Shame is a complex and multifaceted emotion that can have significant impacts on an individual’s mental health and well-being. While healthy shame can help us to recognize and correct our mistakes, toxic shame can be debilitating and may contribute to a range of negative psychological and emotional outcomes. Toxic shame is often acquired in childhood, where it may be reinforced by caregivers or other authority figures who are critical, judgmental, or emotionally unavailable. Children who are exposed to high levels of toxic shame may internalize a sense of unworthiness or inadequacy, and may struggle to develop a healthy sense of self-esteem and self-worth.
In the context of codependency, shame can be a significant factor in the development and perpetuation of codependent behaviors. Individuals who experience codependency may feel a sense of shame around their own needs and desires, and may prioritize the needs of others at the expense of their own well-being. Codependent individuals may also feel shame around their role in enabling the other person’s addictive or unhealthy behaviors. They may feel that they are responsible for the other person’s addiction or illness, or that they are not doing enough to help them. This can lead to a sense of guilt and shame that further reinforces the codependent behaviors.
Shame is is often acquired through a combination of factors, including genetics, early childhood experiences, and cultural and societal norms. In the context of codependency, shame can be acquired in a variety of ways. For many individuals who experience codependency, shame may be rooted in early childhood experiences of neglect, abuse, or abandonment. Children who grow up in families where their emotional and physical needs are not met may develop a sense of shame around their own desires and needs. They may feel that they are not worthy of love or attention and may internalize a sense of worthlessness or inadequacy.
Here are some common ways that children may acquire toxic shame and hence, possible codependency.
- Criticism and belittlement: When children are constantly criticized or belittled by parents or caregivers, they may start to feel that they are not good enough or that something is wrong with them. This can lead to feelings of shame and inadequacy.
- Abandonment or rejection: When children are abandoned or rejected by parents or caregivers, they may feel that they are not lovable or worthy of love. This can lead to feelings of shame and a deep sense of unworthiness.
- Physical or emotional abuse: When children are physically or emotionally abused, they may blame themselves for the abuse and feel ashamed of themselves. They may feel that they deserve the abuse or that they are responsible for causing it.
- Enmeshment or overprotection: When parents or caregivers are overprotective or enmeshed with their children, they may not allow them to develop a sense of autonomy or individuality. This can lead to feelings of shame and inadequacy, as the child may feel that they are not capable of functioning on their own.
- Comparison to others: When parents or caregivers constantly compare children to others, they may feel that they are not good enough or that they don’t measure up to others. This can lead to feelings of shame and a sense of inferiority.
It’s important to note that these experiences can be unintentional on the part of parents or caregivers, but they can still have a significant impact on a child’s sense of self-worth and self-esteem. It’s important for parents and caregivers to be aware of how their words and actions can affect their children and to work to create a supportive and nurturing environment for them.
In addition to childhood experiences, shame can also be acquired through cultural and societal norms. In some cultures, for example, there may be a strong emphasis on putting others’ needs before one’s own, or on avoiding conflict at all costs. These cultural and societal messages can reinforce the belief that taking care of oneself is selfish or unacceptable, and can lead individuals to feel shame around their own needs and desires.
Shame can also be reinforced by codependent relationships themselves. In a codependent relationship, the individual who is overly invested in the other person’s well-being may feel a sense of shame or guilt when they fail to meet the other person’s needs. They may feel that they are not doing enough or that they are somehow responsible for the other person’s behavior or emotions.
Toxic shame can also contribute to the development of shame screens, which are coping mechanisms that individuals use to mask or avoid feelings of shame. Shame screens can take many forms, including avoidance, perfectionism, and people-pleasing. Avoidance involves avoiding situations or people that trigger feelings of shame, while perfectionism involves setting impossibly high standards for oneself as a way of avoiding feelings of shame or inadequacy. People-pleasing involves prioritizing the needs and desires of others at the expense of one’s own needs and desires. Let’s look at these in more detail.
