“Our need to be “greater than” or “less than” has been a defense against toxic shame. A shameful act was committed upon us. The perpetrator walked away, leaving us with the shame. We absorbed the notion that we are somehow defective. To cover for this we constructed a false self, a masked self. And it is this self that is the overachiever or the dunce, the tramp or the puritan, the powermonger or the pathetic loser.” ― Maureen Brady
How shame feels and what makes it Toxic – My Shame Experience
Sprawled on the hallway floor, skirt flying, hitting, and kicking, I wrestled with Tina before a crowd of junior high school schoolmates, including a dozen boys from my class. Tina was a gang member who had recently transferred from another school. She and her cohorts had taunted and insulted me all week. She started in again, shoving me at our adjacent lockers. I’d finally had enough, I pushed her back, and we ended up fighting on the floor.
Before actually harming one another, the girls’ V.P. escorted us to her office. Tina was expelled. I felt relieved that only my modesty was tarnished . . . until I returned home. Then I was mortified to discover a small rip in my panties! My defectiveness, symbolized by that imperfection, had been exposed. This is the essence of shame.
It can feel like wearing dirty underwear – which everyone can see. Probably no one saw the tear in my panties. Still, I imagined everyone was mocking me even though no one mentioned the incident. I wanted to hide. How could I face those boys in class day after day? “Saving face” or “losing face” means to protect one’s honor or to suffer disgrace. It’s shame that torments us for hours or years following humiliation, rejection, or feeling defective.
No one wants to be called shameless. That’s because it’s normal to have a certain level of shame. Its origins lie in our primal need for others, to be acceptable and accepted, which provides a sense of internal safety and security.
Shame encourages us to adhere to socially accepted norms, like basic manners and grooming.
What Shame Is: Ordinary Shame And Toxic Shame
Shame differs from embarrassment. We feel embarrassed when our mistake could happen to anyone, like being late. It’s also distinguishable from guilt, which is about something we did that violates our ethical or moral standards. When we feel guilty, we can make amends, but shame makes us feel irredeemable because it’s about who we are.
Like what happened to me, shame is generally associated with exposure before others, but an audience isn’t necessarily required.
More often, shame is caused by how we think about ourselves. It’s silent and secret. No one needs to be present to evoke our private angst and self-judgment. We imagine others see what we do when we measure our experienced self against the self we want others to see.
How Toxic Shame Differs From Ordinary Shame
This even holds true for the things others don’t know about our private thoughts or dreams we consider selfish, stupid, or insane. A friend with a beautiful voice felt deep shame about her secret wish to sing professionally, because her father, an opera singer, constantly corrected her and made her feel inadequate. That parental shaming prevented her from developing her talent professionally. Another acquaintance wanted to be a talk show host but considered his dream too grandiose to pursue.
We can literally interpret any aspect of ourselves – our appearance, income, status, feelings, or behavior as a reflection of our inadequacy. We might feel disgusted about our body which keeps us from going swimming with friends. If we feel stupid for running out of gas, we won’t tell our boss why we’re late. We might feel undeserving and not take a vacation or ask for a raise.