Toxic Shame – Struggling to show up
I’d like to talk about shame, and what it does to a human, I am a human so I will use myself, that way I don’t risk upsetting anyone as I own the copy-write for me. I love the use of story, so I am hoping this story will help you to feel less alone if your courage is hard to find. So here goes…
One day I was in school and the Headteachers PA came to find me, she said “Mel, Sarah (the Headteacher) wants to see you, can you make an appointment”. I felt my stomach clench, my heart-rate increase and my first thought was “oh my god what have I done”. I am I being fired!
I made the appointment and had one week to wait until I found out what she wanted. I am suddenly 10 and in trouble again and that meant punishments and feeling ashamed for what I couldn’t do. Except I am not 10, I am 40+ so why I am I feeling this way?
I put it down to history, I wasn’t parented with kindness, always in trouble for something, I wasn’t even sure half the time what I had done and the messages received were I was not enough this or too much of that. The pain and disconnection from your adult as a child is frightening and painful. Blaming and shaming from poor parenting is harmful and it’s not something we forget. These events get wired into a nervous systems, they call it trauma and I think it leaves us with this toxic shame. Dr Bessel Van Der Kolk says “The body keeps the score”. Babbette Rothchild says in her book and teachings “the body remembers”.
Well mine certainly does and for a moment mine had gone into terror mode and I am transported back to far gone days. I breathed out, went home and tried to convince myself it would be OK. One week later standing outside the heads office I feel 10 again and struggle to trust its going to be OK. I went in and asked “am I in trouble”. “No” laughed Sarah the Head Teacher, “not at all” came the reply. Her smile helped me calm some more. “I want to pick your brains about something as you know more about this than I do”. Oh, she wanted to ask my advice about the best way to deal with an incident at school. I was not being fired after all. She wanted advice, I was able to go back to being Mel the School Counsellor and share my experience and my learning. Owning my experience and knowledge is something I am getting used to.
Nobody knows that this terror that lives inside of me, or inside of you. I get scared quite a lot, on the outside I look quite capable and I am, but there is often a lot going on inside that is not seen. So I want to talk about that, because I suspect I am not alone.
When bad things happen to us as children we feel bad, this maybe abuse neglect or poor parenting, its painful and this toxic shame lives with us. It can really stop us reaching our full potential and keep us small and quiet if we let it.
Those coping skills we create in child hood, don’t really serve us so well as adults. We need our voices, to stand up for ourselves, we need to be visible to get that job, or run a business and we have to risk conflict that we hate a lot, when we have our say. It can can be so hard to stand out and be seen. Being visible when you are full of toxic shame and your body tells you its not safe is a challenge, your heart beats rapidly,out of your chest, so you can’t breathe, our mouth goes dry and your legs turn to Jelly!
Talking of being seen I think there are levels of being seen, you can be physically seen but to be understood emotionally is a very intimate level of being seen. Dr Dan Seigel calls it “feeling Felt”. We made want people to know how we are feeling but not have the language for it. Children and adults may communicate through behavior that may seem odd or confusing. When the pain becomes intolerable this can be projected outwards, tossed outward like a hot potato that’s too hot to hold!
It can also be painful to see others successes too, leaving us with feelings of inadequacy with the “why can’t I do what they do?” Social Media allows us to see what the world is doing and see their successes and it makes it look easy. However it does not allow us to see their struggles and the effort it took to get there. I guess that is why I am attempting to put this into words. Life is not neat and nothing comes without effort, a bit like my writing!
I want you to see or rather hear a bit of my struggle but also the success too, so you feel less alone with yours. That toxic shame, says keep quiet, but these day’s I have developed a more kind voice that says “no stand up speak out and hold your nerve”. The voices of the past can be quite hard to shake silence.
I have learnt to embrace my vulnerabilities, I tell people I am sacred but I still try to do it anyway these days. We are all works in progress, and I loose my nerve often but find it again eventually.
I have just had a headteacher ask me to do some training, I tried all manner of things to get out of it, I tried I am busy, I am too expensive, there are others who are much better trainers than me, but he wasn’t buying any of it, I had been recommended.
