I have bottled some of these feelings up for more than 20 years. Those closest to me and my therapist are aware of them, but no-one else. In the spirit of healing and sharing I have decided to share them with you. I haven’t planned any of this blog post which may be a bit more rambling than normal. So this is 100 per cent off the cuff, jumping in the river and seeing what comes out the other side. Hang on to me and I’ll take you there.
I’d like to write a bit about toxic shame – it’s a very fashionable thing at the minute in counselling circles but like most buzz-words it merely describes something which is a) Very well-known by millions and b) Has been around for a very long time – probably for as long as humankind has.
I’m sitting here at home writing this, the living room is organised chaos as it so often is, but it’s warm and safe. I have a pot of Earl Grey next to me and I’m listening to Spiritualised’s ‘Ladies and Gentlemen We Are Floating in Space.’ I am in a safe environment – this I know to be true. And yet the thoughts of sharing these ideas with you all fill me with dread. But I know I must do it or I will never be free.
I used to joke I’d make a very good Catholic (I’m not as it happens), as I know all about so-called ‘Catholic guilt.’ I was convinced guilt was my problem, but it’s not. It’s shame. Toxic shame.
The first definition I lifted off the good old net gave the following:
“Excessive, unhealthy levels of shame that causes interpersonal dysfunction and low self-esteem.”
There are no doubt plenty of other definitions online, some with complex medical terminology and treatment recommendations, but for our purposes the above will do just fine.
Now let me tell you a story.
I’m seven years old and I’d gone to see a friend from school at his house. For the sake of this, I’ll call him Adam although that wasn’t his name. Adam’s dad was very strict – or at least he seemed to me at the time. I barely remembere what he looked like other than the fact he was quite fat and had a moustache. That’s about it.
We’d been playing, being silly, goofing around, all the stuff small kids do. And my friend was in the habit of saying ‘smelly welly’ which we both thought was hilarious. His dad asked me a question – it might have been if I’d wanted a drink or something – I don’t remember. I replied ‘yes please, you smelly welly.’
My feet barely touched the floor. He grabbed me by the arm, stuck me over his knee and spanked me. I don’t remember whether he pulled my pants down or not, but I vividly remember being spanked and crying. I was never spanked like that at home. My parents shouted at me if they were annoyed but there was no corporal punishment.
By the time my parents came to collect me the tears had dried and I never told them what had happened. In fact, I only told my mum years later by which point I was at sixth-form. She was horrified and said something along the lines of ‘he shouldn’t have done that.’
Why am I sharing this? Because at the time, I experienced an emotion I don’t remember having before, but it’s sadly one I’ve felt many times since, and that’s shame. Strong, overpowering, toxic shame. Not guilt. Shame.
My therapist told me the simplest way to understand the difference is that guilt applies to specific actions or inactions. Basically ‘I have done something wrong, so I feel bad about it.’ A healthy level of guilt is necessary because it acts as a sort of moral stop-switch. Those without the capacity to feel any guilt at all we dub psychopaths.
Shame on the other hand, is general rather than specific. It basically states ‘I am bad.’ Not ‘I have done something which was bad.’ I. Me.
Shame is a powerful tool of social control and has been used to bring people into line for as long as we’ve had authority structures. Mao’s Cultural Revolution for example made great play of shame. Those dubbed ‘dissidents’ or enemies of the revolution – often intellectuals, teachers, professors and so on, had their heads shaved, were paraded through the streets dressed in humiliating costumes for people to mock and ridicule. After which they were sent to work in gulags in menial jobs.
The incident I have described is not the most shame-inducing thing that ever happened to me, but it is the earliest and most powerful I can remember. What sticks with me the most, after all these years – and we’re talking nearly 30 years ago, is the fact I was determined my parents wouldn’t find out and the fact at no point did I question the authority by which the punishment was meted out.
After all, Adam’s dad was an adult, right? Like my parents. And he knew more stuff about the world than me, as he was a grown-up. So if he did something, it meant it must be right. I felt embarrassed after it but I also felt dirty – as though some flaw in my character had been held up for the world to see and the world had responded by laughing.
I have no idea how my friend must have felt witnessing this and it has often made me wonder what his upbringing must have been like.
The fact is, I am now a 30-something-year-old man and I have depression and anxiety which at times has crippled me to the point where I can barely go out and just want to lie in bed all day crying.
I don’t know if any of you have had similar experiences – realistically I know many people will have had far, far worse which saddens me greatly.
It may surprise you to know that at no point have I ever felt anger towards Adam’s father. Instead, I feel disgust. He was a grown man who lost his temper to the point where he hit a little kid who could hardly be expected to fight back, for really no more than a bit of silliness. If I had a kid and I learned they had been treated in such a way by an adult, that adult’s feet wouldn’t touch the floor either. But I digress.
If you’ve come this far with me, thanks for reading and allowing me to share this with you. It’s a great privilege to be able to potentially reach anyone in the world with this. All I can tell you is, whatever your experience, I promise you are not alone. And toxic shame is false. It is a cruel lie injected into people usually at their most vulnerable, often in the name of social control of the worst and most appalling kind.
Every single one of you who has ever felt toxic shame in whatever form, however ‘mild’ you may believe it to have been, you have my sympathy and my admiration. You are not as bad as the symptom tells you – you are so much greater. Because you are still here, functioning and alive – even if you don’t always feel like it. And that my friend, makes you a survivor.
Take good care of yourselves – and until next time,