. Why? Simply put those two things reinforce the insecurity that we aren’t good enough!
Shame reinforces the false narrative of not being enough
Every time we receive a rejection in any way we feel embarrassed (a form of shame) and upset. It’s because in rejection the first thing we do is internalize it. Think about it, your relationship goes bad the first thing you ask yourself is “what did I do wrong? Why wasn’t I good enough?.” (in most cases, in some cases it’s blatantly evident its not your fault lol) We get turned down from a job, and the insecurity runs through your head, why didn’t they want me? Therefore it’s easy to conclude that when we feel rejected or judged we immediately associate that with not having enough value or worth. THIS is the script that we have to learn to flip in our heads. That pivotal moment when reaction becomes reflection is where we need to turn off the inner critic in our heads and flip on the self-love switch.
For me, shame has been making its presence known every time I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror, or in a window. It washes over me like a burning wave of icy hot. You know that sensation of hot warmth sliding through your skin followed by a painful wave of icy sensation. I took notice of my body language when I was out in public and became painfully aware that I couldn’t or wouldn’t meet the eyes of any people passing by. My shame was manifesting in a way that wouldn’t even allow me to pick my head up in public. I caught glimpses of myself in the grocery store frozen aisle section and my first thought was “is that me?”
My story of shame
Last year I had spent a lot of time on a restrictive form of eating. I had lost weight but it wasn’t sustainable. I only bring this up is because since this quarantine/pandemic thing happened I have gained most of that weight back. This left me feeling like a big fat failure (literally). The shame of not being able to beat my own demons is present in every action I take at the moment. It fuels the hopeless feeling that I will never be able to get myself down to a healthy size or beat that compulsion to eat when stressed out. Simply put, the things I consider my greatest flaws are now magnified out of proportion, and my view of the world around me is completely distorted. That’s how powerful shame is and how it can destroy lives.
Toxic shame fuels the damage you can do to yourself. It’s amazing to me how little we talk about shame. It’s a hard and uncomfortable subject and yet it’s the cornerstone in which all our mental stresses and emotions grow from. Shame is at the core of depression and anxiety, and it’s the platform for that inner critic to stand upon and tell you that you are not enough for this world. Well, screw that! You ARE enough, I am enough! It’s time we start living our lives like we know this to be completely true!
Shame robs us of the belief that we can change
I don’t know if you’ve heard of her but there is a woman named Brene Brown, she spent her life studying shame and the effects it has on us as people. One of the quotes I got from listening to her is “Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” God, how true are those words? Think about it for just a second, anything you’ve struggled with, in terms of trying and “failing” over and over again. What do you feel when you look back on not succeeding? The words that run through your head when you look at the future and see yourself still the same? I don’t know about you but for me, I feel ashamed and hopeless. Like I will never be able to change my ways, my body, or my life.
What’s even worse are the long term effects living a life filled with shame can have. In the long term, when you feel ashamed all the time, you can lose yourself in the act of placing so much value on what other people may think about you. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have stayed in an unhealthy or toxic relationship to prove to the world that just because I’m fat doesn’t mean I can’t be loved.
The paradox being, that in those relationships I ended up coming away feeling less lovable than before. Yet I would lose myself and my identity trying to keep someone happy enough to stay with me. Why you ask? The brutally honest answer is, if I couldn’t make it work then those judgments would be right, fat people can’t be loved. Which is the shame narrative I created in my head about the judgment I perceive in my life.
How do we stop living with toxic shame?
As you can see, the damage living in toxic shame can cause isn’t just limited to how you feel about yourself, it also fuels the actions you take to avoid the pain and fear of rejection and judgment. So what can we do about it? Short answer, love yourself. Over and over until it becomes as natural as breathing. Notice I didn’t say the simple answer. You and I both know why I didn’t use that word. For people like us, loving ourselves is not natural, nor does it come easily.
Be Gentle and Loving with yourself
It’s the first step in healing or creating any form of change. When I got home from the grocery store the other day, after seeing myself in the reflection and feeling so much shame in my appearance, I started to berate myself. I couldn’t see myself in any other way other than fat, disgusting and horrible. That hopeless darkness started to invade my mind again. So I took a deep breath, and faced my body in the mirror. I hugged myself, and said in my mind “it’s okay and you will change someday but you aren’t disgusting now”. This is how I stopped the spiral and was able to maintain focus on the problem at hand.
It may look different for you, and I’ll be honest it didn’t fix all my problems or emotions in that very moment. What it did, though, was take me from an emotional place I couldn’t control, and set me into a calmer more stable mindset. The next morning, I woke up and remember walking past my mirror catching a glimpse of myself and the first thought that popped in my head is “wow my body looks better to me this morning”. Loving yourself, and accepting who you are now, takes away some of the power that shame steals from you and gives it back in the form of confidence and hope.
Go back to the beginning
Okay, this one isn’t easy. Not even a little bit and will take time. Let’s just start with the obvious, BE PATIENT WITH YOURSELF. Seriously, please be patient as you start to look back to where it began. This part of any healing process is so hard. I mean let’s face it, no hero’s origin story is pain-free. When you start to examine your past, you will dig up things long buried in the natural process of self-preservation and internalization.
I would highly recommend speaking to a counselor or a therapist during this stage. Wounds that have been long packed away can take pack a punch when you open then back up. Yet like with any other wound, cleaning the infection out and letting it heal gets the poison out and creates space to change the perceptions we’ve carried about ourselves for our entire lives. If you aren’t ready to speak to a therapist about this, then I highly recommend some sort of journaling. You might find as you the words pour from your pen to the paper, facing it becomes easier. This step takes tremendous amounts of courage and persistence. Just keep working at it, take your time but don’t give up. I believe in you!
Connect the shame to the lie, and then rewrite your truth
Once you’ve found the lie or lies that your shame spawned from, the false beliefs, accusations or narrative that you internalized in your youth that started to write your script, it’s time to connect them to the behaviors you have developed in your life to keep you living in fear and shame. Again I caution patience and a ton of self-loving actions. You’re endeavoring to re-write decades of internal code and create a huge change in how you see yourself and the world around you. It’s a daunting task that can seem damn near overwhelming at the start.
Here’s a secret that may help you, you are a beautifully complicated human being and more capable than you may be aware of. I have the utmost faith that as you start to make these connections you will see the lie, and start to rewrite it. Replacing it with the truth, one filled with love for yourself, and strength to look the world boldly in the eye. Saying, for the first time perhaps, that you are here and you are worth every drop of love, laughter, and joy the world can bring your way.
The Bottom Line
Here it is, the bottom line, toxic shame, and shame, in general, is something that affects us all. It creates a false narrative of how we see ourselves and our place in the world around us. Toxic shame fuels the damage in our lives and steals the power we all have to create change in our life. And yet, it only holds that power so long as you will let it.
With some work, love, and willingness to explore your past with an honest and open heart, you can take that power back! Imagine a life free of that fear of being rejected by someone or something that the universe said isn’t meant for you. Or being able to look someone in the eye with your head held high knowing you are worthy of respect and love, not afraid to see judgment in their eyes. These are things within your reach! You just have to be willing to grab them! So my friends, until next time, be gentle with yourself, and remember you are never alone!
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