by guestblogger Alison Gullion, LPC
When we break a leg and hobble around in a cast for what seems like an eternity, other’s notice and give us pardon. Complete strangers open doors for us, stop to let us cross in the middle of the street, or help us to our car with groceries. It is unexpected grace in a relentlessly fast paced world. Believe it or not, people DO still notice others and stop to support them when it is obvious they could use it.
Have you ever known anyone with diabetes? What about rheumatoid arthritis? Likely, the only way you know this information about them is if they tell you. What about anxiety? Depression? PTSD? Chronic Stress? We don’t volunteer such shameful information to the outside world. Our culture expects us to handle emotional and behavioral illness in isolation. We don’t have an outward sign like a cast or wheelchair to notify others of our internal struggle and; we don’t talk about it. This leads to deeper and deeper toxic shame.
WHAT IS TOXIC SHAME?
Leading expert on shame and vulnerability, Brene Brown describes shame as, “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.” We learn these “flaws” early in life when we experience suffering. Over time, we develop an inner dialogue that all too often reminds us of those old stories that seem to echo through our cell biology. As we navigate life’s ups and downs, we either conquer those internal messages of “I am not good enough,” or “I am bad,” or we allow them to become us. Shame is the ‘dampening’ of our spirit that occurs when we believe these messages ARE us. We ARE bad. Shame becomes ‘toxic’ when we use these messages against ourselves or in relationship with others.
When we believe the lie or message of “I’m not worthy,” we can become enveloped by truly believing “I’m the problem.” Think of what you tell yourself when you are standing in front of the mirror in your swimsuit. “You are fat. You have to work harder. You look ugly.” When we find ourselves stuck in a storyline of shame, we end up using it to define our worth. “I look awful. I MUST BE AWFUL. UGLY. FAT.” We then use these toxic messages against ourselves. On one end of the spectrum, someone might use this negative reinforcement to work harder at the gym. At the other end of the spectrum, someone else may eat an entire box of cookies as if to reinforce to themselves they ARE so they might as well fulfill this toxic belief. Believing these messages can lead us down a path of self-hate. Too much of this kind of “pressure” can lead to things like depression, anxiety or even self-harm. It can also begin to affect our relationships with others.
SHAME IN RELATIONSHIPS
Imagine for a moment, an argument with your partner that you’ve had a thousand times. “You never tell me I look beautiful anymore. You never acknowledge how hard I’m working.” In this example, it’s likely your own internal toxic shame is about invalidation. When you are stressed and have a lot going on in your world, your toxic shame slips off your tongue straight at your partner like a dart to the heart. You expect your partner to resolve your own internal deficit. You expect him/her to fill your emotional cup with validation when you’ve exhausted it.
On the receiving end of shame in relationships, your partner feels like they’ve just been smothered in some kind of toxic vomit. They look bewildered and uncertain about what/how to resolve the conflict that now exists. Too many exploits of your toxic shame in this manner leads to a partner defending their efforts or even shutting down entirely and shutting you out.
What if your partner says to you, “There you go again, telling me I’m never good enough.” In relationship, you could predict that his internal shame may have something to do with “failure,” or “not being good enough.” In this example, it is coming at you or is projected as YOUR problem likely when it is truly a matter of a toxic internal belief system within your partner.
You can begin to see how these internal feelings of shame can eventually erode relationships.
What if we could harness some sort of control over this? What if we could stop this from affecting our most important relationships?
In order to heal our relationships, we have to start with ourselves. Here are some quick first steps to redeeming the toxicity of shame:
- Commit to being SELF AS OBSERVER. Promise yourself today, that you will start to listen to your own internal dialogue and take mindful note of what storylines you lived mired under that are toxic.
- ASK yourself where they possibly came from. Did you have a critical mother that reinforced your fat? Did you have a father that neglected to validate your worthiness? We must name and claim these messages before we can take power over them.
- Have COMPASSION. Understand your parents did the best they could with the tools they had in your growing years. Understand, likely the messages you learned that have become toxic in your life were never intended for you to own. Have compassion for yourself. Aka: give yourself a break and truly believe these messages are JUST messages and that it’s not your fault.
- CHANGE YOUR NEUROBIOLOGY with one single thought. When you hear yourself powering down the line of all the things you’re NOT, stop that neuropathway in its tracks and replace it with a new and positive one. For those of you old enough to remember SNL from the 90’s, as positivity expert, Stuart Smalley expresses, “because I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me.” Changing your neurobiology is a process of intervening in moments that over time creates a more positive mind. It’s proven. It works.
Believing we are not our shame, reinforcing that we are bigger and stronger than our deepest toxic stories is the path to a healthier self. If this is difficult, reach out to a counselor who can help you chart this path.
May is Mental Health Awareness Month. Set your intention to be more mindful of how your story is weakened by living out of toxic shame and do something to defeat it!
Alison Gullion, LPC is a therapist, speaker and owner of Pacific Northwest Behavioral Health, LLC in Portland, Oregon. She is dedicated to using the power of authenticity and humor to create radical change in the lives of others. www.pnwbh.com