Healing Toxic Shame

by J. Bailey Molineux

Whatever you call it - low self-esteem, a poor self-concept or toxic shame - if you don't sufficiently love yourself, you will not be able to find happiness in your marriage or satisfaction in your life. I prefer to call this condition toxic shame, a term that has been popularized by John Bradshaw, author of several self-help books. Bradshaw defines toxic shame as spiritual woundedness, a failure to love yourself unconditionally as God loves you.

Toxic shame is the conviction that you are fundamentally flawed, bad, inferior, inadequate, deficient, worthless or unlovable. It is a very painful belief which underlies many cases of depression, anxiety, marital problems, family problems and addictions.

Toxic shame differs from guilt. Guilt is about your behavior. You feel guilty about something you have done. Shame is deeper and more pervasive. It is about your being. You feel badly about yourself.

You are not born with toxic shame. It is a learned attitude which passes from generation to generation. You acquired it from your parents and pass it on to our children, according to Bradshaw, even though you do not intend to do so.

I suspect most of us suffer from toxic shame to a greater or lesser degree because none of us had perfect parents. However, it is often masked by addictions, workaholic-ism, perfectionism, rage or blaming others, all of which further contributes to shame.

The first thing that must be done to heal toxic shame is to recognize you carry it. The next thing to do is gather as much information about your childhood, your parents and grandparents as you can. Find out where your shame originated. Then - and this is the hard part - acknowledge the extremely painful emotions caused by your toxic shame. Finally, reparent yourself; embrace your shame; heal it directly.

Toxic shame can be healed on three levels: personal, interpersonal and spiritual. On the personal level, learn to become more self-loving, self-nurturing, self-forgiving and self-accepting. In effect, reverse the negative messages you may have received about yourself as a child.

On the interpersonal level, toxic shame usually results in a belief that if other people really knew you, they would reject or criticize you. Its healing involves testing this belief. Find some people whom you can trust, reveal yourself to them and allow them to accept and appreciate you.

On the spiritual level, the belief in a personal God who loves you unconditionally, or the belief that at the core of your being there is goodness or divinity, will help to heal your shame. These convictions are best developed and nurtured in concert with other believers.

No person can heal another's shame. You cannot heal it indirectly through your spouse, your children or your work. You must do it yourself by facing it directly, with all its pain and ugliness, and transforming it into love. In this journey, you are the healer and the healed.

Copyright 2002, J. Bailey Molineux, all rights reserved.