‘I’ve got no shame…oh can’t you see what love has done?’ – U2, Window in the Skies
Therapist John Bradshaw talks about the concept of toxic shame, which arises out of the core belief that you are a bad person rather than a loved person who still tends to go their own way.
Bradshaw uses this concept in relation to the addict who hates their destructive behaviour but is unable to stop it. He then goes on to talk about the inner child and how that child has been deeply wounded and has never grown up. And so we have, in our society today, many children walking around in adult’s bodies. Toxic shame is destructive and must be distinguished from healthy shame. The latter is born of a healthy conscience which lets us know when we have done something destructive. Some might also use the term ‘convicted’ as in when we are convicted of sin.
The huge difference between healthy shame and toxic shame is that when something destructive is done, toxic shame concludes, “I’m a bad person”, whereas healthy shame says “I’ve done the wrong thing but I’m still loved”. The difference lies deep down in the human psyche; it has to do with our core beliefs about who we are. The person filled with toxic shame has a core belief that “I am not worth loving and so therefore it makes sense that I would take part in behaviour that is destructive, both to others and to myself”. The person who is able to feel healthy shame when they do something destructive has a core belief that they are loved unconditionally, and the fact that they occasionally do the wrong thing does not take away from that.
The person filled with toxic shame is much more likely to participate in behaviours that result in a downward spiral of destruction even though they don’t want to. The prime example of this is the addict who desperately wants to stop but finds themselves absolutely powerless to do so.They are trapped in a cycle where their behaviour confirms in their own mind that they are hopeless, so they may as well act like it. So then they act like it, which further confirms their core belief, and so the cycle continues.
The person with such a core belief is also trapped in another sense. They are trapped in the sense that they are unable to focus on anything outside of themselves. Their lives are focused ever inward and they are unable to give. Thus they are self-centred in the extreme. They often want to be a different person, but because they are trapped in the cycle of self, they are never able to realise their full potential. They are therefore despondent and miserable, without joy, unable to think clearly, and riddled with anxiety.
The only cure for the deep wound in the human heart is having a deep knowing of divine forgiveness. John Smith said many years ago that the effect of acceptance of forgiveness on society is much more powerful than any social welfare theory.
Knowing that you are a loved child of God quite literally makes all the difference in the world. It frees you from the bondage of self; it frees you to be able to give and to love, and thereby find the life you’ve always been looking for. The old words of the 1st letter of John are true – we love because He first loved us.
In a society where we are (literally) sold the message that having more stuff will cure the ache within, where the idea of ‘retail therapy’ is believed by millions, the words of Jesus have more relevance than ever – “what will it profit you if you gain the whole world but lose your very self?”.
May you know the life that is truly life; a life of service of others in the name of Jesus. Perfect love drives out all fear, all anxiety, and all toxic shame. Never again need we resort to acts which hurt others and which in turn hurt ourselves. If the Son will set you free, you will be free indeed. We have been given grace upon grace. Freely we have received, so we can freely give, all because He first loved us.