“Owning our own story can be hard, but not nearly as difficult as spending our lives running from it. Embracing our vulnerabilities feels risky, but is not nearly as dangerous as giving up on love, belonging, and joy—the experiences that makes us the most vulnerable. Only when we are brave enough to explore the darkness will we discover the infinite power of our light.” — Brené Brown, The Gifts of Imperfection
Shame and Your Health
I have repeatedly witnessed toxic shame as the emotion that does perhaps the greatest damage to people’s health and their lives.
I’m not talking about the guilt we might feel when we’ve hurt someone or had a moral lapse, nor am I talking about the embarrassment that comes from looking foolish in front of others. Shame is the feeling of unworthiness, inadequacy and self-condemnation that we internalize when we believe that we are fundamentally flawed or worthless. We might use guilt about our actions as evidence to justify our shame, but many of us punish ourselves with shame even when we know we haven’t done anything wrong.
Guilt is what we feel when we believe we have done something bad. Shame is what we feel when we believe we are bad.
Shame to Control
Societies often use shame as a control mechanism to motivate conformity, but what might be considered “shameful” in one culture might be normal in another. Some cultures feel it’s normal and acceptable for someone to walk around nearly naked, while other societies believe it is shameful for a woman to even reveal her ankle. Obviously, what constitutes “shameful” is subjective. It is often based on societal conditioning, rather than on a universal “truth.”
The tactic of shaming or humiliating a person as a consequence of a violent, indecent, or unacceptable act might seem appropriate, but shaming often fails to bring reformation. Society uses the punishment of shaming to ensure that people follow the rules of the “tribe.” Unfortunately, this tortuous approach rarely inspires anyone to change or evolve. In fact, people often just become cleverer at concealing their actions to avoid further shaming. In the worst cases, they become perpetrators of shame or abuse. Studies have shown that men who commit abuse as adults were more likely to have been abused as children. The cycle of shame perpetuates itself.
Worst of all, shame is often internalized by the victims of abuse, who did nothing to deserve their trauma but nonetheless often feel damaged, or even responsible. Adults are godlike to young children, who often blame themselves for the abuse they suffer. For example, it’s common for children to blame themselves when their parents split up. Even kids from relatively healthy families may suffer shame when they fail to match expectations for their performance in school or sports. As children get older, they suffer by comparing themselves to their peers. There is always someone prettier, more popular, skinnier, or smarter.
Toxic Shame: the Cycle of Self-Loathing
“Shame corrodes the very part of us that believes we are capable of change.” – Brené Brown
Shame is toxic. Shame is our negative judgment of ourselves, making us our own enemy. It is self-punishment. We doubt we are worthy of Love. We question if we are “good enough.” We feel insecure about our validity and doubtful about our place in other people’s lives. We despair that we’re damaged goods, that we don’t deserve love, abundance, or wellness. Ultimately, shame can make us wish we were dead.
Shame is so uncomfortable that most of us prefer to ignore it. It’s not even easy to read about shame. We pretend it’s not there. We tell ourselves stories that it’s okay to avoid looking at it, yet however subconscious the feelings may be, we often find ourselves apologizing for our existence. We strive to “be somebody”—to achieve and be the most ideal person we can imagine—in the hope that it may release us from the shame we hold ourselves in. While people who have suffered challenging childhoods or abuse often have a more intense struggle around shame, it appears to be a natural consequence of human conditioning.
Exploring the Origins of Shame
We come into life innocent. Seemingly all-powerful beings—our parents—orient us to this strange world, sharing what they believe we should think and know. Without them, we would be helpless and lost. They encourage, even pressure us to aspire to their values and follow their guidance. Seeking security, love, and acceptance (and in some cases our very survival), we try to meet their expectations. In so doing, we begin judging ourselves about the ways in which we feel we don’t meet the idealized criteria.
Shame is born from the friction between who we think we are and who we think we should be.
