How to Rid Yourself of Toxic Shame

“Shame is self-sabotaging. It triggers feelings that we are unwell, unworthy, unlovable. Clients often identify with their shame and feel unworthy to welcome into their lives all the love, prosperity, abundance and happiness that is inherently theirs, simply for the asking.” – Joyce Marter, LCPC.

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by Ross Rosenberg, M.Ed., LCPC, CADC for Psych Central.

Shame is inexorably tied to the question that many of us will eventually ask ourselves: “Are we a human doing or a human being?”

In other words, is our value and appreciation for and about ourselves determined by what we do (and how it affects others) or just by who we are?

Human doers live their lives chasing the proverbial carrot, which is unattainable. Because core shame is maintained from the inside, no amount of “carrots” will ever relieve a person of it. It is simply impossible to reach a goal that is neither possible nor realistic.

Self-worth determined by what we do is not life-affirming, nor is it personally and emotionally sustaining. We can never do “good” enough to free us from the shackles of low self-esteem, self-doubt and insecurity.

According to renowned psychiatrist Carl Jung, “Shame is a soul-eating emotion.” Simply, shame feeds on itself. Shame survives in the darkest recesses of one’s insecure, self-loathing and self-doubting mind. Shame needs fear and negativity to survive.

Self-esteem, on the other hand, or feelings of self-love, never results from actions, but instead just by who a person is or desires to become. Dark forces are no match for the light of love, acceptance, self-respect and, most of all, courage. Truth, courage and love of oneself bring shame into the light, where it cannot survive. Love of self, self-forgiveness and the pursuit of emotional healing are soul-affirming, the universal elixir to the cancerous condition of core shame.

I call the beginning point of one’s core shame the “original condition,” where the seeds of adult shame are planted in the fertile soil of a child’s early psychological environment. Abusive, neglectful or depriving narcissistic parents sow the seeds for a child whose self-concept is void of self-affirming and self-loving feelings and beliefs. Like a weed that never dies, shame is buried deep in the inner recesses of a child’s unconscious mind, where the painful memories of our childhood wounds reside. Childhood trauma is ground zero for one’s toxic self-contempt and self-hate.

The parent’s treatment of the child becomes the metaphorical mirror into which children learn to see and understand themselves. The manner in which a child was raised creates a mirror of sorts through which a child views and interprets his or her self-worth.

When parents unconditionally love their child, the child interprets their parents’ love and commitment for them as a direct reflection of who they are. Consequently, they “see” themselves as a worthy, valuable and lovable person.

However, when parents abuse, neglect or deprive their child of unconditional love and safety, this child views him- or herself as unworthy of love and protection. The shame-based child becomes the adult “human doing” who can never outrun his or her shame.

There are two types of shame: shame for who you are and shame for what you have done. Shame for who you are is one’s “core shame” and shame for what you have done is “situational shame.” Both are toxic; however, the former is a lifelong affliction. We can choose to be victims of our shame or try to vanquish it through a courageous battle that includes psychotherapy, support from friends, family, and other nurturing and affirming influences.

Shame-based individuals seem to be stuck in a self-fulfilling prophecy. Although they desperately try to free themselves from the suffocating influences of self-doubt and self-contempt, they are never quite able to relate to others from a place of self-esteem and self-love. Their core shame keeps them anchored in their world of self-degradation and, ultimately, self-sabotage. As much as they try to break the curse of their core shame, they end up maintaining it. And so it continues, sadly for some, for a lifetime.

According to Joyce Marter, LCPC, psychotherapist and owner of Urban Balance, a counseling practice in the greater Chicago area,

“Shame is self-sabotaging. It triggers feelings that we are unwell, unworthy, unlovable. Clients often identify with their shame and feel unworthy to welcome into their lives all the love, prosperity, abundance and happiness that is inherently theirs, simply for the asking.”

She further explained that shame is corrosive, paralyzing and cancerous. It prevents us from fully being able to love and accept ourselves and others while contributing to our feelings of unworthiness. When we identify with our shame, we simply will not self-actualize or reach our full potential because we do not feel worthy.

How to rid yourself of toxic shame:

  1. Work with a qualified and experienced psychotherapist who understands the complex nature of shame and trauma.
  2. Avoid relationships with people who cannot see your self-worth based just on who you are, not what you do.
  3. Nurture relationships with people who recognize your inherent value.
  4. If you are codependent, read books about codependency, e.g., “The Human Magnet Syndrome” or “Codependent No More.”
  5. Seek codependency psychotherapy.
  6. Participate in a codependency 12-step group like Codependents Anonymous (CODA) or Al-Anon.

Ross Rosenberg, M.Ed., LCPC, CADC is the author the Human Magnet Syndrome: Why We Love People Who Hurt Us.

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