Toxic shame after trauma and abuse

Mar 23, 2019

Do you get intense waves of toxic shame or do you feel like you're always ashamed of yourself?

First, we need to be crystal clear on where all that TOXIC SHAME came from:

  • we were not born that way
  • we were made to feel that way by other people’s actions & in-actions, their words, gestures and by the way they looked at us*
  • what we were forced to do against our wish

*Yes, a *look* alone can make someone else feel ashamed about themselves.

Here are some examples of verbal messages that induce shame:

  • toughen up
  • you don't amount to anything
  • you are just hopeless
  • you are useless
  • you're ruining my life
  • etc

You may have been questioned as to how female or how male or how human you are. It can also be in form of withdrawal of love and affection, rejection, emotional neglect, being belittled and minimised…


All this leaving you with that strong sense that there is something deeply intrinsically wrong with you as a person. You feel that you are fundamentally different to other people. Along with feelings of self-doubt, lack of self-worth, lack of confidence, helplessness and hopelessness… 

Shame is all about who we are as a person

That's why shame is so much more painful then feelings of guilt.


So, what's the difference between shame and guilt?


Shame defines your ENTIRE self, whereas guilt is about a particular action, in-action or behaviour.

For example: when you made a mistake, feelings of guilt come up about the action/choices you made.

We feel guilty about actions that are not in line with who we want to be as a person. Therefore, if you strive to be a healthy person, then you will feel guilty for eating too much chocolate, or not exercising…

So, feelings of guilt can be healthy or good in a way, as it ensures that we choose actions that are in line with our goals & values.

 

However, for us these feelings of guilt quickly flip into intense feelings of shame. Now it is no longer about the action (e.g.: I made a mistake). Our toxic inner critic kicks in and you're telling yourself things like:

  • “I am a mistake”
  • “I am hopeless”
  • “I am bad”
  • “I am evil” etc

... repeating these hurtful toxic messages you received in your childhood about who you are as a person over and over.... is what makes this so toxic and crippling. (Here's a blog on feeling unwanted and unlovable)


Do you feel isolated? Watch a training webinar on 3 isolation hooks, underlying belief system and actions we can take  https://www.tanjawindegger.com/isolation-webinar-complex-ptsd


Let us become aware of this, and practice to quickly catch ourselves when we unfairly make “global” judgements about ourselves like our abusers did.

For years I needed help from a therapist to recognise shame. Please know that reaching out for help is a sign of courage. 

Here's some flashcards on cPTSD you can download that may help :)


Shame and our body


Working on our shame is quite complex, because everyone tries to avoid feelings of shame. Talking about shame may intensive feelings of shame within us.

First of we need to become aware of what shame looks like or how it shows:

  • How does your body posture change when feelings of shame come up (for me it is pulling my shoulders up while trying to pull my head in – a bit like a turtle)
  • What muscle are tense in our body? (for me is stomach and shoulders)
  • Do you blush? (I used to go bright red even if I didn’t do anything wrong)
  • Do you avoid eye contact?

 

Let us be open and try to become aware of those signs :)

For example: When I first started therapy, feeling ashamed of myself was a constant. It took years of work to catch myself when my shame was triggered: I kind of pull my shoulders up and tuck my head in a little bit and want to vanish into nothingness…

 Please be patient with yourself.

 

Healing: working on your posture can help.

Like if you stand tall and brave, it is almost impossible to feel shame at the same time without changing your posture. That goes for other feelings like anxiety and depression, as well. Each emotion expresses itself in “body-poses”.

So I encourage you to have a play with this at home by yourself or with your therapist or nurturing friend. Pretend you are an actor playing roles that need you to be either brave, proud, happy, smart, anxious, sad, ashamed, curious… how would this person stand, walk, or move? And when you are acting “brave” for example, try to feel a different emotion like “ashamed”, “depressed”. It is very difficult if not impossible. You will notice that you have the urge to change your body posture to match the feeling.


The minute I recognise that I am in my “shame” posture, I get up and change my posture. I also pretend that the shame is like a suitcase that I hand back to the abusive people it belongs to J or just imagine leaving this shame suitcase behind.


 

There was a time in my life where I thought that *I am shame* – it was just so intense and so tangled and messy… but we can get through this! I believe in you!

Learning to catch ourselves early is important as it can help stop it from escalating and so prevent us from engaging in unhelpful coping mechanisms, like using drugs/alcohol or isolating ourselves to cope with those intense feelings of shame. (They were my coping mechanisms.)

Initially it was more of a reflective exercise for me, as the toxic shame wave came on in lightning speed:

  • I tried to work out where did this come from?
  • What did this situation remind me of?
  • Where is its origin?

When shame is triggered, what we are telling ourselves or believe to be true about ourselves, comes from our inner critic. Our inner critic (or demons in my head as I like to call them) is nothing more than internalized messages from abusive toxic people in our past.

Those toxic messages we keep repeating to ourselves are not a true reflection of who we truly are. They are thoughts not facts. But those thoughts fuel shame.


For example: You spill a drink in a restaurant and you have an intense wave of shame coming over you. Maybe in your childhood when you spilled something instead of your caregivers/parents responding like: “whoops, you spilled something. Let's clean this up together. Maybe next time don't fill it up so high” Versus being told “you are so clumsy. You can't do anything by yourself. You are just useless…”


We need to tease this apart now and see the action (e.g. spilling something) separate from who we are as a whole.

Because these “mistakes” do not warrant any kind of messages about who you are as a person.

"I made a mistake", is very different from "I am a mistake".

 

Those messages become part of how we see ourselves and feel about ourselves now as adults. It's time to question those messages.

Think of some recent incidences and tease apart the action versus who you are as a person.

It's very important skill to learn to tease this apart and it's also important for us to recognize where this huge massive shame responses originates from. Then we can remind ourselves that the shame belongs with the shamer, the people who made us feel less then, not good enough… etc in our childhood.


The shame belongs with the shamer


Until next time, sending you lots & lots of love and rainbows to brighten up the tough times just a little


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