Toxic shame, the most crippling and powerful emotion that embeds itself in your mind and body when you have experienced trauma.
There’s no doubt that trauma unlocks an entire array of unpleasant emotions including fear, anxiety, sadness, anger and these emotions are entirely valid in the wake of traumatic experiences and your unique responses to them. Yet for most people those emotions begin to reduce and become understood and manageable as recovery and healing progresses.
However, there is one that seeps and creeps in over time, underpinned by the very core of your vulnerability and the self blame that results from childhood, complex, attachment/developmental trauma and sexual trauma. It intensifies over time, driving your ongoing responses and behaviour with yourself, your relationships and your professional/entrepreneurial/business life. It is the one that drives you to stay hidden, be invisible, strive for perfection, and not be ‘too much’.
Shame emerges when you are in your most vulnerable state and for most who experience toxic shame, this begins in childhood. It’s one of those feelings that buries itself deep into your psyche, an emotional wound that rarely completely heals. In our lifetime we may only we experience shame a few times, inflicted by the words of a bully, or even by ourselves as a reaction to a particularly egregious mistake. In a small dose, shame is something we can gradually recover from, even if we never completely forget it.
When you experience shame in a deeply vulnerable state of parental rejection, abuse, emotional neglect, emotional abuse, sexual abuse/sexual assault, bullying, narcissistic abuse, abandonment, attachment betrayal, traumatic loss, for example, and this is compounded upon over a period of time it becomes toxic, negatively affecting your sense of self, your relationships with others, and the way you view the world.
The chronic self blame morphs into shame.
This becomes your normal.
There is no other point of reference you will have before that moment of deep vulnerability and the toxicity of the shame that influences all aspects of your life. Shame is a common response to trauma because it is sometimes easier to believe that there is something wrong with you than to believe that your abuser, often a parent or loved one, could hurt you for no reason.
Toxic shame is the circuit breaker for joy, pleasure, connection and vitality. All of the things we want and deserve in life.
What Happens To Your Brain To Make Shame Toxic?
When faced with shame the brain reacts as though it were facing a very real physical danger and thus activates your sympathetic nervous system. This part of your autonomic nervous system is responsible for connecting the different organs of your body to your brain through your spinal cord. When there is a perception of danger or threat, your sympathetic nervous system causes you to prepare to fight, flight, or freeze
- increasing your heart rate,
- increasing blood flow to your muscles
- decreasing blood flow to organs such as the skin
The flight response triggers the intense feeling of needing to disappear. The fight response expresses itself more verbally and behaviourally aggressive.
The freeze response is what normally occurs when you have experienced a trauma that has left you feeling powerless and it happens to help you survive the situation in which terrible or intolerable experiences are happening to you.
It’s in this freeze response that shame seeps in
- disrupting your ability to think clearly,
- resulting in beliefs that you are stuck in a situation where you have no power because you have something wrong with you
- and the belief that what is happening or has happened, is your fault.
If you receive a warm, loving, reassurance to your needs when experiencing this threat or danger, your parasympathetic nervous system responds to bring calm. The primary part of the parasympathetic nervous system is the vagus nerve and the lumbar spinal nerves. When stimulated, these important structures increase digestive secretions and reduce the heartbeat. Therefore brining calm to your body.
With safe, supported, caregiving when you’re children, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems act together harmoniously to provide the appropriate level of response to danger and activate the knowledge in your brain and nerves to do what is needed to calm your triggered sympathetic nervous system.
When you experience toxic shame over a prolonged period of time in trauma, the relationship between your sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems becomes dysregulated because your hippocampus (the part of your brain that’s responsible for memory) is affected by that toxic shame experience and internalises the memory of it creating a blueprint that lives in you.
In childhood, our hippocampi internalises into your memory; how you should respond to situations where you feel uncomfortable or uncertain. If you didn’t have your needs met emotionally, psychologically and physically in childhood, your hippocampi internalise negative self messages and also what you expect to recieve from others.
The effect as you develop and enter adulthood is that when you encounter uncomfortable situations that your hippocampi thinks is in any way similar to what you encountered in childhood, you will feel shame. This triggered response then sends us spiralling into a complicated dance of arousal and fear that adversely affects your relationship with yourself and relationships with others.
Toxic shame therefore lives in your brain and your body reactions and responses and is marked by chronic anxiety, a heightened sense of vulnerability, exhaustion, depression and the losing battle of trying to achieve perfection.
How Does Toxic Shame Inform the Relationship You Have With Your Adult Self?
By the time you’ve reached adulthood the internal relationship with your self has developed, with a blueprint that is based on your experiences as a child. When those experiences in childhood & adolescence have been adverse or linked with Childhood Trauma shame is often at the root of your identity; who you think yourself to be, your internal self image, your self worth, self esteem and self compassion.
It lies at the core of your identity; interconnected and manifesting in survival reactions & responses, defence mechanisms, protective behaviours, default emotions and thoughts.
