It’s no secret that none of us is perfect, and we live in a good but imperfect world. When those two things – us and the world – collide, there’s no telling what could happen. When we do what we know and feel we should not do, it can leave us feeling uneasy with ourselves, and that feeling of unease is only magnified if other people know what we’ve done.
There are other situations in which we do bad things, and they give us that feeling of unease. One of the ways to describe that feeling of unease is shame, and it can have devastating effects on our mental and emotional health if we do not deal with it appropriately.
Different Types of ShameThe word shame has gained traction in our modern lexicon, and it should not be a surprise that people use the term to mean different things. We may also distinguish between “shame” and “toxic shame.” Depending on how one defines it, there’s a significant difference between shame and its toxic variant, and knowing that difference can spare a person a lot of heartache and unnecessary burden.
There are at least two ways to understand what might be meant by shame and toxic shame. The more common way to talk about shame suggests that it is a feeling. We’ve all felt it at some point in our lives, and it can linger for a few hours or days after the incident that caused it. We feel shame when we’ve done something we shouldn’t have, or when we are made to feel that we are not enough.
Shame can make us feel that we are inferior, or even bad people, because of a mistake we’ve made. For example, this feeling can stem from what a parent says to their child after the child brings home a bad report card or wets their bed during the night.
The parental response can send a message that goes beyond merely saying that the child did something wrong – it can be perceived as saying that the child is bad, identifying them with the mistake. Internalizing that feeling of failure affects how a person sees themselves and may diminish their levels of confidence.
Shame can set in briefly but may not become a part of your identity. On this understanding of shame, “toxic shame” is when that feeling of shame becomes a settled understanding of who you are. With toxic shame, a person feels like they are worthless, whether because of something they have done or because of poor treatment from others that settles into a confirmed belief about their self-worth.
Toxic shame is when a person’s identity is shaped by shame and they think of themselves as useless, not good enough. Toxic shame can develop through being exposed to poor treatment, being told you’re not good enough, or that there’s something wrong with you.
Those words from others can easily migrate and morph into negative self-talk that keeps a person trapped in negative feelings and thoughts about themselves. It stays with the person and marks their self-understanding in profound ways.
It’s important to note that there is a difference between shame and guilt. While guilt is the feeling that tells us that something we did was wrong, shame tells us that because we did something bad, we are bad. Guilt reminds us that there is an objective standard that we have violated, while shame internalizes the feeling of failure and identifies us with it. Guilt is helpful as it reminds us of God’s standards and warns us when we stray from them.
People sometimes use the same word, but they mean different things by it. We mentioned above how there are at least two ways to think about what is meant by shame and toxic shame. The second way to think about the connections between shame, guilt, and toxic shame looks slightly different from the above.
Like the usage above, “guilt” in the Bible also refers to when you know you’ve done something wrong and failed God’s moral standards. The Bible uses the word “shame” in ways that are similar to the first usage, but it also uses it in different ways – after all, the Bible was written in a different time and culture.
“Shame” in the Bible sometimes also refers to the feeling and awareness of having failed in someone else’s eyes, whether a respected person or God. On some of the biblical understandings of shame, feeling shame can perform a positive function because it reminds us that we’re made for dignity and that what we’re being exposed to or doing goes against that dignity.
In that case, feeling shame can bring us to our senses and stop us in our tracks when we’re doing something that is not good. This helps us to understand passages like Jeremiah 6:13-15 where God is pointing out that the people have lost all sensitivity to their dignity and the dignity of others:
From the least to the greatest, all are greedy for gain; prophets and priests alike, all practice deceit. They dress the wound of my people as though it were not serious. “Peace, peace,” they say, when there is no peace. Are they ashamed of their detestable conduct? No, they have no shame at all; they do not even know how to blush. So they will fall among the fallen; they will be brought down when I punish them,” says the Lord. If the people Jeremiah was talking to had understood their own dignity and that of others, they would have recognized that they were doing something sinful and hopefully turned from it. Feeling shame when we’ve sinned is helpful. That feeling of shame ought to prevent us from taking advantage of others, lying to them, violating them and their trust, and so on.
