NYC Psychotherapist Blog

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Monday, February 11, 2019

What's the Difference Between Healthy Shame and Toxic Shame?

Shame is an emotion that is hardwired in all mammals, including humans, from the time of birth.  But not all shame is alike, and being able to distinguish healthy shame from toxic shame is important to your overall well-being (see my articles: Healing Shame in Therapy and Understanding the Difference Between Guilt and Shame).

What's the Difference Between Healthy Shame and Toxic Shame?

Why is Shame Hardwired in All Mammals?
Being able to experience healthy shame can help us from making mistakes that would otherwise alienate us from our family, friends and communities.  This was true even when people lived in small communities or tribes when an individual couldn't survive outside of the community.

The ability to feel healthy shame when we have made a mistake, especially a mistake that was damaging to another, enables us to feel remorse so that we can make amends to the person who was hurt by our mistake.

An Example of Healthy Shame
For instance, if Bob says something that is unkind to his friend, Joe, and can see that the Joe looks hurt, Bob feels a sense of healthy shame for hurting his friend.  As soon as he sees the hurt look on Joe's face, Bob blushes and feels a pang in his stomach because he really cares for Joe and he would never intentionally hurt him.  Bob's sense of empathy is what allows Bob to put himself in Joe's place to sense how Joe feels.

In addition, these physical cues (e.g., blushing and the pang in his stomach) and the feeling of shame are indications to Bob that he needs to apologize to Joe to repair their relationship.  Bob realizes that he was in a bad mood and he took it out on Joe, so he explains this to Joe and gives him a heartfelt apology.  Realizing that Bob's remark is uncharacteristic of Bob, Joe accepts Bob's apology and they go to lunch.  After the apology, their friendship remains intact and they go on as they had before.

But imagine if Bob didn't feel healthy shame, and he made unkind remarks to Joe without any sense of remorse.  You can imagine that sooner or later Bob wouldn't have Joe or many other friends left because he would have alienated them with his unkindness.  And, worst of all, he wouldn't try to repair things with his friends because he had no sense of remorse.

There are some people, who have narcissistic tendencies, who lack empathy for others, and this makes it difficult for them to sense what others are feeling.  As a result, they often don't have a healthy sense of shame, and this complicates their relationships with others.

An Example of Toxic (or Unhealthy) Shame
Ida is an artist, and she enjoys painting. Her friends often compliment her artwork and encourage her to have a gallery showing.  One of her friends, Marie, owns a gallery and she has really been urging Ida to show her work in her gallery.

Whenever Ida gets compliments from her friends, she feels ashamed, especially when Marie invites her to show her work in the gallery.  When she hears these compliments, Ida blushes and her stomach feels queasy.  Sometimes, she feels numb emotionally.  Her first thought whenever she gets compliments on her work is, "I'm really not a good artist.  I wish they would stop complimenting me because it makes me feel so uncomfortable, and my work feels so unimportant."

One day, Marie brought an art dealer to Ida's art studio without telling Ida in advance.  When the art dealer praised Ida's work and offered to represent her, Ida's shame was so acute that she felt like she was going to faint.

On an intellectual level, Ida knew that the art dealer wouldn't be making this offer unless she really thought Ida's work was superior.  But on an emotional level, Ida felt so ashamed that she wanted to hide.  She managed to pull herself together enough to take the art dealer's business card and tell her that she would call her within the next few weeks.

Afterwards, when Ida and Marie were alone, Marie told Ida that she couldn't understand why Ida was so hesitant to take the art dealer up on her offer, "Ida, I know you want to sell your work, and Susan is one of the top art dealers in New York City.  Why aren't you jumping on this?"

Ida wasn't sure how to respond because she felt confused about her own emotions.  When she explained this to Marie, Marie suggested that Ida seek help from a psychotherapist to find out what was blocking her emotionally.

A week later, Ida began therapy with an experiential therapist, who was recommended to her.

Over time, when Ida and her therapist traced Ida's sense of shame to Ida's childhood history, Ida remembered her mother's reactions whenever Ida tried to show her mother her artwork, "My mother would scold me every time, and she would tell me that there were much more important things in life than doing artwork.  Then, she would tell me about children who were starving in other countries and that my sense of pride about my artwork was shameful in the face of the suffering that other children had to endure.  She told me that I was being a showoff."

As Ida talked about this with her psychotherapist, she remembered feeling mortified that she was excited about her artwork.  She continued to do artwork, but she stopped showing it to her mother and she never felt that sense of joy or pride in it. Instead, she felt toxic shame for working on her art.  And whenever someone complimented her artwork, the toxic shame that developed in childhood got triggered.

