If you are from a dysfunctional family and are the family scapegoat you may feel stuck in your recovery but aren’t sure why. In my clinical practice, toxic shame is something that I discuss with my clients early on in the therapy process. There will usually be a lot of questions about what toxic shame actually is, and what makes it different than ‘regular shame’ (e.g., shame caused by something that we have done or thought that we rightly feel guilty about and/or regret).
Toxic shame is different from ordinary (regular) shame in the following respects:
Toxic shame is chronic in nature. It resides in our unconscious, meaning, we are not consciously aware that we have, or are experiencing, shame. It exists ‘on the back burner’ of our psyche, causing havoc, and yet we do not even know it is there!
The result is a ‘shame spiral’ that can be triggered not just by external events, but often just from our own thoughts (especially memories of past events). The emotions and pain associated with toxic shame are far more intense than ordinary shame, and the feelings in general are far more nuanced and complicated.
Toxic shame causes chronic ‘shame anxiety’ (i.e., the fear of being shamed) and shame spirals can cause depression. Toxic shame is nearly always rooted in childhood and is directly connected to ‘shaming stories’ about ourselves that were imprinted on us when young – typically by our primary caregivers (but not always).
It should also be noted that ‘shaming stories’ are especially potent and psycho-emotionally damaging when the child they are directed at is also the scapegoated family member. These negative views of self are woven into our identity at such a deep level that we are completely unaware of them. Hence, we go through life experiencing a deep sense of inadequacy, including ‘imposter syndrome‘, and yet we have no idea why.
Toxic shame may cause a person to feel that they are defective and not worthy of genuine love and respect; in severe cases, they may feel that they are not even good enough to exist, resulting in the experience of frequent suicidal ideation, or, in the worst of cases, actual suicide.
Toxic shame can result in dissociation – a sense of not being present and/or not feeling connected to one’s own body, thoughts, and experiences – which is also a hallmark symptom of childhood trauma stemming from physical and or emotional / mental abuse. Children believe what the adults around them say – their primary caregivers (typically the parents), especially.
When the primary caregiver behaves in ways that feel rejecting to the child, they will (unconsciously) blame themselves for being rejected, with the root thought being “I am not lovable, there must be something wrong with me.” They will internalize the shaming voices around them, and they learn to talk to themselves in the same shaming and rejecting way that the caregivers (or other family members or adults) around them do.
As they mature, the child will learn to avoid experiencing the pain of toxic shame in a variety of ways:
- They may continue to negate and attack themselves (“I’m worthless”; “I’m stupid”; “I’m unloveable”; “It’s all my fault”; etc) and struggle with anxiety, depression, and feelings of futility.
- They may avoid their own inner reality via becoming what they believe other people need them to be (codependency) or attempting to escape painful inner and outer realities altogether via addiction (alcohol, drugs, porn, shopping, work, etc).
- They may see themselves as a perennial victim and blame, attack and criticize others, and/or become a bully as they seek to dominate and overpower others in an attempt to avoid feeling as helpless and powerless as they did in childhood.
- They may isolate themselves from others by avoiding social situations due to a sense of mistrust and/or feelings of inadequacy and incompetence. They then feel lonely but don’t know how to break the pattern of isolation, which can result in feelings of frustration, anger, and helplessness.
How To Identify and Heal Toxic Shame
Something I often say to clients is that we must start by learning to tune into the subtle (or even not so subtle) signals emanating from our own bodies, as well as pay attention to our internal dialogue (things we say to ourselves about ourselves and others).
This requires bringing yourself into the present moment – which people who experience toxic shame tend to avoid, because at first it may be painful and uncomfortable to be with our own experiences and feelings.
Eventually you will begin to notice shaming thoughts you have about yourself and/or others. Once you notice, take a big breath and then imagine that thought rolling out of your mind down a beautiful green hill into a boat on a river. The boat then drifts off and carries all of your negative, critical, shaming thoughts away.
You might also begin to notice bodily symptoms of shame, even before you begin to notice your thoughts. Perhaps your face turns red and you feel hot; or your heart begins to race; or you suddenly feel overwhelmed, fatigued, tired, anxious, or depressed. These might all be symptoms of repressed (toxic) shame.
How Therapy Can Help Heal Toxic Shame
Toxic shame is a result of growing up in an environment that failed to support our growing sense of self as children. Ultimately, it is a failure of being empathically held and contained within our ‘original tribe’ – our family system.
Healing toxic shame requires being able to forge non-judging, non-shaming, accepting relationships with others in an emotionally safe environment. For some, this means reaching out to a skilled and experienced therapist who understands toxic shame, childhood abuse, and family systems issues.
It is possible to heal toxic shame by building a strong sense of self within the safety of the therapeutic container, and via healthy relationships we create outside of any dysfunctional systems we remain attached to and/or are still negatively impacted by (such as our family-of-origin).
From this solid, inner ‘Ground of Being’, we may experience a sense of acceptance and compassion for self and others, free of negativity and judgment, as we go on to live healthy, fulfilling, and productive lives.
To learn more about toxic, dysfunctional family systems and recovering from deep shame I recommend you read ‘Healing the Shame that Binds You’ by John Bradshaw – one of the first books about toxic shame originating in childhood – and one of my personal favorites.
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Rebecca C. Mandeville is an internationally recognized expert in recovering from dysfunctional and narcissistic family dynamics. She is a pioneer in researching, identifying, defining, and describing Family Scapegoat Abuse (FSA). She will be presenting her findings on FSA in a book to be released later in 2020. You can learn more about Rebecca and access FSA recovery resources by visiting scapegoatrecovery.com