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    Overcoming Toxic Shame – Part 2: Tools for Healing

    By Tom Moon, MFT–

    In the last issue I described “toxic shame” as a deep and sometimes debilitating sense of self-loathing that results from traumatic experiences of being repeatedly humiliated, rejected, and treated as worthless. When people are subjected to this kind of treatment, especially when it happens in childhood, they often absorb shame into the very fabric of their identity. The result is a feeling of “basic badness”—a pervasive sense of oneself as defective and unlovable.

    Recovery from toxic shame requires reparative relationships—connections with friends, partners, family members, therapists—in which your fundamental humanity is respected and supported rather than rejected. But there is also an internal dimension to healing. Since toxic shame usually has its roots in childhood abandonment, abuse and trauma, recovery almost always requires accessing your “inner child”—the part of you that was traumatized in the first place—and learning to support, love, and protect that part of yourself.

    Inner child work has evoked its share of ridicule, and is sometimes criticized as sentimental and hokey, because the work involves replacing harsh and judgmental self-talk with the softer language of warmth and self-acceptance. But inner child work has been an accepted part of psychotherapy for almost fifty years, and that’s because it gets results. The practices are essentially self-compassion in action, and when you learn how to re-parent your inner child using them, you develop a deep and strong connection with yourself that can have positive repercussions throughout your life.

    It is almost a psychological law that, as adults, we treat our inner child the way our caregivers treated us when we were children. This is how we perpetuate our shame – by habitually, if unconsciously, re-capitulating attitudes of contempt and hostility toward the most vulnerable aspects of ourselves. That’s why the first step in this work is to set an intention to make friends with your inner child.

    One way to do this is to evoke the presence of your child by, for instance, looking at pictures of yourself as a child and remembering how it felt to be this innocent being that you once were. Talk to this child, and make a promise that, going forward, you will listen to this person, and that you will do all in your power to love and protect her/him. Repeat this practice on a daily basis until the habit of being on your own side begins to take root.

    When you can feel, even if only fleetingly, that you are in your own corner and not your own worst enemy, you can deepen the practice by remembering some of your most shaming experiences from childhood. Ask yourself what would have been the most soothing and helpful words for you to hear from someone at that time. Write what you hear on a piece of paper, and then imagine that someone in your adult life whom you respect and trust is saying these words to you. Let your inner child hear them. Now imagine that you, as an adult, are holding your inner child, and that you are re-parenting your child by saying these words out loud.

    Tell the child in you that you will always listen to what he/she has to say, and that you will never judge his/her feelings. Be alert to the part of you that judges yourself, and eliminate words like “weak” and “failure” from your self-talk. Check in with your inner child several times a day and ask how this little person is feeling. Listen to and accept what you hear without any judgments about whether the feelings are right or wrong.

    Ask yourself about what words you didn’t hear enough when you were young. Ask your inner child directly what this person needs to hear from you. Work to replace critical self-talk with phrases like: “I hear you,” “I love you,” “You didn’t deserve this,” “I’m sorry you were hurt,” and anything else that tells your inner child that you care for this person and are loyal to his/her well-being.

    Toxic shame subsides when the inner child begins to feel safe and cared-for because he/she is held by the adult side of you in a protective and loving embrace. We make this possible when we commit to doing all that we can to make sure we never treat ourselves the way that we were treated by those who abused us.

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