Toxic Shame

Self-Awareness 101 Episode 32: Toxic Shame

In this episode Willard shares a personal experience that created what he calls toxic shame. He shares how carrying this shame for over 20 years affected him, and how he finally released the guilt and was able to heal.

< EP 31: Personal Development At Work                EP 33: Eliminating Clutter >

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Today we're going to discuss "Toxic Shame”.

Something that I believe is probably one of the greatest barriers to personal development and self awareness, is also something I believe is one of the least talked about subjects. I am referring to something known as "Toxic Shame". What I mean by that is when we have an experience that we attach so much guilt and shame to, that it becomes toxic in multiple areas of our lives. I can't say many of us carry toxic shame; I can only go from my own experience knowing how it affected me. And since it is my belief that I am here to share my experiences to help others, then I need to share about this topic also for anyone who may be dealing with it themselves and looking for ideas of how to release themselves from it.

I had an something happen several years ago, that I was so ashamed of, and I carried the guilt and shame of that experience with me for years. The perception that I created of myself based on that experience negatively impacted my self-esteem, my relationships with my family, with friends, with the women that I was interested in, it affected every area of my life; it was toxic. It was actually killing me in many ways. It was a big part of my drinking because the thing that had happened, the thing that I was carrying as this toxic shame had me seeing myself as a monster. I perceived myself as everything evil that I had been taught was evil as a child and I was drinking and using drugs to bury all this toxic shame.

Before I go any farther, I need to share that telling the next part of the story is a bit scary for me. I have talked about it in the past. I’ve shared it with people I trust face to face and I've actually written about it in my book. But to do it in front of a camera is a whole different experience. This is an exercise right now for me to face my fears, and for me to step past my comfort zone. For me to grow to my next level, I need to do this.

Also I need to pre-frame what I am going to talk about a little bit. The reason I say that is because what I will be sharing is a very delicate area. And respecting that others have gone through things that will have been similar that were very traumatic for them, I want to be careful in sharing this to respect their experience.

The experience that I had was of being molested by a female member of the family, an aunt. I always feel uncomfortable using that word, “molested". Not because I am ashamed of what happened, but because, I want to respect others who have been sexually abused. The reason I say that is because the experiences for many of them have been much more physically violent and I do not want to lessen their experience in any way when I say that a female aunt had molested me.

But I know no other word for what happened, and the emotional and mental repercussions of it had a lasting impact on me that needs to be discussed. It is something I have found to be similar with others, both male and female who have been sexually abused, is that because the way things unfolded, I ended up feeling like I was the aggressor. Over the years I have hear so many victims also fight with feeling that they had done something “wrong” to warrant the abuse. For me, I believe that I was the monster in the whole thing.

My earliest memories of what had happened were not long after I had lost my leg. My aunt would come to baby-sit me. It started off innocently from what I remember. There were weird comments from her that were sexually oriented, and then it progressed to playing games of strip poker with her. At some point it progressed to her showing me my uncle’s adult magazines. One of them that always stuck out in my mind was a magazine filled with photos of different sexual positions. She would show me the magazine and talk about the positions with me. From that, it progressed to touching each other while we were naked.

This went on for probably about three years until I was about 11 years old. Having become so comfortable with being around her in the nude and being touched, I was also becoming more curious. One afternoon I was returning the touching and exploring her body more than we had in the past, and she began freaking out. She started crying uncontrollably and started screaming at me telling me I had crossed the line. She was screaming at me calling me sick and calling me names that made no sense to me because up until that point, this had been a two way street; in her words, it was a game, our secret game.

I can remember running out of her house feeling really dirty, feeling like I must have been the grossest, most perverted, most disgusting person on the planet. I can remember feeling like a monster, because this person, who told me that they loved me so much, was now screaming at me for what I just done.

That experience, more importantly the toxic shame that I hid from everyone affected me deeply, for close to 20 years.

This is why I call it "toxic shame". It affected everything. It affected the relationship with my mother, because I could not imagine what would happen if she found out what happened between me and my aunt. How could she love a son who had done this terrible thing? It affected my relationship with my Grandmother who was like a mother to me for the same reason. It affected my relationships with the rest of my family. I had to walk around with this secret. What would the family do if they found out I had done something like this to one of our own?

