How To Deal With Toxic Shame (E25)

toxic shame man

Episode 25 – Toxic Shame

Hello – and welcome to episode 25 of the Men’s Self-Help Podcast. I’m your host, Dr. John Moore. I’m a licensed mental health professional out of Chicago, Illinois – and I’ve been involved with therapy and coaching work for the better part of 15-years.

In addition to these things, I also teach college courses psychology and business.

If you are a follower of this show, you already know that I created this podcast because I wanted to extend the walls of my practice and reach three specific groups of men.

The first are guys who are open to topics about wellness and naturally gravitate towards material related to self-help.

The second group are men who may have been previously diagnosed with something – could be depression, anxiety, ADHD or a trauma.

And then there’s the third group. Here, I am talking about men who are never going tap on the door of someone like me – a therapist – to share what’s going on in their life.

It ain’t happening, which makes me about as popular as a porcupine in a balloon factory for a lot of these guys.

BUT, these same men might be curious enough to put on some earbuds and listen to a show that speaks to something going on in their lives.

Regardless of what brought you to today’s show, I want you to know that thrilled you are listening. Oh, and before I forget – I recognize that women also listen to this podcast.

In many cases, they are hoping to gain new insight into the male mind and to better understand how guys think. And so, if you happen to be a woman listening, here’s a big welcome.

Now quick disclaimer. I’m not your personal therapist and this podcast isn’t designed to act as a substitute for mental health counseling. Instead, think of this show as a conduit to learning.

We’re Talking About Toxic Shame

OK – with that said – one of the reasons guys tune into the Men’s Self-Help Podcast is to gain concrete, actionable tools for working through challenging life issues.

My hope is that by listening, you’ll get exactly what you are looking for to create momentum for change.

Which brings us to today’s topic … Shame.

You know what I’m talking about right? It’s that feeling you get that runs through your entire body that says, “You are defective” or “You are less than”.

Some people even describe shame in physiological terms, meaning they can feel it as a cold chill running down their spine or heat that runs right up their neck.

Can you relate?

If so, you aren’t alone. Here’s the full-on truth – there’s a lot of men who live with shame and it directly impacts their self-worth.

Insidious in nature, shame has a way of permeating your entire life and damaging your self-perception.

And so, as part of this show, I’ll share with you the story of Nick; a twenty-five-year-old man who I worked with not too long ago that struggled with this problem.

I’m also going to tell you a recent experience I had with shame. Here’s a hint – over the past several weeks, I’ve started wearing a prosthetic tooth.

Yep, that’s right – one of my teeth is missing.

So, we’re going to talk about that.

We’re also going to talk about this week’s listener email from a man who is struggling to be emotionally present after the birth of his son and isn’t sure what to do about it.

Do have issues being emotionally available? Are you worried about being a new dad? If the answer is yes, you’ll want to keep listening.

Lot’s of topics coming in today’s show. I’m really glad you are here.

Toxic Shame – A Closer Look

Shame – it’s a topic that doesn’t get nearly enough attention in today’s society, particularly when it comes to men and emotions. Know what I’m saying?

Some of you may be wondering – what is shame? Well, I’m going to give you a non-clinical, watered down definition.

Here it goes:

At its core, shame is a painful emotional state that encompasses your entire body. Like anxiety, it’s an intense and often overwhelming affect that is connected to your autonomic nervous system.

And here’s the ugly part – it makes you feel like you’re somehow defective, meaning you aren’t good enough and “less than” – so to speak.

The physical manifestations of shame can include:

  • Blushing
  • An inability to make eye contact
  • Other body language signals, like a slumped body.
  • Speaking in low or almost whispered tones

But wait – there’s more:

Shame is a survival response, similar to flight, fight and freeze. In this way, it really is similar to anxiety. If you have a chance, check out episode four to learn more about this primal response.

At any rate, this is why shame is so powerful – because it manifests itself psychologically and emotionally. When combined, the two create a vicious cycle that repeats itself in perpetuity.

Shame vs. Anxiety vs. Guilt

Now I want to differentiate two words that often get confused with shame. The first is fear and the second is guilt. While similar in nature, they aren’t exactly the same and here’s why:

Fear is almost always focused on the source of the threat. An example might be seeing a bear in the woods that causes you to momentarily stop in your tracks – to hesitate.

