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    Overcoming Toxic Shame – Part 1: What Is It?

    By Tom Moon, MFT–

    Part of being human is that we all experience guilt (the judgment that I’ve done something wrong) and shame (the judgment that I am wrong) at various times in our lives. These experiences may be painful, but they are also inevitable and normal consequences of the fact that we are social animals., hardwired to connect, to attach, and to belong.

    We instinctively reach out to others for safety and protection. We strive to be seen, understood and accepted. The responses we get when we reach out both condition our sense of selfhood and our internal working models of what we can expect relationships to be. If the responses we get are positive, then we feel secure, loved, and lovable; but if we are met with responses that push us away, give us the sense that we are unlovable or are consistently doing something wrong, then our brain function and brain structure develop such that they continue to support our anticipation that relationships will hurt us in this way.

    In the 1960s, psychologist Silvan Tomkins coined the term “toxic shame” to refer to a deep and debilitating pathology that results from traumatic experiences of being repeatedly humiliated, rejected, despised, and treated as worthless. When people are subjected to this kind of treatment, especially in childhood, they are in danger of internalizing and identifying with the experience of shame.

    The result is what some psychologists refer to as a sense of “basic badness”—a deep and pervasive experience of oneself as defective and unlovable. By the way, even after all the progress we’ve made, I see this condition all-too-often in LGBTQ patients. It is one of the by-products of growing up in a homophobic environment. It can be highly resistant to change, even in people who have long ago come to terms with their sexual orientation.

    Unlike normal shame, toxic shame isn’t an experience that comes and goes. It imbeds itself in mind and body and becomes a fixed part of our sense of who we are. Physically, it causes a visible collapse: the chest caves inward, the head goes down, and the eyes look away.

    Cognitively, it builds a “negative recursive loop” in the neural circuitry, which means that victims of toxic shame begin to perceive everything through a shame filter, finding themselves locked into the eternally present past of the original shaming events. The person continually relives these memories and re-experiences the shame in undiminished strength. Life is experienced in a kind of “trance of unworthiness.”

    Interpersonally, toxic shame has paradoxical results. On the one hand, because of the tremendous abuse those with toxic shame have suffered, most live with chronic suspicion and mistrust of other people. But ironically, at the same time, they often trust too much, in the sense that they are prone to get into relationships in which they allow themselves to be continue to be abused and shamed because they fundamentally don’t believe they deserve any better.

    In addition, toxic shame also often leads to the worst excesses of perfectionism because people often try to escape their shame by making impossible demands on themselves. Finally, people who suffer from toxic shame are often susceptible to addictions, because of their need to find ways out of their chronic emotional pain.

    Just as toxic shame begins in relationships with others, it must also heal in relationships in which it is safe to tell our secrets, and in which we are not punished for being who we are. But there is also an internal dimension to the recovery process. The opposite of toxic shame is self-compassion, and it is vitally important to learn the habit of responding to our own inner experience with compassion. How we do that will be my theme next time: Tools for Healing Toxic Shame.

    Tom Moon is a psychotherapist in San Francisco. For more information, please visit his website