It affected my relationship with myself; It poisoned my view of myself. I hated myself because I could not understand how I could have done something so bad? I must be the devil incarnate based on what I had learned in my childhood religion. It affected my relationships with every woman I met, because I couldn't have an intimate relationship with the women that I would date. I would have a sexual relationship, but I could not have an intimate emotional relationship, because if they really knew my secret, how could they love me? How could they care about me?

I carried that toxic shame. I carried that guilt. I carried that identity that I was a monster every day for the next 20 years.

And I would still be carrying it to this day, if it wouldn't have been for two things happening;

The first was that I had a daughter. With the identity I had been carrying, becoming a father stirred up some intense fears, because if I was that much of a monster with my aunt, I had to wonder if my daughter was going to be safe around me.

The second thing that happened that brought all this to the surface was that my mother was allowing my daughter to spend time alone with that aunt. The thought of my young daughter being with her scared the living daylights out of me. I needed to tell my mother that my daughter was not allowed to be alone with that woman; but how could that I tell that to my mother without telling her why? How could I explain that her own sister was not allowed to be around her granddaughter?

This led me to having to talk about this toxic shame that I carried for years. It’s hard to explain how confused I was at this point. Here I was… I was the monster, but I needed to talk to somebody about protecting my daughter from this other person. Why did my daughter need protection from her if I was the sick one?

One of the things that I have learned about toxic shame is that since many people who are carrying toxic shame never talk to someone else about it, we end up having a very distorted perception of the experience that makes no sense no matter how hard we try to figure it out. There are parts of the experience that are in conflict within us, but because we are scared to sort it out with anyone, it just makes the shame worse. At least that was the case for me.

Luckily, in my quest for sobriety I had the blessing of having found one person that I could truly trust. I had learned that I could open up to this person about some pretty dark experiences I had been involved in and they had given me a safe place to share and explore these things. So one night as my concerns about my daughter grew, I asked this person if we could talk and I told them the whole story and my concerns. And of course I told it from the point of me being the monster, of me being this aggressor. I saw myself as this sick deviant, and this person pointed out to me a very different perception.

They said, "Will, I understand your pain. Let me ask you something. How many 8 year olds do you know, who have the kind of knowledge about sex that you just described that would allow you to be the aggressor in this situation?"

And as I thought about all the things that I had shared with them in that two hour conversation, I answered, "None." Granted, in this day and age, kids are learning about sex at a much younger age. But for someone raised in rural Pennsylvania in 1973 in a very religious community… the things that I was being exposed to I had to admit, were not of my doing.

By having this conversation, it was the first time in 20 years that I actually took off that that identity of me being the evil one; and I looked at it from a perspective of, “What if I was the victim in this?”

I am not saying victim in the sense of, "Oh poor me." I mean that I finally realized that this toxic shame that I was carrying, was not mine to carry.

I'm not saying that the shame immediately fell away that night. It was the beginning of a process of exploring the subject and allowing myself to release it. The first step was sharing it with this person I felt safe exploring it with. Then I had to talk to my mother about it, to explain why my daughter couldn't be around my aunt.

Let me also say that sometimes the responses that I got when I shared what had happened were not very supportive. At first my mother could not believe it, which did not make my dealing with the situation any easier.

I had to confront my aunt about it. When I did, she denied it and turned the blame back on me saying I was the aggressor in the whole situation.

What is my reason for sharing this with you? My reason for sharing it is that I don't believe that I could be living the life that I live now, I don’t believe that I could be the person that I am now or that I could be the parent that I am now, if I didn't find a way to deal with that toxic shame. I don't know how many other people are carrying around experiences from their past that tear them up this much. But I also know that I'm not the only one who has carried this kind of toxic shame. I learned that I was not alone in this from my conversation that night with the person who told me that I was not the aggressor, but that I was the victim, because they had been through the same thing and carried the same shame for years. So if there were two of us who have experienced this, I am willing to guess that there are more.

One of the other reasons that I need to share this is because I don't think there are a lot of people, especially when it comes to being a male, if they have been in this type of situation, are comfortable talking about it. Also females, possibly my experience will help them recognize that healing can happen.

My outcome of sharing this is: if there is something that you are carrying, that you are ashamed of, a dark secret that has you thinking you're a monster; I hope, that I will inspire you to find one person that you can talk to about it. Whether that person is a minister, whether they are a therapist, a trusted advisor or a dear friend… find somebody to talk to it about. I know that if I wouldn't have talked about it with that person that one night, I may never have gotten the chance to heal and grow from it. And I believe that it truly would have been a barrier to my own growth, my own self-awareness, my own personal development that would never allowed me to reach where I am now.

