If our caregivers taught us to believe that we’re not good enough– and if nobody else in our lives really helped us to believe that we were worthwhile– of course we will carry a belief of “I’m not good enough”.
I don’t particularly like when I see the new-age language of “unconsciousness” brought over into conversations about trauma.
To me, the language of “unconsciousness” (as in, “you’re living in an unconscious belief”) implies some kind of spiritual failing on the belief-carrier’s part.
I read an Instagram post recently which asserted that trauma survivors simply “carry over unconscious beliefs” from childhood, which causes us to disown our own power or live in fear or something like that.
Okay, true, yes. Of course this is true.
On the other hand, though, this reminds me of two things:
Spiritual bypassing and self-pathologizing.
Surviving trauma doesn’t make us “less conscious” than others.
Being a trauma survivor doesn’t mean that we just need to “awaken” and then we won’t feel our symptoms anymore.
Being a trauma survivor is not a spiritual character flaw.
So, what do I mean by spiritual bypassing and self-pathologizing? What does that have to do with trauma?
You see, there are lots of Jen-Sincero-esque gurus and spiritual teachers and influencers saying lots of words that sound really good to a terrified, traumatized person like myself.
We hear these magical phrases such as “just root out your unconscious beliefs and you can turn your whole life around!”. These make it sound as if, once I just do a bit of inner housekeeping and sweep my “bad beliefs” into the garbage, all of my symptoms (severe social anxiety and terror and emotional flashbacks and all of the things “holding me back”, right?) will simply vaporize– without having to do any work to heal my actual trauma. I don’t even have to think about all of that childhood stuff, because if I thought about it, then I’d be “living in the past”, right? Mmm, delicious!
They’ll go on to tell you: “you’re just living in fear. You need to stop living in fear to live your best life.”
True! Oh, so true, I used to think with them. You’re right; I am living in fear!
They nailed that one on the head, didn’t they? That’s one thing I could pinpoint from probably age seventeen, without a doubt: I was terrified.
And then they’ll reel you in: “All you need to do to stop living in fear and to start ‘attracting’ everything you want– a literal perfect relationship, millions of dollars, and a house on the moon– is to knock out those pesky little “unconditional beliefs”. Tada! Ready to live your best life? Here are twenty people who claim to have followed my ten quick steps and are already living on the moon after only one week.”
You get the picture.
You pay for their uber-expensive program. You might have an orgasmic epiphany about one of those “unconscious beliefs”, envisioning “everything your life could be” after that “belief” disappears. It worked! You think. Now where’s my million dollars? Where’s my spouse with whom I literally never argue? Where’s my moon house?
But then week two happens.
You find yourself feeling– ew– afraid again. Shit!
Ugh, fear, you think. All of these gurus say that “fear” is a low-vibration feeling. I can’t feel fear. I must not have cleared that bad belief well enough, you continue. I must not have done it right. I must be no good at this. I must not be good enough.
This is it. Right here. This is the trouble that we, as trauma survivors, get ourselves into when we start attacking our “unconscious beliefs”. (And this is why I’m wary of language that sounds self-pathologizing-spiritual-bypassy in the first place.) We don’t consider these two crucial points:
- These “unconscious beliefs”, such as “I’m not good enough”, etc., were never our fault. We had no choice to “carry” these into adulthood– this is simply what we were taught.
- As trauma survivors, rooting out our “beliefs” is never going to work, if we don’t first feel safe in our bodies.
This is why I cringe internally when I see someone mixing the word “trauma” with a phrase such as “you are unconsciously carrying your beliefs around with you”. Of course, it’s entirely possible that the writer in question meant something completely different, BUT– WE DID NOT CHOOSE TO CARRY THESE BELIEFS. They were FORCED upon us. Again, carrying around unconscious beliefs is not some spiritual failing.
If our caregivers taught us to believe that we’re not good enough– and if nobody else in our lives really helped us to believe that we were worthwhile– of course we will carry a belief of “I’m not good enough”. It’s not like we’re given a list of “beliefs” on our 18th birthday, and asked, “Okay, which ones would you like to take with you, and which ones are you leaving in the past?”. No– it’s only once we start to do the work of trauma recovery that we even uncover those shitty beliefs that have been handed down for generations.
