Author: Hayley Merron
Brene Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston, refers to toxic shame as, ‘a silent epidemic.’ In my view there is nothing silent about it: it screams out from our prisons, hospitals and schools. The psychological and physiological disturbances that can be traced back to toxic shame are legion: addictions, eating disorders, self-harm, violent and abusive behaviour, depression, anxiety, personality disorders…
Toxic shame is an epidemic hidden, not so much by its silence, as by its sheer size.
Shame in and of itself is neither good or bad. But it is complex. A natural process, intrinsic to the development of a sense of self and our relationship with the world, shame is a label agreed upon to describe a complex set of physical impulses, sensations, emotions and thoughts. Without it we would struggle to develop and survive.
What follows are four short articles. Each takes as its point of reference a different perspective. The first looks at the psychology of shame both healthy and toxic; the second at toxic shame in a therapeutic setting; the third charts my personal experience of toxic shame. And the last is a story, one that dates back to 1843; one which, most, if not all of us, will have heard many times before.
The Psychology of Shame
Shame who needs it? It turns out we all do. Shame is our natural response to the world, and in natural healthy development starts around 6 to 9 months*. It corresponds with two significant events, both of which are related. The massive growth spurt in the synaptic connections of the prefrontal cortex**, and the ability of the baby to crawl and move around independently. Two events that happen in tandem, each in turn developing the other, as we create that most mysterious thing, a sense of self.
The development of a conscious self is dependent on a constant state of expansion and contraction. As we move outward our energy moves from our core organs into our limbs — arms, hands, legs, feet. The point at which our confidence exceeds our mastery, self-consciousness arises and with it shame. We meet the abyss, the boundary beyond which we dare not step and with it that sense we call shame. Expansion is replaced by contraction, the physiological boundary, our skin, contracts and with it our energy. Having moved out into the world we falter, seeking once more the reassurance and safety of the other. Where the caregivers response is appropriate, regulating our distress and bringing us back to a state of equilibrium, healthy shame develops. Repeated over time, this cycle of expansion and contraction enables us to develop confidence and trust.
Shame runs the spectrum, from the healthy and natural to the toxic and destructive. Where we find ourselves in that spectrum is dependent on the quality of the caregivers responses. Inextricably linked to exploration and safety, curiosity and limitation, shame is essential to our growth as human beings. Without it our boundaries would be non-existent. At its core shame is relational.
Toxic shame starts from the same basic impulse and primary sensations of having gone beyond our place of mastery. However, what the infant experiences at the moment of peak exploration and expanding self-consciousness is the absence of a secure caregiver. The infant cries, but there is no response or one that is inappropriate. Inadequately resourced and with no resource to turn to the infant experiences abandonment, and with it the potential for annihilation.
It is important to note that these moments of abandonment happen to us all. Developmentally infants need caregivers that don’t get it right all of the time. Learning that the relationship can be repaired following a rupture is an essential part of growing up; children need good-enough parenting, not perfection.
Toxic shame then is the result, not of occasional abandonment, but of being constantly abandoned at the edge of our natural and healthy expansion into the world. Through the absence of the caregiver or the caregiver’s inconsistent and rough responses, the seed of toxic shame is planted. Once planted and watered over and over again toxic shame spawns its bitter fruits: “I am nothing”, “I am worthless”, “I am bad”, “I am disgusting”, “I am repulsive” “I am not good enough,” “I am stupid”. An accumulative background noise. For the person with toxic shame it is the air they breathe, the person they are.
Shame inextricably linked to a bundle of powerful emotions and sensations; fear, confusion and discomfort, the child attempts to banish any expansive and spontaneous response that might lead to feelings of ostracism, isolation and alienation. Where curiosity once stood toxic shame now thrives.
At its roots toxic shame is one of relational failure. Without the right kind of environmental support (relationships) we have toxic shaming. In physiological and psychological terms, the experience of toxic shame is so similar to that of Post-Traumatic Stress (PTS) and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) to be all but indistinguishable. Toxic shame is the result of being, quite literally, at war with ourselves.
Working with Shame
So how do you accept your enemy, especially when that enemy is you? The part of you that you’ve held responsible for all the embarrassments, all the humiliations? The part you wished did not exist. How do you love that part?
Human beings are extraordinarily robust. A kernel of acceptance or even the slightest hope that the most hateful thing we believe about ourselves is not true, that’s all it takes. A sliver of non-toxicity leads to a pause. And instead of a trigger response “I’m worthless” “I’m nothing” or “Less than nothing” we can learn to turn the pause into a breath, to take stock, stand still and to ask, ‘What’s triggering this response right now?’ ‘What sensations am I having in my body right now?’ ‘Is this reaction in proportion to what’s happening right now?’
Relationships, the thing most desired is also the thing most feared. For the toxically shamed there is the nagging knowledge, that the love, approval, the admiration of the other has been lost. Constantly searching for signs of how others perceive them it is impossible to be at ease. Life is exhausting.
In working with toxic shame, it is important to gain a level of just how exhausted the client is. For those with more inner resources, the work can move quickly, for others there needs to be a time of recuperation before the real work can begin.
