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What Is Shame?

Pic of flower, Raleigh Psychotherapy, counseling, shame

Jack came into the office feeling deep and painful shame. “I made so many

stupid decisions,” he told me. “I hurt everyone I love and who loves me. I am a failure in life. I feel so ashamed of myself. I can see no way I can ever forgive myself for the years that I hurt others. If people knew who I really am and what I

did, they would hate me like I hate myself. I am a bad worthless person and

should have never been born.

“I don’t do those things any more, but no matter what I do it never seems to be

enough. I try to make amends and change. I don’t know how to make this different, this hurts so much. I know I will never hurt myself but I can see no way out of this pain,” he said.

Jack is feeling shame, specifically internal shame. He took it upon himself to serve as judge and jury of his own actions, and he convicted himself of a lack of worth.

What is Shame?

There are two types of shame: external shame and internal shame. External shame is the belief that others will judge you and find you wanting. Internal shame is the practice of judging yourself. Both are painful and can harm our self image.

External shame is how we believe we exist in someone else’s mind. It is the type of shame you immediately feel when someone else walks up to you. Before you have an interaction, you prejudge it is going to go badly. You are sure they are going to judge you poorly because somehow this person can see how inadequate, unworthy, incompetent and bad you are.

You feel shame because you think and believe these words. These thoughts alter you brain, creating neural pathways that get stronger every time the thought occurs. It becomes habitual.

Internal shame originates inside of oneself and is connected to what we believe is true about ourselves. It is comprised of internal criticism and negative evaluation. It alienates the good parts of ourselves. It leads to self loathing and an inability to evaluate ourselves correctly.

Internal shame differs from “ordinary” shame – shame that comes and goes in a timely manner – in that it sticks around and alters our self image. It becomes internalized as who we are, instead of what we are feeling at the moment in response to a situation.

Toxic Shame

In the 1960s, Sylvan Tomkins coined the term “toxic shame.” I think of it as

chronic shame. It is with you all the time. It poisons your life. Many times it

lies beneath conscious awareness and is easily triggered.

Shame itself is not a threat to our sense of self worth. It is a part of life and, like

any other feeling, comes to bring us messages. Shame becomes a problem when it becomes toxic or chronic and ingrained into our thinking and our sense of who we are. Shame is a problem when it becomes about who we are rather than what we do.

Is Your Shame Toxic or Chronic?

Here are 11 characteristics to help you identify if the shame you feel is Toxic:

1. Toxic shame can hide in our unconscious mind.

2. Toxic shame lasts much longer than ordinary shame.

3. It is intense and deeply painful.

4. Our own thoughts can trigger the feelings of shame, meaning an external

event is not necessary to activate the feelings.

5. It leads to shame cycles where our feeling spiral out of control.

6. It triggers feeling of depression, hopelessness and despair.

7. Toxic shame is accompanied by images, thoughts and beliefs that

originate in our childhoods.

8. It is associated with stories about ourselves from childhood that

cause us to feel as though we are unworthy.

9. It creates deep feelings of unease, loneliness, restlessness and


10. It creates the feeling that no one wants us and that we are a burden to others.

11. Toxic shame is unjustified shame.

With chronic or toxic shame, a Harsh Inner Critic develops that puts words to the internal beliefs you have about yourself. These beliefs can include:

I’m stupid

I’m ugly

I’m a failure

I’m a bad person

I’m a phony

I’m selfish

I’m unloveable

I’m defective

I hate myself

I am too needy

I shouldn’t have been born

Thinking back to the way Jack described himself and his life, he was not talking about specific behaviors. He was talking about his character and who he was as a person. He believed many of the shame messages that his Harsh Inner Critic was telling him.

The next several weeks we will talk more about the origins of shame, the role of the

Harsh Inner Critic and look for some antidotes to toxic shame.

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