“You have no idea who I really am…if you did, you probably wouldn’t agree to see me.”
Shame dripped from his words, roared through his body language, and was thick enough in the room to need a knife to cut through the shame-fog.
“Oh?” I asked softly with curiosity.
He began presenting his case. All the mistakes he’d made. A list of failures. Embarrassed that tears were falling from his eyes, he wiped them away with a vengeance with his shirt sleeve.
“I can’t even control ‘sissy like emotions’ as you can see!?”
I knew from the moment he walked in…that I had an appointment with shame. Toxic shame. The shame that binds so many people in chains of self-doubt, self-deprecation, and self-hate.
I know toxic shame all too well. I lived with it for years, and I’ve wrestled it to the ground for myself and with thousands of others.
So, I was ready for this appointment with toxic shame.
I responded: “My friend, shame is a healthy emotion for those who ‘know’ they need someone or something greater than themselves to navigate life. But toxic shame has clouded your vision of your life, of who you are, and of your future.”
In a desperate plea, with more tears and a broken voice, he pled: “I’m not a good person. I meant to be, but I’m not. Don’t you know that there’s nothing good in me?”
I knew that shame had won the battle in him. But only temporarily!
What is shame? One of the most influential people in my life, Dr. John Bradshaw, defined shame as this:
“Toxic Shame, the shame that binds you, is experienced as the all-pervasive sense that I am flawed. I am a defective human being. Toxic shame is no longer an emotion that signals our limits, it’s a state of being, a core identity. Toxic shame gives you a sense of worthlessness, a sense of failing and falling short as a human being. Toxic shame is a rupture of self with-the self.”
Is there healthy shame?
I believe there is. But I don’t think many people experience it…. because we live in a culture of shame. Toxic shame.
Healthy shame is self-correction, knowing we need a power greater than ourselves to help us live as the best versions of ourselves. It inspires growth! Emotionally, mentally, spiritually.
Certainly, that’s NOT the kind of shame my client was referring to.
Another definition of toxic shame says it is…
A negative self-evaluation that may stem from messages received in childhood. It usually occurs as the result of abuse, neglect, and/or trauma.
I broaden the definition to include: “Being exposed to or raised by anyone who is living less than the life of a Champion.”
Unfortunately that covers, the majority of us!
I’d say that at least 90% of the clients that walk through the doors of my office struggle with some level of toxic shame.
I helped my client dig through the layer of shame, and I’ll share it with you… with great hope and a prayer that it will help you break through yours.
1. WHERE DOES THIS SHAME THAT IMPRISONS YOU COME FROM?
Shame comes from direct or indirect messages that assign “less worth” to us than we were created to have and experience.
You can assess your levels of shame by asking the questions I asked my client:
- How intense are your feelings of shame?
“Let’s just say it feels like an explosion in my gut. I can’t think of a nice way to express it. But I immediately feel like every cell in my body is a completely worthless ‘piece of sh*t!’ To be honest, at those moments, I want to die. I mean seriously. If I wasn’t such a coward, I’d kill myself when it starts. It’s that awful.”
- When you get that feeling, how long does it last?
“Forever! I mean literally. I feel like there’s no way to stop it. It goes on and on and takes me on a ride to hell and back.”
- Do you experience depression and anxiety with it?
“I guess that’s what makes me want to die. I hate it. I just hate it. I just want it to stop. Anxiety? I guess. I get restless. I feel embarrassed to be, say or do anything. I want it to stop. I just want it to stop. I can’t breathe, sometimes I feel shaky. Sometimes I feel like I’m having a heart attack.”
Sadly, those are typical responses of someone who is experiencing toxic shame.
To determine where his came from, I asked these questions that might help you identify where yours came from too.
- How early in your life do you remember feeling this kind of shame?
“Probably since I was born!” I asked what made him say that.
He said, “Well, it was back in the day where you were supposed to get married and then get pregnant. But my dad was a sailor, and he sailed in, got my mom pregnant, and sailed out.”
