Toxic Shame: Everyone’s Dirty Secret
Shame is more than humiliation. Humiliation can sting for a second, ache with the strain of a belly laugh, and even haunt for a day or two until it passes. Shame is defined as the painful feeling of humiliation or distress which is caused by the consciousness of doing something wrong. Often, we don’t know we’ve done something wrong or humiliating until it is made obvious to us by the reactions of others. Then, we may be exposed to repeated reminders, creating the scenario over and over again while causing the shame to go deeper.
Normal shame will also pass, like normal humiliation. Every so often we might think of that shameful moment and feel just a hint of that original painful feeling. We’ve processed the event, we’ve learned from the event, and we’ve let go of it- for the most part. We don’t experience any kind of chronic circumstance or ripple effect from the event. People who develop toxic shame, however, do. People who experience shame normally do not adopt the shame as part of who they are. These individuals are able to realize: I am a good person, I have acted in a shameful way.
For those who develop toxic shame, the narrative is much different. Adverse beliefs about the self-develop out of toxic shame and become deeply ingrained in the mind. Worthlessness, low self-esteem, and self-hatred are common. Someone who has developed toxic shame believes: I am not a good person. I am a shameful person. I am a bad person. By consequence, everything someone with toxic shame does, thinks, and feels, is intrinsically shameful. With this narrative, shame does not pass. Like a volatile chemical substance, compared to a safe chemical substance, the shame becomes toxic and harmful.
Toxic shame is different from extreme or even toxic guilt. Guilt is assigned to behaviors. Shame is assigned to internal worth and identity. Guilt tells us we have done something ‘bad’. Shame tells us we are bad for doing a bad thing.
When toxic shame onsets in childhood, adolescence, or teenage-hood, it can have potentially harmful results, which could lead to drug and alcohol abuse. Toxic shame can onset at any age, for any reason from something seemingly innocuous to something clearly shameful. Learning to let go, forgive, move on, and return to loving the self is the road to recovery for anyone struggling with toxic shame.
Adolescents and teens who have already developed toxic shame are at risk for carrying that shame in perpetuity which can lead to ongoing self-harm. Treatment programs that offer compassionate, focused therapy provide a foundation for building a positive life. Stonewater Adolescent Recovery offers adolescent and teenage boys a haven for recovery through long-term residential programming for clinical rehabilitation and academic progression.
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