Growing up as the youngest of three boys in a dysfunctional home, I learned real quick that shit rolls downhill. All the trauma, shame, abuse, neglect, addiction, and chaos was unwittingly inflicted on me by people in my family who just didn’t know any better. And how was I supposed to know it wasn’t all my fault?
I’ll spare you the details of my sob story, but I believe any child who feels physically, verbally, or emotionally abused or abandoned understands self-loathing on a visceral level.
Shahida Arabi is often quoted as saying, “A child that is being abused by its parents doesn’t stop loving its parents; it stops loving itself.” This neatly describes but does not explain the inevitable consequence of adverse childhood experiences. Allow me to clarify.
Basic attachment needs require that children feel safe, seen, soothed, and secure in order to develop appropriately. Therefore, when parents fall short and kids have to assume either 1) My caregivers are incompetent, or 2) There’s something wrong with me, they will always choose the safer option. And self-condemnation is much safer when utterly dependent on your parents for survival. It’s also a better choice because children are powerless over inept parenting, while they ostensibly have some control over their perceived shortcomings.
So parental misattunements, unmet needs, abuse, neglect, abandonment, enmeshment, and any form of childhood trauma inevitably produces toxic shame and negative identity statements.
I’m lazy, clumsy, unlovable, stupid. Too fat, too skinny, too shy. I’m not good enough, important, or worthy. I don’t matter.
Even if you never say such things out loud, shame gets wired into the nervous system, and it feels personal, pervasive, and permanent. This can be illustrated by the understanding that guilt is a feeling that you made a mistake, while shame is the feeling that you are a mistake. The former is about behavior, but the latter targets your very identity; one constructive and the other crippling.
And because shame penetrates the very core of your being in a way no other emotion does, it can manifest in innumerable ways. Many people develop a shame-based operational belief system – a set of unspoken assumptions about their inherent unworthiness apparent in their consistent behaviors and attitudes. Think chronic under-earning, self-sabotage, broken picker syndrome, perpetual victimhood, etc. These are a few typical symptoms of toxic shame.
Scientist and author of The Biology of Belief Bruce Lipton says, “Your life is a printout of your subconscious mind.” So if you’re not sure whether or not you suffer from unprocessed shame, just take a look around. All the evidence you need is right there. If you’re ashamed in any area of your life, I’d bet the farm that shame was already there before you gathered evidence to support it.
That’s the greatest trick toxic shame ever pulled off – convincing us that it was an effect rather than a cause.
Shame in Relationships
So what does shame look like in relationships? Well, to be honest, shame could be driving nearly any dysfunctional behavior. But here are a few patterns that are often (but not always) compelled by shame:
- Aiming low, settling for less, or simply taking what you can get
- Creating a story in your head about how they don’t really like you
- Ignoring red flags, your instincts, and warnings from friends and family
- Doing things solely for approval or validation, pretending to be someone you’re not
- Self-abandonment, losing yourself in the relationship, doing way too much for your partner
- Having little to no wants, needs, or boundaries – being overly nice, compliant, and flexible
- Avoiding commitment because you don’t feel capable or worthy of being in a relationship
- Rejecting others before they reject you, including relationship-sabotaging behaviors
- Various vulnerability avoidance tactics (aloofness, busyness, self-medicating, etc.)
- Withholding feelings and concerns to avoid arguments, conflict, or confrontation
- Feeling like you have to earn your keep, prove your worth, or win your partner
- Shaming, controlling, or domineering behavior to keep the focus off of you
- Placing your partner on a pedestal or blaming yourself for everything
- Being overly defensive, contemptuous, hurtful, or even abusive
- Staying in harmful or unsatisfying relationships way too long
This list is by no means exhaustive (though it’s certainly exhaust-ing), but I hope it gives you a general sense of how corrosive shame is to human connection as well as just how pervasive the problem is. Rare will be the person reading this article who cannot relate to any of the above behaviors.
In John Bradshaw’s book Healing the Shame that Binds You, he writes, “Shame-based people find other shame-based people and get married.” When I read that line, I was like, Daaanng – shots fired!
But think about it. If I’m carrying deep shame, I’ll be uncomfortable as all hell around people who love themselves. Shame already has me feeling terminally unique, why would I marry someone whose relative emotional health makes me look like a loser? No, sir. I’ll team up with someone who understands self-loathing, and maybe we can help keep each other from hating ourselves. Or at the very least, we can blame one another for our problems and feel alone together.
As you can see, shame not only drives the way we show up in relationships, it also exerts an enormous influence on who we get into relationships with. Truly, every shred of work you put into shame reduction will both directly and indirectly improve your relationships. And because the quality of your life depends squarely on the quality of your relationships, I can think of no greater means of personal transformation than investing time, energy, and resources into the healing of toxic shame.
If you can’t identify the problem, it’s not likely you’ll be able to solve it either. So let’s start with shame-spotting. What are some of the most common signs and symptoms of unprocessed shame in addition to the ones already noted above?
Self-deprecating humor, negative self-talk, self-abandonment, self-neglect, and self-pity are all low-hanging fruits of toxic shame. Another one of the more obvious indicators of shame is constant judgment and comparison of yourself and others. Better than. Less than. Glorification and condemnation. Keeping score. Always imagining competition and hierarchies.
Remember, shame doesn’t want you (or anyone) to simply be a garden-variety human. We all have to be gods and goblins, winners and losers. Shame can’t operate on a level playing field with compassion for yourself and your fellow human beings. There’s nothing there for it to sink its fangs into. Like sensationalized news outlets that thrive on outrage, divisiveness, and clickbait, shame’s very existence depends on convincing you that something is terribly wrong. This is why it operates in such close connection with the ego, whose primary function is to be chronically dissatisfied.
On a more granular level, we can identify many forms of both internal and external criticism that are based in toxic shame. All-or-none, rigid, black-and-white thinking. Micromanaging, worrying, ruminating, projecting. Excessive apologizing or use of the word “should.” Workaholism, busyness, over-functioning, and over-productivity. Sarcasm and name-calling. Resentment and gossip. Negative focus, catastrophizing, and time urgency. Debilitating performance anxiety.
All these and many more can be seen as shame-avoidance strategies. Truth be told, shame is nowhere near as obvious or destructive as the things we do to evade it (more on inner-critic attacks in Pete Walker’s book Complex PTSD).
A longstanding inability to set boundaries, protect yourself, ask for help, or state your needs is often a strong marker for underlying shame. Similarly, feeling like a burden and not wanting to bother anyone usually points to a deeply held belief that the world would be better off if you didn’t exist.
And perhaps the most inconspicuous symptom of toxic shame is feeling stuck – in your job, relationship, home, personal growth, or whatever. Shame is a glass ceiling on the life of many an unsuspecting person. Whenever I get a client who’s done a hundred years of therapy and read every self-help book but still feels trapped in some awful situation, I always know right away that they’re carrying unprocessed shame. It’s got veto power over everything and cannot fail to keep people stuck indefinitely until they finally take out that trash.
Again, shame takes many forms, from perfection to dereliction and everything in between. Its coverups are infinite, so you’ll have to do your own honest investigation. And for people who obstinately deny the possibility that they’re ashamed in any way, this is definitive proof of shame deeply ingrained and fully integrated.
The most malignant and tenacious forms of shame live in the hearts of those who refuse to acknowledge its existence.
If you or someone you know is interested in the process of shame recovery, I’ll be teaching a live seminar on it next Saturday, November 12th at 8:00 am Pacific Time. Details and registration here.
*This article contains Amazon affiliate links to the books mentioned