I asked if she had been shamed for her pregnancy? He said, “Well, I guess. Her folks tried to find someone to do an abortion and my mom ran away. When my father sailed back in and saw she was all knocked-up, he gave her money and told her to never mention his name. She took the money, quit school and got a place to live.”
Clearly his shame was toxic and NOT his fault. And it likely began while he was still in the womb.
- How early on do you remember feeling like you were not “up to par”? Or “not good enough”?
My client could hardly choke his tears back as I asked this question. He stared at the floor in silence for a moment, making his best effort to compose himself.
“I don’t even know why this crap bothers me like it does. It’s just a stupid little thing.” He paused again.
“We were at the community center because I told my mom I wanted to play T-ball. I was a little embarrassed that everyone else was there with their dad. But then the coach said to my mom: ‘I guess he doesn’t have a dad, so I guess he doesn’t know much about T-ball.’ My mom just smiled and said, ‘Well we’ve done a little bit of practicing.’”
“As I watched the other kids pitch, bat, run bases so the coaches could watch and assess…I knew I wasn’t as good as any of them. I wasn’t as good because I didn’t have a dad, and because my mom knew nothing about T-ball.”
I waited while he composed himself again under the weight of pain that was never meant for him, you, or me!
“So, what happened?” I inquired gently.
“I couldn’t take it. I turned and left her standing there and I ran home, as fast as my legs would carry me. She got home a few minutes later, and I was hidden behind some of her clothes hanging in the closet. I finally came out when I heard her tell someone that she was going to call the police.”
What about you?
How early on did you feel inferior?
How early did you sense you were not up to par?
When did you first (in any way) feel you were not good enough?
These are definite sign of toxic shame.
- What kinds of things did you do, to try to compensate, or make yourself feel “up to par” or “good enough”?
“I guess getting in trouble? Finding ways to make kids laugh at other kid’s expense? Or maybe learning to stretch the truth?”
I waited because I could tell there was something else…
“Is that how I became such a bad person?” he asked with a look of terror in his eyes.
I assured him: “You’ve not become a bad person. You became a boy, a teenager, and a man who was crippled with a shame-based identity, drowning in toxic shame.”
Toxic shame can come from any person, any situation, any circumstances where we’re made to feel that we are a lesser version of a person, compared to others.
Understanding what a shame-based identity is, and where it comes from, is a huge part of the challenge of digging through the layer of shame that keeps the Champion in us, the very best parts of us, buried!
Where did yours come from? When you know, we can TNT it out of your life! You were NEVER meant to carry yesterday’s noise, pain, or trauma in your heart or mind. It’s all shame. Toxic shame.
2. HOW DO YOU KNOW IF YOUR SHAME IS HEALTHY OR TOXIC?
Honestly, the answer to this is quite simple and straight forward!
Healthy shame allows us to see that we are all flawed. That we all make mistakes. And that to grow beyond all of that, we need someone, something greater than ourselves to guide us.
I realized early in my life that the “someone/something” for me was God. My Mamaw would tell me great stories about grace. Amazing grace. That no matter how many bad choices or mistakes I made, that there was grace to cover me. And she always challenged me to be better.
I found great peace in those stories and am so very grateful that I’ve had a reference for healthy shame throughout my life.
But long before I was in grade school, I also knew way too much about toxic shame. Toxic shame because I was a girl.
My dad’s great aspirations were about becoming a Coach. He had been a superstar athlete in high school, taking his team to national Championships as a quarterback for four years. However, a knee injury prevented further play time.
At some point, I think he thought he would live through his sons, making them great athletes.
He married my Mother, the Homecoming Queen, who wanted two little girls. Her wishes came true. I can only imagine my dad’s disappointment hearing the second: “It’s a girl!”
I guess he decided that he’d raise me as a little boy, and I was.
I was quite an athlete and played on boys’ sports teams. I kept my hair up in a cap. This was long before there were sports teams for little girls.
