Shame is a necessary ingredient in all cultures. It functions to keep order in social groups and teaches individuals how to behave in a way that they can feel competent and secure in their belonging. Shame is a response built into our ancient nervous systems that is associated with the freeze state, paralyzing and terrifying because the connection to our primary social group and thus our means of survival feels threatened. Healthy shame is not a problem but a solution to a problem or potential problem. For example, let's say your son beats up his little brother. You take him aside and say, “It's not okay to hurt your brother because everyone has the right to feel safe in this house.” Your son feels awful. The repair must follow when you welcome the child back into the family, making sure he understands that it was the behavior that was bad, not him. The next time he uses words instead of violence to express his feelings, he should get rewarded. The child is left with a deeper sense of belonging in the family, and will be much less likely to beat up his brother again because he doesn't want that awful shame feeling. Eventually he can feel proud and competent that he can live in a way that makes him feel accepted bythose he cares most about.
Toxic shame, on the other hand is one of the most devastating and damaging experiences that we can have. It arises with chronic shaming and no repair. It makes us feel as if we are deficient (not good enough, unlovable, worthless, bad, etc.) And if we are just bad and unlovable people, why try to change our behavior? We can feel paralyzed in our lives, feeling as if we don't deserve a good life, a good partner, or a good pay check. Or we might become hard and shut down, dumping our shame on everyone else and forever trying to prove to the world how great we are, while underneath feeling like a worthless wretch. Toxic shaming is rampant in our culture now. Just look at the political scene and social media. Shaming has become a weapon to use against those who disagree with us.
How does one recognize chronic or toxic shame? Being overly defensive, constantly criticizing ourselves and/or others, having recurring memories of embarrassing or humiliating experiences, being excessively self consciousness, and suffering from self doubt and a poor body image are signs of chronic shame. Imagine a particularly humiliating experience and see what your body feels like. Oftenthere is tension in the face as well as other areas of the body. There can be a sense of uncomfortable inward pressure or a contraction in the face or belly or chest. Often there is a feeling that one can't move. Being able to recognize shame is the first step in healing it and being able to disidentify from it and the associated negative identities. You never chose to be shamed and you are not your shame.
Shame always develops in a social context and is best healed in a social context. In a safe environment, we can talk about our shameful issue and be met with empathy and empowerment. Often what arises is anger, and when the anger is processed, we are left with more energy and a greater sense of freedom. The shame that has caused us so much pain and suffering can thus be used as a portal into a sense of wholeness and ease of being.
Jim Cunningham, LMFT, practices body oriented psychotherapy in Grass Valley and is a certified facilitator for 'The Living Inquiries', a method or working with anxiety, depression and compulsion/addiction.