Most of us feel ashamed or embarrassed from time to time, but we’re usually able to learn from those unpleasant moments and move on. Shame can be painful and debilitating, however, when we believe our personal flaws are so great that we aren’t worthy of being loved, or worse yet, that we don’t deserve to take up space on this earth.
Toxic shame is personal and deeply ingrained. It undermines our quality of life, generates self-hatred and leaves us feeling isolated from family and friends. It often shows itself as anxiety, depression, anger, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD) or even post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
People who experience toxic shame may act aggressively or bully other people to attain some sense of power and control. Drug and alcohol treatment or rehab are often needed when people self-medicate by drinking, abusing drugs or engaging in compulsive behavior such as sex, eating or gambling.
Often, people who feel severe shame suffer from digestive problems, headaches or insomnia. Suicidal thoughts aren’t uncommon.
Learning shame resiliency isn’t an easy task but with consistent practice, it’s possible to put shame to rest and move on with confidence that we deserve to be happy.
If you experience toxic shame, consider this advice:
- Learn to recognize when you’re feeling shame. The physical feelings are different for every person, but feelings of severe shame may trigger a panic attack or racing heart. Your chest may feel tight, you may be short of breath or your stomach may be “in knots.”
- Consider where your shame came from and how it started so you can begin to change unhealthy patterns. Severe shame is usually rooted in early childhood and often occurs when one or more parents experienced shame and passed it along to you, either purposefully or inadvertently. It isn’t your fault.
- Identify triggers to shameful feelings. It may be something as simple as seeing yourself in the mirror, an unkind comment by a critical employer, friend or family member or something that reminds you of childhood shame.
- Learn more about shame. Read books by Brene’ Brown or other experts in the field of shame resiliency.
- Take care of yourself. Be gentle and practice self-compassion, even when you’re feeling inadequate. Practice positive self-talk. Treat yourself like you would treat somebody you love.
- Reach out to other people and cultivate accepting, non-judgmental friends. Let go of toxic, negative, shame-generating relationships.
- Don’t be ashamed of your shame. Share your feelings with people you trust and stop keeping your feelings hidden. As Brene’ Brown said, “Shame cannot survive being spoken.” Not talking about it allows feelings of shame to flourish.
- Examine common cultural messages. For example, what is society saying about what it means to be a good parent, partner, friend or employee. Examine your feelings about sexuality, body image and appearance, age and social or financial standing. Are those expectations realistic for you? Do they really define who you really are and who you want to be?
- Develop and clarify your own code of values, then stick by it. Shame often occurs when we act in ways contrary to our personal beliefs about right and wrong. Knowing your own boundaries will help you learn to live authentically.
- Don’t reject expressions of kindness from others. Accept and be grateful, even if it feels strange or unnatural.
- Practice forgiveness of yourself and others. We are all flawed and we all make mistakes because we are human. Everybody deserves forgiveness.
- Allow yourself to feel vulnerable. Open your heart and be okay with your feelings of pain and sadness. Acceptance will help you build strength and shame resilience.
- Don’t hesitate to see a therapist if you continue to struggle with deep, painful shame.
- Consider drug and alcohol treatment or rehab if you use drugs or alcohol to cope with painful emotions.