Toxic Shame

I mean, do I even need to write about this? Chances are, if you’re human, you’ve encountered the feeling of shame. Chances are, if you’re human, it has become toxic to you in some way, at some point in your life. Perhaps you’ve figured out how to feel it, let it go, and move on. Kudos if that’s the case! Perhaps you’re feeling it right now, living it as honestly as the breath fills your lungs, and it is slowly killing you. Toxic shame is deadly. But shame doesn’t just start out being toxic. Shame is biological. It is a helpful teacher which enables us to sit and really look at the decisions we’ve made in an objective way so that maybe we make different ones in the future. Raise your hand if you use shame as a teacher. Chances are, your hands are still on your lap, or crossed over your chest in your body language style of “I-don’t-want-you-to-go-there”ness. I know mine are. And yet, we are here. Talking about it. I didn’t shut the computer. And neither did you. Shame is important. And shame can also become toxic. Shame can actually kill you. I was in a 12 step meeting for eating disorders this morning, and we touched on this. While writing down our 4th steps, we got to share about shame. The 4th step is about resentment and fear. We all experience these. Part of the 4th step is looking at these things in their spooky faces and exploring them, what they are about, how they have come to fruition in our minds, and (most importantly) how we can release them without shame and guilt sticking around. That looks easy on paper. It is way more difficult an actual action to take and requires diligent work across the span of a lifetime. I guess that seems daunting. But not as daunting as the ugly prospect of a lifetime as an active bulimic. So here I am, in this meeting, and thinking about how my shame has become toxic at different points in my life. Tara Brach (the genius woman–that is all you need to know about her) talks about addiction in her lecture entitled “De-conditioning the Hungry Ghosts.” She states, quite confidently, that she has never met an addict that has recovered and STAYED recovered without their first acknowledging and then healing their shame. Why? Because shame is the hot fudge sundae that our addictions eat. As long as bulimia kept me in a state of sheer and utter shame, I continued to compulsively engage in the behaviors that kept me sick and, ironically but understandably, these behaviors increased my shame. There are many things I have done in my disease of which I am ashamed. I think I may write a real and raw bulimic post another day and list them there instead of here. The point is that they all had two things in common: 1. They were insane and made absolutely no sense. 2. They caused me incredible literal mind and body crippling shame. So I think about this, and the meeting this morning inspired me to really dissect shame. What was I ashamed about? Why? What did it mean to let go of that shame? How was holding onto it serving me? Was it even still serving me? Brene Brown (another woman genius. Yeah, that’s right.) has a famous Ted Talk called “Listening to Shame.” She discusses our use of the feeling in order to guide us to clarity and move us through the world with confidence and life lessons learned. When I learned to expand my definition of shame as being a teacher, instead of keeping it where my disease wants it to stay which is in a cold dark dusty box in the part of my brain that doesn’t like change, my entire recovery took a solid turn. I mean, a freakin’ SOLID turn. 180 degrees is an understatement. I suddenly began to look at those parts of myself that I keep hidden from the world and share them with others. I mainly shared them with other members of my 12 step program, but then I started to branch out and share them with my therapist, my doctor, my shaman, my husband, and some friends. What I found was not more shame. I found acceptance, love, and certain belonging to this species. I learned that everyone deals with shame and, much to my disease’s chagrin, I am not unique. Thank GOD I am not unique! Feeling unique aids self pity and self pity will actually (ACTUALLY) kill me. So, if we don’t look out, shame really can become toxic. So toxic, in fact, that there can be actual physical ramifications for this. We become chronically depressed, our sleep becomes disrupted, we struggle containing our anger until it becomes rage, our digestion suffers, perhaps we get constipated, have headaches, experience shortness of breath, anxiety attacks….the list goes on. Shame can cause cancer. Yes, I said it. Shame can cause cancer. As a culture, we are so fixated on physical chemicals and foods and pollutants–tangible, measurable ingestable, inhalable things–that can cause cancer, we really don’t pay much attention to the emotional states of beings also being culprits. “How in the world did HE get cancer? He eats such healthy food and runs marathons!” “SHE has LUNG cancer? She does yoga all the time and has never smoked!” What we don’t know, and can never prove, is that “he” may have been under extreme self-inflicted pressure to perform at his job or that “she” was still grieving a lost relationship with a person who had betrayed her years earlier, and had been silently judging herself for “not having gotten over it yet.” Surely these things do not DIRECTLY cause cancer. But they certainly cause shame for most. If not handled in a healthy way, that shame grows from a sapling to a tree in no time.

