It is clear that toxic shame is a destructive emotion that saps our energy and robs us of the joy of being alive. But does that mean that all shame is bad?
Brene Brown defines shame as “The intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging — something we’ve experienced, done, or failed to do makes us unworthy of connection.”
But toxic shame cuts to the core of our identity. We carry a dark sense of being deeply flawed and defective. This shame is so painful that we desperately try to hide it from others and develop compensatory behaviors (such as seeking power and wealth or constantly joking) that are designed to distract us from noticing how flawed we are (or think we are).
Being paralyzed by shame puts us in a freeze state that holds us back in multiple ways. However, there are times when we do something that violates our own ethical code and creates pain for others or ourselves. Perhaps we sent a harsh email, broke a promise, or overindulged in eating or drinking. If we have no feeling about these inevitable lapses, we may not avail ourselves of emotional information that tells us that we’ve violated someone’s boundaries, hurt ourselves, and failed to live up to our own values.
John Bradshaw, who has done brilliant work with shame, writes that:
“In itself, shame is not bad. Shame is a normal human emotion. In fact, it is necessary to feel shame if one is to be truly human… Shame tells us of our limits. Shame keeps us in our human boundaries… Our shame tells us we are not God. Healthy shame is the psychological foundation for humility. It is the source of spirituality.”
Guilt and Shame
Some people who have explored this complex topic have invited us to differentiate shame from guilt. John Bradshaw has suggested in his book, Bradshaw on the Family, that “Guilt says I’ve made a mistake; shame says I am a mistake. Guilt says what I did is not good; shame says I am no good.”
It is helpful to find a language that resonates for us to differentiate between how we feel when we make a mistake or fall short of our ideals from the paralyzing shame of being a mistake.Mistakes can be learned from; we can correct them. We can seek forgiveness, forgive ourselves, and move on
The important thing is to find some way to distinguish something inside us that is extremely toxic from something within that is helpful and redemptive. But it’s tricky. As psychotherapist Christine Evans suggests in her book, Breaking Free of the Shame Trap:
“I believe that most of us who are shame-based feel ashamed when we have done something we feel guilty about. It’s almost impossible for us to simply “make a mistake.” For us, making a mistake confirms our belief that we are a mistake…When we talk about our guilt, we often mean our unacknowledged shame.”
Evans makes a distinction between healthy shame, which keeps us humble and reminds us of our limitations, from pathological shame, which is paralyzing and incapacitating. As a psychotherapist, I’ve found it useful to help clients differentiate toxic shame from healthy shame.
As we begin to notice and work with our toxic shame in a mindful and skillful way, we can move toward being more self-validating and self-affirming. As this debilitating shame begins to heal, we’re better positioned to differentiate this from the healthy shame that gets our attention in a way that can serve our growth.
© John Amodeo
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flickr image by Harold Heindell Tejada
John Amodeo, Ph.D., MFT is author of the award-winning book about relationships as a spiritual path, Dancing with Fire: A Mindful Way to Loving Relationships. His other books include The Authentic Heart and Love & Betrayal. He has been a licensed marriage and family therapist for 35 years in the San Francisco Bay area and has lectured and conducted workshops internationally.