On Mental Health

Involuntary And Extreme Reactions to Toxic Shame

I’ve mentioned before about my shame spirals here but I’ve learned recently that – more specifically – I suffer from something called “toxic shame” and it’s like standard shame but…toxic.

Aren’t you glad you read my blog so you can gain a clearer understanding of mental health issues?

My shame is very visceral and it leaves me doing weird stuff like…I’ll be walking to take the garbage out, my brain will start revisiting the recent shameful trigger in my head, and I’ll start shuddering and making almost an involuntary groan. It’s very weird because sometimes it will hit me when I’m in public and it just looks like I’m having an episode of the vapours.

I am being silly but it’s VERY real and VERY frustrating because I can’t turn off the responses and it will keep happening until other feelings replace the shame, or until the shame fades.

Toxic shame is common in cases like mine where kids grow up not being told that they DID something wrong, but that they ARE wrong. And while I am very proud of the parenting my single Dad did and I loved him dearly and miss him desperately…he had a not-so-great response of shouting terrible insults at me when he was angry with me.

Those kind of things leave a mark, I have learned with the help of professionals.

Add that to being raised in a church that mandated the seeking of forgiveness for all range of “sins” and I became an adult who experiences episodes of toxic shame that cause me to shudder uncontrollably and mumble involuntarily and moan audibly as I wrestle with the shame in my brain.

It’s bad, y’all.

This is why I’m a chronic rule-follower and why I research events before I attend them and why I google Earth parking lots before I visit a new business…because the shame that fills me when I screw something up is something that disrupts my life and my sanity.

All of this is to prep you for outlining and episode I had today. (Yesterday at the time of publishing.)

I posted something on Facebook celebrating Roe v Wade and I was really proud of it, but someone popped in with a comment correcting my word choice around fertility with citations…and y’all? I thought I was going to throw up. I was so embarrassed and ashamed and I immediately deleted the post and then I deactivated my Facebook. Like…within seconds.

Yep. I did.

Basically…I closed down my facebook because I was embarrassed about a mistake I made. I mean, the physical reaction to the shame was severe…a type of panic attack that I know all too well and so the reaction to shut it all down was almost involuntary…a safety response of some sort.

It was an extreme reaction to a not-so-extreme situation, but I just couldn’t process a better way to deal with it while I was also drowning in the toxic shame response.

There’s actually a really good article I keep bookmarked to read when I’m feeling lost in shame. It says stuff like this for moving past it:

Overcoming toxic shame requires you to:

– Become attuned to the script of your inner dialogue and expand your capacity to observe, but not react to it.
– Develop greater inner compassion with yourself–being able to choose compassion as an alternative to cultivate a dialogue of increased self-acceptance of your humanity. This means recognizing that, like all humans, you have flaws and weaknesses, make mistakes and suffer. We are not alone, even when we feel that we are.
– Become a “witness to” and mourn your wounds. This requires the ability to identify and sit with the pain associated with your hurts-current and past.
– Forgive yourself for feelings, thoughts, or actions of your “former selves.” It is easy to beat yourself with hindsight about the insight that you lacked at an earlier age. However, you can only act from the awareness you have at any given moment.

Overcoming the Paralysis of Toxic Shame

Of course I haven’t perfected any of those things yet…BUT I AM MOST DEFINITELY MEMORIZING THEM EVERY TIME I RE-READ THIS ARTICLE.

And, that’s a step…right?

The visceral/involuntary responses of shuttering and making weird groans/moans when the shame spikes is basically my automatic response to avoid sitting with the pain…so it’s not something I’m great at learning to do since I haven’t even figured out how to stop the involuntary responses to it. I will do just about anything to avoid sitting with it but I keep hoping one of these days it will become easier. My body goes into a type of fight or flight response which is common with anxiety and it’s like DO SOMETHING! DO SOMETHING TO STOP THE SHAME! Sometimes this means running away and hiding in my car crying over something dumb I did. Sometimes in means locking myself in the bathroom with a hot bath and a beer and loud music to drown out my brain. And sometimes? I just shut down my entire Facebook account.

