(Trigger Warning – Mention of suicide and abuse.)
“Toxic Shame”, just reading those words makes me cringe. I didn’t know until recently that there was a term for it, but I am very familiar with the effects and damage that toxic shame causes. In my experience, toxic shame can cause generational damage as well.
What is toxic shame?
To answer that question, I first have to explain what ordinary shame is. According to Mary C. Lamia Ph.D. , “as a self-conscious emotion, shame informs us of an internal state of inadequacy, unworthiness, dishonor, regret, or disconnection. Shame is a clear signal that our positive feelings have been interrupted. Another person or a circumstance can trigger shame in us, but so can a failure to meet our own ideals or standards.”
In the article, What is Toxic Shame? , it is the shame that has become toxic. That level of shame is described as “internalized shame” that hangs around and alters our self-image. For some people, toxic shame can consume their personality. For others, the shame lies beneath their conscious awareness, but can easily be triggered.
The article further explains that “toxic shame differs from ordinary shame, which passes in a day or a few hours, in the following respects:
- It can hide in our unconscious, so that we’re unaware that we have shame.
- When we experience shame, it lasts much longer.
- The feelings and pain associated with shame are of greater intensity.
- An external event isn’t required to trigger it. Our own thoughts can bring on feelings of shame.
- It leads to shame spirals that cause depression and feelings of hopelessness and despair.
- It causes chronic “shame anxiety” – the fear of experiencing shame.
- It’s accompanied by voices, images, or beliefs originating in childhood and is associated with a negative “shame story” about ourselves.
- We needn’t recall the original source of the immediate shame, which usually originated in childhood or a prior trauma.
- It creates deep feelings of inadequacy.
“If not healed, toxic shame can lead to aggression, depression, eating disorders, PTSD, and addiction. It generates low self-esteem, anxiety, irrational guilt, perfectionism, and codependency, and it limits our ability to enjoy satisfying relationships and professional success.”
I understand all of this. Shame and guilt have been used as weapons to manipulate me, to control me, to make me comply with another’s wishes, to make me submit. It is an awful experience and it stays with you. For much of my life I had no defense against this. I was conditioned to be a co-dependent early on. I was taught that my needs came secondary and that I must never disappoint. It was the end of the world if I disappointed, so I complied, much to my detriment.
Taking responsibility for things that aren’t yours (false responsibility) and toxic guilt are two things that often go hand in hand with toxic shame. A person ends up becoming overly agreeable which opens them up to being easily manipulated. Shame corrodes the person from the inside and can affect all areas of their life.
This is not something that just goes away. My conditioning followed me well into adulthood. Mix in my autistic brain insisting that “rules are rules”, my unwavering loyalty, my need to help others, my fear of disappointing people, my social anxiety traits, and my full-blown Generalized Anxiety Disorder as well as never being taught growing up how to advocate for myself (I learned as an adult) and I ended as someone who has, overtime, developed Complex-PTSD from being subjected to years and years of emotional neglect and abuse.
Keep in mind that shame and guilt are two different feelings. Brene’ Brown, researcher-storyteller, explains in her TEDtalk – Listening to Shame:
Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behavior. Shame is “I am bad.” Guilt is “I did something bad.” How many of you, if you did something that was hurtful to me, would be willing to say, “I’m sorry. I made a mistake?” How many of you would be willing to say that? Guilt: I’m sorry. I made a mistake. Shame: I’m sorry. I am a mistake.
I was not the way they wanted me to be. My masking took a huge toll on me, but, in my mind, I had to comply. It was how I avoided the shame and guilt trips. If I just complied, then I was spared the emotional gut punching. By complying and trying to please, maybe I could feel valued and not worthless, at least for a little while. If I objected in anyway, advocated for myself in ways that contradicted them, and/or insisted on maintaining my personal boundaries, then the shaming would begin. The shaming is still happening, but instead of complying, I get angry.
My neurology and my ability to parent have been attacked for years. This started when I had had enough and drew a metaphorical line. I wasn’t going to tolerate being treated like that anymore. I should never have had to fight those closest to me in order to have my individuality and identity, but I did fight for over three decades.
How does toxic shame become generational?
Parents can unintentionally or intentionally transfer their shame to their children through verbal messages or nonverbal behavior. If they were subjected to toxic shame, then they might project that shame onto their own children and the cycle continues. This is even truer when a parent has an untreated personality disorder or untreated mental health issue. Some examples of this include: a child might be feeling unloved in reaction to a parent’s depression, absence, indifference, or irritability or feel inadequate due to a parent’s competitiveness or over-correcting behavior.
Toxic shame makes it very difficult for a person to accept themselves. A person can find that they hate themselves, that they feel absolutely worthless and have no value what so ever. If this person is also autistic who is trying to live in a world that is not designed for them then that feeling of worthless and emotional pain only grows exponentially.
Up to 50 percent of autistic adults have considered ending their own lives, a rate two to three times that seen in the general population (1). There was a time that I wanted to die. I wasn’t suicidal. I just wanted my physical, mental, and emotional pain to end – more on that here.
According to Luna Lindsey:
Shame sends two of these three messages:
- I am intrinsically unacceptable which will make me always be alone
- I am inherently unfixable and therefore will always be a source of trouble for those who do love me.
And shame (and resulting anxiety and depression) causes so much pain, that the third ingredient is an easy leap. After suffering long enough, suddenly death seems like a relief.
Luna continues on and suggests some possible solutions:
Affirmations – “For starters, when I feel this way, I often find relief from reading the well-crafted and autism-specific affirmations by Liane Holliday Willey which are posted on the WrongPlanet forums. These work most of the time, except for when, for whatever reason, I’m feeling overly cynical and don’t believe them.”
Self-Acceptance – “Because of these differences, there are many behaviors that will always be difficult or even impossible for NTs to accept, and you have to accept that, too.”
Identify your strengths (Aspie Superpowers) – “These are examples of how ASD makes you particularly awesome. They are the other side of the coin, your X-ray vision to the kryptonite. For examples, see the two links at the beginning of the paragraph. Come up with your own list. During shame-filled times, go over them and remind yourself of your strengths.”
Consider coming out – “According to Brené Brown, shame requires secrecy, silence, and judgement to survive. Without these things, it will die. Consider finding a safe space, free of judgement, either with safe family, or safe friends, or with a therapist, or online at a place like WrongPlanet. Bring your shameful moments to light. If you feel judged, then go back into your shell until you do find someplace safe.”
To close, I would like to share a poem by Tara Brach, Radical Acceptance:
May all beings
Heal and awaken
Into the love and awareness
That holds and honors
The fullness of being.
(Poem found at The Power of Mindful Empathy To Heal Toxic Shame)
- Segers M. and J. Rawana Autism Res. 7, 507-521 (2014) PubMed