“Who we think we are” is a self-referential pattern of thoughts, our self-image, which incessantly regards our history, our faults, our hopes and fears, and how the world treats us and forms opinions about us. Our minds swim in a stream of thoughts about ourselves. We create this self-image with our thinking, and we can reform it and heal it; each of us can become our own champion rather than our own worst critic.
“Who we think we should be” is a product of the conditioning we receive from society and our parents. Most of us try to be a perfect self that is unattainable and impossible. We believe we “should” be intelligent, attractive, talented, gracious, generous, creative, hard working, self-sacrificing… and the list goes on forever.
It’s bad enough that shame is an issue for “normal” people. Shame becomes dramatically more toxic if a vulnerable child suffers abuse at the hands of a powerful adult. In this case, someone the child looks to for love and security instills fear and vulnerability instead. The child innocently believes they must have deserved the ill treatment, and later feels damaged. This can be so disturbing that the child locks the memory away in denial, but the shame of it still festers beneath the surface, polluting emotional wellbeing and eroding health.
While early childhood is a particularly vulnerable time for developing shame, it’s certainly true that disturbing or traumatic events later in life can also bring shame, such as rape, impotence, bankruptcy, or unemployment. A person may also feel ashamed of their family, sexuality, culture, or country, or of being adopted. Shame can be passed down through generations, leaving us with a subliminal sense of self-loathing for the transgressions of our ancestors.
People who carry toxic shame have low self-esteem and believe that they are seriously flawed. They may fall into the role of either the victim or the perpetrator in an abusive relationship. Toxic shame accompanies many psychological disorders such as narcissistic and borderline personality disorder, eating disorders, and addictions. It is also at the core of many violent behaviors, such as rape and child molestation.
Toxic shame undermines intimate relationships. People often experience repeated patterns in successive relationships. Usually the patterns reflect wounds that we unconsciously re-enact, hoping for a better outcome, but somehow always choosing the partner who can’t respect us, can’t commit, can’t be faithful, or even lashes out violently. Subconsciously, we think that’s what we deserve, and we become accustomed to it.
We may pretend to be admirable instead of acting like who we really are. We may become perfectionists, or people pleasers. This is an attempt to compensate for our inner chaos and turmoil. We create an idealized false self, and then frantically work to maintain that image, because we believe, deep down, that we are ugly and unlovable. We may be hypercritical of others and ourselves. Even arrogance and megalomania can be signs of overcompensating for inner shame and self-doubt. We might want to hide or disappear. We might withdraw from the world. We don’t dare to imagine the full expression of our innate brilliance.
Brené Brown, Ph.D., spent over a decade researching shame. In her book, I Thought It Was Just Me (but it isn’t): Telling the Truth About Perfectionism, Inadequacy and Power, she describes shame as a “full-contact” emotion because we feel it viscerally in our bodies.
She writes, “Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing we are flawed and therefore unworthy of acceptance and belonging. Women often experience shame when they are entangled in a web of layered conflicting and competing social-community expectations. Shame creates feelings of fear, blame, and disconnection…(It) can make us feel desperate. Reactions to this desperate need to escape from isolation and fear can run the gamut from behavioral issues and acting out to depression, self-injury, eating disorders, addiction, violence, and suicide.”
No one likes to talk about shame, not even doctors, psychotherapists or healers. But however uncomfortable the subject, it is essential to examine the shame in your life, because the persistent feeling of unworthiness, of being down on yourself or even against yourself, is bound to take a toll on your health and wellbeing.
How Shame Leads to Chronic Illness
On the physiological level, shame can resonate through the cells of your body and cause inflammation. In fact, the 2004 study, “Immunological Effects of Induced Shame and Guilt,” found that just writing about traumatic experiences in which the subjects blamed themselves for three 20-minute sessions resulted in alterations in the immune system, particularly activation of pro-inflammatory cytokine activity.1 Imagine what effect chronic internalized shame could have over time!
