It’s a shame so many of us have their lives defined by feelings of toxic shame.
I am reading Healing the Shame that Binds You by John Bradshaw (1988). I am trying to figure out if shame may be at the root of some of my (hopefully modest) issues. I don’t think so. I certainly got a huge heaping of Catholic guilt as a child. (Catholics are born guilty. They have the stain of original sin. They are not inherently worthy of salvation and only through baptism is there the hope of salvation.) But guilt and shame are not the same thing. Toxic shame is dysfunctional guilt. Pretty much all of life’s experiences are filtered through these extremely powerful feelings of unworthiness.
I don’t think I am a dysfunctional adult. I love myself just fine. I know I am not a perfect person. None of us are. Yet my life is clearly defined by people I know and love that seem wrapped up in toxic shame. So something is going on. I need to figure it out why I am bound to love so many people with feelings of extreme shame. Perhaps it is normal because there are so many shame-based people in the world. Perhaps the same way I might stop to help a homeless person my heart goes out to those who I see as having worth and dignity but cannot find it within themselves. (I like that one; a sure sign I think that I do not have toxic shame.) Or weirder still, perhaps some part of me seeks them out to work through my own issues.
I am struck by the simple truths in the book that seem to be born out from so much experience:
Neurotic shame is the root and fuel of all compulsive/addictive behaviors. The drivenness in any addiction is about the ruptured self, the belief that one is flawed as a person. The content of the addiction, whether it be an ingestive addiction or an activity addiction (like work, buying or gambling) is an attempt at an intimate relationship. Each one mood alters to avoid the feeling of loneliness and hurt in the underbelly of shame. Each addictive acting out created life-damaging consequences that create more shame. The new shame fuels the cycle of addiction.
Shame begets shame. The cycle begins with the false belief system that all addicts have, that no one could want them or love them as they are. In fact, addicts can’t love themselves. This deep internalized shame gives rise to distorted thinking. The distorted thinking can be reduced to the belief that I’ll be okay if I drink, eat, have sex, get more money, work harder, etc. The shame turns on in what Kellogg has termed a “human doing”, rather than a human being.
Worth is measured on the outside, never on the inside. The mental obsession about the specific addictive relationship is the first mood alteration, since thinking takes us out of our emotions. After obsessing for a while, the second mood alteration occurs. This is the “acting out” or ritual stage of addiction. The ritual may involve drinking with the boys, secretly eating in one’s favorite hiding place or cruising for sex. The ritual ends in drunkenness, satiation, orgasm, spending all the money, or whatever.
“I am no good; there’s something wrong with me,” plays like a broken record. The more it plays, the more one solidifies one’s false believe system. The toxic shame fuels the addiction and regenerates itself.
It is all manifested in words and behavior that say, “I am not worthy”. Among the people I see with toxic shame is my mother. She is about to turn 85, but I believe she has been caught in this shame cycle all of her life. I can only speculate where it came from, but being one of 12 children living in poverty in the Depression, and a girl in the shadow of energetic brothers must have been at least contributing factors. Bradshaw seems to have his own theory that its roots are in early childhood:
As shaming experiences accrues and are defended against, the images created by those experiences are recorded in a person’s memory bank. Because the victim has no time or support to grieve the pain of the broken mutuality, his emotions are repressed and the grief is unresolved. The verbal (auditory) imprints remain in the memory as do the visual images of the shaming scenes. As each new shaming experience takes place, a new verbal imprint and visual image attach to the already existing ones forming collages of shaming memories. Over time an accumulation of shame scenes are attached together. Each new scene potentiates the old, sort of like a snowball rolling down a hill, getting larger and larger as it picks up snow.
When I see someone I love whose life is defined by toxic shame I find it hard not to get irate, but not at them. I have heard many stories about people who were raped. Some, despite years of therapy, never really quite emerge from its shadow. But toxic shame strikes me as something like being raped as a three-year-old child. Whatever potential the child had to grow up to have respect for themselves is gone. What remains is a person who can never truly know their authentic self. Not only are they separated from their authentic self, the ideal conditions are in place to make sure they never become in touch with their authentic self. It seems they are denied their right to wholeness as a human being.
The point of Bradshaw’s book though is to offer hope that those suffering from toxic shame can be rehabilitated. But from my perspective the hardest problem of all is to get those who live their lives in toxic shame to admit that this is their root problem. To most of the world they will deny they have these feelings. But people who love them can pierce through the layers sometime. And out from their ego comes the anguished cry: I am not worthy. I am not loveable. In their minds there seems to be no solution to toxic shame, only the ritual of addiction that acts like a Band-Aid for a while but only exacerbates the feelings of shame.
I think I grasped some of this as a father and decided it wouldn’t happen to my daughter. Raising Rosie I had an almost myopic need to be a loving and supportive father to her. I tried very hard not to make her feel worthless. But I know I wasn’t perfect. I know I have a sarcastic streak, and she has definitely picked up this side of me. It is only recently that I have come to realize that this dominant part of my personality was affecting her, and probably not in a good way. It may well be a sign of passive aggressive behavior in me. I may be passing on some of my own issues to another generation. I find the mere thought appalling.
I strongly suspect that even with perfect parents a child is going to grow up with issues that they will have to tackle as adults. But now that I am tuned into toxic shame I am aware of the scope of the problem. In our mental health landscape this is the equivalent of a hydrogen bomb. And much of it can likely be traced to early childhood issues wrapped around insufficient or inappropriate nurturing from parents and caregivers.
At nearly 85 I don’t think it is possible for my mother to find her authentic self. She is so physically immobilized she often can’t get out of bed without assistance from my father. Her feelings of being unable to care for herself just feed her feelings of toxic shame. I should be able to care for myself. I cannot care for myself. So it must be my fault. There is something wrong with me. I am not worthy. This is the context of what I hear from her when I talk to her. This is the tone of her emails. We hear it in words like “That costs too much money” and “I don’t deserve that.”
The amazing thing about toxic shame though is that no matter how much time and energy we spend telling people with toxic shame that we love, value and appreciate them that none of it leads to transformation. They don’t really believe us. They need to hear it and they appreciate hearing these wonderful things, but they don’t believe it applies to them. We are talking about someone else. The person we love is never their authentic self. The only balm that momentarily satisfies is to go back and revel in their destructive rituals. Drink too much. Eat too much. Complain that no one loves them. The ritual varies and depends on the person, but the ritual must go forward when the feelings of shame overwhelm them.
Perhaps a start is to pick up books like this and read them. But oh, the travesty to never know hold yourself in any esteem. The body survives but it seems like the spirit was killed in its infancy. It’s a crying shame.