I don't believe you can get past toxic shame like that, when you are trying to cover it up. So if you do have something that is your dark secret, your toxic shame; I invite you to find one person that you can trust, to talk to about it.

I also warn you, that as you share it with people, you may not get some of the responses you hoped for.

It can be a double edged sword. I know that for me, I had to deal with it to be able to move forward. And I believe that if you're carrying something that you're that ashamed of, you need to also. But I'm not the one who can make that kind of call for you.

If you have your own toxic shame, I hope that you find a solution like I found, if it is something you choose to deal with.

I look forward to being with you again soon.

Take Care. 

< EP 31: Personal Development At Work               EP 33: Eliminating Clutter > 

Choose the next Episode you would like to watch from the list below:

Self-Awareness 101 Series with Transcription Plus

Introduction To Self-Awareness 101:  To Inspire, Educate and Empower
SA 101 Episode 1:  The Importance of Developing Self-Awareness 
SA 101 Episode 2:  How to Truly Learn from Mistakes
SA 101 Episode 3:  To Soar, I Needed To Let Go Of The Past
SA 101 Episode 4:  The Meaning That We Give Things
SA 101 Episode 5:  Kind Words And Good Deeds Are Eternal
SA 101 Episode 6:  Life Begins At The End Of Your Comfort Zone
SA 101 Episode 7:  Two Most Powerful Words You'll Ever Say
SA 101 Episode 8:  Making Time For What's Truly Important
SA 101 Episode 9:  Expectations and Desires About How It Ought To Be
SA 101 Episode 10:  Tap Into The Sources Of The Universe
SA 101 Episode 11:  The Four Agreements
SA 101 Episode 12:  Courage-Being Scared But Saddling Up Anyways
SA 101 Episode 13:  The Power Of Belief Systems
SA 101 Episode 14:  Change Is Inevitable, Growth Is Optional
SA 101 Episode 15:  You Always Have Choices, It's OK To Say No
SA 101 Episode 16:  Encountering External Resistance To Change
SA 101 Episode 17:  Creating A Supportive Environment
SA 101 Episode 18:  Our Decisions Determine Who We Become
SA 101 Episode 19:  Questions To Ask When You Overcome An Obstacle
SA 101 Episode 20:  A List Of Excuses Vs. Results
SA 101 Episode 21:  The Meaning Of Honesty
SA 101 Episode 22:  Living In Gratitude
SA 101 Episode 23:  Repetitive Patterns
SA 101 Episode 24:  Non-Verbal Cues
SA 101 Episode 25:  Be Brave Enough To Accept The Help Of Others
SA 101 Episode 26:  Positive Thoughts And Positive Intentions
SA 101 Episode 27:  Active Listening Skills
SA 101 Episode 28:  How Self-Awareness Relates To Spirituality
SA 101 Episode 29:  Positive Affirmations
SA 101 Episode 30:  Basic Meditation Exercises
SA 101 Episode 31:  Personal Development At Work
SA 101 Episode 32:  Toxic Shame
SA 101 Episode 33:  Eliminating Clutter
SA 101 Episode 34:  How To Forgive Others
SA 101 Episode 35:  Self-Forgiveness
SA 101 Episode 36:  Deepening Self-Awareness
SA 101 Episode 37:  What Is Fear?
SA 101 Episode 38:  How To Overcome Fear
SA 101 Episode 39:  Dealing With Your Anger
SA 101 Episode 40:  How To Find Your Passion
SA 101 Episode 41:  Increasing Your Self-Awareness
SA 101 Episode 42:  How To Feel Deserving
SA 101 Episode 43:  How To Be A Humble Observer
SA 101 Episode 44:  Progress Not Perfection
SA 101 Episode 45:  Expectations And Perfectionism
SA 101 Episode 46:  Dealing With Anger
SA 101 Episode 47:  Taking Responsibility For Yourself
SA 101 Episode 48:  Achieving Higher Consciousness
SA 101 Episode 49:  Trust Life
SA 101 Episode 50:  Being Skeptical
SA 101 Episode 51:  Benefits Of Closure
SA 101 Episode 52:  The Final Episode 

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