This is the final post in a six-part series about what John Bradshaw, in Healing the Shame that Binds You, calls toxic shame. If you’re not sure what toxic shame is, start here. This article is the second of two that discuss healing. The previous one introduces the elements necessary for healing (such as a support system), and includes exercises to help externalize and remove belief in the shaming lies that toxic shame tells. Making you believe these lies is the way toxic shame gets what it wants—control of you. But the lies, over the years in which you’ve believed them, have done damage that must be addressed separately. The exercises in this article do this, teaching how to get back in touch with your lost True Self, process shaming memories from childhood and move on, and reincorporate the disowned pieces of the self.
Two things: I do not recommend starting this series with this article, and I do not recommend trying to heal toxic shame without help: a trusted therapist, support group, or Bradshaw’s incredible book, Healing the Shame that Binds You. Most of the exercises below come right out of this book—but my descriptions are no substitute for its expert knowledge and thoroughness. I can’t recommend it highly enough.
Rewrite Shaming Memories
In every person’s childhood, there are events that make him feel particularly embarrassed, ashamed or humiliated. In toxically shamed people, these real events become models from which the mind creates feelings of shame as an adult—this time with no external cause. These memories are much of what feeds the Shaming Voice; it delights in bringing them up over and over and forcing you to relive them. It uses them as evidence that you should be ashamed of yourself, and that the lies it tells you are true. Eliminate the shame laced into these memories, and much of toxic shame’s power source is drained. The way Bradshaw suggests to do is through his adaptation of Neuro-Linguistic Programming.
When you remember an experience the way it really happened, you feel the emotions associated with the experience again. This is why you get angry recounting a frustrating experience later, and why your real shaming memories are such powerful fodder for toxic shame. But Bradshaw suggests that “the brain and central nervous system cannot tell the difference between real and imagined experience if the imagined experience is vivid enough and in detail.” If you’re skeptical, think of dreams. Have you ever woken up and been unsure all day what really happened yesterday and what you only dreamed? Have you ever been mad at somebody because of something he did in a dream? The imagination is a powerful thing. Still, Bradshaw isn’t suggesting that you can trick yourself into forgetting what really happened in the most humiliating moment of your life. What he is suggesting is that by imagining an alternative sequence of events, you can shift the emotional aspect of your memory. By reliving your shaming memory through this meditation and deliberately feeling positive emotions as you do so, you change the emotional imprint of the memory. Sure, you’ll still know what really happened—but whenever you remember it, you will not also feel ashamed.
This, like several of the other exercises in this article, is a meditation. If you want to use it to full effect, I recommend Bradshaw’s book, which really walks you through in detail. His book also offers dialogue to record to help you through several other meditations in this article. I’m just going to go through the basics here.
1) Relax and focus on breathing. Bring up one of your most shaming memories—something really painful that happened to you in childhood and made you feel intense shame. Preferably, choose a memory associated with a shaming adult who had a significant influence on you, like a parent, therapist, minister or teacher. Relive the memory and feel the emotions of it. As you do, touch your left thumb to one of your left fingers and hold that contact for thirty seconds. What you’re doing is creating an anchor—a physical action that will trigger the memory and its associated emotions. Then, pull yourself out of the memory by thinking about something neutral and non-threatening.
2) Ask yourself: what resource or skill do I have now that, if I’d had it then, would have enabled me to handle things differently? Maybe you’re more articulate now, or more assertive. Think of a memory in which that skill really shined, and remember the positive feelings associated with it. Focus on as many sensory details as you can—remember, you want the memory to be vivid and specific so as to harness the emotional power of the real event. Create an anchor by holding your right thumb to a finger on your right hand. This anchor will help you call your resource the next time you relive your shaming memory. Again, pull out by thinking of something neutral.