In adulthood this shame causes you to disconnect from yourself; to self abandon your authentic needs and individuality, because your authenticity, unique qualities, and your differences were devalued. You internalise that the you that you are is ‘wrong’.
Your needs, wants, desires, sexuality, emotions and thoughts become bound in shame.
How does this show up for you?
- people pleasing
- compulsive behaviours
- compulsive coping mechanisms
- Dysfunctional coping strategies – turning to these when you feel the shame of the compulsive behaviours, trying to ease the pain.
- Severe shame manifests as heaviness in the chest, constricted throat, tight painful jaw and neck.
- The feelings of shame cut deeply and are long-lasting
- The shame may be hidden in your subconscious, but come flooding back with certain triggers
- The shame is not only brought on by something external, but by your own thoughts
- You feel anxious about doing anything which may bring about shaming
- There is a sense of inadequacy and feelings of depression and hopelessness
- The shame may be associated with images, beliefs or voices from childhood
- The shame creates a negative personal narrative in your head that is doubtful, critical, and insulting
Narratives I’ve heard from women and children in therapy with me….
- I’m not good enough
- If I weren’t me then none of this wouldn’t have happened
- I have to perfect so that I can be loved, appreciated, accepted
- I can’t make mistakes
- I am unlovable
- I am unworthy
- I don’t believe in myself
- I am a failure
- No one could love me.
- I don’t deserve good in my life
- No one understands me
the list is non exhaustive!
Any situation in which you are seen, heard, noticed or feel vulnerable will cause overwhelming fear and the desire to hide, withdraw or freeze. Typically on the outside this can look like social anxiety. Becoming hyper vigilant toward people or situations that trigger your threat response can look like anxiety or panic attacks . If left unresolved this toxic shame leads to the belief that there is nothing you can do to make up for your shame; leading to a sense of helplessness and anxiety that drives you to avoid any situation in which this feeling could happen.
If you think of anxiety as the symptom rather than the cause, then you can begin to acknowledge that anxiety is a sign of much deeper authentic emotions of sadness, anger, fear, loneliness, desperation, are trying to bubble to the surface.
Trying to compensate for toxic shame and the associated authentic emotions bubbling underneath the surface drives your need for
- accommodating other peoples needs above your own
- self criticism
- fear of abandonment
- clinging to others out of a feeling of being unworthy of love
- a need to be dominating, controlling and antagonistic to protect yourself from feeling vulnerable
- avoiding interpersonal relationships for fear of disapproval
- self abandon when in love
- serial dependency/over-dependence on relationships for a sense of identity, safety and self worth.
These are just some of the ways in which you might be trying to fight shame.
Healing Shame Is Through Connecting To Your Core Self.
Accepting yourself, being compassionate to your shame; it’s origins and the way it is showing up for you, being open to change the narrative toward yourself and generating self validation is how healing and personal growth happens.
With an identity based in self compassion and acceptance you become empowered to acknowledge, accept and own all your imperfections and unique qualities and differences.
Learning to value who you are now and who you want to become, not living in an identity of what has happened to you.
Acknowledging and accepting all the inherent qualities that set you apart form everyone else, savouring these
This personal acceptance and validation creates the positive sense of self that you need in order to rise beyond the experiences you have had and define the person and the future you want to create for you.
This is not an easy or quick journey for so many and over the last 24 years I have seen in women and children the strength and determination it takes to shift out of these patterns through the therapeutic relationship but there are some beginning steps you can take:
- Notice the survival patterns or strategies you still use.
- What are your habits, compulsions, thoughts, addictions – your survival coping strategies
- Bring those into the consciousness – activate your insight into your self
- Observe your inner critic – become a witness to it so you begin to separate out your identity from it. The meanness and self doubt of your inner critic is not coming from you.
- Nurture yourself with compassionate self talk (this is not seeking out the positive!). This is acknowledging what you are feeling and bringing kindness to that part of you. You can begin your nurturing self compassionate healing journey with me for free here
- Mistakes, failures and rejections are inevitable – reframe them as a normal human experience and one that you are not alone in.
- What gives your life meaning?
- Listen to all of your emotions, they are all valid. Reference them, they are telling you what you need. Actively ask yourself what you need when you are feeling any emotion. Develop your emotional agility and connect with your core self.
When you connect with your core self you express clearly your thoughts, feelings, needs, and values
One of the most important things you can do is tell a safe and trusted person what you are experiencing, shame has no space in places where stories are told safely. To stop it’s growth, you need to limit the space in which it can grow.
Feeling listened to, heard and believed are the first barriers to the continued growth of shame.
As one little girl of 7 who has experienced sexual abuse recently said to me “Helen when I talk to you, the bad feelings can’t stay inside”
She is not wrong.
I’d love to know your thoughts on this topic so please feel free to connect with me.
Who Am I?
I’m Helen Ferguson, a Specialist Trauma Therapist for the past 24 years, I have been guiding achieving women and children on their recovery and healing journey from childhood trauma, CPTSD and sexual abuse. Leaving a legacy of freedom for women and children is a true life purpose for me and you can find out more about me here https://helenbferguson.com/about/