And so now I am sans Facebook which has already proven to be a problem with a friend who feared I had blocked her when she went to hunt down a link I had posted earlier. So…not only did I avoid sitting in the pain and confronting the feelings like I am supposed to do, I have now caused feelings of pain in other people who fear I blocked them on Facebook!

(All is good now! I explained it all to her and she actually had wonderful things to tell me which made me feel SO MUCH BETTER!)

But here…at the end of the day I’m sitting in my car at my daughter’s soccer practice and trying to wind down. I got my favorite cookie and my favorite seltzer water from Whole Foods and I’m just processing the best way I know how…with a brain dump on this blog. This is where I always come to shake out the tangled webs in my brain that get caused by my anxiety, and see if I can locate the knots to untie so that everything can be wrapped up smoothly upon reflection.

It is okay I made a mistake. It is too bad I deleted it before I could really absorb it all and sit in it. Honestly, I didn’t even really absorb the correction because it triggered such a defense mechanism in me that I was just rushing through to get the gist before I was just like: YOU SCREWED UP! BURN IT ALL DOWN! SO MANY PEOPLE SAW THE POST BEFORE THIS ERROR WAS POINTED OUT! YOU ARE SO DUMB!

(Truth: Being dumb IS the worst thing someone can think about me because that was the target for my Dad’s anger and his insults when I was a kid. The shame of making intellectual mistakes is the most toxic of them all. I’d rather poop my pants in public than say something dumb.)

I’m trying to harness a bit of kindness towards myself. A bit of grace. A bit of forgiveness. And I’m trying to remember that most of the people I befriend on Facebook would be graceful and kind towards any mistakes. It’s not like my peer group would abandon me just because I got the language around infertility wrong.

I reactivated my FB this morning and I haven’t even addressed the temporary deactivation or the missing Pro Choice post. I just can’t. I am still a bit too embarrassed. I did upload this graphic to my Funny Shit I Send My Family Album because truthfully? I CAN NOT ABANDON FACEBOOK BECAUSE I LOVE THE COLLECTION IN THAT ALBUM TOO MUCH.

For now I’m going to try to practice kindness to myself. I really need a day of total self-kindness for every waking hour. A day where every second of the day is focused on writing love notes to myself, or meditating on self-love, or talks of optimism to the mirror. I seriously need a day of immersion therapy where I immerse myself in non-stop love.

Man. That sounds amazing. I need to get on that.

POSTNOTE: I was re-reading before publishing it this morning I thought it might make people scared of correcting me ever again. DO NOT BE AFRAID. I’ve had plenty of people email me and message me over the years with corrections to problematic language choices. It’s tough to take but I do take it and learn from it. Just be kind and maybe discreet? 🙂 I definitely learn from it all and want to keep learning. Do not be afraid of sending me corrections! But know this…if you do it on my Facebook page instead of in messenger…I’ll probably have an irrational response of deactivating my Facebook. SORRY! This is the biggest anxiety struggle I have because it’s a hard one to practice as (thank god) it doesn’t happen often.

2 thoughts on “Involuntary And Extreme Reactions to Toxic Shame”

  1. OMG. I am seeing myself so much, and I have a ton of empathy for you. I wish I was half as self-aware. My reactions generally involve food, and then there’s a whole ‘nother spiral of shame over that. It’s like, “I shouldn’t be doing this, but I’m going to anyway,” then “How can you do that when you know how self-destructive that is?” Maybe avoidance of mistakes is why I find it safer to stay home and read or binge-watch “The West Wing.”

  2. Wow. I’m so sorry you have this internal battle to deal with. The long-term effects of childhood emotional abuse are far-reaching and so hard to overcome. Kudos to you for developing this high level of self-awareness and for being courageous enough to confront the pain and sit with it enough to begin to reverse the shame cycle/toxic internal dialogue. It’s a long uphill journey, but you can do it and the rewards of reversing the automatic physiological response to emotional abuse is so worth it. 🙂

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