Shame Is Toxic Interview

Marcelina Hardy, MSEd, BCC
Dr. Anne Gross
Shame Expert: Dr. Anne Gross

In this exclusive LoveToKnow interview with Dr. Anne Gross, author of The Polio Journals: Lessons from My Mother, you'll read a compelling story of a family's tragedy and the toxic emotion they tried to avoid. Shame isn't widely discussed in today's world, because most people are not aware of how destructive it can be to their emotional selves. Understanding what shame is, the toxicity of it, and how to deal with it can greatly improve your life.

About Dr. Anne Gross

LoveToKnow (LTK): Tell readers about your experience.

Dr. Anne Gross (AG): In addition to speaking of shame from a clinical psychologist's perspective, I also have plenty of firsthand experience with this toxic emotion. When my mother contracted polio in 1927 at the age of two, society viewed polio as a shameful reflection of the dirty lifestyle of its victims. This led my grandparents to feel that they were somehow flawed or deficient, and as a result they silenced all issues related to my mother's paralysis. The silence impacted generations of my family, wrapping a cloak of shame around us all. I have chronicled my family's struggle with shame in my book, The Polio Journals: Lessons from My Mother, which describes in detail my personal journey to overcome its impact on my life.

Shame: Understanding the Toxic Emotion

LTK: What is shame?

AG: Most emotions we feel are specific: worry, sweaty palms, racing heart when we feel anxious; unhappiness and lack of energy when we feel depressed. In contrast, shame is a general feeling of being bad, flawed, and deficient that permeates the very core of how we feel about ourselves. When we feel shame we may avert our gaze and look down, or feel our face burn, it's hard to pin down feelings of shame. Why? Because that which we feel most shameful about (whether it be related to our appearance, race, sexual orientation, addiction etc.,) is usually too shameful to talk about, so the feelings remain hidden, we don't talk about them.

For example, prior to her death in 1985, my mother poured out her feelings in a series of journals. The feelings of shame she lay bare in her journals - of being bad and deviant - reveal the private, pervasive pain that defines so many of us who feel shame.

LTK: How does someone know she has shame, or is it always clear she is shameful of something?

AG: Not only do we hide what is shameful, but shame spreads easily from person to person, so we feel each other's shame as if it was our own. For example, when I was growing up, whenever my friends would see me with my mother, I felt flawed for having a mother in a wheelchair, the same feelings my mother felt about herself every day of her life. Both of these attributes make knowing shame difficult.

But the good news is that you can often pinpoint feelings of shame by putting your family's secrets in the context of the societal messages of the time. For example, I didn't understand until I read my mother's journals that her silence around her impairment was not a choice but a means of survival for living at a time when the disabled were truly marginalized in society.

LTK: What are some behaviors that result from having shame?

AG: The important thing to keep in mind is that shame is a social emotion, it causes us to live in fear that others will find us unlovable if they know us for who we really are, prompting ourselves to withdraw, to isolate ourselves from others. In extreme cases, shame can even have tragic consequences - the suicide of Bernie Madoff's son late in 2010 comes to mind. Shame can also lead to violence, as we've seen in the shootings at Columbine and other schools.

How Shame Affects People's Lives

LTK: How can shame negatively affect your life?

AG: When we feel shame, we have difficulty tolerating vulnerabilities, in ourselves or in those we love. For example, I had a friend whose daughter gained weight, and as a result, she avoided being seen publicly with her child. When I talked to her about how food and weight issues were discussed in her family growing up, her answers were very revealing: Her brother was strikingly handsome, with no weight issues, while she always struggled with food. Her parents responded with anger and blaming statements, such as "You're so fat!," planting seeds of shame in her that carried over to the parenting of her own child.

LTK: How can shame affect your relationships?

AG: To put it bluntly, shame and intimacy cannot co-exist. Shame, by its very nature, prompts you to keep others - even those you'd like to be close to - at a distance. In my own family, my mother and I never talked about her disability, and we were robbed of an opportunity to show compassion for each other.

However, the damage to our family life went deeper than that. Although we weren't allowed to acknowledge my mother's disability, we were all enlisted to help minimize its impact by attending to her daily needs. This confusing and ultimately destructive double message that permeated our family life was not particular to my childhood - rather, these dynamics are quite common in families that silence some defining aspect of themselves - such as alcoholism, gambling, etc - about which they feel shame.

LTK: How can shame affect your career?

AG: The interesting thing about shame is that we not only deny our true identity to others, but we often deny it to ourselves. As a result, we often portray to the outside world the image of who we would like to be, which may impact our career choice. For example, there are numerous incidences of gay politicians speaking out strongly against gay rights. Similarly, former New York governor Eliot Spitzer zealously prosecuted members of a prostitution ring, likely as reaction to his own shame for patronizing them.

Causes of Shame

LTK: What are some causes of shame?

AG: Shame is born out of the cultural attitudes of the time that define some groups of people as less than others. But that's only half the equation. As we've seen with the woman who felt shame around her daughter's weight, it also reflects your own life experiences and the personal meaning you attach to them.

Releasing the Shame

LTK: What are some ways to deal with shame?

AG: Nothing melts shame faster than being around others like you. For example, being around others who are struggling with the same challenge is one of the key reasons why 12-step programs for alcoholics, gamblers, and those with other addictions are so successful. I advise people, if possible, to join groups with others like them. Sometimes this can be hard to do, because seeing in others what you don't like about yourself makes you reluctant to participate. In this case, use the Internet, where you can join chat groups and ease into conversations at a pace that makes you more comfortable.

Stress and Shame: Understanding the Connection

LTK: How does shame contribute to stress? Or how does stress contribute to shame?

AG: The desire to belong is perhaps the most universal of all needs, and consequently the thought of losing your connection to others can cause considerable anxiety. My mother lived in a constant state of anxiety that she would be rejected by others if she was unsuccessful in hiding the tremendous challenges - both physical and emotional - she faced living with a disability.

The Polio Journals: Lessons from My Mother by Dr. Anne Gross

Shame is a toxic emotion

LTK: How can your book help people face their shame and rid their life of it?

AG: First, a lot of us feel hidden pain and angst that are attributable to shame, and my book will make you realize that you are not alone. Second, the desire to fit in goes beyond those who suffer from a disability, it is perhaps the most universal of all human needs. On this quest, we hide or downplay parts of ourselves we think are unacceptable or that others will find undesirable. The lessons drawn from my family's struggles will be relevant to anyone who tries to keep defining qualities about herself secret in the mistaken hope that she will be protected from pain. Finally, by sharing my own successful journey to rid myself of pain, my book will provide a roadmap and hope to anyone who desires to rid her life of shame.

Shame Is Toxic Interview