Exposing Toxic Shame
“I can't think of one thing I am grateful for about myself”, my client told me after I asked him how his gratitude practice went last week. When I unpacked this further he told me he does not believe there is anything about him that is worthwhile, despite the constant positive feedback he receives from others. This is just one example of the hurdle of “toxic shame” my coaching clients come up against in our Holistic Career Coaching work. Toxic shame manifests as a preoccupation with negative self-beliefs such as “I am not good enough”, “I am unlovable”, “I am bad” or any other form of feeling inherently unworthy. To be clear, I am not talking here about “healthy shame”, which forms the internalized set of societal rules that create what Freud calls the “superego.”
While I am a psychotherapist and have been in private practice for years, I have recently focused the majority my work on Holistic Career Coaching. This type of career coaching is different from the generic “career counselor” work of testing to assess aptitude, skills, interests and personality types to determine ideal careers. The work I do addresses all spheres of life: work, play, health, spirituality, community, and relationships because when one area is out of balance inevitably the other areas are affected. I believe that fulfillment in life comes from the balance of all of these areas, and not solely from finding the perfect career. In fact, this latter way of thinking breeds an identity overly steeped in the ultimate American value of ambition. I have found the unrealistic expectation that career success alone will bring overall fulfillment leads to disappointment and unhappiness.
I was drawn to focus on career coaching because of a need I saw in my clients. I listened to them talk about dissatisfaction in their work, week after week. As this topic evolved to become a primary focus of our work, I wanted to create a more efficient, short term program for people looking to make real, measurable change within a compressed period of time. As a therapist, I am a nonjudgmental, supportive container for my clients' feelings, thoughts, and traumatic experiences. In contrast, as a coach I am a serious cheerleader with an urgent sense of honesty that cuts through B.S. It is this latter energy that my coaching clients pay for, the supportive parent or mentor they may have had, never had, or do not currently have to push them to be the best version of themselves. Part of why this latter energy exists is because my clients sign up for a commitment of twelve sessions, for which they pay up front. Due to the short term nature of the work, there is time pressure for them to change and see results. Due to the financial commitment, they are incentivized to complete assigned exercises to get as much out of the program as they put in. Psychodynamically oriented insight/talk therapy is generally a longer term process. Building trust, exploring personal and family history, complex family dynamics and traumatic experiences all takes time, not to mention the goals themselves are generally longer term changes in relationship to self and others.
In my coaching work, I never ask clients about trauma unless it comes up as a block to achieving one of their stated goals. However, I have noticed that it does come up, unannounced, first in the form of struggle with specific homework assignments and upon further investigation, often in the form of shameful thoughts. While many therapists uncover toxic shame in their clients throughout the course of therapy, I find myself in a unique situation where, because of the intense short term nature of the work, I am uncovering deep seeded (often unprocessed) shame in a matter of weeks. I feel fortunate to help my clients identify and acknowledge this damaging way of thinking, but also feel a responsibility as a therapist to hold them gently as they go deep into the realizations of the origins of their shame.
In this regard coaching is limited. It's like discovering the crux of one's issues socially, in relationship, in career, in all aspects of life, and not being able to take the time to process the history, the family dynamics, the narrative and ultimately teach techniques to address shame properly. While I do use mindfulness practices such as meditation, visualization, breath work, positive self-talk, and extreme self-care to minimize anxiety, depression and negative thinking, I still often feel the need to delve into my clients' shame more than we have time for. Depending on the intensity and persistence of shameful thoughts I either refer them to a therapist, switch gears and become their therapist myself, or if manageable, move along the coaching route.
Toxic shame is a rampant issue that plagues many. It can be connected to having experienced a form of abuse or neglect in infancy or childhood, and it can be a symptom of codependence. Addressing shame is just one of the reasons I find therapy to be deeply important to personal growth, self-acceptance and ultimately joy. While I see the immense value in being a therapist, another part of me is satisfied by the positive changes I see in my coaching clients within 12 sessions. The success my coaching clients have in reaching their various goals is directly correlated to their awareness and ability to cope with their psychological blocks. Our work is most effective when they have done the work of therapy prior to beginning coaching, are aware of their shame (if any) and have learned to address it in a healthy way. I am grateful to help my clients become aware of their shame in the short term coaching model, as it has proven to be a quicker way to diagnose and point them to the work required to achieve self-acceptance. While coaching does not directly address toxic shame, it can expedite the self-awareness process. Nevertheless, be it through therapy or through coaching, the client must ultimately have the desire to clearly look at the aspects of their life that cause them pain and the motivation to change old habits that no longer serve them.
If any of the shameful thoughts I mentioned, or any feelings of unworthiness at all apply to you, I recommend you seek therapy to learn to live a life of self-love. It is possible to feel good enough, to feel worthy of love and success. Change starts first with curiosity, a desire to feel better, and then practice. If you are considering career coaching to help guide you in finding career satisfaction I ask you to look within and see if feelings of unworthiness are popping up as recurrent obstacles to achieving your goals. In this case, to get the most out of coaching, I also recommend processing these feelings in therapy prior to entering into a coaching relationship.
Hana Ramat, LCSW has been in private practice since 2013 working as a psychotherapist and a Holistic Career Coach. She began her practice in NYC and now sees clients remotely and in Cold Spring, NY. She has been a student of mindfulness practices since 1998 and has first-hand experience of the life changing effects of these practices. She utilizes these techniques with her clients to counter anxiety, depression, ADHD symptoms, low self-esteem and negative thinking often in the context of major life transitions. You can read more about her work at www.HanaRamat.com. She currently lives with her husband and two young boys in Beacon, NY.