I have regularly seen shame and its attendant self-destructive thoughts and unhealthy coping patterns playing a major role in many people’s autoimmunity and chronic illness, including my own. While it’s clear that other underlying causes combine to trigger the autoimmune process, we must look within and work through any shame we find so each of us can become our own greatest supporter rather than our own worst enemy.
It’s easy to pinpoint obvious shaming experiences in life – but many people are unaware that they harbor subtle forms of shame.
Shame may be present behind feelings of insecurity, self-consciousness, fear, confusion, anger, shyness, or depression. We might end up judging others to project our shame away from ourselves. We might apologize for minor mistakes as if we were supposed to be perfect. We might fear that people don’t really want us to be there—that we’re secretly unwelcome and unaccepted.
Shame can make us act and feel “crazy.” We may not even know why. We might lash out at someone else because we feel bad about ourselves.
Shame can keep us in isolation. We may forego social events. We may refrain from meeting new people, going to school, trying new things, or following our dreams. Shame can hold us prisoner and keep us from living authentically.
Is toxic shame is ruining your life and your heath?
Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do you frequently feel worthless, ugly, stupid, or unlovable?
- Do you feel like you’re a bad person?
- Were you shamed about anything as a child—perhaps your body, your intelligence, your behavior or your sexuality?
- Do you feel shame around a traumatic experience such as childhood abuse or rape?
- Do you hide the “real” you so that people won’t suspect the truth about you?
- Do you lie, cover up, or exaggerate about the details of your life to appear better, smarter, and more successful than you really are?
- Do you feel superior to others?
- Are you a perfectionist?
- Do you cover up feelings of low self worth by pursuing money, education or status?
- Do you have secrets about your past or current situation that you would be mortified if someone found out about?
- Do you tend to be hypercritical of others and yourself?
- Do you lash out inappropriately at others for no reason?
- Do you find yourself chastising yourself constantly over the state of your work, body, finances, or relationships?
- Do you find yourself apologizing for yourself over trivial matters?
Everyone feels some of these feeling from time to time, but it’s important to identify if these feelings are chronic and making you feel miserable and undermining your health and well-being.
“Shame derives its power from being unspeakable.” – Brené Brown
Transforming shame is a journey that requires strength and courage. We must be willing to shine a light on the darkest places in our lives and in our psyche—the places that make us cringe with fear and disgust. We must go down to the basement and face the scary monsters we’ve been hiding from. We must be willing to name our shame and recognize it as the parasite that is sucking us dry. We have to observe how we let our own personal demons possess us.
Conscious awareness has the power to transform our emotional wounds once we bring them to light, much like a properly functioning immune system has the power to recognize and eradicate disease in our physical body.
Dr. Brown suggests that to transform shame, we must first identify and name it. We then summon the courage to reach out to others. Finally, we find our own voice to speak about our shame.
Sharing our stories of shame and listening to the stories of others helps us develop empathy and compassion. Dr. Brown describes empathy as the antidote for shame. Compassion for ourselves goes hand in hand with compassion for others.
Ultimately, it is self-acceptance and love that transforms our shame. When you learn to love and accept yourself, your whole life gets better.
1. Dickerson SS, Kemeny ME, Aziz N, Kim KH, Fahey JL. Immunological Effects of Induced Shame and Guilt. Psychosom Med. 2004 Jan-Feb;66(1):124-31. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14747646
Michelle Corey, C.N.W.C., FMC, is a Wellness Recovery Specialist, Certified Nutrition and Wellness Consultant, researcher and author. Michelle studied holistic nutrition at Clayton College of Natural Health and completed a comprehensive 2-year practical program at Academy of Functional Medicine and Genomics. Since reversing her autoimmune condition, Michelle has helped hundreds of people reverse autoimmune and other chronic conditions. She is currently an advisor to the Academy of Functional Medicine and Genomics and the Functional Medical University. She is a member of the Institute of Functional Medicine and the National Association of Healthcare Advocacy Consultants. Michelle and offers Functional Mind-Body healing retreats, workshops and online courses.
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