One of the greatest barriers to emotional maturity can be shame. Toxic shame happens when the ego becomes divided against its instinctual core and hides. Sometimes this happens early in life when a child does not have the cognitive capacity to evaluate the source and accuracy of excessively negative feedback, and it becomes translated not as “I made a mistake,” but as “I am a mistake.” Physical, emotional, and sexual abuse as well as abandonment, neglect, and excessive criticism are internalized as “I am bad and deserving of abuse.” A shame bound personality sees self as the cause of abuse and unworthy of love and respect. While this whole process slowly incubates, a false self or personality begins to emerge so as to avoid any criticism or judgment by others. Too often in my work in a hospital emergency room, I witnessed a grown up person seriously injured and falsely believing all the while that somehow they were the cause of abuse and too ashamed of it to make a police report.
Sometimes toxic shame becomes handed down from one generation to the next. A parent, wounded by feelings of unworthiness, will have no tolerance for the behaviors of their children and use shame when a child fails to live up to their expectations. This is a situation where family therapy can begin to undo damage that has become systemic.
Healing of shame is a growing up process of accepting our responsibility when our behaviors have caused self or others harm. Being “ashamed of ourselves” can be a mature awareness when we understand that we have not lived up to who we really are and grieve it, not because we are bad but because we are human and capable of doing better.