I was his fishing buddy. I worked on his boat with him. But I had toxic shame about “acting like a girl.” When he worked me out as a preschooler, he’d run beside me and yell: “Don’t run like an ‘f*ing girl!’ Pump your arms! Harder! Faster!”
I graduated from high school feeling inferior that I was a girl. I was assured I wasn’t smart enough for college, so I stumbled through the next few years, faltering beneath the heavy load of toxic shame.
I had a fateful encounter with Dr. John Bradshaw. I’ll never forget his first words to me: “You feel inferior and like a mistake because you are a ‘girl?’ Oh my goodness! You were fearfully and wonderfully made as a girl. Your beauty, your wit, you tender heart. Those are gifts. We must remove the bushel of toxic shame that keeps your light dim!”
Within a few sessions, the toxic shame of being a girl was gone!
We all need the gift of healthy shame.
But toxic shame is a weight, a burden, a dimming of our life spark that NONE OF US DESERVES!
Hear me my friend! You deserve healthy shame. So, you keep growing to become the very best version of you!
Toxic shame will eventually put your life spark out!
I’m committed to not allowing that to happen to you!
3. HOW HAS TOXIC SHAME CHOKED THE LIFE OUT OF YOU?
Toxic shame chokes the life out of us in 3 distinct ways:
- Through ‘beliefs set in stone’
- Through our ‘coping mechanisms’
- Through the ‘low standards’ we set for ourselves
Let’s look at all three.
BELIEFS SET IN STONE
I asked my client about several of his beliefs. Beginning with: “What do you believe about dads and sons?”
Without hesitation he said, “Well that’s mixed. On one hand, I believe boys without dads don’t have a chance. But then on the other hand, I believe that stepdads don’t have a chance in hell.”
Because I knew he had one son, and one stepson, I asked him to clarify.
“Well, my dad ran off before I was born, and I was a good kid. My mom did her best. But I didn’t have a dad to help me learn how to be a little boy.”
I saw some regret on his face as he continued.
“But then when I was nine years old, she met and married a man. A good man. But I hated him. He wasn’t my dad, but he tried to be. I didn’t know what to do with that. You ever heard that song by Brad Paisley that says:
‘Lookin’ back, all I can say
About all the things he did for me
Is I hope I’m at least half the dad
That he didn’t have to be.’”
“I just couldn’t accept that he wanted me or loved me. We’re good now. But it took him 10 years to break through the walls of my heart and allow him to be a dad to me.”
Clearly the beliefs that were set in him early on have had major impacts. Not only on his life, but in trying to be the best dad and stepdad he could possibly be. However, the toxic shame continued to assure him it was not enough!
Ask yourself about the beliefs, that were set in stone in you, as a result of your early shame, and you will find those beliefs that hold you prisoner to toxic shame.
I asked him now that he knew more about his struggle with toxic shame throughout his life…how he coped with it as an adult?
Without hesitation, he said, “I know, you know this, but I guess you’re going to make me say it!”
Although I didn’t know, I just nodded and waited.
“Drinking. Yes drinking! Mostly wine. I saw too many guys who drank too much beer, and I thought wine had more class. It was socially acceptable. But I guess a bottle of wine at nights (when I wasn’t at work) and maybe even two, is what you’d call an alcoholic.”
I deferred my response with a question: “What would you call it?” I asked with gentle curiosity.
“Wino. I’m a worthless wino.” He could not blink fast enough to keep a tear or two from escaping.
I leaned forward and assured him: “My friend, you may be a wino. But I can assure you that you are not a worthless wino. There’s absolutely nothing worthless about you! You’re a good man. You choose behaviors that may reflect something different. You’re coping the best you can! And, I’m hoping that we can relieve you of the toxic shame, and that your coping mechanisms will become healthier.”
For the first time, the aggressiveness of his tone and the sourness of his attitude softened as he looked at me and very tenderly spoke the words: “Thank you ma’am. Thank you.”
What about you? Toxic shame fuels dysfunctional coping behaviors. What coping mechanisms have you chosen? A toxic shame breakthrough awaits anyone who’s willing to say the truth, embrace the truth, to become the truth… and know…
- The real me!
