How Healthy & Toxic Shame Plays a Daily Role in our Lives
As any starting entrepreneur, I always felt embarrassed that I wasn’t making the money that I wanted. You see, I was worried about what others would think of me.
I wanted people to think that I was doing great.
I wanted to impress them.
I wanted to appear successful.
The last thing I wanted to do was to admit that I was struggling. Sometimes, lost.
But it is when I finally shared my struggling reality that I realised I wasn't the only one.
People were relieved to learn that someone else was feeling the same.
The more I talked about my struggles and the shame wrapped around it, the easier I could understand it and less intense the feelings became.
Before, I couldn’t even admit to myself that I may need help.
Now, I can openly share it without cringing or wanting to hide in a dark corner!
It was difficult but I swallowed my pride and asked for help - I can now openly share my reality without feeling no humiliated.
What changed? I began to wonder.
Why was I so crippled by it before?
This wouldn’t be the first nor last time any one of us would deal with shame.
The fact is a few talk about it.
I began learning more about shame and its daily role in our lives.
More specifically, the existence of different kinds of shame and how when turned toxic, it can be the root cause of the MANY challenges we face as human beings.
Before we can start conquering it, we need to understand what it is:
What is shame?
What’s the difference between healthy and toxic shame?
What does one look like versus the other?
Join me on this ride as we bring our darkness to the light and befriend our own shadows...of shame.
What Is Shame?
“Everyone needs a sense of shame, but no one needs to feel ashamed” - Frederick Nietzsche
Per Google Dictionary: a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.
Shame is an uncomfortable emotion but to most of our surprise, it is a HEALTHY human emotion. As in, it exists because it actually helps us!
I was baffled by this when I first learned about it.
I thought to myself, "But shame feels terrible! How on earth can it be GOOD for me?
What are the benefits?”
It’s difficult to get our head around it because we spend our whole lives AVOIDING shame.
Did you know there is a difference between healthy and toxic shame?
Just like how there are two different kinds of fats (good and bad fat), there is the same for shame: Healthy vs Toxic.
An easy way to differentiate them is:
Healthy shame - “Oops, I made a mistake. I can do it better next time.”
Toxic Shame - “I am a mistake. I’ll never get it right. There’s something wrong with me.”
What Is The Difference Between Healthy VS Toxic Shame?
This is Healthy Shame:
Healthy shame helps us:
To be morally conscious and
To be okay with our imperfections
Healthy Shame helps us to be morally conscious, allowing us to maintain healthy relationships, which ultimately provides us with the connection that we need for mental health and overall stability.
Pocaterra, who wrote the earliest work on shame tells us that:
“in the end shame is a good thing, a part of everyday existence. It makes us timorous, humble and contrite and causes outrage against the self.”
He viewed shame to be our teacher.
Let me paint a picture.
Have you ever been super angry at your mom or dad and shouted at them?
“You’re always so selfish, you never listen to me. I hate you!!”
*Slams door and throws a pity party*
But after a while, you begin to feel bad, guilty and regret the way you expressed your frustration.
This is healthy shame coming to play.
This shame leads us to reflect on our behavior and it offers us an opportunity to apologise and REBUILD the interpersonal bridge that might have been hindered.
“Hey, I’m sorry that I shouted at you like that before. I was frustrated but that was out of line. I’m sorry for hurting your feelings.”
Healthy Shame also helps us to accept and embrace our imperfections by letting us know that we are LIMITED beings who make mistakes.
This is why we feel ashamed when we try something for the first time and fail, just like a starting entrepreneur - it lets us know that we are all imperfect beings.
This shame lets us know that it’s OKAY to make mistakes because guess what? Every single human being on Earth have felt ashamed from their limitations. It’s a universal commonality that connects us together.
This is Toxic Shame:
When healthy shame becomes toxic, it can have severe negative impact on us:
1. Toxic shame becomes a PART of one’s identity.
It is no longer fleeting, temporary or passing feelings of shame (i.e. feel ashamed when you trip up on a stage).
A person comes to believe that their whole being is fundamentally defective and flawed.
It is when one’s belief moves from:
“I am perfectly imperfect.
As a human being, I am limited so I will make mistakes and that’s okay.”
“I am incapable and everything I do is flawed.
There is something wrong with me and there is nothing I can do about it.”
This happens when a person has internalised shame.
It is destructive and if untreated, it can lead us to the point where one has no limits or boundaries to self-defeat.
Let’s use money as an example - let’s say Christina hasn’t made any money as an entrepreneur in one year.
Healthy Shame - “I didn’t attain my goals last year. I see where I could have done better. It’s disappointing but it’s okay. I will make sure to alter my plan and avoid past pitfalls.”
Toxic Shame - “I didn’t make my goals last year, what’s wrong with me? I don’t have the skills to do it. There’s something wrong with me - I should just give up.”
2. Toxic shame LOVES secretiveness and THRIVES in darkness.
Toxic shame feels so painful that people don’t want to admit it to themselves, let alone tell someone about it.
They come to believe that they are all alone with this problem. They think that they are the "only one” with problems and begin to isolate themselves to hide their painful shame.
This isolation reinforces the self-defeating mentality.
3. Toxic shame leads us to disown those shameful parts of ourselves.
One feels so ashamed that they create a false cover-up so that they avoid feeling the pain of inadequacy and most importantly, prevent other people from "finding out” about their imperfections.
Because Christina feels so ashamed about not having made enough money, she tries to create a perfect image of herself.
She hides the fact that she’s struggling to pay for rent and only showcases herself when she is happy and when she is having a ‘great’ time with her friends.
She doesn’t tell anyone about her painful failures because she’s so afraid of anyone finding out that she is truly struggling.
Her biggest fear?
Not that she doesn't have money to pay for her rent.
But that people will find out that she is in fact, "imperfect.”
This is often the main motivator of those who have toxic shame. They put so much effort into creating and protecting this false cover-up in desperation to hide their toxic shame that it becomes more important than the actual problem itself.
Christina becomes obsessed avoiding showing her struggles.
Toxic shame is a painful internal experience of unexpected or unwanted exposure of parts of ourselves that we want to hide from other people.
What does healthy and toxic shame look like?
Did you know that healthy shame can turn into toxic shame? Most of us carry a lot of toxic shame which is more common than you think. We discuss this further in our next article.
As a coach, I see many digital nomads, self-starters and entrepreneurs fight their struggles without realising that the root cause might be due to toxic shame.
I am passionate about bringing this the forefront of our discussions and encourage our generation to acknowledge its existence and most importantly heal parts of ourselves that may have been shamed.
I want us to accept and embrace our shadows.
Because light cannot exist without darkness, so we must first dance with our shadows so that we can experience the joy of our light.
Share with me, what are you ashamed of?