Our relationship with ourselves is often the source of our troubles in relationships with others.
Quite often an obsessive fear of what others think of us, of being judged or not being liked is simply the projection of how much we judge and do not like ourselves. Having low self-worth, engaging in negative self-talk and harsh self-criticism, defending your limiting core beliefs, holding unrealistic expectations of yourself, and needing excessive reassurance, acceptance, and praise from others to bolster your self-esteem, are examples of old programming that can keep you stuck.
While guilt is the sense that we have done something wrong, toxic shame is the deeper sense that we are flawed and defective as human beings, that our core identity or body is somehow “bad”. Our sense of our authentic selves is lost as the false self, the product of programming, takes over our identity. Guilt, fear and embarrassment are far easier to admit to than shame, which is kept locked away for fear that others will reject or abandon us if they discovered the false self we believe is who we truly are.
Wanting to identify with something larger than ourselves, to belong, is a basic human drive. As children, we identify first with our parents or caregivers and immediate family. We rely on them to attune to us, to respond to our emotional needs, to regulate our nervous systems, to empathize and validate us, and to mirror us back to ourselves, so that we can grow strongly into our authentic selves.
If our parents or caretakers are shame-based as a result of their own trauma, this is what we can begin to internalize as children. If they are unable to mirror us or attune to us, or meet our emotional needs, we further internalize shame because we believe our parents’ emotional abandonment is somehow our fault or because we are not good enough, too much, or not lovable. Neglect, abuse, narcissism, parental or family enmeshment with the child, or not being allowed to be angry or have boundaries, and cultural or societal experiences of bullying or racism can also reinforce shame.
Toxic shame can also be linked to a bodily felt sense of collapse, defeat, and immobility in what is often referred to as a freeze response. For many, this kind of toxic, somatic shame makes it difficult for any kind of sense of self as empowered, capable and triumphant to emerge.
Toxic shame can lead to sabotage of situations, beliefs and relationships that are positive because they do not fit with your sense of who you are and what you deserve.
Changing early templates and programming to internalize a gentler and compassionate way of relating to yourself, and working on thawing out of the physical freeze and collapse response associated with toxic shame, are an important part of the process of reclaiming your authentic self.