How to Heal Toxic Shame
Shame happens when we perceive we have done something wrong and someone else witnesses it. Instead of seeing the behavior is wrong, we believe that we are wrong, bad, defective, unworthy, or don’t deserve love. Unlike guilt, shame requires a witness to exist. For example, if I believe that stealing is wrong and take something that doesn’t belong to me, I will feel guilty. I won’t feel shame unless and until someone knows I’ve stolen.
Toxic shame puts us in shadow. We forget, if we ever knew, that we’re creative, brilliant, worthy, amazing, daring, trustworthy, good, sexy people. Nothing can convince us otherwise because when we look out into the world, all we see is proof of our depravity.
Stop the Crisis
The first step to healing from anything is to stop the crisis. Crisis is about survival. If we’re busy fighting for survival, we can’t heal. The order of operations is crucial. You can’t heal if you are continuously wounded. You can’t heal if the scabs are torn off over and over again. So, if there is a partner, family member, boss, or friend who tears you down, it’s time to cut the cord. You don’t have to decide right now if this is a permanent change, but you need to create a sanctuary, a place where you can focus on your needs and healing. If you are your own worst enemy, it’s time to call a truce with yourself.
Let Yourself Be Seen
Shame occurs in the presence of a witness. Healing shame requires a witness too. This person needs to be someone you feel safe with, someone who won’t judge and will mindfully reflect back what she sees. When you share the things you like to do and the things you care about, you get understanding back. When you reveal your boundaries and what you don’t want, you get acceptance. You don’t have to pretend to be or like things you don’t. You don’t have to be perpetually positive, funny, popular, or charming to be liked. Eventually you will begin to feel that you are being truly seen, and it’s okay. Someone knows the real you and still cares. This can open the door to believing that maybe the shamed version of yourself is not your authentic self after all.
Let Yourself Be Heard
It’s important to tell your story to someone that you trust. People are hardwired to reflect back what they see. It happens in micro movements when we are in rapport with others. This is how we sense energy shifts around us. It happens imperceptibly. When we tell our story to someone who reflects back compassionate and empathy, it helps us to feel understood and validated. It lets us know that we were hurt and that hurt was real. We’re not stupid, crazy, or worthless for feeling what we felt.
Shame thrives in silence. Emotions that we push away and refuse to feel get stronger. Everything in life flows and changes to something else if we let it. Telling your story opens the door to that cleansing. The more you do it in a safe place, the more that you will learn that the things that happened to you, and the things you did, aren’t you. You are more than that, and today is a good day to start living up to the greatness within.
Feel Your Feelings
Emotions live in the body. They are physical. For example, anger can show up with heat and tension in the head, neck, and shoulders. Blood flow increases. The hands get tight. Breath quickens. Your focus narrows on the threat. Your body may puff up to become bigger.
Fear can look very different. The body contracts and gets smaller to make a smaller target. The breath and blood slows. Muscles tighten as if bracing for an attack.
When we don’t feel our feelings, they create habitual patterns in our body that keep us on edge and create an environment where dis-ease can thrive. I have lots of clients whose bodies are like bricks. They carry so much tension and are easily triggered because they never relax. They are always a hair’s breath from being over the edge. When you mindfully feel your feelings, you release them. This isn’t the same as ranting or crying. If you’re not sure how to mindfully feel your feelings, you may need help with this.
After you have felt your feelings, ask yourself what your feelings are trying to tell you. Feelings are purposeful. Fear indicates that you feel danger and may need to seek safety. Anger is about feeling your boundaries are being crossed or that something isn’t fair. Sadness is about wishing or longing for something that is not here. Anxiety is about not knowing what to do. Feelings are your friends. If you listen to them, they don’t have to scream to get your attention.
Know You Are Believed
Shame comes from invalidation. Healing comes from validation. Something magical happens when you tell your story and you’re believed. This doesn’t mean that the story is the whole truth. There may be things you don’t see. Maybe some details are hazy. It’s really deeper than that. It’s a knowing that your experience is real. Your feelings are valid, and you are important. We’re all mirrors for each other. When we reflect this back, it is healing for both sides.
Shame thrives in isolation. Healing comes from connecting. It may feel counterintuitive to be vulnerable when that’s exactly what got you hurt. That’s precisely what healing asks of you. So choose your partner in healing wisely. Take your time. It won’t happen overnight. Commit to the task. Let yourself shine little by little in authentic ways until it becomes the new norm. You can break this pattern and thrive. And if you can witness for others one day, repay the favor.