How to recover from toxic shame

Shame is a form of stress, which has detrimental effects on the body.

Ultimately, shame is an emotion devoid of empathy that separates and isolates us so we cannot connect with others.

Selfeet; candy corn-like pattern leggings, tennis shows, long blue jean top, black-and-white Madras flannel; on the ground are acorn pieces

Unlearning isn’t an easy process, but it’s not an impossible one, either. The first step in learning to love yourself is learning how to stop your shameful feelings in their tracks.

When people truly love themselves, they’re kinder to other people as well. They also judge less, give more, and embrace diversity because they have a healthy sense of self and healthy boundaries to prove it.

Here are some ways to rid yourself of shame so you can learn to love yourself more.

1. Notice how you talk about yourself.

Make note of all the negative thoughts you think or say about yourself, then challenge every single one.

  • When did you say or think it, and why?
  • What do you think is the root cause of that negative thought?
  • Where have you heard it? (e.g. If you think negatively about your body, who have you heard talking negatively about their body or pushing negative body talk?)

The more you challenge the negative thoughts you have about yourself, the more self-awareness you develop.

Even keeping note of these thoughts in your phone’s notes app gives you something to work with. Continue noting the negative self-talk until you actively question your negative thoughts/feelings/etc.

2. Recognize your feelings of shame.

And question it. Why do you feel ashamed?

Shame isn’t the same as guilt.

Shame is “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.”

Guilt is “the fact of having committed a specified or implied offense or crime.”

Empathy and shame cannot coexist, for they are polar opposites. Shaming people and teaching shame prevents people from truly connecting with one another.

In the case of yourself, it prevents you from truly loving yourself.

3. Give yourself grace.

Are you more likely to forgive other people before forgiving yourself?

The thing about self-love is that there is none if you hold yourself to other people’s standards. I had to unlearn my people-pleasing behaviors in order to develop empathy and compassion for myself so I could give myself grace.

The imperfections of mine perceived through the eyes of everyone else don’t matter as much anymore, because I hold myself to my own standards. I stopped caring what people who continuously failed to understand about me thought of me.

No one is perfect, and everybody makes mistakes.

4. Rewrite the negative self-talk.

How can you turn the negative things you’ve said or thought about yourself into something positive?

When I first did this exercise, I titled the list “things about myself that are true”. I’d write down everything good and bad I thought. Then I’d draw a line through the negative things or edit them into positive affirmations.

The end result should be a list of positive affirmations you can say to yourself on a regular basis, like whenever you’re feeling down or thinking ill of yourself.

5. Share your story and heal loudly

Secrecy, silence and judgment breed shame, but it cannot survive empathy.

People learn empathy by exposure to stories and lived experiences different from their own. By sharing your story in the open, you are healing loudly.

Healing loudly helps cultivate a culture that shames less and empathizes more.

There will always be someone who thinks your story should be kept on the down low, away from public eye. The people who think this way have yet to go through the self-development journey wherein they realize their own toxic behaviors and patterns — and are thus perpetuating the shame spiral.

Where there is shame, there is no empathy. But where empathy thrives, shame dies.

6. Set and maintain boundaries to prevent external sources of shame

Ever say you can’t make a family gathering, and be slammed with guilt trips or absolute statements that minimize your own life? This looks like:

  • Being told, “You never come anymore,” “You’re always working,” “Your family wants to see you.”
  • Explaining why you can’t make it or don’t want to be there — and it being dismissed as an “excuse” in favor of the family overall.
  • Manipulative statements, like, “If you really cared, you’d find a way to be there no matter what.”
  • Feeling exhausted after being around certain people or events, like you can’t be yourself and have to hold back, like people wouldn’t like the real you if you showed them

We teach people how to treat us. Setting boundaries and maintaining them is so hard because, for many of us, a lack of boundaries was symbolic of love.

Going out of our way to please our family and do everything for them, constantly ignoring our own needs to “keep the peace”, letting someone treat us however they wanted — this is what no boundaries looks like, which is common in enmeshed and disengaged families.

Boundaries are a form of self-love. They are not selfish or shameful — rather, they

  1. Teach YOU how to treat yourself
  2. Teach OTHER PEOPLE how to treat YOU
  3. Help you preserve your kindness, likeability and energy so you can say YES to more things that enrich your life
  4. Help you say NO to that which drains your energy, doesn’t lift you up, and brings you little value beyond mere obligation

Having boundaries is not shameful.

Those who get upset because of your boundaries want to break them. Consequently, people who do not respect boundaries do not respect or care for you, no matter what they claim.

More often than not, they have a greater relationship with the control they hold over you.

They may think they love you, but love is respect — and if they respected you, they would respect your boundaries.

When I attempted to maintain my boundaries, I was told that I didn’t deserve to have boundaries because I didn’t meet their conditions. Further, they considered their conditions their “boundaries” for me, which is not how boundaries work.

Anyone who tells you that they will only respect you if you live the life they want for you — whether it’s picket fences or airlines — loves to control you, only showing kindness on a conditional basis.

This is not how boundaries work.

Your boundaries exist to teach people how to treat you. Anyone who violates your boundaries has earned themselves a consequence.

And they will attempt to shame you into violating your own boundaries in order to maintain that control.

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Comments on this post

So powerful. And its really helpful to flick the switch to release shame and forgive myself.

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THIS IS SO GOOD HOLY SHIT! Thank you for this, like a warm place to stop and stay a while on a very lonely cold road.

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