3) Now go back in time and redo your childhood experience—and this time, give yourself access to the resource or skill you’ve just practiced. You do this by sinking into the memory as you touch the anchors on both hands. Experience the memory, but take control. Change what you do. It doesn’t have to be realistic, but the result should be cathartic and spontaneous. The goal is to change what you feel while reliving the memory. Be honest, use your resource, and harness your power as an adult. Tell the shaming person in your memory how angry you are. Tell him that you know he’s trying to pass his shame to you, and you won’t take it. Say, “I’m just a kid. How awful of you to make me feel so humiliated. I’m doing the best I can.” Say whatever you feel, and feel free to say it out loud.
In previous posts, we learned that shame is passed on through generations when shame-based adults try to minimize their own shame by making others (often children) feel ashamed. This is called “passing the hot potato.” The event you chose to rewrite is one in which an adult important to you tried to pass you his potato. As a child, you took it. The way to change your emotional memory of this event is to act differently: this time, with all the resources you have now that you are an adult, refuse to take it. Bradshaw says:
Finally, I ask the person to give his shameless caregiver back the shame he has been carrying for him for years. I like to symbolize it as a black, soggy bag. The symbolic giving back is important.
Visualize it however you like, but create a visual representation of shame, and pass it back to this shaming adult. You’re no longer the victimized child of this memory. You are done carrying this person’s shame.
4) Practice these changes as many times as you need to for your new emotional stamp to stick. Don’t stop until the emotions you associate with the memory have permanently changed. Now, every time shame calls that memory, it will find it has been robbed of its source material. The memory can no longer hurt you. Do this exercise for as many memories as you like, and certainly for your most painful. Healing is about feeling feelings and discharging them; the memory will always be there, but the shame doesn’t have to be.
Putting the True Self Back in Control
The True Self is the part of your personality that is meant to be the leader; it is the part that embodies who you really are, free of obligation, social expectations and ego defenses. It is meant to lead from your core, but as toxic shame internalizes, the True Self detaches from the rest of the self and goes into hiding. It does this to protect itself from the damage of toxic shame, so that when you grow up and are ready to heal, it will be intact and healthy and ready to step into its leadership role. But Bradshaw calls the True Self in shame-based people the lost Inner Child, because when the True Self goes into hiding to protect herself, she gets locked at the age she was when she was put away. Hidden away in the deepest part of your mind in the years you’ve been a shame-based person, she’s been deprived the opportunity to get to know, and trust, the rest of the self; she’s been denied a chance to grow into a mature part of your psyche, and gain experience as a leader. To get in touch with who you are when not guided by shame, you must take that lost Inner Child out of hiding and help her grow up and learn to trust.
Freeing the True Self
The first step in doing this is to free the lost Inner Child from hiding and reincorporate her into the self. You must go to the part of your mind in which she is hiding and tell her that it’s safe to come out. When I visualized all this, I imagined my True Self child locked away in a dark closet, like solitary confinement in prison. I adore the way Alice Miller (quoted in Bradshaw’s book) phrases her own visualization:
Probably, I, too, would have remained trapped by this compulsion to protect the parents…had I not come in contact with the Child Within Me, who appeared late in my life, wanting to tell me her secret…
Now I was standing at an open door…filled with an adult’s fear of the darkness…But I could not close the door and leave the child alone until my death…I made a decision that was to change my life profoundly…to put my trust in this nearly autistic being who had survived the isolation of decades.
Isn’t that beautifully put? So in my meditation I went to that door, and finally opened it. Inside, in the darkness, was a little blonde girl, and I took her hand, and walked her out. Try whatever visualization works for you; the goal is to meet that child, and let her out into the light.
Releasing the False Self’s Control
Over the next months as I healed my shame, this “nearly autistic” child became an adult. She grew into her natural abilities and quickly developed into the leader she was meant to be. It wasn’t long before she was ready to take over leadership of me from my False self. The False self is a personality built of defense mechanisms that is the leader in shame-based people; its entire purpose is to protect you from feeling shame. If you are ever to feel your feelings, face your shame and heal, it must be decompiled. Control must be returned to the True Self.
This transition was hard for me because my False self had protected me for years, while only a few weeks before, my True Self was nothing but a lost child. To help me put my trust in the right place and give over control, I pictured my True Self and False self standing together. The True Self I imagined had rolling red curls framing a smiling face. She stood easily, and looked relaxed and confident. My False self was bristled, every muscle tense and looking for release under a bodysuit of leather. She was a bodyguard, a protector, a fighter, while my True Self was a vision of peace and calm.
