This is the first in a series of three posts that examine toxic shame, an often unexamined but potent psychological force.
I am unsure when this question first entered my mind, but it often plagues me. I know that by the time I entered high school, I already felt I lived along the social margins. I did not fit in, struggled to connect with my peers, and, although certain I was intelligent, I did not have any inclination to apply my intelligence. Luckily, I met some amazing teachers in ninth grade who inspired me out of the aimless funk that characterized my early teen years.
But the academic success I had in both high school and college did not eliminate the inner sense of being flawed, feeling that someday everybody would finally figure out that I was a loser. If you respond to this statement with compassion, I certainly appreciate that, but please do not write me or comment on this blog about how I am NOT a loser. This is not about a rational process. This is not about, “You’re good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like you.” The toxic inner voice I wrestle with did not originate from coherent thought. Rather, the gnawing presence in my head came about from deep messages I took on, unconsciously, from a school system that labeled me as different, and did not make an effort to show me that that could be a good thing.
To be fair, school was not the only factor. My father abandoned me and I grew up with a self-centered, abusive, and alcoholic stepfather. When ADHD runs in a family, addiction and even abuse are often not, tragically, far behind. But school was the proving ground, the place in which I regularly received criticism from people, teachers, whose job was to evaluate me. I always seemed to fall short in these evaluations. For some reason, these early experience still potently live in me, providing the power of that toxic voice. I honestly believe this is true for a good many of us, but that most of us try to forget, attempting to suppress those unpleasant memories. This post invites the reader to reflect on how the voice of toxic shame might operate in one’s life.
The signs of toxic shame are often difficult to spot. Here are a few that might help you realize that this dark force operates in your life:
- Stories or experiences of other people having success make you feel bad about yourself.
- You obsessively measure yourself against others.
- You feel like you have to be better than others and this is what drives you.
- You feel like you’re inferior and there’s no hope of changing that.
- You are a people pleaser, having strong motivation to make others happy, but do not do this for yourself.
- You have a tendency to be hypercritical of yourself and/or others.
- Nothing you do is ever good enough.
- Nothing your children or spouse do is ever good enough.
- You think you might have low self-esteem.
- You have struggled with addiction of one sort or another.
These are just a few signs that toxic shame might be operating in your life. If some of these ring a bell, it might be a good time to go deeper.
What I have found in my own life is that when I started working on this issue, I slowly noticed more mental energy that I was then able to use creatively and to get things done. The fascinating thing is that toxic shame usually exists outside of our awareness, but it takes mental energy to continue keeping it away. This starts in childhood: no one wants to believe something is wrong with them. So when that sense arises, most of us simply push it down, pretending it does not exist at first, and then from there, we usually become completely unaware.
In the next few posts, we will examine toxic shame in greater detail and identify some concrete steps to take in order to unmask shame, and to begin the process of healing it, or at least lessening its hold over daily life. This link, is a good start to begin to brainstorming what you can do to release toxic shame.