- The real you!
- The real us!
Any toxic shame breeds unhealthy life habits, but we can and will change that.
There’s not a worthless cell in your body! Not one my friend…NOT one!
When toxic shame rules our world, we set low standards for ourselves.
I asked my client to let me get a further peek into his world by having him share one of the low standards he’d set for himself.
“Well, I can tell you what my wife says. I’ve been a firefighter/EMT for over 20 years. Every year, she tells me that I should apply for a supervisory or trainee’ position. But you really have to be ‘something’ to get one of those positions. They pay good. Really good. But I just don’t have what it takes. Every year she tries to convince me differently.”
I began a “what if” conversation with rhetorical questions. I spoke with great confidence and with a calculated pause between each:
- What if toxic shame has blinded you?
- What if you really do have the ‘something’ it takes?
- What if all the awards that you’ve won mean that you have skills that you could help other young men and women gain … if you were a trainer?
- What if you had a regular work schedule for more time with your family?
- What if you deserved the significant pay increase that would come with the promotion?
- What if you believed you could?
As if he’d just heard words that might rock his world if he took them in, he finally dared to speak, “Maybe my life would be good? Maybe I could be a good man? Maybe I could be the husband I really want to be? Maybe I could be the dad and stepdad that makes a difference in these boys’ lives?”
“Just maybe!” I almost whispered as I nodded my head affirmatively.
What about you? What low standards have you set for your life, as a result of your drowning in a swamp of toxic shame?
You can overcome all these things by breaking through that layer of toxic shame that keeps the very best parts of you buried under the babbling noise of yesterday.
And yes…I’m certain those very parts of you are there! The journey to our champion heart and soul is waiting for us to say and do, whatever it takes…to surrender and know the truth…so WE all will find that real ‘ME’… That real ‘ME’ WE all were meant to BE!
4. BREAKING THROUGH THE LAYER OF TOXIC SHAME
How do you break through the layer of toxic shame?
I do many powerful exercises to make this process life altering. The one I chose for my client is one that you can do as well.
I had him write a letter to his toxic shame with these components:
- Tell the toxic shame what it has stolen from you
- Tell the toxic shame who you’ve become with unhealthy coping mechanisms
- Tell the toxic shame that you deserve better
- Tell the toxic shame where to go!
Here is a copy of his letter.
Dear Toxic Shame,
You stole every good thing from my life. You stole my relationship with my mother. She was doing the best she could to be a mom and a dad, and you made me resent her for trying to be both.
Then you stole the relationship I could’ve had with my stepdad. He was a good man. He was everything he didn’t have to be. But you made me doubt him. I hate you for that.
You stole the belief from me that I could be a good man. You stole my dignity and my pride, making me feel like a lesser loser louse in every part of my life.
You stole every good thing from me. You’ve stolen my desire to be a good husband and a good dad. You’ve stolen my opportunities to serve in my community. You’ve stolen my ability to recognize myself as a first responder. I hate all that you’ve stolen from me.
You drove me to become a wino. And made me believe that I was worthless. I’m sick of not having control over my life. I’m sick of believing that my wife and kids would be better off without me. I’m sick of all of it.
I know I’ve got a long way to go to be a good man. But I deserve better. I’ll get better. I’ll find better. I don’t know how yet. But I’m going to do it.
You can take all your BS and go straight to hell. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. Go straight to hell. And I’m not coming with you.
Today a new life begins. Get behind me Satan!
And God, if you’ll have me, I’ll become the good man you always wanted me to be.
But writing the letter is not enough. I had him bring it in and capture an image all the toxic shame pouring out of him and locating itself across the room.
I asked him what it looked like, and he said it looked like the piles and piles of poop that he scooped from the horse stalls at his first job. Piled to the ceiling and overflowing into the courtyard.
Then bit by bit, I had him read his letter out loud to the toxic shame, repeating significant statements, multiples of time. And when he got to the “go to hell” part, I had him yell it again and again as he saw and imagined minions hauling away the manure in barrels full. All while he continued to shout for it to go to hell. It was a powerful transformational experience.