I imagined a conversation between them in which my True Self gave my False self the respect and thanks she deserved for years spent as my protector. “Thank you for taking care of us so that I could stay safe,” my True Self said. “We wouldn’t be where we are without you; but I’ll take it from here.” I imagined them hugging, and a transfer of power between them. From now on, I’d look to my True Self to figure out what to do, and my defensive False self would take a backseat. It is your job, guiding the meditation (and your own real-life actions from here on out), to make sure the False self steps aside. The True Self must be given back control for healing to be successful, because the False self doesn’t know how to face shame—only how to repress it, and pass it on to others. Every time you doubt that the True Self can handle what life’s throwing at you, hold a picture of her in your mind and see the place of peace she’s coming from. Go into your mind and spend some time with her. Trust me; she can handle it.
Embracing Your Lost Inner Child
Bradshaw’s meditation for releasing the lost Inner Child, and reestablishing the bond of trust with him, is a little different than those I just described.
Imagine walking along the street you lived on before you were seven. Focus on details. Come to your house, and see yourself as a child walk out the door. Go over to this child and start to talk with him. “Tell him that you are from the future…Tell him that you know better than anyone what he has been through…Tell him that of all the people he will ever know, you are the only one he will never lose.” Ask if he’d like to leave with you—but don’t force him. He has to be ready. If he’s ready, take his hand and walk away. As you walk away, turn back and see your parents on your house’s steps. Wave goodbye. The street around you fades and you are both brought to a new place where your closest friends and your Higher Power wait to greet you. Feel them embrace you, and welcome the child-you. Then, transport yourself and the child to a beautiful spot; perhaps a place for a picnic. Promise the child you’ll meet him here every day for five minutes. It’s a good idea to pick a time of day and commit to doing this meditation at that time, every day. Don’t break your promise. This little boy has been rejected and left alone; it is a risk for him to come out of hiding while you are still shame-based. The goal of this exercise is to make him feel safe, to validate his experiences and memories (ones you’ve likely been repressing and denying for years), and to remember what it felt like to be him. Make him feel safe and give him this validation and he will soon begin to grow up and reintegrate into the self.
Reintegrating Disowned Qualities
Another way the self fractures when shame is internalized is through the disowning of qualities that make you feel particularly ashamed of yourself. The aspects of your personality that cause you the most pain become things you deliberately act against, denying their place in your personality. Eventually, over years, you fall out of touch with the fact that these qualities are part of you at all. Despite this, they never go away, acting instead from the sidelines to be expressed in less-than-healthy ways (often through the development of prejudices against others who embody the qualities you hate). Becoming whole again requires the reintegration of these personality traits as loved, acceptable parts of the self.
Bradshaw suggests several ways to discover the qualities you’ve rejected in yourself—as well as qualities you’ve over-identified with. As with the Shaming Voice, half the battle is creating this recognition and awareness.
Find some magazines and cut out pictures of people (both sexes) that repulse you. You don’t have to know why yet. If someone turns you off in some way, cut him out. Form these pictures into a collage. The people you chose embody qualities that you have, that have been disowned. Try to figure out what it is about each person that offends you, and make a list of things that come up more than once. In realizing what you hate about these people, you realize what you hate about yourself.
You can also do this with pictures of people that attract you. It’s likely these people represent qualities you’ve over-identified with, that profoundly influence the way you think about and define yourself. Though you might perceive these qualities as positive (and perhaps they are), over-identifying with them disrupts your ability to see yourself as a well-rounded and unique person. You are more than just smart or athletic.
I also found that these people represented qualities I wanted to have, but didn’t. In some cases, these were aspects of my natural personality (like assertiveness and self-assurance) that my toxic shame had robbed me of. That taught me that reintegrating these lost qualities, banished by shame, was a major goal for me.
