Coping with Toxic Shame

Coping with Toxic Shame is at the core of recovery from codependency, abandonment issues, and low self-esteem. Toxic shame is a term used to describe an excessive, unhealthy level of shame that causes emotional/interpersonal dysfunction and low self-esteem. Healthy shame is required for a well-adjusted personality. It tells us when we have violated a social norm, such as belching in public or getting busted picking your nose.

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When we grow up in a less-than-nurturing family, it is usually a shame-based family. The parenting techniques in a shame-based family (name-calling, belittling, guilt-tripping, etc.) may be meted out with positive intentions, but the strategies do more harm than good by building a reservoir of shame.

John Bradshaw points out that 90% of the shame we carry doesn't even belong to us. It was given to us by wounded parents in a process called the inter-generational transfer of shame. For example, a little girl just arriving home from school may be so excited to see her mother that she runs into the house letting the screen door slam. Mom has just had another "worst day of her life" at work so she blows up at the child for slamming the screen door.

The above scenario is not about the child; it is about a wounded parent who copes with her toxic levels of shame through shamelessness thereby transferring some of that shame to the child. Now the child is coping with toxic shame.

There are three dysfunctional methods of coping with toxic shame:

  • Surrender to it
  • Fight it
  • Avoid it

Surrendering to Toxic Shame

If we have developed a tendency to cope with toxic shame by surrendering to it, then we will re-experience the shame over and over again. We will choose people who are shame-based to shame us more (a "shame stash"), we will make the same "mistakes" over and over again that leave us feeling more shame, and we will look for evidence that we should be ashamed while deleting and discounting compliments from others for the good things we do.

In psychoanalytic terms, surrendering to shame in these ways is called repetition-compulsion. Our choices and behaviors set up patterns of shamefulness so that we feel full of shame most of the time. Internalizers have this tendency.

Fighting Toxic Shame

If we have a tendency to fight against toxic shame then we will exhibit some level of "shamelessness". Shameless behavior is demonstrated by people who tend to externalize their pain (aka, projection.) But shameless behavior is not just projection; it is primarily a reaction-formation which is a subconscious defense mechanism.

Coping with toxic shame through reaction-formation is what happens when the subconscious mind flips an inner-state around so that it surfaces in the conscious awareness as an opposite state. In this case, toxic shame is experienced as shamelessness, or arrogance, and sometimes even as narcissism. And for this to be an effective defense, the subject must really feel shameless (even though they might find a nagging feeling of self-doubt if they look inside.)

Shameless people are, of course, Externalizers. These are the people that the Internalizers subconsciously choose for partners. There is a compatibility that comes with this arrangement because the Externalizer makes things "all-about-me" and the Internalizer makes things "all-about-others". For those who wondering... the answer is yes, the tables can and frequently DO get turned in a relationship like this. This is what puts the "drama" into the Drama Triangle and the "chemistry' into the Chemistry of Drama.

Shamelessness, taken to the extreme, is necessary in order for a person to become an abuser, rapist, or other perpetrator who excercises "god-like" power over another. Severe Externalizers have contempt for others because they really believe they are weak and less intellegent than themselves. You will not be able to get through to them or get them to see the errors of their ways because they are too well defended. In other words, they must let their defenses down willingly and face their shame and feelings of original pain before recovery is possible.

Avoiding Toxic Shame

The third ineffective method of coping with toxic shame is the Avoidance pattern. This is simply a mindset that allows one to avoid shame by staying out of relationships altogether or being emotionally cutoff while engaging in work addiction.

Neither of these methods are effective in coping with toxic shame because in the former strategy, being alone all the time soon causes an inner-state of loneliness to surface and with it comes self-talk about being undesirable, or unlovable, or unfit for relationships. In the latter, the emotionally cut off partner sooner or later gets confronted by an unfulfilled partner or by children who are tired of broken promises.

Releasing Toxic Shame

In order to make your way back to healthy levels of shame (the ability to feel embarrassed when appropriate) requires a healing process. Check out the Iceberg Model for a description of that process. My Thawing the Iceberg Series is a set of books and workbooks that address the whole issues of woundedness in a way that includes healing the shame.

If you prefer to work online, the The Serenity Cafe' Lifetime Membership is a great place to do that. This is the best value because you get access to everything I have created and everything I will create here on the Internet-of-the-Mind.com.

By Don Carter





This information is not a substitute for professional evaluation and/or treatment. Reading the information contained here may trigger strong emotional reactions. If you have an emergency, call 911, other local emergency contact, your local emergency room, or law enforcement agency.
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