But then, once we uncover the beliefs– let’s say, once we realize, oh shit! I really do believe that I’m not good enough!– that’s only half the battle.
If you’ve followed certain spiritual gurus for any amount of time, you know the feeling. Again: Well, shit. I have this “unconscious belief” that’s been ruling my life. I can’t seem to “get rid” of it. What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I do what this spiritual teacher seems to think I should do?
We try and try and try to change those thoughts, but they come back again. And again. And again. You’ve been there, haven’t you?
Me too. I’ve felt like shit about it, too. I’ve wondered what was wrong with me plenty of times, too.
(See how this whole burning ferris wheel just literally does not help us at all?)
Here’s the truth: your brain is not going to accept a “change of beliefs” or an affirmation such as “I am enough”– no matter how many times you repeat it– unless your body feels safe.
If you struggle to feel like you’re doing a good job at work, for example, and you tell yourself over and over “I am enough” only to still feel like shit about your work, this may be why. If you’re a trauma survivor, your body may not feel safe enough to accept a belief in your own enoughness.
Perhaps, in your childhood, your grades were never good enough. Or the way you cleaned the dishes was never good enough. Or your looks were never pristine enough. Or you never performed well enough on your sports team. Think about it: back in the day, was it ever safe to feel “good enough” about the way you did the dishes? Or did you have to check over and over and over again for the tiniest of spots you may have left behind, to avoid a shouting match with your parents? (This is just an example, of course– apply this sentiment to your own unique experience.)
This is why your body doesn’t feel safe to accept your new belief. It wasn’t safe back then. Although it (hopefully) is safe now to believe that you’re good enough, your brain and your body don’t know that yet. They are trying their best to keep you safe.
So, when we do the work of trauma recovery, we must start with internal safety– not with “changing beliefs”.
Trying to change thoughts or beliefs when we still feel deeply unsafe inside is akin to going to war without a helmet. We’re going to end up hurting ourselves, and we’re likely going to set ourselves back even further.
Of course, this leaves us with the ubiquitous question of “how?”. How do we feel safe in our own bodies?
It makes perfect sense that, if you’re like me and you’ve felt an underlying sense of terror your entire life, you’re desperate to know how to find some sense of safety. Know that I don’t have all of the answers, but I can try to lead you to the right places.
One practice I’ve learned is simply telling myself: you make sense.
Not “let’s change that awful belief.”
But rather, “it makes sense why you would believe that.”
In the case of our hypothetical person who feels not-enough at work:
“I totally get why you’d feel not good enough at work. Remember when you were 10 and your parents yelled at you every night for the tiny little spots they’d find on those dishes you spent forever cleaning? I bet you’re scared that your boss is going to yell at you like that, and that’s really scary! You make sense. You make perfect sense. I understand.”
This practice feels odd to the thinking, goal-oriented mind, because it feels like we’re not “fixing anything” in this little self-talk session. But please know: you are so fixing things in there. Those terrified inner children in your mind have been running around, screaming out for validation– and you’ve just given it to them. They relax a little more each time you’re able to do that for them.
And finally… Here are some helpful resources on safety in the body. The article includes some grounding exercises you can do to help you feel safe in the moment. I hope this helps, and remember: the best way to heal is with a trauma-informed therapist or coach guiding you along the way.
Remember: you’re not a failure if you struggle– like, really hard– to change your beliefs. You’re normal. I’ve been there too.
from an IFS (Internal Family Systems) session with one of my teenage parts
Self-love used to be dangerous. It was much safer to believe I was worthless, to shrink, to erase myself completely.
I look at the 14-year-old part of me, standing in my mind’s eye; my own frizzy hair, that green striped shirt I used to wear, that sullen expression that looked bored, but actually conveyed a cry for help.
My skin looks gray, thin, like it’s falling off of my bones. I’m freezing, lips blue. I can see my own ribs and hip bones and shoulders jutting through those old clothes– I’m starving.
Now, I know that 14-year-old me didn’t actually look this desolate. This part of me presents this way, because inside, she’s starving.
She’s starving for love.
I take a deep breath.
