10 Signs You Were Shamed In Childhood — and How to Overcome Toxic Shame?
Healthy shame is the psychological foundation of humility.
It gives us permission to be human.
It lets us know we can and will make mistakes and that we need help.
However, shame as a healthy emotion can be transformed into shame as a state of being and take over one’s whole identity.
When you believe that your being is flawed, that you are defective as a human being, shame turns into an identity and becomes toxic and dehumanizing.
Toxic shame usually begins during childhood.
This article contains 10 signs you ere shamed in childhood and how to break free from toxic shame.
Ready? Let’s get started!
Shame is the feeling that we’re fundamentally flawed and inadequate.
Shame is a very painful emotion, so it’s only natural for us to do everything in our power to avoid it.
Rather than seeing failures and mistakes as part of the learning process, we see them as proof of our inferiority.
The Real Self vs. The Ideal Self
The Real Self
The real self helps us feel whole and authentically express our feelings and desires.
Just like the assertiveness of a toddler, the real self helps us spontaneously respond to others and communicate what we need and want without apology.
Our real self thrives when people around us allow us to express our thoughts and feelings and encourage us to embrace our individuality.
Therefore, our parents’ response to our needs, feelings, and behaviors is important in helping our real self thrive. Affirming responses from our parents and others that reflect our authentic real self back to us will help us feel seen and heard.
This happens when parents put themselves in the child’s shoes and try to understand situations from the child’s perspective. Then, the parents accurately name and mirror the child’s feelings and meet his or her needs. The child learns to own and trust his or her perceptions and feelings.
However, when children don’t receive the empathy and understanding they need to validate their experience, they end up feeling invisible and helpless. This can stand in the way of expressing our real, authentic self and lead to feelings of shame and the construction of a new identity.
The Ideal Self
When our real self becomes overshadowed by shame, we end up rejecting the real self and creating a new ideal self that is shaped by our experiences and defenses mechanisms.
This ideal self represents what we believe we should be in order to survive. The ideal self serves to protect our real self and helps us receive the love we need.
However, rather than protecting the real self, the ideal self ends up further alienating us from who we really are.
For example, in a family where love is conditional, the child might become a people-pleaser to receive the love he needs. The child grows up disconnected from his needs, wants, and desires.
Although the ideal self seems to provide a solution to receive love and survive, we end up even more alienated from our real self and may choose a career, lifestyle, or a partner that doesn’t support our original goals and desires just to win the approval of others.
10 Signs You Were Shamed In Childhood
1. You are afraid of intimacy, being vulnerable, and exposing yourself.
2. As a child you suffered extreme shyness, embarrassment, and feelings of being inferior to others.
3. You struggle with feelings of worthlessness and believe that no matter what you do, you won’t be lovable.
4. You feel defensive when even minor negative feedback is given. And struggle with feelings of severe humiliation when you’re forced to look at mistakes or imperfections.
5. You suffer from debilitating guilt as a result you find yourself constantly apologizing and assuming responsibility for the behavior of those around you.
6. You feel like an outsider and struggle with feelings of loneliness throughout your life, even when surrounded by those who love and care.
7. You often feel flawed and imperfect. These feelings regarding self may lead you to try hard to hide flaws in personal appearance and self.
8. You struggle with perfectionism and feel that you must do things perfectly or not at all. This internalized belief frequently leads to performance anxiety and procrastination.
9. To block your feelings of shame you may find yourself struggling with compulsive behaviors like workaholism, eating disorders, substance abuse, and other addictions.
10. You have little sense of emotional boundaries and struggle to say no to others. Any attempts of setting boundaries, usually involve walls, rage, pleasing, or isolation.
What Is Debilitating Shame?
Debilitating shame is a feeling that makes us want to hide. We suddenly feel overwhelmed and self-conscious.
Shame is the fear of being exposed, visible, and examined by a critical other and found to be imperfect and unworthy in every way.
How Were We Shamed as Children?
Shame is born in a child in the following cases:
1. When parents and other adult caretakers indicate through their words and/or behaviors that the child is not wanted.
2. When the child is humiliated in public.
3. When disapproval is aimed at the child’s entire being rather than at a particular behavior.
Example: “You are a very bad boy,” rather than, “I don’t like it when you hit your brother. I don’t want you to do it again.”
4. When parents and other adult caretakers indicate through their words and/or behaviors that the child is wrong for having needs or expressing emotions by not meeting his needs or soothing him.
5. When the child’s emotional or physical boundaries are violated (e.g., physical or sexual abuse of an overt or covert nature).
Physical and sexual abuse leads the child to believe that, “I must be a really bad person. I am not lovable or accepted… I am only lovable and accepted when…”
6. When adults ignore or treat indifferently the child’s gifts or events that are important to him. The child develops a sense that he is just not important enough.