Make a list of people you hate. Write down why you hate them; what qualities do they have that you think are absolutely deplorable and unacceptable? Ut-oh—you probably have them too. Personally, I tend to clash with people who are arrogant, excessively late, and pointlessly intellectual—we have too much in common. Bradshaw suggests this exercise as a way to find out what personality traits you have, but have disowned, and it’s helpful for doing that. But when I made my list, I mostly found myself naming shame-based people who embodied many of the same defensive, shame-based traits I did. I hadn’t disowned these traits—in fact, they’d taken over—but they weren’t a healthy part of me either. Toxic shame makes you think that you are judgmental, angry, harsh on others, etc., but these are just shame-based defense mechanisms. When I made my list, I felt liberated—because I realized that while I had plenty of “negative” traits, I didn’t hate them about myself. What I hated was actually my toxic shame; all the qualities I truly hated in others were shame-based ones that didn’t need to be reincorporated in me—they needed to be disempowered.
I also found it helpful to make a list of people I admired. Though you are welcome to use real people, I mostly listed imaginary heroes from my favorite TV shows and books. Because they are so much larger then life, I think they serve as great representations of qualities in their most realized forms. In listing the qualities I admired in my heroes, there were several that came up over and over. Though some traits were ones I already had that I was overvaluing, most were positive qualities I used to have that had been dispossessed by toxic shame. I gravitated towards heroes particularly who were unapologetic and unafraid; I was tired of hanging my head and pretending to be someone I wasn’t, and I admired people who were honest, brave and straightforward. I used to be that way too before toxic shame made me afraid, and this list helped me realize how much I wanted to be again. It created a goal, motivating me by showing me the person I had the potential to become.
I think one of the hardest things about healing toxic shame is separating what qualities and voices belong to shame, and what ones are meant to be a part of you. Bradshaw advocates integrating all your qualities, even your bad ones. But he means sloppiness—not uber-righteousness. Excessive righteousness is a shame-based quality; it should not be integrated; it should be cast out. As you heal, you should embody it less and less. Some of the qualities you listed as “hated” in the previous exercises are likely shame-based, while others are really you, and should be loved and accepted. How do you figure out which are which?
Think about the most shaming adult in your life as a child—the person who did the most to make you a shame-based person. Make a list of everything he told you about yourself over the years—all the qualities or characteristics he said you had. Include both positive and negative, and think of as many as you can. When I did this, I ended up with a page of negative, and about seven positive.
Immediately afterward, make a list of the qualities you like and dislike in yourself. It may take a few minutes for things to start to flow, but eventually I hope the balance will be the opposite. It may be a struggle to come up with what is great about you at first—you’re not used to thinking that way. Comb through old memories to find times you impressed yourself or acted in a way you’re proud of. In what ways would you hate to be different than you are? What would you never give up about yourself? Small things matter too, like if you love that you’re nice to coffee baristas, put that down. On your “hate” list, include only qualities that you actually hate about yourself—don’t include qualities others might list as negatives (like lateness or sloppiness) unless you hate that quality in yourself.
I found these lists inspirational. I discovered there were, after all, many things I loved about myself. I discovered I had an ability to think for myself, about myself, in a way distinct and separate from my shame-based caregivers. I could see good things in myself they had missed, and I didn’t mind (or even liked) things about myself that they had criticized. Most awesome, I discovered that nearly every quality on my “hated” list was a direct result of my shame. I didn’t like that I was mistrustful of others, and lacked self-confidence. I didn’t like that I wasn’t working at my potential and that I was oversensitive when it came to criticism from others. These are all responses to toxic shame. No one is born with a lack of confidence; that’s not built in. Though I ended up with a few qualities on the negative list not born of shame, when I realized how few there were, my self-love skyrocketed.
Toxic shame tells us that we feel ashamed because we have horrible, unforgivable qualities that make us “not okay.” But these lists reveal the opposite. My most hated qualities were born of shame, and died as its hold on me died. Realizing, as I read my list, that so much of what I hated and rejected about myself was not really me, and could be expunged, was a big part of what drove me to do the work to banish my shame.