“What do you need from me, honey?” I ask.
The 14-year-old me wraps her arms around herself, shivering.
“Tell me the truth, again,” she quivers.
So I begin.
“Sweet girl. All that they said and did to you was so utterly wrong,” I say, leaning in to hug her cold body. “You’re at an age right now when you need nurturing. You need attunement. You need someone to sit beside you and say, ‘Are you okay?’. Someone to remind you how absolutely valuable you are. How you light up a room when you feel happy, safe, and loved. Someone to understand all those tough feelings that swirl deep within you.”
She rests her head on my shoulder and cries.
“All they said to you– and about you– was so, so, so wrong. They took all of their shit and dumped it all over you, and you had no choice but to take it in. No choice but to accept their name-calling, their character assassinations, as the absolute truth of who you were. And that was deeply and horribly fucked up of them to do that to you.”
She’s beginning to understand.
Just yesterday, in a session with my coach, this 14-year-old part took every memory of her family’s mistreatment, and blew it all up.
Every name she was called, every time they slapped her or pushed her, every time they made her feel worthless, she turned it all into hundreds of little pebbles, and scattered them throughout a field. Then, she buried dynamite sticks in the ground, and blew it all to pieces, screaming with rage as her pain went up in flames.
“You did not deserve that,” I continue, as she recalls the cathartic explosion. “You did not deserve their emotional abuse.”
She begins to soften.
“You did not deserve that. You did not deserve that. You did not deserve that,” I repeat, over, and over, and over again.
And this may be the first time in my life that I’m actually believing it myself.
Believing that, with a decent supply of love, I am actually a decent– no, a beautiful– human being. I’m actually wanted on this planet. I’m actually valued. Actually looked up to. Actually loved.
My brain will find any reason whatsoever to disbelieve this. After all, that’s what I was taught to do! Disbelieve in my own worth. Search instead for every little flaw and make mountains out of them all, to ensure that I never realized that I deserve love instead of shame. That’s why feeling loved actually feels threatening to my system: self-love used to be dangerous. It was much safer to believe I was worthless, to shrink, to erase myself completely. I learned that well. Too well.
This little fourteen-year-old part seems to have sucked up that message, like a dry sponge thrown into a kitchen sink full of dirty water. It’s still not the truth of who she is. It’s never been the truth of who I am.
We did not deserve the name-calling, the scapegoating, the character assassinations, the violent and unpredictable physical punishments. We never deserved the othering, the ousting from the rest of the family unit by way of cruel “jokes” and constant belittling. Call it what it was: absolute and total shit.
Furthermore, what is the result of this constant belittling? What follows us through to adult life until we work to heal it?
The worthlessness. The desperate desire to be loved, paired with the intense fear of being seen at all. The deep urge to isolate, to hide in a dark room and never speak to another human again. The flushed face and racing heart. The heat creeping up the back of your neck. Constantly begging Life or God or whoever to just let you feel okay about yourself, to feel safe, for once, please.
That’s what this little teenage part has embodied for over a decade of my life now. Yet for the first time, I’m witnessing her. For the first time, she’s relaxing. For years, I thought that I could never heal this shame– I thought I was stuck with it forever. But with a little love and compassionate attention, that little sponge is finally wringing out all the nastiness she’s carried around– unfairly– for 13 years.
Finally, now that she’s breaking free of that shame… She can do anything. Anything she wants. And for the first time, she’ll have a compassionate witness right there beside her.
“Shame, when toxic, is a paralyzing global assessment of oneself as a person. When severe, it can form the lens through which all self-evaluation is viewed… Everyone experiences shame at some time, but not everyone is ruled by toxic or overwhelming shame. Some researchers suggest that shame comes about from repeatedly being told, not that we did something bad, but that we are something bad. Consequently, it can close us off from accepting any form of positive regard from others or ourselves.
Paralyzing shame can lead us to feel undeserving of such regard. It can undermine being fully present with others and with ourselves. This makes perfect sense: It takes a lot of energy to protect us against our vulnerability to feel shame. Most important, difficulty with shame leaves us prone to anger that results when natural desires for love, connection, and validation are inhibited by the impenetrable barrier of shame.” –Bernard Golden, Ph.D
It’s that hot prickly feeling on the back of your neck when you walk into a crowded room, and everybody turns to look at you.
