5 signs that toxic shame could be behind your anxiety
In February of 2020, I started experiencing panic attacks. It felt like my heart was in a vice and that the air was being driven out of my lungs. I would continue to gasp repeatedly because my mind believed if I didn't, I would die of suffocation. Then the tears would begin to flow and the tightness in my chest would start to abate. That's when the fatigue would set in.
They usually began every Monday at 7:30am in Euston station (in London) when I would get on to the train to Preston. I was working as a consultant at the time and would spend most of the week in a different city before taking the train back to London on a Thursday evening.
I had no idea what was going on. Was it the constant travel? The weather? I spend hours Googling, 'Seasonal Affective Disorder' online — some of the most unhelpful hours of my life. Note to self: WebMD is not a replacement for a therapist.
Was it the travel? The diet of hotel food? The end of an unsatisfying relationship? Family illnesses? Eventually, in March I took a week off work to figure it out. I requested the ability to work from London to be able to see a psychologist in person. The request was denied. A week later everyone had to work from home anyway because of the onset of the pandemic.
In many ways, the pandemic beginning when it did was an answer to a prayer. I finally got the time and space to understand what was going on — my confidence had completely been eroded because I was working on a project with a manager who was convinced that I brought no value and subconsciously I believed her.
You see I had dyslexia — this meant that I would often make little mistakes in the emails or slides, skip words or spell things wrong — this drove her crazy. It didn't matter that my slides were extremely creative and summarised complex information well. It didn't matter that I was sincerely trying. And it didn't matter that my requests for access to software that would help had remained unanswered.
She once called me in fury over an email invite I sent her. I scanned the email repeatedly unable to catch the mistake. I used the outlook function that read the email aloud for me. Nothing stood out.
It turned out her issue was with the word 'afternoon'. I had put the meeting in at 12pm and said, "Hope this time is convenient as you mentioned that you would be free in the afternoons." 12pm wasn't afternoon and the fact that I used that word showed her that I wasn't listening because she wouldn't be working after 1pm, etc, etc.
For some reason, my reaction to this was to feel an almost immediate and total sense of shame. I couldn't even send a meeting invite correctly. Looking back now I realise that it is completely unsurprising that I was on the verge of a mental breakdown.
What is shame?
As human beings, we crave connection and belonging which is why societies use shame and the threat of ostracism to gain control over children. You are a "bad" child if you don't eat your vegetables or if you cry in public.
As we grow older, this shame leads us to look at another person that is “further” in life than us and feel like we will never attain what they’ve accomplished. Shame becomes toxic when we start to believe that our being is flawed and that we are defective as a person.
What are some of the symptoms of toxic shame?
1. You begin to isolate and you start to develop a fear of intimacy. People who are suffering from Toxic shame will often start to withdraw from their social groups as well as be constantly afraid to open up and be vulnerable for fear of exposing themselves.
2. You start to avoid difficult conversations and feedback. Shame would also cause people to feel defensive even when minor feedback was given. They are likely to feel severe humiliation when forced to look at mistakes or imperfections.
3. You start to display destructive behaviours. To block feelings of shame people will often start struggling with compulsive behaviours like workaholism, eating disorders, substance abuse and other addictions. Often people will approach me to work with one of these symptoms, not realising that shame lies at the bottom of these behaviours.
4. Hiding. As toxic shame is often accompanied by often feeling flawed and imperfect, people will often present themselves as the very opposite. They will often come across as very together and put an extra effort into their appearance and themselves.
5. Lack of healthy boundaries. An inability to say no to others and create emotional boundaries is often caused by feeling shame. Toxic shame will also usually cause people to react strongly to boundaries created by others. In such cases attempts to set boundaries will usually be met with walls, rage, pleasing or isolation.
In conclusion, few people realised that their issues — whether it is a lack of energy, anxiety, panic attacks or addictive behaviours — have their roots within some kind of shame.
To heal this you need to come out of hiding because it is impossible to heal our "internalised" shame without understanding that sometimes the things that went wrong are not our fault and there were many "external" — situations or circumstances that were behind some of the painful outcomes we experienced.
So many people do not feel safe within their heads — using Rapid Transformational Therapy I can help you face the things that have happened to you so that you can resolve, heal and let go of the past. After all, once you treat the cause, the symptoms will without exception resolve themselves.