On the flip side, these lists helped me realize the hated qualities that really did belong to me, and that I needed to accept. Now that I’d gotten in touch with all my qualities—shame-based, loved and hated—it was time to balance them and their roles in the self.
Making Peace with All Your Villagers
This is a meditation, so close your eyes, relax and breathe. Visualize yourself walking into a small theatre. You take a seat in the front row. The curtain opens on the stage, and you find you are watching “The [Your Name] Parts Review.”
Think of a part of your personality that you really like, and imagine that a person who represents that trait—a friend or a famous person—walks on stage. Hear applause. Do this four more times, until five “liked” aspects of yourself are standing on one side of the stage.
Now think of a non-shame-based personality trait you have that you don’t like much, and give it physical form—a friend or famous person who embodies that trait. When this person walks out on stage, hear booing. Come up with four more.
Then, create a representation of wisdom. This person walks onstage. She asks you to join her and you walk onto the stage and look over the different aspects that make up you. Think of the ways each trait helps you and hinders you. Imagine all these people sitting around a table together, trying to decide how to handle a situation you’re faced with. What does each part offer? What can the disowned, hated parts teach you—perhaps enabling you to handle the situation better? Imagine the conversation unfolding and get to know the parts. As it unfolds, feel free to tweak parts to make them more helpful; remember, we are who we are, but it doesn’t mean we can’t grow. Perhaps “disorganized” can do more than just make us messy; perhaps it can teach us to be more spontaneous, or less rigid and controlling.
Imagine yourself back onstage, and walk around the parts you’ve just gotten to know. As you pass each one, visualize him being sucked into you until it’s only you and your wise person up there on stage. She tells you that she will always be here to help, and she reminds you that this is your life and you decide how it unfolds. As you come out of the meditation, repeat the affirmation, “I love and accept all of me.” We all have qualities it’s hard to love—but rejecting them and pretending they aren’t there is not the healthy way to deal with them. Bradshaw’s exercise urges you to instead consider what you can learn from them, and how, if you acknowledge their right to exist inside of you, they can make you whole.
Dealing in the Future
I have now given you everything I know about healing toxic shame. But as you move through this process, life will throw obstacles at you—obstacles that trigger shame you thought you were rid of. Toxic shame starts out as something triggered by outside events, and internalizes until it can be triggered merely by your own thoughts. Well, it goes out the same way; even once you’ve stopped your own thoughts from triggering shame, external events still hold the power to set it off.
The more you work on healing and become aware of your mental processes, the more easily and quickly you’ll realize when some external event has acted as a shame trigger. You’ll notice that you feel more upset and anxious than usual, so you’ll write a journal entry or delve into a Shaming Voice exercise and discover what shaming thoughts have been triggered. Now that you’re aware of them, these thoughts are no different than any other shaming thoughts, and you already have what you need to deal with them. In the time you are healing, this will happen over and over, and you can always beat it back.
Still, the more effectively you handle a situation as it’s going on, the less shame you end up having to deal with after. If you can avoid taking on the hot potato in the first place, you won’t have to work later to get rid of it. So before I end this article, I want to talk briefly about major shame triggers and how to handle them.
A major shame trigger is outside criticism. So far, you have spent your life as a shame-based person handling criticism defensively (apologizing, denying, explaining yourself) or offensively (blaming, insulting, justifying). Both of these strategies take on the hot potato; they are responses driven by shame and defense mechanisms, and they will not help you become mentally healthy. Responding to criticism in these ways will set you back; I guarantee it. But what is a healthy response? How can you respond in a way that is neither defensive nor offensive?
When you encounter criticism, don’t defend yourself. Don’t explain, or try to get your critic to see where you’re coming from. When you do any of these things, you are accepting the shame he’s passing to you. You are saying that his opinion is valid and valuable, while yours only has value if your critic agrees. You are treating yourself as less-than, and that is a definite shame trigger.