Examples: The child gets his mother a flower and his mother says, “What am I supposed to do with this?” and puts it away. Or when the parent consistently does not attend functions that are important to the child, like ball games.
7. When the child feels that parents are somehow flawed when compared to other adult figures in his life.
Example: A parent who is an alcoholic or a drug abuser.
8. When the parents themselves are ashamed and feel powerless in the world. Shame is contagious.
9. When the child is consistently blamed for the actions or emotional state of their parent. The child might think, “If only I were more lovable, then my parents would drink less, be happier, or less depressed.”
10. When parents use silent disgust as a way of disciplining a child’s behavior. When silent rejection is used as punishment, there is little opportunity for the child to understand what is expected from him and repair the relationship.
How to Reduce Shame and Build Connection?
To heal toxic shame you need to come out of hiding. We cannot change our “internalized” shame until we “externalize” it.
#1. Identify Your Shame
Feelings of shame come from doing something that we believe will be judged as unacceptable by others. We then internalize this judgment and believe that we are unacceptable, not our actions.
Identify events or situations that trigger your feelings of shame. Below is a list of things that often cause feelings of shame:
- having a mental illness
- abusing drugs or alcohol
- your appearance
- getting divorced
- being abused or being abusive
- having a family history of poverty, abuse, mental illness, or criminal record
- being fired
- having an abortion
- being infertile
- being in debt
- having an affair
- doing something that goes against your values or morals
#2. Come Out of Hiding and Isolation and Become More Authentic
The excruciating loneliness fostered by shame can be dehumanizing.
Since your toxic shame was fostered by your significant relationships, in order to be healed you need to come out of isolation and hiding and connect with others.
This can be a tall order for shame-based people.
The idea of being exposed to the scrutiny of other people can be terrifying.
This is where courage comes. You need to have the courage to risk being vulnerable with safe people.
When you trust someone else and experience their love and acceptance, you begin to change your beliefs about yourself and learn that you are not bad, that you are lovable and acceptable.
One of the best ways to do this is through Twelve Step groups.
Twelve Step groups were born out of the courage of two people risking coming out of hiding, Bill W. and Dr. Bob who turned toward each other and told the other how bad they really felt about themselves.
Today, Twelve Step groups address more than Alcoholism, there are also groups for drugs, co-dependency, love addicts, debtors, food addicts, workaholics, etc.
As social beings, we thrive on social connection and heal in a community.
Authenticity is the antidote to shame.
Authenticity allows us to be ourselves and receive acceptance for who we are.
Authenticity helps us connect with others when we’re willing to be vulnerable—to be fully seen.
You may find it challenging and even scary to let your guard down and allow someone else to see you, especially your imperfect parts.
It’s important to remind yourself that people can’t like us if they don’t know us. Deep connection only happens when people see our mistakes and imperfections and like us anyway.
Begin by identifying safe people you can open up to and practice being vulnerable with.
Identify imperfections and mistakes you want to share with safe people and share more of them through incremental steps. Start with mistakes and imperfections you feel a small amount of shame about.
#3. Cultivate Empathy
Empathy is the ability to understand and share how someone else is feeling.
It means that you are feeling their emotions with someone else. Unlike sympathy that means you are feeling sad for them.
When we empathize, we put ourselves in someone else’s shoes and understand their perspective without judgment.
Empathy conveys acceptance and validates our experiences without trying to cheer us up or change our feelings.
When we share something that’s vulnerable or shameful, the other person will also share their own experience of shame. When this is done in an empathetic way, it builds connection.
Empathetic responses may sound like this:
- “I would feel X too in that situation”
- “I can understand how going through that can make you feel this way.”
- “Wow, that really sucks.”
- “I can see how that would be difficult.”
- “That sounds really challenging.”
- “It makes me really sad to hear this happened.”
#4. Confront and Changing Your Toxic Inner Voices
If you were ashamed in childhood, your negative self-talk is probably filled with what Fritz Perls and the Gestalt school call “introjected parental voices.”
This inner voice is characterized by dominant, negative shaming, self-deprecating voices initially derived from the parents’ and other adult caretakers’ negative messages you received as a child.
You become most aware of these voices in certain stressful situations or after mistakes when your shame is activated.
Getting rid of these voices can be extremely difficult because of the way shamed children can idealize their primary caretaker. The child desperately relies on his parents. They can’t be bad. And so he believes that he must be the bad one.
Even after the child leaves the parent years later, the voices remain and intensify toxic shame.
This is why changing the inner voice can cause overwhelming anxiety.
The best way to change your inner voice is through externalization.
When you verbalize or write down your negative self-talk, intense feelings are released and you become able to examine these thoughts and challenge their validity.