Eating disorders cause plenty of shame. They arise from a form of OCD, a fact about which many people overlook. They begin as a distinct search for control and end (or chronically continue) as a completely compulsive, utterly unstoppable obsession with food, image, order, control, and perfection. They are evil and deadly. Period. The shame becomes so toxic that it is often difficult to see the forest for the trees in that the sufferer becomes a literal prisoner in his or her own mind. It is easy to live here because to fight the disease alone is exhaustive and unrealistic. Doing it alone almost never works. But nearly 9 times out of 10, by the time the sufferer has been noticed to be in struggle by the outside world, it is often too late to provide the simple linear help that may have arrested this descent into hell in the first place. That eating disorders are so subtle, and vindictively below the radar is what makes the sufferer build shame around them like an active fortress that is determined to not let any amount of help or love get through. The sufferer knows that what he or she is doing is hurting them. They want to stop. They simply CAN’T. It’s not made to make sense. That is why it is classified as mental illness. Mental illness doesn’t make sense. If it did, it wouldn’t be a ‘DIS-order.’ Eating disorders don’t discriminate. Many sufferers are high achieving intelligent adults. Many are children. Many are men. Lots of them die. Not much is reported on that because, well, our society does a good job at keeping them taboo enough that the message “be thin at any cost” doesn’t disappear. The more shame the sufferer feels, the stronger the fortress they have built becomes, the more deadly his or her illness gets. It is a giant mental health catch 22. So, what the actual eff? How are we supposed to help people? We start at the source. We play preventive, not interventive, medicine. Case in point:

This morning, one of the first warm non-rainy mornings up here in New England, all three of my daughters went outside to play in our tiny little back yard on our even tinier little swing set. This swing set is not the worst, but it’s not the best. It wobbles and rocks back and forth if any of the kids swing on it. My oldest, we’ll call her J, is nine. Ripe, healthy, ready to be molded, just about to plow into puberty like a fucking meteor, nine. She is forming her own basis of reality, taking in information that she constructs, along with past experience, into some semblance of “stuff” that she can move forward with through her life. She was swinging on the set (which honestly is simply not strong enough to hold even a toddler) and it was moving and inching across the grass. My middle daughter, the 7 year old, we’ll call her G, was yelling at her to “Get off! You’ll break it! Get off! You’re too big! Too heavy!” J came in the house crying. Jack tried to brush it off in what, in his defense, seemed like a perfectly appropriate reaction but he missed the boat. J yelled, “I can’t swing on this! I’m just too fat!” to which Jack replied, “You’re not fat. You’re just nine. You’re too big for it.” The message that a nine year old girl receives from a statement like that (which, in his defense again, came from love and caring and a real attempt at consoling her) is not ‘you’re just nine.’ The message becomes, “So I’m too big either way. I’m just big. I’m getting too big, too fat, too much, not enough, this that the other.” It seems like I’m blowing that out of proportion. But if people actually realized that this perception is not ‘blowing it out of proportion,’ and followed suit with their words and behaviors, we would have a lot more healthy kids that aren’t so fixated on shame and ‘trying to be better, smarter, thinner, happier, popular etc. My next point is that (and please trust me here) when you hear a girl (or boy) actually utter the words “I’m too fat” out loud for the first time, please take that seriously. Because I can almost guarantee that the internal dialogue has been saying that to her mind for a while before she has found the courage to even utter it out loud. Saying it out loud should be noticed, and heard, and dealt with on the spot and, again, taken seriously. Because while it may be the first time YOU hear her utter it, it is not the first time she has. How do we deal with that? Well, first off, we don’t tell her “Oh, stop. You’re not fat! Look at you! You’re so thin and beautiful!” That should be understood by all schemes of grown ass adults, but (sigh) it’s not. We also do not say something like, “YOU think you’re fat?!! Look at me! Look at my arms! I wish MY thighs didn’t touch the way yours don’t!” Things I have (double sigh) also heard. What we SHOULD say goes something like this: “That swing set is a piece of crap and whoever made it should be embarrassed that we can’t ride it properly. Let’s see what we can do about finding a different one at some point. In the meantime, let’s go to the park!” Or…all of the above and then insert, “in the meantime, I need your help with a project. Can you come over here and give me your opinion on something?” There doesn’t need to be a project. Hell, you’re the adult. Make something up on the fly. EMPOWER her to feel a sense of pride about feeling needed and secure in a belonging somewhere. You are her safe spot, away from the scary mind chatter that she doesn’t yet know how to organize in her pre-adolescent brain. Be her beacon, let her come to you, let her be guided by your blinking red light. And keep that conversation going. So that when she feels shame, she gets to come to you and talk about it. And talk about your shame too. Normalize it. Discuss it as if it were the latest Times crossword puzzle (much respect to those who have the patience to complete them). Desensitize it. Because shame is just a feeling. And feelings aren’t facts. They are teachers, warriors, and meant to be discarded. Learn from them. Be brave enough to let them go. Be excited enough to look beyond them. And then come back to the page and write it all down. Trust me. Blossom doesn’t just happen. It’s MADE.

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