What’s your secret? You know…the thing that causes you such intense shame and embarrassment you just know you’ll die if anyone else finds out! It might be that thing that happened years ago that you can’t ever live down. Or it could be an undefined feeling of failure because authority figures in your past used shame to “discipline” you. Whatever the cause, this kind of toxic shame can be healed.
Toxic shame gnaws at a person. It can consume you and destroy your self-worth and self-confidence. It makes you feel unlovable and unworthy. You become so busy beating yourself up you can’t be fully present in the moment or see the opportunities right in front of you. I appreciate how Brené Brown likens it to a corrosive element like rust or acid:
“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.”
A milder form of shame isn’t necessarily a problem as it simply informs you that you can learn from the experience at hand. However, toxic shame is insidious and keeps you trapped. Let’s clarify, too, that toxic shame is different from guilt. Guilt arises from a negative evaluation of your behavior, while shame arises from a negative evaluation of you as a person. Guilt is the feeling of doing wrong, and can motivate you to change your behavior. Shame is the toxic feeling of being wrong leading to the hopeless cry of “Why try?” You end up saying things like:
- I’m so stupid.
- I can’t do anything right!
- I’m always saying or doing the wrong thing.
- What’s wrong with me?
- I’m so fat and ugly.
- I can’t go, because I don’t want anyone seeing me like this.
- I’m such a mess.
- I hate myself.
Toxic shame is responsible for worsening anxiety, depression or other mental and emotional disorders. It triggers unhealthy and destructive behaviors, such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating and drinking, self-harming and cutting.
If you find yourself in a cycle of ruminating and reliving shameful episodes in your life, what can you do to break out of this destructive toxic shame pattern?
- Call the bully out! People who shame others are bullies. (Note: You could be bullying yourself with shame-filled, negative self-talk.) No, you don’t have to confront the bullies in your life. Simply reframe their abusive remarks as bullying, not truths. In that way you begin the process of being objective and you can lessen the power that episode has over you.
- Expose toxic shame to the light. Shame thrives in secrecy, but can’t survive in the open. If you try to suppress it, it grows. However, if you think or talk about whatever is making you feel ashamed, although painful at first, you’ll soon feel much less ashamed. Just be cautious of who you reveal your shame to. As Brené Brown says, “If we share our shame story with the wrong person, they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm.”
- Write it out, if you can’t talk about it. Without censoring yourself, let your thoughts flow onto the paper. It’s especially helpful if you write it as if you’re writing a letter to the “shame bully”, although you won’t actually mail it to them. Then put it away in a safe place and go for a walk and review how you make life better for those around you. When you come back, review your written words objectively. More often than not, some of the sting will have eased.
- Ramp up your positive emotions. Fill up on gratitude, hope and courage. It will leave little or no room for sadness, fear and disgust, which are the negative emotions that produce shame.
- Turn your toxic shame into healthy pride. Focus on the good person that you are and all the good things that you do. If you have trouble seeing good in yourself, ask trusted friends what they most appreciate about you as a person.
- Be compassionate with yourself. You are a work in progress. Trust that you will get better at letting go of shame the more you mindfully practice your shame-busting skills.
NLP reframing is a great tool for ridding yourself of toxic shame and rebuilding confidence, hope and courage. It works best when a skilled, caring person helps you. Please contact me and schedule an “Unlocking Your Potential” 30-minute complimentary consultation (in-person, by phone or via Skype). I’d love to help you add this tool to your life skills toolkit.