When he got to the last few lines, he was exhausted emotionally and physically from the exercise that we’d spent over 40 minutes on.
As he began to read out the part of talking to God, he fell on his knees and sobbed. Without direction, he kept promising God again and again that he’d become the good man, the good husband, the good dad that God had created him to be.
It was a sacred ground moment in his life. As he gathered himself, I told him that in his letter he’d said, “If God would have him.” I asked him tenderly if he thought God would have him.
With tears of healthy shame pouring down his cheeks, with no toxic shame whatsoever, with the innocent eyes of a boy, he looked up to the ceiling and said… “Yes. Yes ma’am. He will have me, and He will help me!”
Don’t just write your letter.
If you can…find a trusted friend that can walk through the exercise with you. You can certainly do it alone, but the power of having someone guide you with a few questions, is something I’d really love for you to experience.
A Champion emerged that day in my office. If you’ll break through the layer of toxic shame, I assure you…your Champion will resurrect as well!
5. PROCLAIM THE TRUTH ABOUT WHO YOU ARE, ACKNOWLEDGING THE BEST PARTS OF YOU
One of the most powerful things that I believe you can do at this point is to write a proclamation.
In the darkest days of my life, my dear and treasured friend, Vikki Burke, taught me about the power of proclamation.
I’d been through a rough season that had left me feeling worthless, and totally void of the energy or belief that I could ever rise again. She helped me write a proclamation, affirming who I was, and what I could and would become and do.
I did the same with my client. I gave him these brief instructions about writing a proclamation…Take some time and answer these questions,
- What are you struggling with in your life right now?
- What are you having to stretch to have faith for right now?
- What are you hoping/praying for, that hasn’t come into being yet?
- What negative thoughts do you have coming to your mind?
- What lies are you hearing from the chatter in your head?
- What are you longing for that hasn’t happened yet?
- What are the desires of your heart?
- What do you feel needs to happen in your life right now?
- What thoughts do you have that are contrary to that?
Next, find a famous quote, Bible verse, thought, etc. that speaks to each of the things you’ve written above. Write (or type) each quote.
Now take pieces out of each quote, thought, or verse, that create ‘your’ bold fluid proclamation!
Example: (My Personal Proclamation from that difficult year):
This is my Kairos moment: A critical, decisive moment in time that turns my direction toward greater things. FAVOR IS MINE!
I’m determined to be: Intentional, Irresistible, Inspirational, Invincible, Influential!
I’ve stepped out of ordinary and up into extraordinary!
In my health.
In my energy.
In my prosperity.
I’m God’s girl, doing God’s good, and spreading God’s grace! Gratitude is my theme; healing hearts is my dream!
Yes, the Champion in me rose again as I begin proclaiming life, strength, and hope over myself.
And yes, the Champion in my client has risen! He’s now the lead trainer for all the young firefighters and EMT’s in his community. An award-winning trainer! He’s also a frequent guest speaker at national training gatherings.
Both of his sons (he no longer calls his second son a “stepson”), are following in his footsteps. His wife says that he’s everything she dreamed and knew he could be as a husband and a dad.
He stands tall, he speaks with confidence, he shares his journey powerfully, and mentors young men and young women.
I don’t know what the Champion in you is called to become or do. But breaking through this layer of toxic shame will open doors that are greater than you could possibly imagine.
You were meant to arrive here … where you are now, ready for change! It’s perfectly ok to think about yourself and put the truths you now need first in your life.
It’s not only a different way of thinking, but also a different way of being, which will eventually become a different way of living. But it begins by us saying to our Champion within, “I no longer want to live in yesterday’s toxic shame cycle, but I want to be in the present, where hearts and minds learn to focus on hope; our ‘guaranteed’ road to a purposeful-joy-filled future!”
Break through the toxic shame, my friend.
Let your Champion rise! And you’ll become all you were created to be!
WE CAN DO THIS!!!