Shame, on the other hand, isn’t about something external. Instead, it’s about what you feel deep inside.

See the difference?

The other one is guilt.

An example here might be feeling bad about cheating on your partner or plagiarizing on an essay in order to get a passing grade.

Almost always, guilt involves a negative evaluation about a specific behavior.

Shame, however, is an internal judgement about your entire self, seen through the lens of a negative light?

See how that works?

Well, I suppose now is as good as time as any to tell you the story of Nick. It wasn’t long ago that I worked with him and at the time, he was around twenty-five.

Toxic Shame – The Story of Nick

When he called me, Nick said he wanted to talk address some issues related to self-esteem. In our initial phone conversation, he mentioned that he was having problems with dating and making new friends.

In our work together, I learned that as a child, Nick had been overweight. In school, he was bullied by his schoolmates and called some extremely hurtful names.

Nick also shared that the bullying didn’t just happen at school. His parents also made comments; words that would have a profound effect on his development.

Examples include his father referring to him as “fat ass” and saying he was a “loser” for not being more fit.

His mother, on the other hand, wasn’t as negative – but her comments were caustic all the same. She would say things like: “If you just try a little harder, you could be like the other boys and not be overweight.”

Now here’s the thing. Nick had an undiagnosed medical condition during his formative years that directly contributed to his weight issues.

In his case, he had an underactive thyroid that had the effect of slowing down his metabolism. It wouldn’t be until later in life that this condition was detected – and treated.

So, throughout most of his grade school years, Nick was challenged by this issue. Thankfully, in high school, he started getting treatment, which had dramatic results.

In fact, it was during high school that Nick started to come into his own. He began playing sports, including football and baseball. He also joined the gym and began working out obsessively.

Now, I’m telling you all of this because by the time he had come to my office – again, he was 25 – Nick was extremely built and undeniably handsome.

Shame and Parental Introjects

But here’s the thing – those messages he got from early childhood about his body were still playing in his head. In psychology, there is a term for this called parental introjects.

That’s a fancy way of saying that comments made by a parent during the formative years get embedded into the psyche.

In Nick’s case, on the conscious and even subconscious level, he had been traumatized. By this I mean he had been emotionally scarred by the comments his parents had made, causing him to replay those introjects in his mind.

The end result was deep shame.

It didn’t matter that in the here and now that Nick was as fit as a fiddle. It also didn’t matter that people thought he was attractive.

Nope – that’s because anytime Nick met someone new, be it a dating prospect or the chance to make new friends, he had psychologically regressed back to the time where the trauma was inflicted.

This meant as an adult, he blushed when going out on dates and struggled to make eye contact with folks he really wanted to be friends with.

And so, in our work together, much of our time was spent processing his feelings and deconstructing those early parental messages that were playing in his head.

Working Through Shame

Part of this involved validating his feelings and while also employing the tenets of cognitive behavioral therapy to disrupt the toxic thinking.

It also involved aspects of mindfulness, along with affirmations, to help distance him from his thoughts so that he could observe them … as opposed to being controlled by them.

Speaking of affirmations, I still have the one I gave to Nick. Three times a day, I asked him to say the following in his mind’s eye:

I fully embrace and love myself

I fully embrace and love myself

I fully embrace and love myself

You know, the most powerful thing Nick did – at least in my view – was bringing his shame to light. You see, that’s the thing about shame – once we expose it out into the open, warts and all, it has less power over us.

This means being mindful of “should statements”, such as “I should have a better body” and “I should be strong enough to … fill in the blank” are important to be aware of.

In CBT – well, a related approach called Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy – we call this “Shoulding on ourselves”. Do you do this?

At any rate, I am going to link to an article on Psychology Today from Dr. David Sack, who offers five ways of working through shame. These are, to a lesser or greater degree, the approaches I took with Nick.

Here’s a quick rundown of the 5 ways:

1. Bring shame to light

2. Untangle what you are feeling

3. Unhitch what you do from who you are

4. Recognize your triggers

5. Make connections

Now at the start of this show, I shared with you something I recently experienced related to shame. Specifically, I’m talking about my new reality, whereby I’m wearing a prosthetic tooth.

