Toxic shame is a mistaken but embodied inner conviction that there is something irredeemably inadequate about who we are, and that this inadequacy renders us unworthy of love and forever likely to be abandoned.
Toxic shame is profoundly damaging. It distorts and poisons how we relate to ourselves, other people, and the world around us. It drives us to behave in immoral and harmful ways. It plays a pivotal role in emotional trauma. It also underlies a range of other soul-destroying dynamics including social anxiety, loneliness, depression, addiction, self-harm, and suicidality.
Yet people whose suffering is underlain by toxic shame rarely recognise its contribution to their distress. I have spoken to many therapists, and not one has had a new client say they have come for help with their toxic shame.
Why is this? Why is toxic shame hidden from awareness?
I think there is an unconscious drive to keep toxic shame in the shadows and that this is underlain by fear. We fear what will happen in our relationships with others should our toxic shame become visible. We fear what will happen in our relationship with ourselves.
The relationships we have with other people
The belief that there is something irredeemably inadequate about who we are leaves us terrified of exposure.
We are afraid that people will abandon us if they discover our alleged inadequacy. We imagine that we will become estranged from our family, struggle to find work, and that even the most compassionate therapist will eschew working with us.
Terror of aloneness compels us to try to conceal our supposed inadequacy from others. Research suggests that we are better at concealing things from others if we can hide them from ourselves. Hiding something from ourselves means keeping it out of awareness.
The relationship we have with ourselves
It is distressing enough to think that others see us as fundamentally deficient; to see ourselves this way is doubly painful.
Furthermore, because we feel that this intrinsically flawed person IS who we are, we harbour an unconscious fear that any effort to change will ultimately fail and that we are destined to live out our lives in this painful state. Such a belief fosters hopelessness.
It is impossible to function when consciousness is besieged by pain, fear, and hopelessness. Worse, when these feelings dominate daily life, suicide can seem like the only way to find peace. Thus keeping toxic shame out of awareness can help us function and it might also keep us alive.
Keeping toxic shame out of awareness is the psyche’s misguided attempt at protection
To summarise, hiding toxic shame in the shadows can be understood as the psyche’s attempt to protect us from being abandoned by others, overwhelmed by painful emotions, and drawn to suicide.
However, keeping toxic shame out of awareness creates an impasse. Without recognising toxic shame for what it is, we cannot discover that we are mistaken in our conviction of being inadequate.
Tragically, our psyche’s attempt to protect us from toxic shame imprisons us in toxic shame. Worse, when we carry unaddressed toxic shame, our behaviour becomes problematic. But until we bring our toxic shame out of the shadows, we have no way of knowing that it is toxic shame itself which is the problem rather than us.
Psychoeducation is crucially important
This self-imprisoning and self-fulfilling dynamics of toxic shame make psychoeducation crucially important.
As we begin to learn about the dynamics of toxic shame and the harm that it causes, it is much easier to recognise the toxic shame that we carry and turn inwards to investigate it.
And once we begin to investigate what we carry, we take the first steps out of the prison created by the toxic shame we carry and begin to create the possibility of real change.
(c) Daniela F. Sieff, 2022
Daniela F. Sieff, PhD.
Daniela is a scholar, author, and speaker who explores emotional suffering, healing, and well-being. Learn about Daniela and her work at: https://danielasieff.com/
This reflection stems from a book Daniela is currently writing.
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