Most human emotions show up right on time — sadness after a death, joy during a wonderful experience, etc. They’re rather predictable and relatively well-behaved.
Shame, on the other hand, quietly slides in unannounced through the back door you didn’t know it had a key to.
It wears your mistakes like the rings on a pimp and speaks confidently about your lack of confidence.
Oh man, is shame is a smooth-talker. Like your very own, in-house, disembodied, narcissistic gaslighter who sounds unmistakably like you.
Shame is so powerful because, while other emotions are simply there to be felt, shame actively engages in unyielding shit-talk that you can literally hear.
It tells the other emotions what to do and where to go — a masterful orchestrator of chaos and confusion.
Shame puts its filthy hand inside you like a ventriloquist and makes you say shit no one would ever consciously choose to say about themselves.
But many people believe the thoughts, fears, and insecurities that come cloaked in their own voice. They have an irresistible, homemade brand of counterfeit credibility to them.
It’s fucking dastardly.
The greatest trick shame ever pulled was convincing the world it didn’t exist.
Your negative thoughts… self-directed cynicism, criticism, and pessimism… self-sabotage, self-doubt, and self-loathing… none of that shit is you.
It has nothing to do with you.
No basis in reality whatsoever.
People don’t wanna admit that there’s a stranger in their home because that shit is creepy, but shame is exactly that.
And you have the power to show that scumbag to the door… but first you gotta identify it.
Types of Shame
I must clarify that there is actually healthy shame and toxic shame. Thus far I’ve been describing toxic shame, which is chronic and usually behaves just like a compulsive trauma response (because it is).
Healthy shame is a natural human emotion and a universal experience. It comes and goes. Some say it’s the very basis of our ability to learn and grow. A gentle nudge that motivates us to become more evolved versions of ourselves.
Someone who experiences zero shame is what we refer to as a fucking sociopath, so it’s kind of a good, dandy thing to have a modicum of this reasonable, healthy shame.
Toxic shame, however, isn’t nudging you gently in the direction of your higher self. It’s making you smaller. Holding its hand over your mouth. Suffocating your dreams. Corroding your self-esteem. Or sometimes kicking you in the ribs while you lie in the fetal position as it explains why you deserve regular beat-downs.
It’s not particularly useful to anyone.
How to Identify Toxic Shame
You are a human being. You’ve got strengths and weaknesses like everyone else. And overall, by definition, you’re average at most things. Just like everybody.
As such, there is no one who is inherently more or less lovable than you. More or less valuable. There is no actual “better than” or “less than” on the human scale.
Sure, you might be better than me at some arbitrary task or have a larger salary than me. But as far as being human goes, we’re in the same rickety-ass boat.
What this means, for sure, is that you are definitely valuable, lovable, capable, acceptable, and worthy of any human decency that could be extended to anyone else on this planet — as you are right now. You don’t have to earn your worthiness.
And any thought or feeling to the contrary is a manifestation of toxic shame.
Another easy way to identify this soul-eating emotion is to see if you’re stuck somewhere in your life. Have you tried a million times to heal, grow, change, or do some particular thing but just can’t seem to do it? Yup, that’s shame holding you back.
Whenever I get a client who’s done a hundred years of therapy and read every self-help book ever made but is still trapped in some shitty situation, I always know immediately 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.
How to Heal
The good news is that you can recover from this. The bad news is that I can’t tell you how to do that in a four-minute blog post.
What I can tell you is that toxic shame is a trauma response. It’s a twisted coping mechanism laying over top of a festering childhood wound that could even be pre-verbal.
I promise you’re not gonna resolve your relational trauma all on your own while reading the internet. Relational trauma can only be healed relationally (duh). This means you’ll need a coach, therapist, mentor, support group, or guide through the process. That’s a cold fact.
But my hope is that I’ve planted the seed of awareness and perhaps moved you from zero to one on this healing journey.
Because you won’t fix something until you realize it’s broken.