What is Toxic Shame
Toxic shame is a term coined by Dr. Silvan Tomkins to describe feelings of shame that lead someone to conclude they are bad, less than, unworthy, undeserving or unlovable. These feeling may be deep set, long-lasting and negatively affect someone’s core beliefs, automatic thoughts and overall identity.
Toxic shame affects not only our relationship with ourselves but also our relationship with others. It is important to recognize if we are holding onto toxic shame. When we recognize it we are better able to figure out the thoughts that are creating it and worth though it.
If we do have toxic shame we may be so accustomed to the thought process that accompanies it, we don’t realize we have it. I find that real life examples are a good place to start. Here I describe a character in the U.S. version of The Office as she experiences toxic shame to give you an examples. The episode I am referencing is Season 9 Episode 4 titled, “Work Bus.”
Example of Toxic Shame in “The Office”
During the episode office worker Nellie Bertram is filling out an application for adoption. Nellie confides in Office Manager Erin as she is struggling with the application. Erin’s is an orphan who has spend time in the foster system and who was never adopted. It is a very well known and definitive aspect of Erin’s identity throughout the entire series. Erin agrees to help Nellie as long as Nellie does not tell Andy (their manager) because Andy does not like Nellie.
Erin helps Nellie with the form >
Nellie shows the form to Andy and asks him to sign as a reference >
Andy will not sign the form and calls it “dong-water” >
Nellie walks away from Andy and sits behind a curtain on the bus.
Later in the episode Andy walks up to the curtain and hears crying. He assumes it is Nellie. We find out Nellie is not crying, Erin is. Nellie consoles Erin telling her that it’s not her fault, that Erin is kind and that Andy’s response does not have anything to do with her.
Erin is experiencing toxic shame that has become a core belief, part of her automatic thoughts. It is noticeable throughout the entire series when Erin puts others before herself. She also directly exhibits it earlier in this episode when she says she was not adopted because she was, “not lovable, maybe.”
Erin struggles with the fact that she was never adopted. This struggle has turned into toxic shame leading her to conclude she is not lovable which is negatively affecting her entire life. She puts others before herself, and, in this episode, instead of interpreting Andy’s actions as him being a jerk she takes on shame and thinks she did something bad.
Another instance of Erin’s toxic shame is noticeable in this episode when, instead of rejecting an ignorant comment about weight, she takes on responsibility. Erin bumped into someone on the bus and that person told her to “lose weight.” She says she is trying to lose weight, even though she has none to lose, and the only reason she bumped into someone on the bus is because the bus is small and 20 people working on it is ridiculous.
When I had to think of an example of toxic shame the character Erin popped in my head automatically. Instances of her toxic shame can be seen all throughout the series. I consider this a great resource for us to see what toxic shame may look like.
It was nice to see someone so filled with toxic shame find a compassionate listener, they deserve, in Nellie. Nellie gave an opposite perspective and thought pattern to counteract Erin’s negative automatic thoughts. Albeit weird, Erin is a nice person and should not be upset that Andy is a dick. I hate to see kind people take on guilt and shame that is not theirs to bear. If, instead of taking on shame we called out the people who were jerks and unkind we would be on a better path.
If you think you may be experiencing toxic shame I would suggest watching the episode and reflecting on situation in which you may act the way Erin does. Think of times that you interpreted the actions of others to mean you did something wrong, or put others before you while bringing yourself down. Consider what it would sound like if you had someone like Nellie to console you. What would you say to a friend who feels the way you do?
Keep on keep on y’all, you got this!