I just have to rethink it as a friendly chat with the teachers and tell them all the cool things about what I have learnt and not think about me being up the front as the expert. I work hard to stop the thoughts that they will say your rubbish and throw tomatoes at me. Like they would even have any tomatoes in school or be that rude!
My biology is making up all the stories from history so I stay at home but I can’t do that. I have a living to make, something to share and River needs biscuits. So I have 24 to go and talk to, I have been assured they are friendly and more importantly what I share with them may make a difference to the relationships they have with themselves and their pupils. So I have to show up. !
This toxic shame, I believe it is responsible for that all-pervading feeling of not being good enough, that paralysis us with fear. That feeling you are in trouble even though you are now the adult. That feeling of dread you may live with but not know why, On hyper-alert waiting for the danger because that’s how it went in the past. Not being able to manage uncertainty or settle down is miserable indeed.
Watch that toxic shame, because, it will stop you from seeking support and reaching your full potential if you let it and drive you to some very unhealthy behaviors. Thankfully the answer to this toxic shame is kindness compassion to yourselves and others. If you have been judged and punished for long enough, you learn to do that to your self. Old habits die hard particularly in times of stress or fear. Keep practicing that kindness it takes more work than I have words to describe.
I read the book “face the fear and do it anyway”, but its taken years to actually embody that phrase. We think we are head and brain led but I think the body speaks to us. There is no them and us! I hope we talk about about health one day as an integrated thing rather than separating out health into physical and mental because the brain and bodies don’t need separate departments they need to be worked with as a whole living system. I wonder are we sick or suffering?
I worry that this level of self-disclosure is unprofessional, maybe you think it is, maybe you don’t? I guess I have to risk it and press the publish button. How we raise children matters, we can fill them with confidence, by hearing their emotions and allowing them to make mistakes or we can punish them and leave them feeling disconnected, sad and bad or even mad. We make it difficult for them to think for themselves and they operate from a climate of fear not wanting to explore the world and to be frigtened of their own emotions and other people. Childhoods matter they wire us up and it can take a lot of work to repair that. and built that emotional resilience.
If you need support, I get it, life can be scary and toxic shame and anxious behavior steals our joy, our playfulness and shuts down our possibilities Bessel Van De Kolk says therapy is about imagining new possibilities, Mooli Laahad says “you can’t play and be on guard at the same time”. And Rachel Kedu gave us some very fancy science research at a recent conference and she reassured us. all is not lost with neuro-plasticity and epigenetics “we are weapons of mass -re-construction”.
We are born for social engagement, but we can cut that off when frightened. Those with poor experiences may not feel soothed by people sometimes, we feel frightened of them. We worry about being rejected and hurt maybe not consciously. Dan Hughes talks about blocked trust leading to blocked care and the importance of attachements. Brene Brown (the shame researcher) talks about embracing your vulnerabilities and I love her saying “If you are not in the arena getting your butt kicked, Shut up! I am not interested in what you have to say”. Go Brene!
So there you go! I am daring greatly today and putting my wobbles out for all to see. Thank you to all the experts who make me feel that wobbly is normal, I know I am not faulty and that I am wired up for survival, I understand a bit more about my neuro-biology and I know that we can manage the scary stuff with the right support.
We don’t have to suffer in silence and feel ashamed, you can find a caring adult who can help you understand how your body works and with that all important “Climate for Growth” that the late Carl Rogers spoke of, we can grow and move from surviving to thriving and reduce that toxic shame.
I am always learning, I believe there is no them and us at my practice, we are all in the same boat, Dan Siegel gave us a new word (Mwe). We are wired for survival and we can get scared and we can learn to calm back down, it’s not easy and it takes practice and we all get their in our own good time.
Get in touch if you need support or just want to say hello, I am a chatterbox by nature, when I am in my thinking brain, so I would love to know what you make of my wobbly article and I think its good to connect.
If we are asking others to embrace their vulnerabilities then maybe we have to be more comfortable with our own.
Time for a deep breath and to press the publish button and a cuppa…..
Dear Grammar police please take the day off, I am done wrestling with where the the full stops and commas go!
Mel and the dog is Miss River