Most people seeking therapy or counseling suffer from an abundance of internalized shame. John Bradshaw calls this overabundance “toxic shame” which can lead to the development of a personality which is shame-based.
One recovering addict said, “I have a chronic condition called shame over which I am powerless. In many situations, I am not able to prevent my shame being triggered. When my shame is triggered, I am not able to predict with any degree of certainty whether I am going to go down into a shame spiral that will last for hours or even days.”
When we become aware that the shame that we are experiencing is toxic, that it is not functioning well to protect us, that the shame gland is misfiring and overly restricting our lives, blocking us from a sense of freedom, wellbeing and joy – then what? Should we then strive to eliminate the shame?
My therapeutic approach toward toxic shame is similar to my approach toward rage, an overactive anger reaction. Indeed there does seem to be some relationship between anger and shame. Shaming messages are often delivered with anger. If you are prone to internalized shame, listen for a moment to the words that the shame voice speaks and see for yourself if those are not angry words! And the one who has been shamed will often experience anger, including rage-filled revenge fantasies.
In the working with rage, it is ineffective to attempt to eliminate anger. I work rather with clients to understand their rage and their anger. I teach my clients to ask, “What is the healthy function of my anger? What is my anger telling me? What does my anger need?” I work with my clients to recognize, listen to, move toward and embrace their rage. We strive together to develop an explorative and compassionate stance toward anger, toward their own pain. I encourage clients to give safe expression to the anger. One middle-aged man said, “My rage is an expression of my inner pain, of my suffering. To connect with my anger, even with my rage, is to connect with an aspect of my pain. My anger and rage are never themselves destructive, though I am afraid that they will lead to that. They are powerful and strong. Their presence indicates to me that something is wrong or that my boundaries have been violated in some way, against my permission, or with my permission but against my will.”
The approach toward dealing with toxic shame is similar. I encourage and support clients in identifying the shame, in knowing its source, in leaning into and breathing into the shame, in moving toward their own shame with compassion for their suffering.
That which we resist, persists. Direct self effort to fight the shame usually does not “work” in eliminating shame. That is an ineffective approach. What does work? Moving toward the shame with compassion works not in the sense of eliminating the shame, but in responding skillfully to the pain and suffering which underlie the shame. We can move with compassion toward the shame that is within us. And then, remarkably, having been heard, the shame stops needing to dominate and control us.
This is a skill, a skill which can be learned, which you can learn. To move toward the part of ourselves which is suffering, rather than running away from it, or condemning it, or further shaming ourselves, or having disdain for ourselves. To lean toward the part of ourselves that is in anguish, to say to that part of ourselves, “I love you. I am not leaving you. I want to know what happened, I want to see the part of you that is in pain. Show me your wound. I cannot take your pain away. But I do want to share the burden of it. I want to hear about it. I want to be with you in the midst of it.”
We can do that for ourselves and we can do that for others. This is the great vocation, the holy and mundane invitation, the only worthwhile and essential vocation, the mandatum. To love and to love well: that is what this life is about, that is what marriages and monasteries are consciously intended to be: schools of charity, schools of love.
In recovery, we are actively turning this love toward ourselves, developing this skill of moving with loving kindness toward ourselves – selves which we have so sorely neglected for many years as we focused on others. Now we move toward ourselves with kindness and love, listening to our emotions, and breathing into and through them even/especially when they are uncomfortable. Almost in spite of ourselves, with whatever strength we can muster, relying on the example of others when we seem to have no strength within ourselves, encouraged and invited by others, by God, by our true self, we turn toward the suffering part of ourselves and say, “I am here with you. Speak.” And then we listen. And we lean in toward the part of ourselves that is suffering. And we breathe. And we stay. And we can ask wise others for help with this and we can watch and see what happens. And then we can give thanks for the movement that happens, for the increase of love and courage in our hearts. And we have the opportunity to do this again and again every day of our lives.