Solo parent

Week 4 – Getting to the Root of Toxic Shame

We all make mistakes, and we all fail. Guilt and shame are natural byproducts of actions we take or don’t take, or things we say or don’t say. Guilt and shame can be gifts pointing us to make amends, practice humility, and learn valuable lessons about the kind of person we want to be (and don’t want to be). When shame turns toxic, however, it becomes one of our most crippling impairments.

Dr. Chip Dodd, author of The Voice of the Heart: A Call to Full Living, wrote, “Toxic shame attempts to shut down the goodness of our most human feelings, needs, desires, longings, and hopes.”

Human beings are meaning-making machines. We’re quick to take our mistakes and failures as proof of our inherent unworthiness. This is toxic shame. It keeps us prisoner, especially if we don’t bring our regrets into the light to process them.

The distress we feel at our mistakes and failures isn’t always a bad thing. Guilt is our conscience chewing its cud. Guilt is what we feel when we reflect on having done something wrong or falling short of our expectations for ourselves. Lapses of integrity. Laziness or disregard for others. We see the ripple effects, and how it may have hurt others or made our own outcome worse. We don’t want it to happen again. We’re learning.

Conversely, toxic shame is, “I did a bad thing/let a bad thing happen. I am a bad person.” Carl Jung said shame eats the soul. It lashes us daily, that mean voice in our head. You have no value, it sneers. You’ll never measure up. You deserved what happened.

Guilt is fertilizer. It stinks a bit at first but then turns into good, clean dirt. Toxic shame sours the field of healing. Nothing can grow in it.

Preparing the Soil for Healing

You are human. You are not all-powerful. You will make mistakes. You will take wrong turns and not get it right all the time, and you’ll need to make amends. Toxic shame is a tragic ending. Healthy guilt and healthy shame are humble beginnings.

Shannon Alder wrote about shame, “…standing in the way of the life God meant for you to live.” This work of separating toxic shame from guilt— discarding one, and using the other as a springboard—is sacred.

Playwright David Mamet wrote, “I once read an interesting book which said most people lost in the wilds die of shame. ‘What did I do wrong? How could I have gotten myself into this?’ And so they sit there until they die. Because they didn’t do the one thing that would
save their lives.”

People lost in the wilds who condemn themselves lose the will to think clearly. They forget that most of life is beyond their control. They don’t see they’ve simply strayed beyond their limitations, which is one of many human foibles. They are merciless to themselves—which makes it impossible for them to accept God’s gift of mercy.

Traumatic experiences of abuse, rejection, or relationship betrayal can seed deep toxic shame that lingers for decades, shadowing every relationship, life
decision, or encounter to follow. Even though past wounds were not your fault, they can leave you feeling defective and beyond repair.

What does it mean
What does it mean
What does it mean

Around and around in circles, we go, making meaning. Making toxic shame.

Share Time:

What do you tend to believe about yourself when you’re stuck in a loop of toxic shame?

When Lost, Stand Up and Navigate

The voice of toxic shame is not The Truth. It is your feelings about what happened—some of which may be understandable, but most of which are not rational. Ask yourself:

● How would I categorize this feeling—humiliation, a sense of injustice, shock?
● Is this feeling a function of my conscience, or my inner bully?
● Do I need forgiveness? Do I need to ask someone for forgiveness?

Guilt can morph into toxic shame if you don’t take action. First, if you have done something wrong, seek reconciliation. Make amends. Ask forgiveness from God and from whomever you’ve harmed. To do so may seem difficult, but not as difficult as choosing
irredeemable condemnation.

Keep Romans 3:23 in mind: “Everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” (NLT).

Second, trace the origin of your toxic shame through a dispassionate lens. Watch for patterns, themes, and narratives that may have roots as far back as childhood: a fear of abandonment, self-destructive tendencies, or the repetition of unhealthy relationship dynamics. Treat yourself like your own subject to study. Become a student of your own humanity—the dark side as well as the light.

Third, seek good company. Share your experiences with others who are also students of themselves. Curious people who are already warm to reckoning with existential questions. Ann Voskamp says, “Shame dies when stories are told in safe places.” We’d add to that: shame dies when someone listens to you and replies, “I’ve been there too.”

This is the beauty and purpose of groups like Solo Parent, where you can:

● Face your fears, doubts, and shame
● Be frank about what’s holding you back
● Witness that you aren’t alone in your struggles
● See beyond yourself to help others
● Shine light on the things you’ve been hiding to gain clarity and fellowship
● Hear others say, Me too.

Share Time:

Think back to a time where you shared a challenge or dark chapter and someone responded with “I’ve been there too.” How did this shift your heart or mind? Have you ever given the gift of mutual understanding to someone else in distress?

God’s Role in the Wild

Chip Dodd charts the starting points of healing as:

● Getting honest about your feelings and where they come from
● Admitting you need help processing those feelings
● Sharing with like-minded people while offering them your kinship

Psalm 34:5 says, “Those who look to Him are radiant, their faces are never covered in shame.” (NIV) Bring your wounds to God, and bring Him the wounds you have inflicted on others. No hiding; no polishing; no self-editing.

Seek Him without fear as you would seek the refuge of a father who is always present and perfect in his love for you, but who expects great things from you. Who gives you the structure, patience, and firm boundaries every child needs. In the company of a father like that, our confidence grows. The weight of the world finds us with new muscles. We are less easily buried. From that place of intrinsic value and worth, we can grow.

“What happens when people open their hearts?” wrote Haruki Murakami. “They get better.”

Explore the whole of your story—good, bad, and ugly—and see God’s presence through it all. Once classified, guilt or shame can be a doorway for connection to Him and to others, whom you can serve with your safety and kinship.

Further Action Step:

Start a list of things you were once certain were true. Condemnations and meaning. Tell yourself a new story—one of grace. Once you’ve discarded them, cross them off the list.