The Toxicity of Shame

I’m not sure who first identified the acronym for shame, but it’s spot-on: Should Have Already Mastered Everything. In other words, I should be perfect. I should understand this. I should know how to do this. I should… fill in the blank. Author Brené Brown, who spent many years researching shame says, “Where perfectionism exists, shame is always lurking. In fact, shame is the birthplace of perfectionism.” She defines shame itself as, “the intensely painful feeling or experience of believing that we are flawed and therefore unworthy of love and belonging.”[1]

Shame is usually the culprit when we suffer from poor self-esteem and/or image. If we’re told time and again that we’re not good enough or we’re deficient, we begin to believe it. And that sometimes leads us to our own self-destructive conclusions. And, to make matters worse, we don’t talk about it. We keep it to ourselves. Why? Because we’re ashamed of our shame.

Ms. Brown has concluded that “Shame needs three things to grow out of control in our lives: secrecy, silence, and judgment. Shame loses power when it is spoken. The most dangerous thing to do after a shaming experience is to hide or bury our story. When we bury our story, the shame metastasizes… (but) If we share our shame story with the wrong person, they can easily become one more piece of flying debris in an already dangerous storm… When we’re looking for compassion, it’s about connecting with the right person at the right time about the right issue.”[2]

So, if we share our story with the wrong person, we risk being embarrassed or hurt and jump-starting a whole new cycle of shame. We feel shame about our shame, and about our ill-advised decision to share our story with the wrong person. Shame + shame + shame = shame. It can become a vicious circle. “The experience of shame sends a shudder so deep through the soul that most human beings would rather disappear, lie, or give up all that feels dear to escape the cataclysm.” That’s psychologist Dan Allender’s rather sobering definition of toxic shame. He calls it, “the silent killer of intimacy. Like carbon dioxide, it is usually undetectable and deadly.”[3]I think of it in terms of three words: invasive, incapacitating, and addictive.

Throughout my childhood and adolescence, the message I heard loud and clear is that I wasn’t good enough. And, even worse, that I was defective. Time and again I heard the phrase, “What the hell’s wrong with you? You dummy!” Accordingly, I’ve suffered from toxic shame most of my life, and despite a great deal of therapy and edification, I’m still susceptible to an attempted ambush every now and again.

But now I recognize toxic shame when it swoops in attempting to hijack my thoughts and feelings. And I’ll ask myself what’s going on. Why am I feeling this way? Where did this voice come from? Whose voice is it? Is it the truth or is it not true?

A perfect example of this occurred as I was babysitting my granddaughter Charli when she was two years old. Both my son and his wife were out of town for about a 24-hour period. But Charli had never spent the night without her Mommy or Daddy, and she didn’t like going to bed — still doesn’t. So, I had a great deal of apprehension about taking care of her overnight.

Thus, I held my breath and became the sole caretaker for a full day and night. We had a great time during the day playing and watching Mickey Mouse. Then came nightfall and I tried to get her to go to sleep. Nothing doing. Not only did she cry; she wailed.

I don’t do well with crying babies. Charli’s older sisters, Alee and Annah Cate did their best to help and eventually got her settled down and asleep. But, I was a wreck and was wide-awake all night. I asked myself why I was so upset? What was going on here?

At some point during the night, I discovered the answer. It was the voice of shame resurrecting my childhood wounds, telling me I was inadequate. What’s wrong with you? Why can’t you get a two-year-old to go to sleep? You’re useless! You’re incapable of taking care of your own granddaughter.

Thankfully I quickly figured out this was the voice of shame and it had no basis in reality. Charli just wasn’t prepared yet to be without both of her parents at night, and she had a meltdown. Of course, she would. She’s a two-year-old who’s very attached to Mommy and Daddy. It had nothing to do with me.

Before my odyssey into psychotherapy, I didn’t know jack shit about shame and how it has handicapped me all these years. Now I understand it, recognize it, and can usually cast it aside. Thank the Lord — because shame is a terrible, soul-sucking burden.

The words shame and guilt are often confused or used in tandem, but they are different. Guilt is, “I did something bad.” It’s about action. Shame is, “I am bad,” which is about my personhood. Shame is not always a bad thing. It can lead to humility, which can be healthy and even essential for some people. But toxic shame is just that, toxic. Synonyms include words like lethal, noxious, poisonous, venomous, and deadly, and each and every word is an apt description of the consequences for this impairment of shame.

Chip Dodd, Ph.D. is the founder of Sage Hill Counseling in Nashville, TN. Like Brené Brown, Chip has logged a lot of hours trying to understand the concept of shame. These are among his takeaways:[4]

Toxic shame is a rejection of self, which can become addictive. It is contempt toward myself for being human.

Toxic shame becomes not only a hatred of how I’m made as a feeling, needing, desiring, longing, hoping, creature; toxic shame is where we get despising of hope. “If you want to be successful in life, don’t get your hopes up.” And that way you’re not going to be disappointed. Lower your expectations. And that way you won’t have to grieve or feel or need or be dependent.

Toxic shame is not a badness. It’s a survival skill. If people see me and know me, they’ll reject me, and I’m made for relationship. And if I can’t belong with you, the message is then who do I need to become so I can. The need for relationship is more powerful than anything else we’ve been created for.

Changing and becoming someone else is called fitting in, which is entirely different than belonging. When we truly belong, we are who we are with all people and in all settings. We’re comfortable in our own skin. And if we’re not content being ourselves, we try to fit in. We take on the characteristics of a chameleon by changing who we are in order to be accepted.

This segues right into co-dependency, more commonly referred to as people pleasing. Chip’s friend and colleague, Phil Herndon, describes it this way: “Codependency is an external focus. It’s looking outside myself — reading faces, reading body language, making up stories — whatever I have to do so you won’t abandon me. I’ll do anything I have to do so that this will never happen again. So, codependency becomes extremely addictive because of the relief it gives from toxic shame. It’s like a magic pill. All I have to do is not be myself, and people will like me again.”[5]

Dr. Ben Houltberg adds an element of control into the mix. “If I feel miserable and I didn’t perform well, I’m going to shame myself enough to when this happens again, it won’t work. I’ll work harder with laser-sharp focus, so this never happens again. I’m going to take control of every aspect of my life. Shame and control often go together.”[6]

So how do we break this dastardly cycle of shame that too often pervades and infects our lives? Brené Brown says we can do it by learning and practicing shame resilience, which she describes as “the ability to recognize shame, to move through it constructively while maintaining worthiness and authenticity, and to ultimately develop more courage, compassion, and connection as a result of our experience.”[7]

In other words, when you feel the onset of shame, ask yourself what’s going on inside your brain. What are you feeling? Why are you feeling this way? Is what the voice in your head telling you true or is it bullshit on repeat from your past? If it is true, acknowledge it and process it honestly. If it’s not true, tell that voice of shame to eat shit and bark at the moon!


[1]The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown | Hazelden Publishing | © Brené Brown 2010

[2]The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown | Hazelden Publishing | © Brené Brown 2010

[3]Healing the Wounded Heart by Dan Allender | Baker Books | © Dan Allender 2016

[4]Chip Dodd lectures | www.chipdodd.com

[5]Sage Hill Training lecture by Phil Herndon

[6]Dr. Ben Houltberg | Converge with Dane Sanders podcast | Season 3, Episode 8

[7]The Gifts of Imperfection by Brené Brown | Hazelden Publishing | © Brené Brown 2010

Published by Roger Cahak

I am a storyteller.

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