Toxic Shame | May 2013

Of all the darker human emotions — sad, angry, afraid, hurt, disappointed, jealous, etc. — there’s only one that’s always toxic, only one that’s sure to wreak havoc on our relationships. Perhaps because of its toxicity, it’s the emotion least understood or talked about: shame.

“Shame is the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”1

Let’s understand shame by comparing it to guilt. Guilt can be helpful, can keep us on track when we’ve drifted from or violated our deepest values or standards. It can trigger a course correction or a relationship-healing apology. By contrast, shame knocks us fully off our track, tears us down and corrodes our confidence. When I’ve fumbled or erred, guilt gets me thinking, I did wrong. For the same missteps, shame gets me thinking, I am wrong. In other words, when we condemn our behavior, we feel guilt; when we condemn ourselves, we feel shame.

Shame upends our relationships by triggering two common responses: withdrawing — to conceal the inadequate person we think we are, or erupting into anger — to aim our pain outward and away from us. Neither of these responses — withdrawing or erupting — improve a difficult situation or promote positive connection; they usually heighten whatever trouble might already be underway.
Like the fictional vampire, shame thrives only in darkness, in invisibility. As soon as we’re able to notice that we’re experiencing a shame attack, its power diminishes instantly. That’s why learning to shine a light on shame is the single most effective way to combat it. (This takes pushing past the ironic fact that most of us feel shame about feeling shame, and so are reluctant to talk about it.)

How do we learn to spot our shame attacks? The language we use can reveal shame, whether words spoken out loud or what we’re saying to ourselves in our private thoughts:

“How could I be so stupid?”
“You make me feel worthless.”
“I just want to disappear.”
“Nobody would like me if they knew …”
“I feel like you’re judging me.”
“I’m such a loser.”
"I’m not good enough…smart enough … X or Y or Z enough.”

By shining a light on shame and saying to our partner, “I’m having a shame attack,” we’re keeping connection alive — without withdrawing into silence or isolation — while resisting the impulse to turn against the other. It falls then to our partner to respond with all-important empathy: “I know what that’s like…it’s a horrible feeling…can I remind you of how much you mean to me?”

Eleanor Roosevelt’s oft-quoted words — “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your consent” — remind us that the shame attack is something we do to ourselves. No one can make us feel ashamed. It’s an inclination within us, waiting for just the right moment to stir. How often we mistakenly believe that it’s our partner’s words or deeds that inflict this painful experience, the sense of I’m not good enough. Not so. The same words or deeds would elicit a different response if we hadn’t learned, years earlier, to deliver ourselves to the place of shame under the right circumstances. And only we can free ourselves from shame’s awful grip. 

1 Brown, Brene. 2012. Daring Greatly. (New York: Penguin Books).

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