Mental Health, Toxic Shame and Spirituality

what shame looks likeIt sat outside for years, in a somewhat protected place.  At times I would move it around, but there it sat.  It’s paint began to chip off, the finish cracked.  But I couldn’t throw it away.

Years ago I received it as a gift.  A gift that I deeply felt I didn’t deserve, but couldn’t refuse.  A gift given in kindness and appreciation, received appropriately, but then sat there partially discarded, mocking me.

This beautiful flower pot is a physical manifestation of toxic shame.  It became a necessary reminder of how horrible, worthless, and a waste of space I am.  Having received it fed into my shame, as I was fully convinced that not only did I not deserve it, that accepting it was somehow stealing though an act of fraud.    Then I couldn’t give it away, and later throw it out, as it was a well intended gift that my feelings of rejecting it – and rejecting the giver – gave me a physical feeling of repulsion.

Shame is a soul eating emotion.  – Carl Jung

Normal shame is a painful feeling of realizing that one has done something wrong or foolish.  It is the emotional signal that helps keep us from doing harm, teaching us our limits and appropriate social boundaries, and helping us survive within society.  Without shame, we can do anything…like bilk investors for millions and physically hurt others.

But toxic shame is shame on steroids.  It steals our lives without us knowing.  It plunges us into a darkness where we are eternally worthless, and therefore “other”.  It is not natural, but evil.

God created us as wonderfully, complex and beautiful beings.  A child comes into this world perfect in who they are…with all their curves and edges, and perfect imperfections.  Yet, they are also extremely vulnerable.  During childhood, we form our identify by learning how we compare to others.  The primary way we learn this is through how others behave towards us and what they say – or even how others are treated around them.

A baby who is physically neglected, learns she is not worthy of attention.  A child who is told they are always doing something wrong – or that others around them who they identify with are wrong –  learns that he is wrong.  A person surrounded by an environment that focuses on the negatives, learns to identify herself as less than human.  Verbal and emotional abuse is usually the cause of such learned self-definition, and some are more susceptible to it than others.    Eventually the evil of toxic shame takes hold, and life is then lived through a lens of being worthless, wrong, and fundamentally flawed.

Once someone’s life is hijacked by toxic shame, they interpret their human limits as horrific defects.  And the individual begins to find ways to survive despite intrinsically believing they aren’t worth the air they breathe.  Their behavior and decisions (or lack of decisions) are defined by the knowledge that no matter what they do, it isn’t good enough, it isn’t right.  And this shame oozes from the individual into the lives around them.

Living a life defined by toxic shame is living in hell.  It is a life lived in darkness, with perhaps a glimmer of light.  And that is where spirituality comes to play.

Toxic shame is evil.   It’s nature is to do everything possible to hold on.  To better understand toxic shame, imagine it as a separate being – a monster, a parasite.  A few nice words from someone else isn’t enough to exorcise it.  Intense therapy, personal work, unconditional love from another, and time, is necessary.  The roots of the shame must be discovered, and dug out.  Like a cancer, surgery and chemo must be preformed, and scars will always linger.

If you think you are living with toxic shame, please go get help.  God does not want you to live this way.  God is always extending love, hope and light to you.  If you can feel any of God’s Light, grab onto it and hold tight.  You do not need to believe you are worthy of it, as God’s Grace has nothing to do about being worthy.  God’s Grace is extended to all because they simply breathe.   God’s Grace is unimaginable for someone drowning in toxic shame, yet the light comes to all.

Related links:
Healing the Shame that Binds You(in my opinion, best book ever on shame)
Healing the Shame that Binds You – Video Presentation
Unearthing Toxic Shame
Toxic Shame – Northwestern Univ. Family Institute
Verbal & Emotional Abuse – (a great and easy reference, but more hopeful of helping someone stop being abusive than I think is possible)
 Telltale Signs of Verbal Abuse
Emotional Abuse – Univ. of Illinois 

May is Mental Health month.  Read my May 2014 posts if you are interested in learning more about the connection between mental health and spirituality.  Each contains some relevant links.  Also, click on an particular category or tag of interest.

Mental Health is a Spiritual Issues – post 1
Mental Health, Sensory Processing Disorder and Spirituality – post 2
Mental Health, Anxiety, Depression and Spirituality – post 3

About SFriant

I live to walk with others on their journeys - because everyone needs to know that they are loved, that they matter, and that they are doing amazing things. I'm a lot like our two kids: obsessed with learning, and constantly creating.
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