06 May Healthy Remorse Is Helpful. Toxic Shame Is Just… Toxic.
All of us make mistakes. To be human is to sometimes fall short of who we really could be (or think we should be). Our mistakes might be a series of small failures… or they could be a one-off monumental fail, or both!
It’s normal and appropriate to feel bad about ourselves when we haven’t been at our best, or when we’ve totally stuffed something up and completely failed. This bad feeling is called shame.
Shame feels really REALLY awful, but this awful feeling serves a purpose: it’s there to inspire us to be better people.
Being able to cope with shame is crucial not only for our own psychological health, but for our relationship health too.
None of us can escape the fact that we will feel shame at times, but it’s what we choose to do with that feeling that, in turn, determines what happens next.
In short, we’ve got two choices:
Firstly, we can respond in a way that allows us to grow from the experience and move on.
Alternatively, we can respond in a way that slams the brakes on growth, and stay stuck in the pain of shame far longer than what is necessary, nor healthy.
Here’s how I see these two choices play out in clinic (and in myself at times):
Option #1: Respond to shame with a healthy, pro-active mindset: “Healthy Remorse”.
When you are remorseful, you acknowledge your mistake, make apologies and seek forgiveness where due, take the lesson from whatever you did wrong, then forgive yourself. You move on.
HEALTHY REMORSE GOES LIKE THIS:
1. I’ve stuffed up
2. I have acknowledged it and apologised for it where necessary
3. I can accept my imperfection, without loosing my positive self-regard
4. I can forgive myself and let it go
Option #2: Respond to shame with a defeatist mindset: “Toxic Shame”.
On the other hand, toxic shame is different to normal, healthy, remorseful shame.
In toxic shame, we obsess about our own imperfection and failure and stay stuck in feelings of failure, worthlessness and guilt.
Toxic shame is all encompassing, and ironically (given that people often chose it even when trying to be better people, or partners…) it’s completely self-absorbed.
It does not enable us to be better people nor partners, and there’s no positive upside from it.
If you’re choosing toxic shame, you’ll know it because you’ll have lost positive self regard. You’ll feel really awful about yourself, which in turn means you’ll be unable to grow and move forward.
If you’re in a relationship, you’ll also be unable to “be there” for those you love – the very people who really need you. Toxic shame will prevent you both from moving on. I see every day in clinic how toxic shame contaminates happy relationships.
TOXIC SHAME GOES LIKE THIS:
1. I’ve stuffed up
2. I have acknowledged it, apologised for it, and been forgiven by my partner
3. I CAN’T accept my mistake, because I’ve lost my positive self-regard
4. I CAN’T forgive myself and I CAN’T let it go
When you’ve stuffed up or been less than your best, make your apologies where due. Then be very careful about what you choose to do next.
You can continue swim around in your own toxic shame, beat yourself up, and refuse to accept that you are indeed (like the rest of us), a flawed human being who sometimes makes mistakes. If you choose this path, you can guarantee that you, and your relationship, can’t truly heal and won’t move on.
Or you can make your apology (to self or other), accept forgiveness, take the lessons from the experience, forgive yourself, and move on. This is what people do who want healthy, happy relationships – with themselves and with others.
Pamela Pannifex is a psychotherapist, marriage therapist, naturopath and founder of Sunshine Holistic Counselling on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. For the past 25 years she has been helping people create personal wellbeing and relationships that thrive. Credit is due to her mentor Terry Real of the Relational Life Institute for inspiring some of the material in this post. Contact Pamela here.