Practical Exercise 1 – Keeping An “Overreaction Journal”
One of the best ways to examine your negative beliefs about yourself is to keep a journal of your defensive overreactions.
Each evening before going to bed, think back over the events of the day, and ask yourself the following questions:
Where did I overreact? What was the context? What was said to me? How does what was said to me compare with what I tell myself?
Practical Exercise 2 – Answering The Voice
Once you’re aware of your negative self-talk, start challenging the voice.
When the voice tells you “you’re a bad parent,” argue back that, “I’m a loving parent and I’m trying my best, and that’s good enough.”
Repeating this process, day after day, will help you change your inner voice, from critical, to compassionate.
#5. Give Yourself Permission To Make Mistakes
When you were shamed in childhood, you will find yourself trying hard to never make a mistake.
You not only believe you shouldn’t make mistakes, but you also believe you “are a mistake.”
To break-free from shame, you need to reframe your mistakes by changing your interpretation or point of view and learning to think about your mistakes in ways that remove their catastrophic qualities.
Instead, you begin to view your mistakes as essential and valuable components of life. This is exactly the purpose of healthy shame.
Healthy shame tells us that being human means that will make mistakes and that these mistakes should be used as occasions for learnings or as warnings to slow down and look at what we’re doing.
Mistakes As Feedback
Mistakes are a form of feedback. They act as warnings to look at what we’re doing and what we need to correct. If you get a speeding ticket, it can be a warning to drive slower, which could ultimately save your life.
Toxic shame prevents you from learning from your mistakes. You become preoccupied with defending yourself and hiding your mistake that you miss the opportunity to heed the warning of the mistake.
Reframe your mistake and focus on learning from the warning, rather than the culpability.
When you see your mistakes as necessary feedback for the learning process, you free yourself from toxic shame and give yourself permission to learn from these mistakes.
#6. Choose to Love Yourself
Toxic shame’s greatest enemy is self-love, which can be your most powerful tool in overcoming toxic shame.
Love is a decision – an act of will. No matter how you feel about yourself right now, you can always choose to love yourself and act accordingly. Sometimes action has to come before belief.
Understanding The Distinction Between Being And Doing
Toxic shame turns you into a human doing because you believe that your being is flawed and defective.
However, when you believe that your being is flawed and defective, nothing you do could possibly make you lovable. You can’t change who you are until you change the way you see yourself.
Related: 21 Days to Grow in Self-Love
Practical Exercise 1 – The Felt Sense Of Self
Sit in a comfortable position. Take a few deep, calming breaths.
Close your eyes and imagine the person you love most (a spouse, lover, child, parent, friend, hero, etc.) sitting across from you.
Take three or four minutes to feel your love towards them. Feel the warmth and appreciation. This is your felt sense of that relationship.
Now see yourself sitting across from you, feel the same feelings you felt earlier with your loved one. Stay in the experience for three or four minutes.
Resist any need to criticize or judge and simply allow yourself to feel the warmth of love and acceptance.
Decide that you don’t need to change anything about yourself to be lovable. Unconditionally accept yourself
Repeat to yourself, “I love myself. I will accept myself unconditionally.”
Practical Exercise 2 – Giving Yourself Time And Attention
Choosing to love yourself involves giving time and attention to yourself. This includes:
1. Taking time for proper rest and relaxation:
When you’re a human doing, you drive yourself unmercifully. Each time you’ll need more and more achievement in order to feel okay about yourself.
When you’re a human being, on the other hand, you allow yourself time to just be.
2. Taking proper care of yourself:
Take time for hygiene and exercise. Make sure your diet is healthy and that you’re getting quality sleep each night.
3. Surrounding yourself with your loved ones:
Be willing to give yourself the pleasure and enjoyment of being around the people you love.
4. Listening to yourself:
You show yourself love and acceptance when you stop avoiding your thoughts through distractions and numbing your emotions through addictions, and instead choose to listen to your thoughts, feelings, needs and wants through self-reflect and mindfulness.
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Wondering what to read next?
- PTSD Guide: How to Heal Emotional and Psychological Trauma?
- Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD): How to Heal Your Trauma?
- How to Heal From Childhood Trauma and Transform Pain into Purpose
- CPTSD: 9 Therapy Approaches to Heal Childhood Trauma
- How To Let Go Of Shame After Trauma?
- 4 Way to Use Mindfulness Safely to Heal from Trauma
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- Portions of this article were adapted from the book Shame & Guilt: Masters of Disguise, © 1990 by Jane Middelton-Moz. All rights reserved.
- Portions of this article were adapted from the book Healing the Shame that Binds You, © 2005 by John Bradshaw. All rights reserved.