Yep, that’s right – I’m wearing a “flipper tooth”.

You may be wondering why? After all, I’m in my late 40’s so why on earth would I have something like this.

My Own Toxic Shame

It’s pretty simple. Over the summer, I had a cavity that had set in. While I knew it was there, I chose to ignore the damn thing because I felt ashamed of having it in the first place.

That may sound silly but it’s true. Some of that shame relates to not doing what was necessary to prevent that cavity. In truth, I could have been better at brushing my teeth before bed. But to keep it real with you, I often didn’t.

The other cause of that shame comes from my childhood. You see as a kid, I had bucked teeth with a big gap in the front. Sometimes, kids would call me names – like “gappy”, and then grin at me with a goofy look.

It wouldn’t be until later in life that I had some cosmetic work done to attend to “the gap” and correct some other issues.

Still, when I got that cavity this past summer, it triggered all those early feelings of shame about my teeth and by extension, about me as a person.

The end result was denial; a defense mechanism that numbs us from the truth and can cause inaction. Ultimately, that is what happened to me.

By the time I went to the dentist this fall – thanks to extreme pain – the cavity had inflicted permanent damage. I can still remember sitting in the dentist’s chair when she showed me the X-Ray of my tooth – which was extremely decayed and unsavable.

In that moment, I felt so much shame about my situation that I couldn’t even look her in the eye. Yep, I had regressed back to my childhood and reliving the trauma from some many years ago.

At any rate, I was fitted that same day for a “Flipper” and came back a week later to get that nasty tooth yanked. Today, I wear this device each time I leave the house.

Well, that is if I remember. You see there have been times where I’ve forgotten to pop it in. It was just the other day while at the gym when a very nice woman asked if she could work in with me on a piece of equipment.

I gave her a big smile and said, “Of course”. Little did I know I had forgotten to put in that flipper tooth on before leaving my house.

Haha – I can still see the look on her face as she focused her eyes on my mouth.

Let me tell you – there’s nothing more embarrassing than giving off a huge smile and not realizing you’ve forgotten to pop in your denture.

Can I tell you a secret? Even now, when I see this lady at the gym, I kind of scurry away. I can’t help but think to myself, “She must think I’m the trashiest thing on the planet.”

I’m half kidding when I say this, but I think you get my point.

Back to Nick and his situation. My sense is we made a lot of progress in our work together. He was eventually able to start dating again and began increasing his circle of support.

In the end however, our time together was cut short because he got transferred to a new city with his company. The good news is that I was able to help him get connected to a new counselor.

I’m hoping in the end he continued to heal.

So, there you have it folks – shame. It is what it is. As I close out this segment, I’ll leave you with this question:

Do you live with shame? If so, how are you dealing with it?

Parental Post-Natal Depression (PPND)

Our listener email comes to us from a young man who is having difficulties being emotionally present to his wife and newborn son.

I’ll share with you what he wrote and then offer my thoughts and reactions.

Hi John, I discovered your podcast a couple weeks ago and I wanted to say thanks for producing it. It is very helpful to hear that I am not along in my struggles with self-esteem, among other things. I am a 28-year-old father of a 20-month-old son. Shortly after my son’s birth, my wife started to experience postpartum depression. While she has since recovered, and seems to be fine, I feel that our marriage has never fully healed.

I am paralyzed with feelings of inadequacy relating to my ability to be a father to my son, which manifest most glaringly in my inability to be Emotionally Present for my wife and child.

I often feel that I cannot muster up the words to hold a conversation with my child, something that others seem to so effortlessly do. I am seeing a therapist regarding this and other issues.

I can’t believe that I am the only one who has ever felt like this.

If you deem my problem to be worthwhile, I would be most grateful to hear a podcast episode with your take on emotional presence for fathers.

Thanks,

Michael

So, there’s Michael’s email. As I reflect on his note, I can’t help but think about the number of guys who have confided something similar to me over the years.

Well, here’s my response, pretty much verbatim.

Hi, Michael,

First, I want to say thanks for listening to the podcast. I’m glad to hear some of the shows have been helpful to you, particularly Episode 9 on self-esteem.  