Criticism is based on nothing but opinion and personal bias. Bradshaw defines criticism as “subjective interpretation based on one person’s experience and grounded in that person’s personal history.” My computer’s dictionary says it is “the expression of disapproval of someone or something based on perceived faults or mistakes.” Criticism is always simply an expression of another person’s opinion or perception. When you bow to it, you are putting yourself second, devaluing your own opinion or perception. I know it’s tempting to try to change your critic’s mind, to hope that he’ll be interested in a different perspective—but it’s not going to happen. If he were interested in learning from you, he would have expressed himself in an open and unbiased way. By trying to defend or explain yourself, you are trying to change the mind of someone who has no interest in learning from you or changing his mind. When you defend, you enter a wrestling match you can never win. It’s healthier to avoid entering the fight.
To this end, one strategy is to concede the win. Vaguely agree with whatever your critic says: “Yes, that’s possible,” or “Yes, that may happen.” If your critic pushes you on how you’ll handle this possible catastrophe, say, “I’ll handle it when I need to.” For example, someone says no men will find you attractive if you cut your hair short. Answer, “you’re right; it’s possible that fewer men will find me attractive.” She asks what you plan to do about that, and you say, “I’ll work to become more attractive when I feel I need to.” This technique is called clouding.
You can also confess, which is similar to employing a factual affirmation. You’re getting reamed out for spilling the milk and you simply say, “Yes, I did spill the milk.” The key is to avoid shaming yourself for your mistake by adding put-downs: “How stupid of me!” Acknowledge your mistake, be okay with it, and rob both your mind and your external critic of the opportunity to use your mistake to shame you.
This next one is the funniest method, and my favorite. It’s called clarifying: in response to every criticism, ask a clarifying question, followed by another. This is Bradshaw’s example exchange:
“You’re not going to wear those brown pants, are you?”
“What is it about these brown pants you don’t like?”
“They look cheap.”
“What is it that you don’t like about cheap pants?”
You can see how this will shut your critic down quickly—the conversation soon dries up because you are exposing the critic’s subjectivity. His opinion is not based on factual data, and so there is really nothing more to validate it than to simply say, “I don’t like cheap pants.” A similar technique is to ask a series of dumb questions: “Let me get this straight…” Pretend to be inept and ask your critic to explain what he means and why he thinks that—in specific detail. Both techniques expose your critic’s subjectivity, robbing his judgment of its credibility.
Of course, you can always confront your critic directly. If you do, be non-threatening. Explain only your own feelings and perceptions. Try to use evidence that draws on factual, sensory detail, rather than on your own subjective opinion.
You can also say nothing in the face of criticism, handling it silently by affirming yourself with positive statements that counteract the criticism you’re receiving. Stepping back for a minute in a stressful, hurtful situation to simply say to yourself, “I have value,” (or whatever affirmation you want) can help center you and fill you with power. However, this is not a strategy I recommend using all the time; sometimes there’s no substitute for publicly standing tall.
The last method I want to talk about is called comforting; it is a way to take responsibility for your actions when they have upset someone—without shaming yourself for your mistake. Employing this method is a break-through in and of itself because of how difficult it is for shame-based people to say, “I made a mistake, but I forgive myself, and can do something to fix it.”
In Bradshaw’s example, he leaves for a run. When he returns, his wife is upset that he left his car blocking hers, because now she’s running late for an appointment. “You should have asked if I needed to use my car before you blocked the driveway,” she says. To which he responds, “Gosh, I hear that you’re upset and angry. I’ll move the car right away.” He doesn’t put himself down, and he doesn’t blame her. Instead, he listens, validates her feelings, and does what he can to make amends and meet her needs.
Reacting in the ways I’ve described takes practice. Remember as you practice these methods that it’s okay to make mistakes and experience setbacks. If you do react out of instinct and allow criticism to trigger your shame, you have the tools you need to handle the fallout. But the more frequently you can prevent criticism from being a trigger, the less your shame will be reinforced and the faster your recovery will progress.