It’s the way your eyes instinctively dart to the angriest-looking face in the room. And the way you immediately shift your gaze to the floor in response.
It’s the way you have to force yourself not to turn and run back out the door.
(Or maybe you do turn and run away in a panic.)
It’s the feeling that, no matter who you are or what you do, you are somehow fundamentally “worse than” almost everybody else.
It’s the intense internal rage, directed at only yourself, anytime you make a mistake or feel an emotion.
It’s the feeling that you are doing something wrong, all the time. No matter where you are. No matter what you’re doing.
Toxic shame kept me increasingly isolated back in high school.
Toxic shame had me teetering on the edge of alcoholism between the ages of 18 and 21.
Toxic shame had me emotionally paralyzed when I graduated college and didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life.
I felt so inferior– everyone else was better than me, and no matter what I told myself, no matter what anyone else told me, I couldn’t convince myself that I was worthwhile. This force of toxic shame had peers in high school literally asking me, “are you anti-social?”, which of course, only kicked up more shame. (I forgive them.)
And when I got to college, I wanted so badly to be included. I wanted to go to parties and to drink at bars (even though I didn’t really enjoy them, I just enjoyed being drunk and feeling included). My friends were so kind; it was never their fault. Yet, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t “just get over” the thoughts of:
I’m scum compared to these people. (For no good reason, really.) They’re all looking at me. They’re laughing at me. I’m so awkward. I’m so ugly. Why am I even here?
Toxic shame is the racing heart and spiraling thoughts anytime another person even seems angry.
Because your brain will automatically say, every single time, that their anger is your fault. You did something wrong.
Toxic shame is the intense discomfort when existing around any kind of anger. It’ll have you trying to please even the mildly annoyed person, to make it better, to “make sure they’re not mad” at you. Even if they tell you it has nothing to do with you.
It is the inability to distinguish constructive criticism from manipulation; manipulation feels justified. Someone could outright abuse you, and you’d find a way to blame it on yourself. It’s almost impossible to tell, without outside help, when you might have done something wrong, as opposed to when the other person is simply being an asshole. Toxic shame is: it’s always my fault.
When you carry toxic shame, you see shame everywhere.
Without trying. Often, you have no idea how wrong your self-perception actually is.
With toxic shame, you hear, again and again– often from therapists themselves– that you need to just “change your thoughts”.
And so, of course, you try! You try to change those thoughts and do all the self-love practices. You want to believe that that therapist is right, and that your thoughts are the only problem here, and that they’re so easy to just change, and so you try and try. But too often, trying to push the shame thoughts away makes them bounce back stronger, like a springboard.
Then, when you describe to ordinary people what you’re feeling inside, they tell you the same thing. “Nobody’s thinking about you. It’s all in your head.”
Of course it is, you agree.
But not even a day later, you’re back to believing that they all despise me. Why wouldn’t they? I’m ME.
So, you feel even more ashamed. You believe that if you had stronger willpower, or if you were smarter, or if you were more spiritual, you’d be able to “change those thoughts”. But you simply can’t do it, no matter how hard you try. You may even think: well, if these thoughts won’t go away, maybe I simply AM no good. Maybe it’s true. Maybe I can’t change my thoughts because they ARE true.
But they’re not true. And toxic shame is not a hopeless case.
Please know, at this point, that I’m not in any way anti-therapy. I’ve had experiences with therapy which have made my toxic shame worse, and I know I’m not alone in that. I know I’m not alone in thinking that cognitive behavioral therapy doesn’t often help in these cases. However: trauma-informed care is a game changer. And that leads me into my next point.
What I wish I’d learned when I was still seventeen (though it likely wouldn’t have even sunk in at that point), is that toxic shame is a trauma response.
And when our brains are wired by trauma– which could come from your childhood, but also from an abusive relationship or traumatic experience in adulthood (losing your home, being assaulted, etc.)– we become perpetually stuck in a fight, flight, or freeze response. We cannot simply “think” our way out of it, until we begin to heal from the trauma. Our brains and bodies believe that we’re still in danger.
