Toxic shame is a deep emotion that causes an intense feeling of inadequacy.
Someone suffering from toxic shame will have such low self-esteem that it will negatively impact on every area of their life. That includes their relationships and professional life.
It is essentially where someone carries shame that doesn’t belong to them. Usually, it has been passed to them by parents or a caregiver – normally as that person attempts to transfer their own shame through what they say and do.
For many people, toxic shame overwhelms their personality. With others, it is always there at their core waiting to be triggered – as it can be very easily.
Toxic shame frequently happens from growing up in a house full of conflict. This is always accompanied by huge amounts of criticism.
That means familiar phrases to people carrying toxic shame are such as: “Look what you made me do”; “It’s always your fault”; or “If it wasn’t for you, we wouldn’t be like this.”
It is an adult blaming others, usually their children, for their own shame, faults and failures.
As well as a parent, it could come from someone else significant in a child’s life. This could be such as a teacher or sports coach.
The person on the receiving end will constantly feel flawed as a human being. They will think that there has to be something wrong with them.
It comes from abuse in all its forms of emotional, physical and sexual. It creates a primal fear of being “cast out” from a group such as a family or even society itself.
The basic belief with anyone suffering from toxic shame is: “I’m unlovable. I’m unworthy of any connection with other people.” They blame themselves for this.
It leaves people feeling alone. This often leads to isolation.
Someone such as a partner or a boss can also cause toxic shame to someone when they have reached adulthood. Or this can happen for instance following military action or as with a drunk-driver who causes a crash that disables someone.
Toxic shame seems to invade every cell of a person suffering from it.
World-renowned Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung said:
“Shame is the swampland of the soul.”
“Toxic shame” was a phrase originally coined by psychologist Silvan Tomkins in the early 1960s.
It was a perfect choice of words as “toxic” means “very harmful in an insidious way” deriving from Latin toxicum meaning “poison”.
But it was counsellor, speaker and author John Bradshaw who really brought it into public awareness in his 1988 self-help classic Healing The Shame That Binds You.
Bradshaw wrote how toxic shame is behind many problems including compulsion, co-dependency, addiction, perfectionism and the constant drive to overachieve that leads to burnout.
He described how there was such an emotion as “healthy shame” that keeps us grounded. It reminds us that we will make mistakes and that we sometimes need help.
So it can be positive in moving us toward healthy thinking and behaviour. But toxic shame does not perform that role.
Then Bradshaw made a clear distinction between guilt and shame: “Guilt says I’ve made a mistake; shame says I am a mistake. Guilt says what I did was not good; shame says I am no good.”
Because of this flawed perception it often blocks off someone with toxic shame from accepting love or kindness.
That’s not only from other people but also from themselves.
Professor and author of Daring Greatly Brené Brown also speaks about this when she says:
“Shame is not guilt. Shame is a focus on self, guilt is a focus on behaviour.”
Brown spent several years studying shame and described it as the “gremlin who says: ‘You’re not good enough… I know those things that happened to you growing up, I know that you don’t think you’re pretty, smart, talented or powerful enough…’
“Shame drives two big tapes – ‘never good enough’. And if you can talk it out of that one – ‘who do you think you are?'”
How do you overcome toxic shame?
Letting go of toxic shame requires a great deal of work. It’s been discovered that talking with a therapist is vital for most people.
It involves such as becoming aware of thinking and taking steps to avoid what might trigger negative thoughts. Also, a therapist can help someone learn how to replace these with positive self-compassionate thoughts.
Under professional guidance, some people suffering from toxic shame have found it useful to talk to themselves as children as the adult they are now. They can offer the love that was perhaps missing and say such as: “You didn’t deserve what happened to you.”
To deal with toxic shame people often have to learn to love themselves for the first time. They can do this by such as focussing on their good points and qualities they have.
We have considerable experience in helping people with toxic shame issues.
Contact us today to see how we can help you or someone you care about to move forwards to a fulfilling and happy life.Giles Fourie
It seems like a riddle: those who have experienced past trauma often put themselves in situations to experience similar trauma.
