Releasing Toxic Shame from the Body
Do you think you suffer from toxic shame?
Guilt is an emotion that we all feel from time to time. You may feel it after you have done something wrong. Guilt can be a useful emotion, as it tells us when we may have swayed from a morally sound path.
Shame is a more powerful emotion than guilt. While we only feel guilty about one action or a series of actions, shame tells us that all of us is wrong, bad, or corrupt.
Many people in recovery feel shame due to adverse experiences they had when they were children. If shame is not kept in check, it leads to toxic shame, which is chronic and can ruin a persons life
Experiencing toxic shame in recovery from addiction is dangerous. If it is not addressed it can lead to relapse.
This article explains the differences between shame and toxic shame. Further on, you can find out ways of overcoming both.
What are the differences between shame and toxic shame?
Toxic shame is different from regular shame in that it is a chronic and debilitating.
This type of chronic shame often starts in childhood. If you were constantly told that you were bad, or if you experienced physical or sexual abuse, you may have internalized the message that you are unworthy. These messages can be from our parents, other family members, care givers or society at large.
What are the symptoms of toxic shame?
There are many symptoms of toxic shame, but some of the most common are:
A feeling of worthlessness or inadequacy
People with toxic shame may always feel like they are “less than” other people. This can lead them to feel like they cannot achieve accomplishments that may actually be within their reach. For example, someone who feels inadequate may not apply for jobs that they are qualified for because they feel they wouldn’t be able to complete the tasks involved.
A sense of being different or "not good enough"
If you have chronic shame, you make constantly feel inferior, no matter what you have done. You may be incredibly accomplished, yet still suffer from “imposter syndrome”.
A deep sense of humiliation or embarrassment.
While everyone feels embarrassed from time to time, if you have chronic shame you feel embarrassed most or all of the time. These feelings may be a particularly intense sense of embarrassment.
A feeling of being exposed or on display
When people stand in front of a crowd to give a talk, they may feel uncomfortable being the center of attention. If you have chronic shame, you will feel like this all the time.
Avoidance of eye contact
If you have toxic shame, you may rarely look people in the eye, and instead look elsewhere.
While some people may occasionally engage in negative self-talk, people who have toxic shame talk critically to themselves all the time.
People with toxic shame often try to do everything “perfectly”, as they believe this will stop them from feeling shame. The reality, though, is that there is no such thing as “perfect”.
When someone who is a perfectionist makes an inevitable mistake, they may beat themselves up in a way that is completely out of proportion to the mistake they have made.
A need for approval
If you experience toxic shame, you may feel like you need to constantly gain validation from other people. You might spend an inordinate amount of time taking photos and videos of yourself and your life and posting on social media.
Difficulty trusting others
People who experience toxic shame have always been hurt by others in the past. This leads to problems with trust.
What are some ways of releasing and overcoming toxic shame?
If you suffer from chronic shame, there are many ways in which you can work towards releasing it. Different methods work for different people. You may find that one particular method works, or a combination.
Ways of overcoming and releasing toxic shame include:
Working with a therapist
Working with a therapist or counsellor can help you address the underlying causes of your toxic shame. Some you may know about, some may be hidden from you. Therapists are trained to help you deal with both of these, and uncover causes of toxic shame that you may have buried deep within.
Engaging in regular self-care
Looking after yourself is an act of self-love, and by doing it you are signalling to yourself that you are worthy.
Practicing meditation can help in a couple of ways. Firstly, you can become more aware of your thoughts and emotions. When meditating, rather than trying to change anything, just sit with these thoughts and emotions. Noticing the un-loving nature of your thoughts to yourself may act as a catalyst to change. Sitting with difficult emotions can help you to release them.
You can also practice metta meditation (loving-kindness). Part of this meditation technique involves sending love to yourself. Done consistently, this meditation can help to release toxic shame.
Writing about your experiences with toxic shame helps the healing process. You can do this either in a journal or on a blog or website.
You may feel adverse to writing about the thoughts and feelings that you feel the most shame around. Writing about these tends to promote the most powerful healing.
Talk about your story related to toxic shame
Talking about your experiences of toxic shame with other people can help to release it. It also has the bonus of helping others with their shame.
Many people in recovery groups have had experiences with toxic shame and have come through the other side. Hearing other people talk about their toxic shame can help you find the answers to release yours.
If you feel shame because of things that you did while you were using drugs or alcohol, you might consider going to NA (Narcotics Anonymous) or AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings. Many of the people who go to these meetings felt toxic shame, used substances to block out these feelings, and subsequently lived a lifestyle that they feel deeply guilty about.
If you believe that you feel shame because of things that happened to you while you were a child, you could attend ACA (Adult Children of Alcoholics).
Observe your inner voice
When you talk to yourself with your inner monologue, what do you say? Do you talk to yourself in a gentle and caring way, or are you mean to yourself?
You may have internalised what people have said to you in the past, and now reinforce their message.
Becoming aware of what you say to yourself is the first step. There may be a particular saying that you often repeat to yourself. For example, you might say “you are so stupid”.
Understand that when you talk to yourself in this way, you are often repeating phrases that were said to you when you were a child. Realise that there is not any truth to these sayings and stop saying them.
You can also try practicing saying positive affirmations to yourself. Try looking in the mirror and saying a phrase that is the opposite of your previous negative self-talk. For example, the antidote to “you are so stupid” might be “you are so smart”. “You are so ugly” becomes “you are so beautiful”.
Saying this might initially seem odd or a bit cringey. Stick with it, though. It really works if you keep practicing.
Toxic shame, sensitivity and addiction
The addiction expert Gabor Mate talks in one of his lectures about how for years scientists have looked for a gene for addiction and been unable to find one. What they have found, though, is a gene for sensitivity. In fact, there are a large group of genes for sensitivity. The more of them you have, the more sensitive you tend to be.
Having more of these genes increases the chances of you having a host of mental illnesses, including bipolar, schizophrenia, depression and ADHD. These genes also predispose people to addiction.
Living in a world that is at times difficult can be even more challenging for naturally sensitive people. Many of these people begin using drugs and alcohol to numb their sensitivity and be able to function better in the world. Of course, this always backfires, and in the end causes pain instead of relieving it.
Not only are these people sensitive to the environment around them, they are also sensitive to their own inner world. While feelings of shame may be manageable to someone moderately sensitive, a person who is highly sensitive can become overwhelmed.
These feelings can be so strong for these people that they turn to substances to block out the shame that they feel. This is one of the reasons why it is so important for people in recovery to continue to work on themselves and address any toxic shame that they feel.
You can heal from chronic shame
If you relate to some of the symptoms of toxic shame in this article, you may be a sufferer. Luckily, there are many ways that you can address these feelings. It may not happen overnight, but in time you can live a life free of toxic shame.