Healing Toxic Shame

By Jon Terrell. M.A.

Most of us experience shame, at least from time to time. It’s a painful feeling, so painful that we are highly motivated to avoid, deny or deflect it, especially toxic shame. We can heal our shame.

Here is some information about the emotion of shame and how you can overcome it.

What Is Shame?

It’s a feeling that is closely related to embarrassment, humiliation and guilt. When we feel ashamed we feel worthless, unimportant, not worthy. Toxic shame, described below, is particularly painful.

Brene Brown, a "researcher-storyteller", defines shame as "fear of disconnection." Shame tells us we are not worthy, not good enough or important enough.

Shame is usually in relationship to others. We want to hide from others, hide ourselves, not be seen, not be present - like the woman in the photo above. Shame keeps us from being and feeling alive, awake and in our bodies.

We even try to hide our shame from ourselves - we avoid it, push it way, project it on others, and suppress it - we are ashamed of our shame.

How Does Shame Make Us Feel? What Does It Look Like?

People who are experiencing shame often look and feel small, shrinking. Our heads may be bowed, our eyes downcast, we won’t make eye contact…we look away, we hide, we cower. The expression “hang your head in shame” captures some of the physicality of it.

With intense shame we get hot in the face…we blush, which only makes the shame feel worse as we are exposed even more. We're embarrassed on top of ashamed!

Shame And Guilt - What’s The Difference?

Shame is inside, we feel wrong, less than, unworthy. It’s a problem with our self, our sense of “I”. But guilt is something that happens to us…we feel guilty, we don't become guilty in the same way that we become ashamed. Guilt is closer to regret than something wrong with me. Shame feels deeper, closer in to who we are.

With guilt you often recognize that you could have done better…feeling guilty for taking that extra portion of cake, for example. It bumps up against your values. The wound is on the outside.

Shame, on the other hand, is about us…we’re bad for eating the whole cake. The wound is on the inside. Ouch!

Healthy Versus Toxic Shame

Psychologists sometimes differentiate healthy from unhealthy shame. Healthy shame is a warning sign that will, hopefully, motivate us to do better next time.

I’ll eat a smaller portion next time and save some cake for others. This shame helps us correct our behavior.

Toxic shame is not beneficial at all. Many of us are locked into toxic shame and we don’t know how to escape. We see ourselves as the problem, as bad:

I’m dumb, stupid, clumsy
I can’t do anything right!
What’s wrong with me?
I’m so awkward, fat, ugly, short, etc.

And it’s hard to escape this feeling of shame…but read below for how we work with toxic shame in our retreats to heal shame.

Where Does Shame Come From?

We take on shame early in our lives from what we are told and what we experience about ourselves, especially in relationship with our parents and siblings. Examples of situations that can cause shame:

  • Parents who are overly critical of their children, who yell or physically mistreat them.
  • Children who have lost a parent.
  • Children who have not had regular experiences of being loved.
  • Children and adults who have experienced trauma or abuse.

If you have toxic shame, you probably resonated to one or more of the phrases in the previous section. Think back to where you heard these first, before you internalized them…and it could very well be from one of your parents. Here are some other toxic shame triggers you may have heard growing up:

You idiot
You should be ashamed of yourself
What’s wrong with you?
Who do you think you are?
Have you no shame?
Shame on you!

Often we have shame related to our bodies…we feel as if we are dirty, or smelly or unclean in some way. Or we are ashamed of the way our body behaves…we feel we are awkward, too short or tall or just “ugly.”

We have shame about sex, shame about our eating habits and abilities too. All this toxic shame can be traced back to our upbringing…we may not have been told in words but learned to have a negative view of ourselves from what others did and didn’t do.

And a lot of shame gets reinforced when we go to school. Peers criticize and ostracize those who are different in some way. Making others feel small is a way a bully tries to feel big. A lot of bullies grow up continuing this behavior as adults.

Toxic Shame and Love

When we are caught up in shame, we’ve lost ourselves and feel unworthy of being loved.

Healing shame is about learning to love…starting with our own selves.

In my work with adults I have several ways to help people overcome their shame.

At my emotional healing retreats and counseling sessions, I help people let go of the barriers to giving and receiving love. This often means going, in a safe environment, back into old feelings, including toxic shame, where we’ve lost ourselves. It’s in these feelings, not our thoughts, that deep healing can occur.

Because shame and other uncomfortable feelings are held in our body, that is where we focus together.

When we avoid painful feelings, we cut ourselves off from our good feelings too!

Many adults feel numb and “out of it” because of what they’ve suppressed. As these feelings are brought up into the light of day and transformed, people wake up to their power and love.

As shame and other emotions are healed, people find they can live in their bodies in a whole new way. Clients report feeling much more open, spacious, motivated, free and alive.

Try This Shame Healing Exercise

1. Take a few minutes to quiet your mind, center yourself and become present in your body. You may want to take a few slow breaths, focusing on the sensations of breathing in and out.

2. Now sit or stand in front of a mirror and look closely at your face. Let your eyes relax so you can see your whole face without tension. Look in your eyes, but continue to see your whole face. Look with loving eyes, sending love and acceptance to the person you see in front of you. Tell yourself "I love you" and any other message you would like to receive such as "You are beautiful just as you are" or "You are smart and creative." Spend at least 3-5 minutes. Stay in the present moment, out of old stories from the past.

3. Before you end the exercise, notice how you feel and see if you look different in the mirror.

Find Out More

Retreats--We offer retreats about 6 times a year at different settings. Check out our Breaking Free of the Old Story retreats or the Grief and Difficult Emotions Retreat. These retreats are highly effective in breaking the root causes of shame.

Counseling--I offer counseling in person (western Massachusetts and New York City) and using the telephone and Skype. I do not take insurance, but offer a reasonable hourly rate of $60 for a 50 minute session.

If you have questions or would like to contact me, use the form below.

Image: Stuart Miles / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Healing The Shame That Binds You by John Bradshaw, copyright 1988, is an excellent book on shame.

Go From Toxic Shame to Healing Emotions

Go To Grief and Loss Retreat

Go To Breaking Free From The Old Story Retreat

Go to How To Deal With Grief

Brene Brown's TED Talk on Shame and Vulnerability

Go to Awakenment Wellness Home

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