Avoidance is a common shame screen that involves avoiding situations or people that trigger feelings of shame. For example, an individual who feels shame around public speaking may avoid speaking in front of groups, or an individual who feels shame around their appearance may avoid social situations where they feel self-conscious. While avoidance can provide temporary relief from feelings of shame, it can also limit an individual’s opportunities for growth and can reinforce feelings of helplessness and isolation.
Perfectionism is another common shame screen that involves setting impossibly high standards for oneself as a way of avoiding feelings of shame or inadequacy. Individuals who engage in perfectionism may feel that they are never good enough, and may be constantly striving for perfection in their work, relationships, or personal life. While striving for excellence can be a positive quality, excessive perfectionism can lead to burnout, anxiety, and self-criticism.
People-pleasing is a third shame screen that involves prioritizing the needs and desires of others at the expense of one’s own needs and desires. Individuals who engage in people-pleasing may feel that they are not worthy of love or acceptance unless they are constantly pleasing others, and may struggle to set boundaries or assert themselves in their relationships. While pleasing others can be a positive quality, excessive people-pleasing can lead to resentment, burnout, and a loss of self-identity. It is the bedrock of codependency.
Breaking free from toxic shame and shame screens often requires a combination of therapy, support from loved ones, and a willingness to challenge deeply ingrained beliefs and thought patterns. In therapy, individuals may work to identify the sources of their shame, challenge negative self-talk and beliefs, and develop healthier coping strategies for managing difficult emotions. They may also work on setting boundaries, expressing their needs and desires, and developing a more positive sense of self.
Toxic shame is a deep and pervasive sense of feeling unworthy, flawed, or fundamentally defective as a person. It can be a difficult emotion to overcome, but it is possible to manage and heal from it. Here are some strategies you can try:
- Identify the root cause: Start by identifying the experiences or messages that may have contributed to your toxic shame. This could be anything from childhood experiences to negative messages you’ve received from others or internalized from society.
- Challenge negative beliefs: Once you’ve identified the root cause of your shame, challenge the negative beliefs that are fueling it. Ask yourself if they’re really true or if they’re just a reflection of your inner critic.
- Practice self-compassion: Be kind and understanding towards yourself, just as you would towards a close friend or loved one. Recognize that everyone makes mistakes and has flaws, and that doesn’t make you any less worthy of love and respect.
- Seek support: Reach out to a therapist or trusted friend or family member who can provide you with emotional support and help you work through your feelings of shame.
- Engage in positive self-talk: Use positive affirmations and self-talk to challenge negative thoughts and reinforce positive beliefs about yourself.
- Cultivate a sense of purpose: Develop a sense of purpose in your life that gives you a sense of meaning and direction. This can help you focus on your strengths and abilities, rather than your perceived flaws.
- Practice self-care: Take care of yourself physically, emotionally, and mentally. This can include things like exercise, meditation, and healthy eating, as well as activities that bring you joy and fulfillment.
Remember, healing from toxic shame is a process, and it may take time and effort to overcome. Be patient with yourself and focus on making progress one step at a time.
Overall, shame is a complex emotion that can have significant impacts on an individual’s mental health and well-being. Toxic shame can contribute to the development of codependency and shame screens, which are coping mechanisms that individuals use to mask or avoid feelings of shame. Breaking free from toxic shame and shame screens requires a concerted effort to challenge deeply ingrained beliefs and to develop healthier coping strategies for managing difficult emotions. With the right support and guidance, individuals can learn to overcome toxic shame and to develop a healthier, more positive sense of self.
Subscribe to Dr Jenner's Blog via Email
Dr. Nicholas Jenner, a therapist, coach, and speaker, has over 20 years of experience in the field of therapy and coaching. His specialty lies in treating codependency, a condition that is often characterized by a compulsive dependence on a partner, friend, or family member for emotional or psychological sustenance. Dr. Jenner’s approach to treating codependency involves using Internal Family Systems (IFS) therapy, a treatment method that has gained widespread popularity in recent years. He identifies the underlying causes of codependent behavior by exploring his patients’ internal “parts,” or their different emotional states, to develop strategies to break free from it. Dr. Jenner has authored numerous works on the topic and offers online therapy services to assist individuals in developing healthy relationships and achieving emotional independence.