“The freeze of shame, like the freeze of trauma, has survival value in allowing a person to get through an intolerable situation.” –Bret Lyon, Ph.D
Toxic shame is an emotional burning at the stake, day in, and day out. Even in the most ordinary of moments. Toxic shame may look, to anyone else, that we’re just being way too damn dramatic. Or even that we’re “self-absorbed”. Some may even call us narcissistic. It makes my skin crawl– because calling ourselves “narcissistic” when we’re stuck in the quicksand of toxic shame is like pouring gasoline on a fire.
If this is you– if you relate to most of what I’ve said here– please know that your shame is not the truth about who you are. Someone– either a true narcissist, or someone who carries an unhealthy amount of shame themselves– handed this shame to you. Somewhere in your past, someone repeatedly made you feel less than lovable, maybe even less than human. This is where toxic shame comes from.
What hurts is that we can carry it around for our entire lives, completely believing the lie that we are just “no good”.
Yet, as I have come to realize, there is hope. I promise you!
I promise that you don’t have to spend your days eternally feeling like shit on a shoe. (Or as I so eloquently put it in one of my journals back in 2015, feeling like a used condom.)
I promise that you don’t have to isolate yourself from everybody forever, for fear of someone “finding out” that you’re “awful”.
I promise that you don’t have to shame yourself for isolating yourself anymore. (Seriously, if you resonate with this, at least cut yourself some slack. This shit IS extremely isolating, but you will heal.)
I promise that this is not the truth of who you are.
No matter what your brain tells you. If you carry toxic shame, then your shame is not the truth of who you are. End of story.
“But what if I’ve done bad things?!?!?!” your brain screams. I know– mine does too.
First of all: you’ve likely done a lot of things that you only perceive as bad. Your toxic shame will blow everything out of proportion. Most likely, these things weren’t even “bad” to begin with. Example: boundary setting. I’ve set boundaries before, and soon after, dissolved into a shame response, believing that I was “so mean”. That simply wasn’t true.
But second of all: you probably have done some “bad” things. All humans do bad things. That is where guilt comes in. Guilt, remorse, or “healthy shame” as some like to call it, is this: I did something bad. I can make amends. Next time, I can try to do better.
Toxic shame, however, is grounded in trauma, not in reality. Toxic shame is: I’m a terrible, unlovable, irredeemable person. Nothing I do can change this. As such, toxic shame will never fix anything that you have actually done. In fact, toxic shame is so fucking painful and disorienting, that it’s actually more likely to cause you to act out of your pain, and to do more harmful things in the future.
Whatever you’ve done, whether it was small or massive, you deserve to make peace with the past. You deserve a more healthy self-relationship. Toxic shame will not get you there, but healing your trauma can.
The only bad news is that it takes work. (That isn’t really such a bad thing.)
It takes time. It takes discomfort. It takes, most often, trauma-informed therapy. (We can’t heal in a vacuum.)
But please know, that if this is you, you’re NOT alone.
I’ve been there. I am there. For years, stuck in CBT which only focused on “changing thoughts” and never validated all the shame-inducing experiences I’ve been through, I believed that I could not change. I believed that I was fundamentally defective. This is simply not the case for me, and it’s not the case for you either.
If you’ve been to therapy before, and got absolutely nothing out of it… I see you. Non-trauma-informed therapy usually just does not work for this sort of thing.
For you, trauma-informed care will be huge. I’m talking about trauma-focused therapy, IFS therapy, or trauma recovery coaching. In addition, I’ve found that simply getting educated on trauma, shame, and attachment theory is massively helpful. Read books about trauma, listen to podcasts about trauma, etc.
Finally: please know that, if anything, at least one person in the world sees you.
I see you.
This is a horribly isolating experience.
You are not “just being negative”.
You don’t need to toughen up.
You don’t need to be more spiritual.
You aren’t “anti-social”.
You aren’t different, bad, broken, or wrong.
I am still struggling through it with you. There is hope. Don’t give up.
Know someone who might struggle with chronically low self-image, fear of relationships, self-blame, people pleasing, or self-sabotage? Share this post with them! ❤