Header Image
Tom Moon, M.F.T. Healing Toxic Shame

Healing Toxic Shame

The term “toxic shame” refers to a deep and pervasive sense of being defective and unlovable. It usually develops as a consequence of severe neglect and abuse in childhood. I see this condition all-too-often in gay and lesbian clients, and it is one of the destructive effects of growing up in a homophobic environment. It can be highly resistant to change, even in people who have long ago come to terms with their sexual orientation. That’s why I was interested to read a recent article (accessible online at www.wisebrain.org/bulletin.html, Volume 4.1), in which psychotherapist Linda Graham shows how new developments in neuroscience are deepening our understanding of toxic shame. She also shows how simple concentration practices, grounded in the new science, can do much to heal it.

Graham explains that neurons fire with every experience, and that repeated experiences cause groups of neurons to wire together with increasing strength. In time, repetition causes these neural circuits to develop a greater probability of firing, creating habitual responses. She writes: “The kinds of experiences that particularly affect us when we are young are based on the core reality that we human beings are hardwired to connect, to attach, to belong. We instinctively reach out to others for safety and protection, to be seen, understood and accepted. Those yearnings are met with responses; the yearning and responses are paired in the neural circuitry and become our internal working models of how we expect relationships to be….If our expectations about reaching out are positive – great! We feel secure, safe, loved, and lovable. If, on the other hand, we are met with responses that push us away, give us the sense that we are unlovable or are consistently doing something wrong, then our brain function and brain structure develop in such a way that they continue to support our anticipation that relationships will hurt us in this way.”

When, as children, we’re shamed, judged or humiliated regularly, we respond by withdrawing, shutting down, and hiding. This toxic shame causes a visible collapse in the body: the chest caves inward, the head goes down, and the eyes look away. Repeated shaming begins to build a “negative recursive loop” in the neural circuitry, which means that the growing child begins to perceive everything through a shame filter, “locking the person into the eternally present past of the original shaming events.” We begin to live in a kind of “trance of unworthiness.”

How do we awaken from this trance? Loving and supportive relationships later in life can do much to heal early trauma, but when the neural nets mediating shame are dissociated from the integrating flow of the brain, corrective life experiences aren’t always enough. That’s when trauma recovery work with a psychotherapist can be helpful. In her work, Graham uses mindfulness and compassion practices to re-wire the neural circuitry. Here, for instance, is a short meditation which she uses to help establish a sense of inner safety. It’s drawn from John Makransky’s Awakening through Love: Unveiling our Deepest Goodness (a resource I highly recommend):

Place your hand on the middle of your chest over your heart. Breathe gently but deeply into your heart center. Breathe into your heart center any sense of goodness, safety trust, acceptance, ease, you can muster. When that is steady, call to mind a memory of someone who has loved you unconditionally, someone with whom you’ve felt completely safe. This person may be a partner, parent or child, a good friend, or even a pet. As you remember feeling safe and loved with this person or pet, see if you feel the feelings and sensations that come up with that memory in your body. Savor this feeling of warmth, safety, trust, love in your body. When that feeling is steady, let go of the image and simply bathe in the feeling for 30 seconds.

If you take just a minute or two to do this practice, you will probably find it soothing and comforting. But how does this help heal toxic shame? The hand on the heart, combined with the deep breathing, activates the parasympathetic nervous system and calms us down. Evoking the images of safety and love can cause oxytocin to release in the brain. Oxytocin is the hormone of “calm and connect.” It’s activated whenever we feel loved and cherished, and it’s an immediate antidote to cortisol, the hormone mediating the stress response. If we deliberately induce the release of oxytocin by doing this exercise for one minute, five times per day, we can actually begin to re-wire the brain so that a sense of calm, safety and self-acceptance begins to become our daily background experience.

Practices like these, in combination with the safety of the psychotherapeutic relationship, can, over time, measurably alter the brain circuitry. By regularly and intentionally “inclining the mind” toward safety and self-compassion, we can awaken from the trance of unworthiness, and, over time, as Graham puts it, learn to “relate to self and others with new ease, acceptance, resilience, and love.”


Author: Tom Moon