Strong emotions that have for so long been pushed down, made invisible, split off from the public persona, can arise suddenly and seemingly without warning. A safe holding environment enables the client to work through these emotions in a measured way, never biting off more than they can chew. As a therapist working with toxic shame, my priority is the development of a holding environment and restoration of basic trust.
Within toxic shame ‘blame’ is a powerful emotion. It is for most of us the cultural air we breath. Getting stuck in the cycle of blaming ourselves or others prevents the cathartic process from running its course and leaves the client in a shame-filled holding pattern. This holding pattern is both cultural and generational. Toxic shame is not personal.
If our parents were toxically shamed, the only way they knew how to relate is likely to be shame-based; it is the way they were taught love and it is the way that they shared love with their children: “being cruel to be kind,” “you’ll thank me one day,” “I’m doing this to help you,” “it hurts me more than it hurts you.” In the moments of seeing that it is neither we nor them that are to be blamed a significant step is taken. Toxic shame cannot thrive without guilt, anger and blame.
Reclaiming the spontaneous, curious self
Toxic shame has without a doubt been my greatest teacher. Not all those lessons were good. The first thing it taught me was to reject myself before anyone else had a chance. Keeping my toxic shame under control and out of sight required my being constantly vigilant of myself and others. It taught me the importance of keeping silent. A secret shared is no secret. So to ensure that my secret remained just that, I spent my time working out what others needed from me. Knowing that I could not trust myself, I needed others to reflect back a positive image of who I needed to be for them. Only then could I know I had gotten ‘me’ right. Unable to have satisfying relationships I spent my life on the edge of nervous exhaustion. And then there were always those whose approval and acceptance I could not win. For these people, I saved my special attention. The task I had set myself was nothing short of Sisyphean.
The journey to reclaiming my spontaneous, curious self, started when I stopped running away. I took a look at what scared me most. That took courage and the help of several good therapists. Once I had stopped running, I was able to acknowledge and accept this ugly shame filled part of me. The part of me I had now come to call Black Goo. As I got to know her, I realised how much of my life had been spent preventing this part of me from being seen. Pretty much all of it.
It sounds crazy, but one of the ways I kept Black Goo in control back then was a repetitive image of myself living as a bag-lady on the streets. My antidote to becoming a tramp was to become a workaholic. Of course, I didn’t know this was what I was doing. I just had a lot of fear around my abilities to take care of myself and survive.
The first time I realised that this ugly me might not be all of me was when I first met Black Goo. Catching her out of the corner of my eye, that’s how it felt, a glimpse. My immediate response was one of disgust. But at that moment the seer had seen. And the seer was not Black Goo. With the seeing came that kernel of acceptance a sliver of non-toxicity. The more I got to know Black Goo the more I was able to understand my toxic shame.
Where once I waded in to beat myself up with a club, I was now able we see this part of me as the vulnerable child I was. And with the seeing came forgiveness and compassion. Eventually, I came to understand something that would change my life. Black Goo, it turned out, was none other than my spontaneous, curious, creative self.
“There once was an ugly duckling with feathers all stubby and brown”
Good stories endure for a reason. They touch some fundamental core common to us all. In Hans Christian Anderson’s, ugly duckling we have that most common and poignant of complex emotions, shame. Bullied and perpetually confused with nowhere to belong the ‘Ugly Duckling’ a character who is “bit, pecked, hissed and screeched at” for no other reason than he looks different.
And so he moves on from one rejection to another. Until one morning he wakes to find himself encased in ice. No longer able to move, frozen in shame.
And then, just when it seems all is lost a kindly farmer takes him home. And we the audience, tucked in our downy beds or sat hush faced in darkened theatres, heave a collective sigh of relief. Short lived. Luck has come too late. Convinced of his ugliness our duckling heads out into the world once more. Alone.
The ugly duckling story is three-quarters dark and one-quarter light. It is the dark part that most of us identify with either in part or passing. Which of us, after all, is without our ugly duckling? That small part of us that we feel ashamed of. But for countless others there is no passing. They are that ugly duckling writ large.
In the fairytale version, spring arrives and with it transformation. Where we the audience see three beautiful swans the ugly duckling sees two. This another breath held moment, we the audience wait, certain now that it is only a matter of time… and then he looks.
Not such an ugly duckling after all. But this part of the story, the one that is quarter light, is as any ugly duckling will tell you, the stuff of fairy tales.
* Toxic shame is a vast subject. This article focuses on the experience of shame from around 6 to 9 months. Around this time, the baby’s need for total unity with the mother has diminished. He has more interest in the world beyond her. The article does not address the experience of shame in the period 0–6 months when the baby is in a more symbiotic relationship with mother/primary caregiver.
Another period not covered by this article, when shame is a particularly prominent experience, is early to mid-adolescence. This is a period defined by heightened self-consciousness and being accepted by one’s peers. It also coincides with another period of significant development in the social brain.
** The prefrontal part of the cortex links the sensory areas of the cortex with the emotional and survival oriented sub-cortex. The first part of the prefrontal cortex to develop is the orbitofrontal part and with it the ability to relate to others sensitively, to pick up on social and emotional cues, and the development of empathy. The prefrontal cortex notices whether our behaviour is currently socially acceptable and can suppress impulses. It doesn’t work on its own. It fine tunes the emotional responses generated from the deeper layers of the brain in the amygdala and hypothalamus.