Few of us can escape the constant messages we get trying to shame us because of our looks, our sexuality, our ideas, politics, behavior – whatever. There’s always something those who want to shame us can find. These messages, which start at a very early age, come from home, often from religious doctrine and teachers, from school, and from society at large. “Don’t touch yourself there!” “Nice girls don’t do that.” “Girls who don’t wait until they’re married are whores!” “Pizza Face!” “Fatso!” “Faggot!”
Not all shame is bad, and we know that instinctively, which is why we, as a society, shout “Shame” at people who commit horrific acts and refuse to take responsibility for them, or worse, gloat over them. White supremacists and neo-Nazis who mow people down in the streets, murder people in cold blood in churches, and do other things that offend human decency must be called out. On an individual level, there may always be times when we ourselves do things we are not proud of; hurting someone else or seeking some self-advantage at someone else’s expense. When we have a conscience and a moral compass, we inevitably feel ashamed of ourselves because we know we betrayed our better selves. This is healthy shame, because we don’t use it to beat ourselves over the head. If we can, it enables us to apologize for what we did, but in any case, we use it to learn from our mistakes and do better next time.
Our ability to experience shame makes it difficult to tell the difference between genuine shame and the toxic shame that is laid on us by others. Toxic shame is insidious because it just sneaks in there and we end up believing that it is our shame, that we own it and therefore it must be true. Plus, toxic shame is often instilled in us at a very early age, long before we have any ability to distinguish what is true and what isn’t, what is real and what isn’t, and what truly belongs to us from what doesn’t. We want to be good people. When we are children we want only to please our parents, our teachers, and the other adults in our lives, so we believe what they tell us, especially the ones who give us a sharp rap with a ruler if we stray, or, as in my case, tell your parents on parent-teacher night that you are a disrespectful kid. I won’t go into the consequences of that other than saying that disrespect of any adult was a major transgression in my parents’ household.
I was depressed as a child, yet frequently I was told “what did have I have to be unhappy about? I had food, clothes, and a roof over my head?” Shamed into silence, I ate. I spent a good part of my life being ashamed of my body and what it looked like: I was too fat, and to be fat was to be unattractive. I can never remember a time when I didn’t get that message, or when I wasn’t either on a diet, cheating on a diet, or off a diet, having failed, but planning for my next diet to begin on such and such a day until which time I could (and would) eat whatever I wanted because after THAT day – well, you know. That shame inhabited every fiber of my being. Even though I projected the image of a very confident person, the reality was that I cringed every time I saw myself reflected in a window on the street or in a mirror that extended below my neck.
I longed to have a lover, and a relationship, but never believed that anyone could possibly find me attractive. It never occurred to me that being smart and funny and a nice person was enough. I spent my life projecting the image my toxic shame had constructed of myself onto every person I met. I found all sorts of people attractive but they never reciprocated and I was far too shy and unconfident to ever make a first move. Who could be interested in someone like me? One thing to which toxic shame blinds us very effectively is the way we disrespect and disempower the people we meet; as in my case, I never gave the people I was with the chance to make their own decisions about me. I had already made it for them.
Overcoming Toxic Shame
1. Recognize that the shame you feel was imposed on you by others and was about them, not you.
The toxic shame we feel inevitably comes from having been told all our lives that something about us is shameful and wrong and makes us shameful and bad. It can be our looks, our behavior, our sexuality, our thoughts – or all of the above, or something different. Each of us has their own version. Today we can often recognize it when we see others doing it – fat shaming, slut shaming, shaming having to do with sexuality and gender. It’s not always so easy to recognize that the shame we feel has been put there by others because often it’s so familiar and so ingrained it feels like its real and supposed to be there. But it’s not. I’m not saying the shame we feel isn’t real but that the things that we’re ashamed of aren’t shameful things – there’s nothing wrong with us. The first, most important step to overcoming toxic shame is not only to recognize it as toxic, but to recognize it and name it as something alien and unnatural to your true self; something imposed on you when you were unable to defend yourself or recognize it for what it was because of who or where it came from. To think of it as a graft that your body is now rejecting. Our true, best selves are poisoned by toxic shame, not improved by it, and part of radical self-love is learning to attack it in the same way that our white cells and immune system attack outside biological invaders that do us harm. I’m not saying this is easy, because I know it’s not (am I totally free of? I’d be lying if I said yes but I’m getting there). Toxic shame is like a creature that thrives on hiding in the darkness under a rock – not until we turn that rock over and expose it to a big dose of sunlight is it going to begin to shrink away.
2. Do a reality check.
Toxic shame magnifies the things we are ashamed of out proportion and distorts our view of the world. We assume that everyone else sees us the same way we see ourselves, or somehow knows our shameful little secret(s). Or knows that we’re hiding something and not really who we say we are. Or would dislike or even hate us if they knew who we really were. Or, or, or. If we didn’t think this (even if we don’t admit it), we wouldn’t feel ashamed in the first place, because what would there be to be ashamed about? If we haven’t done anything wrong or there’s nothing wrong with us, who cares what people think? Doing a reality check for me means two main things. First, realizing that most people don’t care about the things that I worry about because they have enough problems of their own and could care less about mine. And if they do care, that’s their problem, not mine, unless they care because they’re my friends and want to support me. Another way of saying this that I had to learn, which is not as nice but more to the point was, “get a life, the world doesn’t revolve around you.” Second, and more importantly, is a saying I learned years ago in a 12-step program: “feelings aren’t facts.” Just because I think something about myself doesn’t mean it’s true, or that everyone I meet is going to walk away thinking, “Wow, did she ever look fat today. . .. “ People rarely see us the way we see ourselves and this important to remember.
More Radical Reads: The Urge to Hide: Is it Shame or Self-Preservation?
3. Seek support from your friends, and value their appreciation of you as they value your appreciation of them.
Your friends love and appreciate you complete with all your flaws as well as all your great qualities. Are you ashamed of them? I hope not! So respect their taste and judgement. Our shame has deep roots and it is a long struggle to confront. It is a time when more than ever we need our friends.
4. Work on developing radical self-love in all aspects of life.
It’s now become something of a cliché to talk about building one’s self-esteem, but it’s still a vitally important aspect of overcoming toxic shame and growing in our ability to practice radical self-love in all aspects of our lives. Focusing on the positive ways we are growing as individuals, and the way that that growth is contributing to the greater struggle for social equity in a world that sorely needs the kind of leadership that radical self-love engenders is a powerful weapon in overcoming the toxic shame and other toxic stresses in our lives.
Toxic shame is a drain on our energy and psychic resources, energy and resources that we need to fight back especially now when there is so much toxic energy and anger being directed at communities of color, women, Jews, undocumented citizens, and everyone else these fascist forces have decided do not fit their version of America. Our struggles begin at the individual level so that we can strengthen ourselves and grow through our practice of radical self-love, but we can never forget that at the heart of this struggle is the intersectionality that brings us back to our community as a whole. Toxic shame drives feelings of inadequacy and we are seeing some of the ways people use to fight those deep feelings of inadequacy. Radical self-love drives the power we need to overcome toxic shame in whatever form it appears.