Making Room for New Journeys: Healing Toxic Shame
The New Year, with all its overtones of hope and new possibility, is actually a very good time to talk about healing toxic shame.
Depth case studiess know that toxic shame can be a very effective barrier between ourselves and realizing many important aspects of who we are. Often, we don’t even realize the power of shame in our lives.
Yet sometimes the negative power of shame is all too visible in the life of someone who has undergone the harrowing experience of public shaming. The terrible experience of such individuals shows us a great deal about the power that shame can very easily have in any of our lives.
The Virulence of Shame: Monica Lewinsky
A recent CBC Radio program concerned a professor’s initiative at a prominent Canadian business school. The prof invited activist Monica Lewinsky to speak about her experience as the first person to have her reputation destroyed worldwide on the Internet. Ms. Lewinsky’s name became a household word as the result of massive degradation, villainization, scandal and shame. She has much to teach us as a result of the experience. Infamously referred to as “that woman” by President Clinton in his denial, she writes
So far, That Woman has never been able to escape the shadow of that first depiction…. [T]hat brand stuck….
Unlike the other parties involved, I was so young that I had no established identity to which I could return. I didn’t “let this define” me—I simply hadn’t had the life experience to establish my own identity in 1998. If you haven’t figured out who you are, it’s hard not to accept the horrible image of you created by others. [Italics mine] …I remained “stuck” for far too many years.
Ms. Lewinsky’s remarks about the devastating impact of shame on a person in her early 20s who hasn’t arrived at a well-developed sense of self ring all too true. Much less public, but even be more devastating, can be intense and on-going shame encountered at much younger ages.
Healing Toxic Shame: the Vulnerability of the Young
For many people, devastating toxic shame arrives at a very young age. The family of origin or the early years of school can be a cauldron of roiling, inescapable shame. It can be extremely difficult for a vulnerable person to escape the acid power of the message that “you should be ashamed of yourself”, if it is received at an early age from parents, or authority figures such as teachers.
Shame can distort and corrode a person’s sense of self in ways beyond what any other emotion can do. From a Jungian perspective, it can create complexes which feed on self-revulsion, inferiority, feelings of worthlessness and and inability to connect with others. If enough shame is experienced, self-loathing and self attack can even lead to self-destructive impulses.
When we experience shame, we carry the vulnerable and young place that experiences the shame within us, and we can easily get drawn back [“triggered”] into re-experiencing the feelings of shame with all the original intensity.
What can we do?
Compassion and Healing Toxic Shame
One thing that can contribute greatly to healing toxic shame is compassion. The compassion of others towards our shamed self can be very important; as social psychologist Kristin Neff has shown, even more important is finding compassion that we direct towards ourselves. Fundamental to healing from toxic shame is the ability to connect with our own experiences of suffering, and to recognize how our earlier selves were wounded by shaming from others or from the circumstances of our lives.
Depth case studies can assist greatly in developing this sense of self compassion, as we discern the emotion at the heart of complexes which is tied to excruciating experiences of shame. As we more and more take the corrective perspective of the unconscious into account, through dreams and other means, we develop the capacity to genuinely see ourselves, and to be kind.
Brian Collinson, Registered Psychotherapist & Jungian Psychoanalyst