, and if you don’t understand how it works you can get stuck in cycles of shame that spiral and dominate every aspect of your life. This is called “toxic shame”, and is a feature of Complex PTSD though I’m sure it can also just show up on its own.
Most emotions originate internally: after all, emotions are senses that tell us about internal state changes. But shame is tricky — shame originates when someone instructs us to feel shame. It’s a social emotion, and that means that when
it’s not enough to understand what it’s telling you; you need to understand who is instructing you to feel it, and you need to make a judgment as to their trustworthiness in this context.
Sometimes we’ve done something that hurt someone, and they say or do something that communicates to us that they are upset with us and that we should be ashamed. In those cases it is appropriate to feel a bit of shame, to use that shame along with any guilt to repair the damage. But!
Often, we have traits or aspects of our presentations that annoy or bother people. We’re not causing harm, we’re just different in some way that someone else finds strange or objectionable. When that person communicates to us that we should feel shame we are perfectly justified in ignoring them. We have no obligation to carry shame that doesn’t belong to us, and doing so is harmful to us.
Shame is only appropriate as the consequence of a choice that has caused harm. Even then, it’s only appropriate to a certain degree. If someone wants you to feel shame over something that isn’t your choice? That’s on them. If someone wants you to feel shame for something that isn’t harming anyone? Also on them. You can put all of that shame down, friends — and if you’re anything like I was you may be carrying quite a bit of it.
On Identifying the Source
So, a lot of the things we feel shame over today are because we learned deep in our childhoods that they were shameful. Nudity, bodily functions, lying and stealing are often things that kids learn are shameful, for better or for worse, and any of those things can remain a shame trigger throughout our lives. But we forget when we learned that shame, we forget who instructed us to feel shame over those subjects — so it’s easy to instead place that blame onto any audience in the present who is there to witness the shame.
This is called projection and it can lead to all kinds of conflicts. You don’t want to misattribute the source of your shame; if you accidentally soil yourself and someone offers to help you clean up they’re not instructing you to feel shame just because you’re ashamed — they’re probably feeling compassion for you. The shame you’re feeling is coming up from the deep past, so it’s important not to project that onto them.
Similarly, if someone tells you that a choice you made hurt them? That’s not the same as instructing you to feel shame. “You hurt me and I’d like us to address it” can sound like “You hurt me and so you’re a bad person and should carry the shame of this action forever”, and it can lead to dramatic responses like deflection or escalation. Most reasonable adults don’t shame each other, so make sure if you are feeling shame that you’re not in some sort of an emotional flashback and don’t blame the other person unless they’re actively shaming you.
This is really common when you first learn to start addressing your shame instead of repressing it: you may start to find people instructing you to feel shame all over the place. But that’s not what’s going on — instead you’re recognizing your own shame, and you’re assuming it’s coming from the people around you. It might be — but it might also be coming from your own past, and it’s important to understand that distinction. So don’t get defensive or lash out if it feels like people are “shaming” you just because you feel shame in their presence (which I know is easier said than done).
The point of shame is to move you towards modified behavior and reconciliation when harm has been done; but a lot of people don’t understand what it means to reconcile or repair harm. A lot of people walk around carrying an accumulation of shame over their whole lives and never put it down for this reason. Look, this seems to happen as a result of learning as a kid that your mistakes won’t be forgiven, and that sucks. But it’s never too late to unlearn this pattern!
The answer to toxic shame is to stop carrying shame that isn’t appropriate; the answer to regular old appropriate shame is to take accountability for the choice you made and do your best to make repair and amends. That starts with an apology that’s sincere, identifies the harm you did and the choice you made, articulates that you understand now why that choice was hurtful and explains how you’ll avoid making the same choice in the future. Then you can talk about how to make amends, which may be nothing or may require some work on your part.
The painful part of even a great apology is that the other party doesn’t have to accept it — but in offering it you’re dispensing your obligations with respect to shame. You can put it down now.
Shame as a Map
When you’re starting your own healing work you may come to a point where you’re not sure what to do next. In those moments I’ve found that my own shame was a good map to those parts of myself I’d been taught to hate. If something makes me feel shame it’s a signal that there’s some work there to unpack why, where that shame is coming from and what I can do about it.
Friends one of the most powerful things you can do with your shame is realize you have no business carrying it and putting it down.