As children, we’re all taught to have a healthy amount of shame. Shame makes us behave within the boundaries of what’s socially acceptable. It prevents us from going out in public naked or shoplifting because we know that the consequences would include a big dose of shame. But what about when shame isn’t healthy? Toxic shame exists, and it is a heavy burden to carry.

Toxic shame usually sprouts when we fail to meet our personal standards or expectations; like the alcoholic who gives up drinking and then relapses, or the new mother struggling with postpartum depression who cannot believe the thoughts coming from her own mind. In both cases, we aren’t behaving or thinking the way we think we should, and the result is shame. Also, in both cases, the feeling of shame can hinder forward progress. Although most know that the most effective way to release this shame is to talk about it with another person, we tend to hide it in an attempt to avoid rejection. If we can’t accept our own thoughts or behaviours with empathy and understanding, we wonder, “how could anyone else?”.  Keeping shame hidden inside makes the burden grow heavier and deeper.

Just as current struggles can cause shame, so too can past struggles. These long past memories that are still affecting us can come from situations that are sometimes as harmless as failing a test and disappointing our parents, or much more serious and completely outside of our control like trauma or abuse. The shame involved with these often revolves around how we acted in the moment. “If only I had _____” is a sentiment that a trauma or abuse survivor who carries shame often dwells on. Sometimes, the shame that was imposed on us when we were children doesn’t apply anymore when we are adults, but we still feel it. For example, children taught that premarital sex is shameful sometimes have a hard time feeling that it is acceptable even after they are married.

Are you carrying shame from the past? If so, what should you do about it?

First, realize that although we have a biological need for healthy shame, we don’t need to honour toxic shame. Feelings of worthlessness, humiliation, and self-loathing are rarely helpful. In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, we teach that thoughts are opinions and not facts. If you are feeling ashamed, first notice your thoughts (“I can’t believe I did that”, “I am worthless”) and second, argue them. Sounds crazy, I know, but you don’t have to believe everything you think.

Next, take comfort in the fact that everyone is harboring shame in some form and that you are not alone. You can free yourself from the shame that you carry by speaking with a trusted friend, doctor, therapist, or finding a support group. The things that you’ve done or failed to do in the past only carry a heavy weight if you let them. This isn’t to say that it’ll be easy but reaching out to someone you trust can take off some of that weight.

Lastly, be kind to yourself. In therapy, we have a term called unconditional positive regard. It means that we, as therapists, see our clients in a positive manner no matter what they tell us. This allows us to keep our eyes on solutions, growth, and forward movement. Practice unconditional positive regard for yourself by accepting and respecting yourself regardless of your struggles, and surround yourself with people who do, too.

Shame grows when it’s stuffed in a corner, never to be seen, heard, or discussed. YOU have the power to rid yourself of the hold that shame has on you.

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