What would toxic shame look like on this understanding of shame? Toxic shame would be when we feel like failures in our own or someone else’s eyes when in fact we aren’t. Sometimes we don’t perceive ourselves and our actions accurately, and we feel like we’ve done something wrong when we haven’t.
You can do the right thing, but someone’s reaction to your right action causes you to feel like you did something wrong. Some people are particularly sensitive, and they can feel bad when there’s no warrant for it.
Toxic shame would be when we take our (real or perceived) failures and they set deep into our bones and begin to shape our identity and sense of self-worth. Even though Christians are forgiven and grace-filled children of God, they begin to think of themselves as failures and carry that with them as their identity.
These different understandings of shame and toxic shame aren’t necessarily contradictory. On the contrary, they can complement one another. We all make mistakes, and an awareness of that is good because it keeps us from further harming ourselves and others. It reminds us of our dignity and the dignity of others. However, it becomes problematic when the awareness of our failings or the failings of others that touch us begins to shape our identity.
The Dangers of Toxic Shame
We’ve hinted at it already, but shame can affect us negatively, and toxic shame even more so. Some of the dangers of shame, and particularly toxic shame, include:
- Keeping us hidden in the darkness and focusing on our unworthiness of God’s mercy and healing. Toxic shame can shape our identity, but it is untruthful at its core, which means that it distorts who we truly are and robs us of the full life and joy God intends for us.
- Keeping us from revealing our wounds to trustworthy people around us. Toxic shame and shame can keep us from relationships and from finding acceptance, with ourselves and others. Toxic shame robs us of our peace, preventing us from being seen, known, and loved when that is what we desire most.
- Leading us into withdrawal and anger. When you feel unworthy, not good enough, or a failure, it can pull you away from others. Our emotional response to isolation and feeling like a failure is usually negative, and anger is a common response. Some people may also turn to substance abuse in an attempt to numb the feelings of distress. Toxic shame is unhealthy for us, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually.
Help for When You Feel Toxic Shame
One important help for when shame overwhelms you is to seek support. Shame can distort your perceptions and having a support network can provide you with an outlet to share your thoughts and fears. Whether with a counselor or with a friend, it’s important to talk things out with someone else when necessary;.
It can boost your sense of belonging and provide you with much-needed perspective. It can help you determine whether your feelings of shame are justified and help you overcome the lies of toxic shame. Other steps you can take include:
Practice mindfulness. Mindfulness and meditation can help you become more discerning of your thoughts. Feeling shame can make you act in unhealthy ways, so it can be helpful to simply become aware of your thoughts and interrogate them.
Recognize your self-talk and when you feel shame. Pay attention to how you speak to or about yourself. Observe your thoughts and self-talk, but don’t react to them. Being mindful can also help alert you to when you’re feeling shame, and you can potentially address it by speaking with a trusted friend. Like lies, shame flourishes in the dark, so shine a light on it and expose it for what it is. Its power and hold over you will diminish.
Address the root of your shame. Seek to understand and examine your feelings to unearth the cause of your shame. That will help you take appropriate steps to move forward.
Recognize your worth in God’s eyes. We are all imperfect and we all have flaws and make mistakes. Your mistakes don’t diminish your essential dignity and value in God’s eyes. We don’t have to get stuck in our past. With God’s help, we can learn from the past and from our mistakes. We can seek God’s forgiveness for any mistakes we made, and he promises to cleanse us from all unrighteousness; he doesn’t recall our sins or hold them against us.
“Depressed”, Courtesy of K. Mitch Hodge, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Tears”, Courtesy of Kat J, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Fly With Me”, Courtesy of Mohamed Nohassi, Unsplash.com, CC0 License; “Touching the Light”, Courtesy of Elia Pellegrini, Unsplash.com, CC0 License
DISCLAIMER: THIS ARTICLE DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE
The information, including but not limited to, text, graphics, images and other material contained on this article are for informational purposes only. No material on this site is intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please contact one of our counselors for further information.