Toxic Shame and Absorbed Emotions
(Continued from previous interview with Lana Seiler, MSW, LCSW).
If even emotions like shame and anger can be normal and healthy responses, where do emotions go wrong -- such as in the case of toxic shame, for example.
First, it’s so important to acknowledge whatever you feel rather than calling it wrong. Even emotions that feel massive, like rage, have appropriate places. We feel how we feel. The question is not if what you’re feeling is right or wrong. The question is, “Is this mine to carry? What do I do with it?”
Absorbed emotions are those left over from others and experiences – especially through childhood or traumas. For example, when parents don’t handle emotions appropriately, that dysfunction gets leaked onto the child. It builds up inside them as they form their young view of the world. The child absorbs this mishandled emotion like a sponge, and it becomes a type of under-the-radar trauma. This absorbed emotion is what can take our emotions to extremes (like rage) in circumstances that don’t call for extremes. This is the trauma response. If we just allow that subtle trauma to sit, without working to resolve it, we tow it into adulthood. It’s not ours, but now we’re holding onto it.
What does absorbed emotion look like in adulthood?
When absorbed emotion comes into play, it’s usually in response to what most people call a trigger. It looks like a trauma response. Something happens, maybe even something that would seem totally mild to those around us, and we’re triggered into rage or a panic attack. An old wound is rubbed the wrong way, and all of the emotion from the past wells up to create an extreme response.
What emotion do you think people struggle with the most?
Without a doubt, shame is inherently the hardest to deal with. It’s a survival emotion at its core - so it’s intense. And it’s so easily misplaced and distorted.
In infancy, shame only occurs for life preservation. Infants have to be with a caretaker to survive. No matter how angry or sad they are, they still want to be taken care of. The only thing that can interrupt this is shame. It is the only emotion powerful enough to interrupt the natural proximity-seeking behavior of a baby.
Neglect or severe abuse by caretakers creates so much shame that the infant will withdraw. Shame is the only emotion that will cause her to isolate so intensely that she won’t seek comfort from her parents. She’ll stop crying even when she needs something. It will make her hide instead of act out. Infant shame is a desperate last-ditch effort to survive in the midst of severely disorganized attachment.
That’s heartbreaking but makes so much sense. Is shame in childhood associated with the same level of extremes?
Sometimes the same causes will bring the same intensity of shame in childhood, but usually, development of shame is much more insidious.
There is massive variation in the causes and frequency of inappropriately placed shame in childhood. Maybe you felt shame from your parents just a few times during childhood. Or maybe it was the hallmark emotion of your relationship with them. Poor parenting may include intentional shaming, but even great parents make mistakes.
Insidious shame often comes when parents try to live vicariously through a child. High expectations to be the star football player or the highest scoring tester can be crushing when the child can’t live up. It’s good to believe in your child. It’s painful for them when you’re disappointed with anything less than perfection.
Shame also arises when parents are too busy or unavailable for their children so they voice annoyance or frustration at the child’s needs. The child’s healthy desire for love and acceptance is no longer allowed.
All of this built-up, absorbed shame (whether intentional or unintentional) creates a deep, painful wound. This toxic shame wound is what we call a shame core. When you have a shame core, you constantly fight it. You’ve been trained to see yourself through the lens of shame.
How does shame work in adulthood?
If we have a good relationship with shame in adulthood, it helps us to act in accordance with the norms of our society, close friends, and intimate relationships. To reiterate, guilt tells you when you’re acting outside of your values, even if no one else knows. Shame tells you that you’re acting outside your values, and it’s going to matter to the people you care about. When it’s healthy, shame keeps us in line with who we are to preserve our relationships with the people we love.
However, with a shame core, everything changes. Depending on the intensity, struggling with the shame core can feel completely debilitating. Maybe you can’t take criticism because it scrapes that shame core and takes you back to childhood hurt. Strong shame cores can even convince people to quit their job or relationship because of seemingly small criticisms.
Unresolved shame is a self-fulfilling prophecy. I feel I’m not good enough, so I’m not good enough for my job, my friends, or my relationship. This self-frustration continues to build the shame core and can create really dysfunctional behavioral, self-medication, and addiction.
Is the shame core permanent? Can anything be done?
It doesn’t have to be permanent. Good intervention can truly rewrite the whole narrative.
What does that intervention look like?
Like any wound, you have to stop the bleeding first. If it’s an emergency, that’s for 911. Otherwise, get into treatment or therapy. A good doctor and therapist will guide the client towards what is needed, prioritizing the biggest needs first.
The goal is to address and stabilize maladaptive behaviors. This can include dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) to teach skills and strategies like learning to manage unbearable feelings. Heavy duty psychoeducation often provides a lot relief because you learn a logical explanation for what’s happening with you. There is a lot of validation included in that education. Like, “Hey John, we get it. Your past shame is so deep and lingering that if you hadn’t been drinking so heavily during your adulthood, you might have killed yourself. We get it. But you don’t need that anymore. There is a better way. So what do we do now?”
Is it actual healing or just better coping that people can hope for?
Actual healing for the shame core is totally possible. As we learn more and more about neurobiology, we’re finding that rewiring the connections from early childhood that created a negative schema is actually achievable. Modalities like eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) use bilateral stimulation to help people have different imperative responses to old events. It creates experiential feelings to help solidify this revised neurobiology deep in the bones.
Lessening or healing the shame core is a reparative experience. As you make gradual changes, your trauma responses become less intense and less frequent. Before treatment, a mild trigger might have caused a panic attack or shame attack. During treatment, you’re practicing to manage your triggers and responses. You’re reprocessing to rewire your reaction to the trigger. Post-treatment, the thought might arise, but it won’t trigger your old trauma response. It means you won’t have to fight so hard to feel okay anymore.
Maybe that’s the most hopeful part about shame - you can actually break free from it.