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Toxic Shame

Toxic Shame

Even the emotionally illiterate have heard of conditions like OCD, anorexia, and depression. Shame, however, tends to be overlooked. This is unfortunate since it often accompanies, and even causes, such problems.

The Nature of Shame

To understand shame it may help to contrast it with guilt. The two are often treated as synonymous, which is a mistake. Guilt is usually more rational and specific. It makes sense, in other words. A man cheats on his girlfriend, for example, or a child steals money from his sister, and they feel guilty for doing so.

Shame, on the other hand, derives not from what you do but from what you are. The man could confess to his girlfriend, or the child could pay back his sister. In that way, they atone and rid themselves of their guilt. Shame, however, is a sense of self and much harder to escape.

Indeed, shame can be so fundamental, so much a part of someone's identity that they don't even notice it. Yet, when they later experience a petty humiliation, those feelings rush to the surface and overwhelm them, leading to outbursts of rage that shock their friends and loved ones.

A hypothetical example may help. Tony visits a club with some friends. As he enters, he catches the eye of an attractive woman standing by the bar; he smiles, and she smiles back. Feeling more confident than usual, and encouraged by his friends, he walks over and asks if he can buy her a drink. She turns him down. Most people would shrug this off, even make fun of themselves, but not Tony. Inside he is raging. He sulks when his friends tease him, curses women for "leading men on," and finally picks a fight with a drunk at the next table. Her rejection confirmed his sense of himself as ugly, ridiculous, and unlovable.

Common Signs

People filled with shame generally hold others at a distance. If you feel this way, allowing people to get close is risky. After all, they may expose you.

Thus, the individual may be tense, wary, and avoidant. Work colleagues, for example, will complain, "I've shared an office with her for years, and yet I feel I hardly know her." They may even seem cold and arrogant. In fact, this withdrawal has nothing to do with arrogance. On the contrary, they usually feel inferior, but this is hidden behind a mask of indifference.

To someone full of shame, going to a party, meeting their partner's family, even attending a job interview, seems not only scary but dangerous. At any moment someone could ask a probing question or make some innocent remark, that touches a sore spot. That sensitive spot varies, of course. In one person it may be their low-status job, for another their lack of friends or partner.

Still, no one can avoid people all the time. And when there is no escape, such people can become rude or aggressive. Others make bad jokes, talk non-stop, or play the quirky eccentric. Though they seem confident or obnoxious, however, look closer, and you will see the fear in their eyes. They are trying to keep others at arm's length. The truly confident feel no need to act a part. They can relax and allow people in.

Origins and Consequences

The origins also vary. Often, shame will have been instilled early on. The child feels that what he is, and what society expects him to be, do not match. Imagine a sensitive, introverted boy, self-conscious, and socially anxious. His father hoped for a son who'd go to parties, date lots of girls and then come to him for advice. Early on the boy senses this. Before he can even put it into words, he knows he is going to fail.

In some cases, the child's very presence is felt to be shameful. This is especially true of those who never feel loved or wanted. They were never welcomed into the world; or, as a therapist would put it, their existence was never validated.

Unsurprisingly, the consequences can be appalling. Many cases of depression and self-harm can be traced back to shame. Addiction is also common. Even aggression and violence can originate in shame.

Dealing with Shame

The key is to trace shame back to its roots. To return to the hypothetical example above, in middle age, the socially anxious child undergoes therapy. He sees that he has internalized his father's disappointment and lived for years with that critical voice in his head, constantly reinforcing his shame and sense of worthlessness.

It is time to update, to let go of old thought patterns and recognize that you are free. You can choose to rid yourself of shame. Maybe you set impossibly high standards, or simply the wrong standards. Remember, to be human is to be fragile and confused. Learn to forgive yourself, both as you are and as you once were.

Finally, do not allow others to define you. People will try to box and label you, usually in a way that suits them. Resist this. Find the strength to be your true self, to accept that self, and then live in a way that suits your temperament, apologizing to no one.

Do not underestimate how common shame is, nor the harm it causes. Thankfully, though difficult to address, it can be overcome. And for many, escaping shame is like fleeing a dark prison, one that can hold you for a lifetime.

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