As described in various spiritual writings, there is healthy shame and there is toxic shame. Healthy shame is a feeling that you did something that harmed someone or otherwise was something that you shouldn’t have done. This is the shame that we all feel at times. It is healthy because it is a learning tool that makes it less likely that you will do something similar in the future.
Toxic shame is not feeling that we did something bad, but that we are bad. It is an internalized feeling that there is something wrong, something bad about us. And this shame is not a learning experience nor is it transitory. It sits within you and grows like a cancer, impacting your self-esteem, your self-image, and your ability to experience peace and happiness. That is why it is toxic.
If you feel this toxic shame, you must sit with it and rid yourself of that feeling. Otherwise you will find no inner peace and happiness. How do you do this? You apply mindfulness meditation. When you meditate, first sit with your breath for a few moments. Then sit with your feeling of shame; observe it without any judgment. Observe how you experience it on all levels, physically and mentally. Observe the source of this feeling, going ever deeper in time to the original source.
When you arrive at the original source, you will discover that this feeling of shame did not come from within you, but was impressed upon you from without … whether from your family, peers, or the surrounding culture. And so you will realize that this dreadful feeling you have had for most of your life is just a product of your mind. It is not reality.
You may indeed have done something that you shouldn’t have, but that does not make you a bad person. It’s even possible that you did nothing wrong at all! But because you were probably shamed repeatedly from without for this or similar actions, you ultimately came to identity yourself as bad. Family, peers, and our culture have huge power over how we view ourselves.
And so with this awareness, perform the practice of identifying this feeling of shame and saying, “Not me!” This shame does not come from my true self. Then open up your heart and embrace all aspects of your being and experience, including both the acts you did as well as the shaming you experienced from without. It’s all just something that happened.
This will begin to heal the wound and remove all internal struggle with the shame. When you meditate next and return home to your heart, your true self, you will experience the goodness and love that is within you and be free of this shame. You will love yourself unconditionally. Give yourself a hug! If you cry, it’s a good cry; it’s healthy, cathartic.
Note that this will most likely not be the end of the story, as with all things of the mind. The shame you feel has very deep roots, and the ego-mind will not let go of it so easily. And so you will probably have to repeat these steps numerous times. But each time, the strength of the shame will lessen, and finally you will be freed, not just during meditation but throughout the day.