When shame becomes toxic, it can ruin our lives. Everyone experiences shame at one time another. It’s an emotion with physical symptoms like any other that come and go, but when it’s severe, it can be extremely painful.
Strong feelings of shame stimulate the sympathetic nervous system, causing a fight/flight/freeze reaction. We feel exposed and want to hide or react with rage, while feeling profoundly alienated from others and good parts of ourselves. We may not be able to think or talk clearly and be consumed with self-loathing, which is made worse because we’re unable to be rid of ourselves.
We all have our own specific triggers or tender points that produce feelings of shame. The intensity of our experience varies, too, depending upon our prior life experiences, cultural beliefs, personality, and the activating event.
Unlike ordinary shame, “internalized shame” hangs around and alters our self-image. It’s shame that has become “toxic,” a term first coined by Sylvan Tomkins in the early 1960s in his scholarly examination of human affect. For some people, toxic shame can monopolize their personality, while for others, it lies beneath their conscious awareness, but can easily be triggered.
Characteristics of Toxic Shame
Toxic shame differs from ordinary shame, which passes in a day or a few hours, in the following respects:
- It can hide in our unconscious, so that we’re unaware that we have shame.
- When we experience shame, it lasts much longer.
- The feelings and pain associated with shame are of greater intensity.
- An external event isn’t required to trigger it. Our own thoughts can bring on feelings of shame.
- It leads to shame spirals that cause depression and feelings of hopelessness and despair.
- It causes chronic “shame anxiety” — the fear of experiencing shame.
- It’s accompanied by voices, images, or beliefs originating in childhood and is associated with a negative “shame story” about ourselves.
- We needn’t recall the original source of the immediate shame, which usually originated in childhood or a prior trauma.
- It creates deep feelings of inadequacy.
The fundamental belief underlying shame is that “I’m unlovable — not worthy of connection.” Usually, internalized shame manifests as one of the following beliefs or a variation thereof:
- I’m stupid.
- I’m unattractive (especially to a romantic partner).
- I’m a failure.
- I’m a bad person.
- I’m a fraud or a phony.
- I’m selfish.
- I’m not enough (this belief can be applied to numerous areas).
- I hate myself.
- I don’t matter.
- I’m defective or inadequate.
- I shouldn’t have been born.
- I’m unlovable.
The Cause of Toxic Shame
In most cases, shame becomes internalized or toxic from chronic or intense experiences of shame in childhood. Parents can unintentionally transfer their shame to their children through verbal messages or nonverbal behavior. For an example, a child might feel unloved in reaction to a parent’s depression, indifference, absence, or irritability or feel inadequate due to a parent’s competitiveness or over-correcting behavior. Children need to feel uniquely loved by both parents. When that connection is breached, such as when a child is scolded harshly, children feel alone and ashamed, unless the parent-child bond of love is soon repaired. However, even if shame has been internalized, it can be surmounted by later positive experiences.
If not healed, toxic shame can lead to aggression, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, and addiction. It generates low self-esteem, anxiety, irrational guilt, perfectionism, and codependency, and it limits our ability to enjoy satisfying relationships and professional success.
We can heal from toxic shame and build our self-esteem. To learn more about how to do so and the eight steps to heal, read Conquering Shame and Codependency: 8 Steps to Freeing the True You.
©Darlene Lancer 2015
Reposted from the blog of Darlene Barriere.
There are six types of emotional abuse:
One type of emotional abuse that warrants a section of its own is witnessing family violence. Due to the ever-increasing statistics of family violence, I’ve treated this topic separately. You’ll find it below underterrorizing.
Putting down a child or youth’s worth or putting down their needs.
» constant criticism
» telling child he/she is ugly
» yelling or swearing at the child
» frequent belittling-use of labels such as “stupid”, “idiot”
» constant demeaning jokes
» verbal humiliation
» constant teasing about child’s body type and/or weight
» expressing regret the child wasn’t born the opposite sex
» refusing hugs and loving gestures
» physical abandonment
» excluding child from family activities
» treating an adolescent like she/he is a child
» expelling child from family
» not allowing youth to make own reasonable choices
Types of emotional abuse #2: Isolating
Keeping a child away from family and friends.
» leaving child in room unattended for long periods
» keeping child away from family
» not allowing child to have friends
» not permitting child interaction with other children
» keeping child away from other caregiver if separated
» rewarding child for withdrawing from social contact
» ensuring child looks and acts differently than peers
» isolating child in closet
» insisting on excessive studying and/or chores
» preventing youth participating in activities outside the home
» punishing youth for engaging in normal social experiences
FACT: Isolated emotional child abuse has had the lowest rate of substantiation of any of the types of emotional abuse (Kairys, 20022).
Types of emotional abuse #3: Ignoring
Failing to give any response to or interact with a child or youth at all.
» no response to infant’s spontaneous social behaviours
» not accepting the child as an offspring
» denying required health care
» denying required dental care
» failure to engage child in day to day activities
» failure to protect child
» not paying attention to significant events in child’s life
» lack of attention to schooling, etc.
» refusing to discuss youth’s activities and interests
» planning activities/vacations without adolescent
Types of emotional abuse #4: Corrupting
Encouraging a child or youth to do things that are illegal or harmful to themselves.
» rewarding child for bullying and harassing behaviour
» teaching racism and ethnic biases
» encouraging violence in sporting activities
» inappropriate reinforcement of sexual activity
» rewarding child for lying and stealing
» rewarding child for substance abuse and sexual activity
» supplying child with drugs, alcohol and other illegal substances
» promoting illegal activities such as selling drugs
» teaching and promoting prostitution
Types of emotional abuse #5: Exploiting
Giving a child or youth responsibilities that are far greater than a child/youth that age can handle. It is also using a child for profit.
» infants expected not to cry
» anger when infant fails to meet a developmental stage
» child expected to be ‘caregiver’ to the parent
» young child expected to take care of younger siblings
» blaming child or youth for misbehaviour of siblings
» unreasonable responsibilities for jobs around the house
» expecting youth to support family financially
» encouraging participation in pornography
» sexually abusing child or youth
» requiring child or youth to participate in sexual exploitation
Causing a child or youth to be terrified by the constant use of threats and/or intimidating behaviour. This includes witnessing, which is when a child or youth observes violence, hears violence, or knows that violence is taking place in the home.
» with infants and children, excessive teasing
» yelling and scaring
» unpredictable and extreme responses to child’s behaviour
» extreme verbal threats
» raging, alternating with periods of artificial warmth
» threatening abandonment
» beating family members in front of or in ear range of child
» threatening to destroy a favourite object
» threatening to harm a beloved pet
» forcing child to watch inhumane acts against animals
» inconsistent demands on the child
» displaying inconsistent emotions
» changing the ‘rules of the game’
» threatening that the child is adopted and doesn’t belong
» ridiculing youth in public
» threats to reveal intensely embarrassing traits to peers
» threatening to kick adolescent out of the house
FACT: A 1995 telephone survey identifying types of emotional abuse suggested that by the time a child was 2 years old, 90% of families had used one or more forms of psychological aggression in the previous 12 months (Straus, 20003).
Many people including parents, members of the law enforcement community and journalists, think that infants and young children who witness violence are too young to know what happened. They don’t take it in. “They won’t remember.” In fact, infants and young children can be overwhelmed by their exposure to violence, especially–as it is likely to be the case with very young children–when both victims and perpetrators are well known and emotionally important to the child and the violence occurs in or near the child’s own home.