So let’s say you’ve done every exercise I’ve suggested☺, and made great progress in your move towards healing…Until you go home for the holidays and see your family. Or until your boss makes a comment to you, or until your friend says she doesn’t like your haircut, or you get hurt or angry, or you have a great success or start a new relationship. All these events are things Bradshaw warns are shame triggers. A friend’s criticism hits a nerve and triggers a shaming belief that’s not quite gone; a success reminds you that you still don’t feel you deserve success; a new friend on the horizon makes you wonder what she might really think of you. But the most dangerous triggers, by far, are interactions with parents and authority figures. Bradshaw says:
Since our parents are our source relationships, they present an ever-present risk of triggering old shame spirals. If you’ve been severely shamed in the past, be wary of casual talk with your parents.
In fact, he suggests that while you’re doing the bulk of your healing work, you avoid talking to them as much as possible—or at all. After my experience, I have to recommend the same thing. And though you can’t avoid all authority figures, be careful around those you can’t avoid; their authority over you puts you in a position of inferior power—the same position you were in as a child when you internalized shame. The emotions associated with this dynamic can trigger shame and make these poor authority figures targets for projection of your unresolved parental issues—not good for your job.
Authority figures can be problematic, but they are only shadows that trigger by calling up your issues with the real thing: the shame-based source relationships that are probably still a part of your life. For years, you’ve obeyed your family’s dysfunctional rules; you’ve played your role, and kept silent. You yearned for your parents’ unconditional love, and you thought perhaps, if you acted the right way all the time, you could earn it. To break away and chart your own path, to break these rules, has been your greatest fear—because to do so is to say goodbye to the chance of ever earning that love and acceptance. To deliberately break the rules, you must accept that there is no chance of remaining in your dysfunctional family system and getting your needs met. To heal, you must choose yourself over them for the first time. For shame-based people taught they are selfish and unlovable, it seems like there is nothing riskier than this choice to turn away.
In many ways, healing toxic shame is about a willingness to be vulnerable and trust in others. It is about learning that not everyone is shame-based, and sometimes, when you allow yourself to be intimate with someone, they are intimate back. But the sad thing about healing toxic shame is that when it comes to your source relationships, you must do the opposite. You relied on and trusted your shame-based caregivers for years, even sacrificing your mental health in hopes of intimacy. In response, you received shame; they have led you to where you are now. You cannot continue to act the way you always have with them and expect a different result. They will not change, and you must realize this. You must let go of the hope for that change, so you can move forward with your own.
This was something I have had to learn over and over—several times in each relationship. Breaking ingrained habits and ways of associating is really hard, and I messed up a lot of times, falling back into old family roles and prioritizing my desire for connection over my own mental health.
But still, in each of my shaming source relationships, at some point I reached a moment of emotional poignancy, a point at which I realized, with perfect clarity, that the person I loved would never be able to give me what I needed. At these times, what helped me process this loss was to write a letter. Basically, in the letter, I said goodbye. You can write whatever you want, really. I don’t mean for you to send it. Bradshaw suggests writing a letter in which you spell out all the needs you never got met, and though some of that is in my letters, their tones have been sad, rather than angry. They are goodbyes, eulogies for people lost to toxic shame.
I say ‘lost’ because I have memories of moments in which I had the parents I deserved, memories that make me question whether I made all this toxic shame stuff up. But those memories are rainbows in a barrage of storms. They offer me glimpses of the people my parents could have been, if they’d freed themselves of their toxic shame. But until they do, they will never be those people.
I’m sure that you have wonderful memories of times with your parents too. I know it can be hard to reconcile those memories with all you’ve now realized about what your childhood was really like. It’s hard not to hope that the loving parents of those memories will return for good and finally give you what you’ve always craved. But you must say goodbye to these idols, and come to terms with your parents as they are. This does not mean you cannot have relationships with them, but it does mean that you need to change the dysfunctional rules that have governed your relationships in the past. New rules: Do not sacrifice what is best for you for what is best for them; do not betray who you really are to be someone they wish you were. Be yourself at all costs—even if the cost is their love. Jo Courdet, quoted by Bradshaw in Healing the Shame That Binds You, puts it perfectly:
You do not need to be loved, not at the cost of yourself. The single relationship that is truly central and crucial in a life is the relationship to the self…of all the people you will know in a lifetime, you are the only one you will never lose.
Could there be anything more important than healing your relationship with yourself?