You mentioned in your email that you have been working with a therapist right now about the issues you mentioned and others. Right off the bat, let me say good on you for doing this.

I’ve said this in other podcasts, but it is worth repeating. Some of strongest men I know are the ones who seek out guidance when going through a challenging time.

Now let’s move on to the meat and potatoes of your note. In reading your email, I am aware that all three of the issues you mentioned are interrelated. The first being the birth of your son. The second being her post-partum depression. The third being your own struggles with emotional presence and availability.

Right off the bat, I can share that you are absolutely right in thinking that many men go through exactly what you described in having struggles with relating to a newborn, particularly for a first child.

While I can’t be sure because I am not your counselor, in many ways it sounds like you are struggling with a condition called male post-partum depression – sometimes referred to as Parental Post-Natal Depression (PPND)

Have you heard of this before? Let me assure you that it’s very real and something that one in four dads struggle with, according to the Post-Partum Men website. I am placing a link in this response so that you can check it out.

One of the main features of PPND is withdrawing socially, feeling inadequate and difficulties with relating to others, particularly children.

For years, we thought post-partum depression effected women, but we now know, based on clinical research, that this condition impacts women and men alike. I’m putting a link to Web MD in this response as well that offers more insight.

If this is a case of PPND, you are probably wondering what you can do about it? Well, to begin with, working with a therapist as you are now is a biggie. By having a safe place to share, you are able to discharge some of what you are feeling and discover new coping strategies.

There are other things you can do, too. A helpful one might be joining an online support group. There’s a really big one on Facebook with over 13,000 members called “New Dad’s Place”. Here, you can share some of your experiences with being a new father and join with others who may be going through some of the same things you are.

Finally, Michael, I just want to say that being a dad is a learning process. Over the years, I’ve worked with many guys who are new dads who have shared, almost verbatim, what you have revealed in your note to me.

The common bond all of them share is a worry about not being a good father. Some of this has to do with self-esteem and some of it has to do with issues related to their own childhood and fears of replicating past harms.

I encourage you to visit the linked article in this note to the website Fatherly that discussed this topic more. What I am aware of is this … you obviously love and care about your wife and son deeply because your email is a testament to this fact.

Here’s what I know. Being emotionally present can’t happen unless we are also emotionally vulnerable. This means recognizing we aren’t supermen and that being imperfect is part our human experience.

In closing, I am going to link to a book on Amazon by Lewis Howes called The Mask of Masculinity: How Men Can Embrace Vulnerability.

Michael, I am super glad that you wrote, and I hope this response was helpful to you. Keep us posted on how things are going.

Well, there you have it – my reply. Does being emotionally present create a challenge in your life? If the answer is yes, what is one small thing you can do differently to create change?

Show Wrap Up

We covered a lot in today’s podcast, didn’t we? We talked toxic shame and how it impacts us psychologically and physically. We also talked about being emotionally present.

Shoot, we even spent some time talking about my fake tooth.

Let me take a moment to say thanks so much for listening today. You know, there are lots of ways to reach me. You can stop by my website at guycounseling.com or visit one of my social medial pages.

I’m on Facebook at Guy Counseling – and I’m also on Twitter and Instagram with the same handle.

You can also email me. Anything you send me is confidential. If you write something and don’t want it shared on the podcast, just say it goes nowhere – promise.

Finally, I’ll just say now that I am deeply grateful for the many reviews people have been leaving on iTunes.

Here’s the truth – when I read these reviews, they motivate me in ways I can’t even explain. So, thank you for that.

Well, there you have it – another show. As you can probably tell, I don’t have a professional audio-engineer or someone doing the editing. Nope, everything you hear – including the imperfections – were created by me.

Thank you so much for being here. Be mindful of those parental introjects. Focus on your specialness and strengths. Remember that being emotionally present means being emotionally vulnerable.

Take very good care.

I’m Dr. John and this has been another episode of the Men’s Self-Help Podcast.

About John D. Moore 354 Articles
Dr. John Moore is a licensed counselor and Editor-in-Chief of Guy Counseling. A journalist and blogger, he writes about a variety of topics related to wellness. His interests include technology, outdoor activities, science, and men's health. Check out his show --> The Men's Self Help Podcast