Shame on You?

Shame On You? Nancy'S Counseling Corner

When you were growing up, did you ever hear your mother or father say, “Shame on you”? But shame is something you inflict on yourself because you are distressed by your own behavior. You feel shame because you know you’ve done wrong. It’s a reasonable feeling to have.

Toxic Shame

Shame becomes toxic when you experience it in childhood as a result of feeling unloved through no fault of your own. Perhaps your mother was neglectful due to her own issues. Maybe your father was depressed or angry. They didn’t bestow upon you the unconditional love every child needs. As a result you reacted by feeling unworthy of your parents’ love—you felt shame. This is the chronic childhood experience of toxic shame that can shape your life.

Toxic shame can lead to everything from eating disorders and addiction to low self-esteem, anxiety, guilt and codependency. If you are codependent as an adult, you have—at the core of your being—toxic shame. The feeling that you are defective. That something’s wrong with you. That you are unworthy of being loved.

Codependency and Shame

This feeling of being defective is so bad you can never reveal it to someone else for fear they will be repulsed by you. And after a childhood of rejection, you will do anything to avoid it in adulthood. You have to keep the untrue secret that you are defective at all costs. You may try to overcome it by being a super achiever. You may try to cover it up and lie to yourself about it. You are in denial of the shame and pain you suffer.

That’s when you compensate by creating a codependent relationship, often by being a people pleaser or being so perfect you are always right and better than anyone else. Maybe you find some other way to compensate but the truth is you are creating an image of yourself in reaction to something that is not true—that you are unworthy of being loved. It takes incredible energy and effort to keep this toxic shame hidden from yourself and others.

Toxic Shame through Generations

Because our parents were wounded, and their parents before them, we grew up feeling unloved. Dysfunctional behavior patterns become so entrenched that they are accepted in families as the way things are. Codependence is a defense mechanism that we use as a crutch to avoid feeling unloved. Codependence is often a way to prop up our damaged egos and avoid facing the pain of our toxic shame.

But toxic shame and codependence can be overcome, and you can be the first in your family to break the chain. We’ll talk more about it next week.

Nancy Travers is an Orange County Counseling professional. If you need safe, effective counseling services, please get in touch. You can reach her here: