When Shame Becomes Toxic

Articles on the topic of shame inevitably provoke questions. This short article is an effort to give a bit more substance by way of an answer to some of those questions. I hope it is helpful.

Shame is a normal emotion – one which we could not live without. It signals emotional boundaries (among other things), and alerts us to very important social information. We can experience it just walking into a room of strangers as we seek to see what others are doing and whether we will fit in. We experience it in settings of social discomfort or failure. That kind of information is as important as sight, hearing, smell, etc. It’s absence would make us impervious to the signals others seek to send regarding their own comfort and discomfort. Without shame, social interaction would be dangerous.

But this is a description of “healthy shame,” the simple, natural signal that is of use to everyone.

There is, however, its darker companion, “toxic shame.” Toxic shame is generally the result of abuse, injury, long-term stress, or various broken and dysfunctional relationships. Toxic shame is not “toxic” in the sense that it feels worse than healthy shame. Healthy shame can feel extremely uncomfortable. Toxic shame is “toxic” in that the shame itself has somehow morphed. Instead of being a useful, emotional signal, it becomes the defining characteristic of the personality.

Think of a dog who has been abused. Every dog experiences fear. But prolonged neglect and abuse can reduce a dog to a mass of trembling flesh – tail-tucked in, very likely to bite, and a pity to behold. For the dog, its fear has come to dominate everything. It reads the world through its fear. Thus, a human hand extended for petting is seen as a human hand extended to strike. Little wonder that it is likely to bite.

With toxic shame, the shame itself has become the dominant platform for the personality. We expect shame. We expect failure, rejection, judgment, crisis, criticism, etc. The pain of toxic shame is just below the surface and reacts with very little stimulation. Needless to say, such an experience has a way of developing modes of protection. We can become hyper-vigilant, or driven towards constant perfection. We are likely to be depressed, or chronically angry. We may develop “masks” of an identity that serves as a face to the world. We become “something” – but not really ourselves.

When an event of healthy shame occurs, our whole emotional mechanism is disturbed. Job one is to respond to the shame and address the situation. We are not at our rational best in these situations. Shame disrupts reason. It gives the message, “Fix this!” or “Run”! or “You’re a failure and you’ll never get it right!” or “This is how it’s always going to be!”

When toxic shame has taken over the personality, all kinds of situations (bearing some amount of discomfort) can serve as triggers, setting in motion the over-reactions of a shame-driven personality. We react badly. We over-react. A host of possibilities are set in motion, none of which actually “fix” things.

ShameSadly, one of the side effects of toxic shame is to alienate us from the self (or to alienate the self from the world). The shame that is present never really quite disappears but becomes the face that sees the world. The “true self” is somewhere behind it, unable to break through. It’s easy to see how such a dynamic makes relationships difficult. In this setting, God seems distant as well. Indeed, we are likely to make God into a “cipher,” an idea to which we try to relate. Of course, our shame-created cipher of God is just as likely to be distorted as everything else around us. We may avoid God altogether, especially if the “idea” of God that we entertain is a shame-generating bully. Who would want such a thing in their life?

With that small description (and this is only a thumbnail sketch) it is easy to see that toxic shame requires serious attention. It distorts the world, our perception of the world, and our perception and experience of the self. It is the voice of fear, loathing, shame, sadness, anger, etc. Of course, not all fear, loathing, shame, sadness, anger, etc., is the product of toxic shame. The problem is that with toxic shame, it can be almost impossible to know what is actually taking place. Is it me or my shame?

How do we get out of this? The simple answer is – with help. Think back to the frightening and abused dog. How do you heal such an animal? With kindness, patience, love, tenderness, and consistent respect for what it has endured and the damage that has been done. The animal will heal – and the change will seem miraculous. There will likely be some residual effects, but the transformation can be amazing.

With human beings, things are more complicated (as are our emotions and thoughts). But still, what is needed is kindness, patience, love, tenderness, and consistent respect for what someone has endured and the damage that has been done. Many times, the roots or early causes of toxic shame are buried and hidden (as in early childhood abuse and such). Above all, whoever assists us in dealing with toxic shame must be safe and reliable. Nothing in our life is more vulnerable than those places within us that have been damaged by toxic shame. Breaking a confidence about such things, or (God forbid), ever using them as a weapon, is itself a serious form of abuse.

My own experience of healing in this regard has been a combination of conversations with a trusted therapist and a few friends as well as with my confessor. In all settings, what has been valuable has been the discovery that the uncovering of shaming experiences, when met with love, understanding, and lack of judgment, is itself the beginning of healing. It needs repeating – and some things will undoubtedly require years of patience. I was 58 when I began the journey into this kind of healing – a lesson that it’s never too late to begin.

Toxic shame creates an emptiness within us. The “shame-formed” personality is not the true self. Neglected and often unnoticed is the true self that lies beneath. When the shame begins to be lifted, we are left with a child of sorts, a true self in need of care and love. The Psalmist says:

“Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with his mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me.” (131:2)

This is a Psalm verse first brought to my attention by Elder Zacharias of Essex (who was quite helpful with me on this whole topic). The Psalmist recognized the distress of his soul and saw within it a child. It is a deep wisdom – not a gimmick of pop psychology. Iconography consistently portrays the soul as a child. (cf. the icon of the Dormition)

Foundational above all is the firm assurance of God’s unrelenting and unconditional love. With that love, there can be no hesitance or suggestion that it might be withdrawn. “Conditional love” (where love is used as reward and withdrawn as punishment) is like substituting a slap for the kindness of a gentle hand with a dog who has just begun to trust. Healing requires that we come to know that God is safe. God is good. He wills only good for us. Without such an understanding, God will remain outside the picture for a soul damaged by toxic shame.

I have noted through the years, that some people (including some priests) are convinced that a soul can only be saved with disciplinary slaps and corrections from time to time. If there are such corrections needed in a human life, then it is likely only God who has the wisdom to know when and how such correction should take place. My experience as a priest and confessor is that I simply need to be consistent in sharing God’s love and be patient with what might be a process of healing that takes years. I would add that, in my experience, spiritual abuse is almost always a case of manipulating toxic shame against someone. If that happens, we are not asked to tolerate it.

This is a difficult topic. It is an essential topic in the spiritual life and touches far more souls than we might imagine. You might wonder why the Tradition doesn’t say more about this. You might even think that I’m inserting modern psychology in the place of spirituality. However, the Tradition does speak of these things, but often in different language.

The Book of Sirach says: “There is a shame that brings about sin, and there is a kind of shame that is glory and grace.” (4:21) This is the distinction between toxic shame (that grinds us into the dust and alienation of death) and healthy shame (that can bring glory and grace). Additionally, the Tradition most often speaks of healthy shame under the heading of “humility.” Humility is the ability to bear healthy shame (again this is confirmed in the teachings of Fr. Zacharias).  

I pray this short synopsis is of help for those who are seeking to learn more about this topic. My own book on shame and the spiritual life is in the process of being edited and will be published (I’m told) in February of next year (or thereabouts). God give us all grace!

Source: Glory To God For All Things

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