Ida was relieved to know that there was a coherent explanation to her toxic shame and that she and her therapist were able to trace it back to its origins.  But she also knew that this toxic shame was so emotionally debilitating to her, and she wanted to know how to overcome it.

As an experiential psychotherapist, Ida's therapist used many different therapy modalities, including AEDP, which stands for Accelerated Experiential Developmental Psychotherapy and EMDR therapy, which stands for Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing.

As part of the AEDP modality, the therapist explained that everyone has a multiplicity of selves, including a here-and-now adult self and all the various selves throughout a lifetime, including a young child part, a teenage part, etc (see my article: Understanding the Different Aspects of Yourself).

Then her therapist asked Ida to focus on her internal emotional world and access her adult self in order to speak to her mother from an adult perspective, as opposed to speaking from the frightened child self (see my article: Looking at Your Childhood Trauma From an Adult Perspective).  She encouraged Ida to imagine her mother in the room and asked Ida what she wanted to say to her mother about how she shamed Ida.

Ida was able to access her adult self and felt righteous anger about how her mother shamed her.  From this perspective, Ida imagined her mother in the chair next to her in the therapist's office and she told her mother, "How dare you shame a child like that!  I was only five years old when you started telling me these things.  I wanted you to be proud of my work and to encourage me.  But, instead, you turned my artwork into something ugly, as if I was selfish. I no longer accept your words of shame."

In AEDP, this is imaginal work is called a portrayal, similar to "chair work" in Gestalt therapy or other forms of experiential therapy.  At first, a client might feel awkward about speaking to an imaginal figure in the room.  But most clients eventually become comfortable and feel a sense of relief after they do a portrayal.  Pent up feelings that have been stored in the mind and body for many years are released.

It often takes more than one portrayal to complete this work, and in our example, Ida did a number of portrayals over time in therapy by speaking to her mother and addressing her anger and sadness about the way her mother shamed her.

Her therapist also helped Ida to do "parts work."  She explained to Ida that, whereas portrayals are inter-relational work between the client and someone else, parts work is intrapsychic work.

In Ida's case, she remained grounded in her adult thoughts and emotions and she imagined her five year old self sitting next to her in the therapy session.  She even brought in a picture of herself at the age of five to show her therapist before they began doing the parts work.

Her therapist explained to Ida that Ida's five year old self was the "container" for the toxic shame, and that this younger self needed the help of her adult self to heal.  So, Ida imagined herself talking to her younger self and soothing her with a hug.  She and her therapist repeated this work a number of times in their therapy session.

Then they did EMDR therapy to work through the traumatic emotions that were stored in the five year old self (see my articles: What is EMDR Therapy?How EMDR Therapy Works: EMDR and the Brain and Overcoming Trauma With EMDR Therapy When the Past is in the Present).

After Ida worked through her toxic shame, she was able to feel joy and exuberance again about her artwork.  She no longer felt ashamed.  Instead, she felt a healthy sense of pride about her work.  This enabled her to show her work at her friend's gallery and contact the art dealer for representation.

Whereas healthy shame is hardwired and a necessary part of functioning well in society, toxic shame is traumatic.  Toxic shame often has its origins in childhood when a child was dependent upon his or her parents to survive and had little in the way of healthy defenses to ward off the shame.

Although toxic shame can be emotionally and physically debilitating, experiential therapy can help people with toxic shame to overcome the trauma which led to the development of this unhealthy shame.

Getting Help in Therapy
Regular talk therapy can help clients to develop intellectual insight as to why their shame is toxic, but it's often unhelpful in terms of allowing these clients to change on an emotional level (see my article: Why Experiential Therapy is More Effective Than Regular Talk Therapy to Overcome Trauma).

Experiential therapy, like AEDP, EMDR, Somatic Experiencing, parts work, and clinical hypnosis, are modalities that help clients to shift out of toxic shame.

If you're experiencing toxic shame, rather than continuing to suffer, you owe it to yourself to work with an experiential psychotherapist, who can help you to work through your problems so you're free of toxic shame.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR, AEDP, Somatic Experiencing and Emotionally Focused therapy (EFT for couples)  See my article: The Therapeutic Benefits of Integrative Psychotherapy.

I work with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to overcome toxic shame so they could live happier, more fulfilling lives.

To find out more about me, visit my website: Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

To set up a consultation, call me at (917) 742-2624 during business hours or email me.