It’s not a conscious decision either. They don’t think to themselves: I will put myself through more pain on purpose.
These people may continuously find themselves in toxic, abusive relationships. They may become violent, chronically depressed, or deep into financial problems. They may seem to go in a positive direction for a while and then seemingly choose to do something to sabotage themselves.
Maybe you know someone like this, or maybe this describes you. Perhaps you feel that you cannot find a healthy relationship.
You are drawn toward those who are toxic for you, but you cannot seem to stop landing yourself into these situations. When you think about it logically, it may make no sense.
However, if you understand the reenactment of trauma, you will see why this happens.
Those who suffer from trauma reenactment often cannot differentiate between what is happening now and the past emotional pain that still envelopes them.
This means that past emotional pain keeps accumulating through reenactment, new experiences, new circumstances, which leaves the sufferer unable to tell the difference between what is truly happening now and what is not.
It is important to understand that trauma reenactment is usually unconscious.
Trauma victims were used to living in chaos and toxicity. They saw the world through a dysfunctional lens, and chaos became their “normal.”
Sometimes these victims may become addicted to the feelings that the trauma ensued. Similarly, some trauma survivors become intensely attached to those who resemble former abusers.
Many theories exist on why those with past trauma reenact their trauma. Sigmund Freud, in his essay “Beyond the Pleasure Principle,” 1920) called certain repetitive behaviours in his clients “repetition compulsion,” and that the reason people repeated traumatic events was to attempt mastery and control.
Since Freud, many researchers have observed that trauma reenactment is an underlying theme for a person’s inability to mentally and emotionally escape from the traumatic experience.
Dr. Sandra Bloom, author of Creating Sanctuary: Toward the Evolution of Sane Societies, states that
“The memories of the traumatic experience are dissociated, nonverbal, and unintegrated. Over and over, people find themselves in situations that recapitulate earlier trauma and lack any awareness of how it happened much less how to prevent it from happening the next time. The lack of awareness is due to the dissociative blockade that places the behaviour out of the context of verbal and conscious control.”
Others suggest that childhood trauma survivors have poor coping strategies and low self-esteem, which makes them easy targets for predators.
We do know that trauma survivors are “burdened by major impairments in self-care, in cognition and memory, in identity, and in the capacity to form stable relationships,” according to Judith Herman’s book, Trauma and Recovery.
When trauma survivors reenact their past trauma, they may take on the role of either the victim or perpetrator. Dr. Dorothy Lewis’s research has focused on some of the world’s most violent criminals.
She states that while the most damaged people do not turn into killers, almost every killer is a damaged person, and the pain and damage began in their childhoods.
Trauma survivors may also reenact trauma by causing harm to themselves. Some common examples of self-harm are eating disorders, self-mutilation, avoiding medical care, addiction, putting oneself in danger, and unrealistic, self-attacking beliefs.
While the trauma reenactment is a serious effect of unresolved trauma, there is hope.
For those wanting to help a trauma victim, it is helpful to know that someone who seems to be repeating destructive patterns may be incapable of reversing this behavior because of the unresolved trauma they have locked in their minds.
They need professional help that allows them to come to grips with the original trauma and process it in a healthy way. In addition, because of the core beliefs they have adopted about themselves, they will need therapy in order to correct these beliefs and thoughts.
If this sounds like you, seek help. Many times, those who suffer from trauma reenactment are too ashamed to seek help.
The professionals at White River understand trauma and will help you uncover your past pain and process it healthily so that you can live a productive, free life.Giles Fourie
Through exhaustive research, psychologists are slowly discovering the reasons and triggers which cause substance abuse and addiction.
Research tells us that biological and experiential factors trigger addiction.
Categorised as a chronic psychiatric disease, addiction forces the person to seek recompense in substance abuse.
However, although there is no research to prove it, evidence leads us to reason that addiction can also be caused by relationships: by an individual’s ‘past’ experience.
A study on Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) found that almost two-thirds of addicts have at some point experienced a form of childhood trauma, whether physical, mental or sexual.
This evidence clearly shows that there is a connection between substance addiction and childhood trauma. That trauma increases an individual’s vulnerability to addiction. Evidence shows us that the higher the level of trauma, the higher the risk factor of addiction in later life.
If we wish to understand the link between addiction and childhood trauma, we first need to look at how ‘experiences’ influence brain development.
Essentially, the human brain reacts to biology and genetics; however, it’s also highly adaptable to environmental stimulants; this is known as ‘plasticity’.
The brain can be moulded or shaped by our experiences.
During childhood, our brain grows and matures: creating, strengthening and discarding neural associations. So, although some experts argue that trauma can’t shape the brain, experiences do affect brain development.
If a child lives in fear and dread that experience can eventually lead to a higher risk of addiction in adulthood, and cause problems, such as substance and alcohol addiction, eating disorders, depression and anxiety.
A high number of reports directly correlate child trauma with child abuse, but there are many situations that can cause trauma, such as the death of a parent, neglect, bullying, having a parent or family member with depression, or domestic violence.
Children also need love, support and guidance during difficult periods of their life.
When they don’t receive it, or the parent is the cause of the trauma, these factors can also greatly affect them in later life, because they have lacked parental reference.
As children grow into teenagers and young adults, they may start to self-medicate to get through the pain of childhood trauma.
Equally, if a child has witnessed the substance abuse of a parent for many years, then the child is more susceptible to reproduce the addiction.
All of the above situations, which cause high levels of stress will impede normal brain growth, which can lead to mental health issues in later life. Children who have been affected by abuse or trauma – even lesser experiences, can’t cope in the same way we can as adults.
A negative experience during childhood can shape our psychological and physical development and many adults who have experienced Adverse Childhood Experience turn to substance abuse as a pain killer.
Survivors of childhood abuse and trauma view themselves in a negative way, believing they are unworthy and more often than not, blaming themselves for the abuse they have suffered.
Yet, as appealing as it might seem, blocking out the past is not the solution. All that happens is that we harm our present and future.
One of the biggest obstacles to addiction recovery is letting go of the fear that has eaten us up since childhood.
We don’t want to face up to the trauma we experienced. We fear the memories and facing up to the reality of our past. Instead, choosing to obliterate them through drug or alcohol abuse.
The other obstacle is change.
Many of us find change stressful, choosing bad habits because they fit. When we behave in a certain way over a sustained period of years, we get used to living within that habitual behaviour. We are even fearful of the possibility of a sober future.
One of the most widely recognised therapies to help addiction is Cognitive Behavioural Therapy.
CBT is a talking therapy which is used to support individuals who are suffering from addiction issues, compulsive behaviours, and also for those who have experienced childhood trauma.
The method behind cognitive behavioural therapy is focused on helping an individual change or adapt their negative behaviour and replace it with positive behaviour.
It works on thoughts, beliefs, and memories, which are thought to have contributed to a person’s addiction.
Through CBT, a therapist can work through a client’s negative thoughts and beliefs and help them to think them through rationally. These thoughts and feelings finally being replaced by positive thoughts and behaviour.
When deciding to tackle addiction, it’s vital to challenge your fears and face up to your past. And accept that change is for the better.
The best way to do this is with the support and guidance of professionals.
When you make the decision to seek help for addiction, you must accept that successful recovery can only happen if you choose to live up to your past. Only then can you let go of the demons that are binding you to addictive behaviour.
Many addicts spend a lifetime avoiding these fears or detaching themselves from them. We understand that being forced to address these issues can be hard.
At White River Manor our specialist team have decades of experience treating addiction. We use a 360º whole-person approach, which Cognitive Behaviour Therapy, together with methods such as Adult-Child Therapy, Trauma Specific Therapy and Solution-Focused Therapy.
It is our objective to help you leave the future behind and live in the present.
We tailor the program to individual experiences which helps to make addiction treatment more effective.
If you or a loved one are suffering from addiction linked to childhood trauma, please contact our team for a confidential and informal chat about how we can help you start living in the present and looking forward to the future.