How do we get past the things we’ve done or left undone, the weaknesses we have, and the shame we carry around? The concept of forgiving ourselves is difficult but important.
Shame and guilt
Chip Dodd, author, speaker, counselor, and resident expert for Solo Parent Society, talks about shame and forgiveness and our need for connection. “We are all made to belong and matter. That is essential.” He shares the difference between guilt and healthy versus toxic shame. Healthy shame is when we recognize our need for connection, love, and care. Admitting these innate needs is the experience of healthy shame, an acknowledgment of our humanity. “We are all made to need, to feel, to desire, to long, and to hope. The gift of healthy shame is humility.” When we recognize we are human, we are more able to say, “I need you. You need me. I make mistakes and so do you.” Healthy shame also reminds us, “I’m not God and neither are you.” This recognition relieves us of unnecessary burdens and allows us to feel empathy for ourselves and for others From there, we discover compassion, a key part of being able to forgive ourselves and others.
Guilt is different from shame. Shame is linked to our identity, a sense of who we are, whereas guilt is linked to actions. We feel guilt when we do something that goes against a healthy value system such as doing something that harms someone. Healthy shame allows us to have “good” guilt which leads us to seek forgiveness for what we’ve done. This enables us to pursue a relationship with someone we’ve hurt. Good guilt is restorative.
Toxic shame is different from guilt or healthy shame. We feel toxic shame when we are rejected often enough to internalize it into negative feelings and perceptions of ourselves. Toxic shame is not a healthy awareness of our humanity. Instead, Chip Dodd shares that, “Toxic shame is contempt toward myself for being human.” This rejection of our normal humanity is what typifies toxic shame and toxic shame doesn’t come from God. It comes from those around us who have rejected and hurt us. “We begin to identify ourselves according to the relationships we experience”, says Chip. That rejection sends the message we are not worthy and we internalize it as toxic shame.
Toxic shame tells us that to be in need is humiliating rather than empowering. With healthy shame, to be in need is embraced as normal and this acceptance results in grace-filled humility which empowers us to have our needs met. In his book, Hope in the Age of Addiction, Chip shares how toxic shame leads us to seek relief for unmet needs through addictions of all kinds. The way we overcome toxic shame is by embracing healthy shame and embracing our normal human needs and reaching out to have them met in healthy ways.
Embracing our humanity
Chip Dodd’s work in The Voice of the Heart comes up often in discussions with single parents perhaps because we have no choice but to admit our human limits and face our needs because solo parent life is messy. And life is always messy, for everyone! The healthy way to address our humanity is to reach out in healthy ways so our needs met instead of hiding out in isolation or escaping through addiction.
So, while guilt leads us to seek forgiveness for wrong actions from God and from others, toxic shame makes us hide from what we’ve done. This cuts off relationships and blocks the pathway to healing and wholeness through healthy connections. Often single parents feel the weight of both guilt and toxic shame. We can recognize the difference by the effect they have. Guilt leads us to seek out forgiveness for deliverance and freedom while toxic shame leads us to put up walls and remain stuck in pain.
Forgiveness and shame
Forgiveness is important because it leads to restored relationships, with God, with others, and ourselves. And how we feel about who we are and what we’ve done matters. When we embrace our humanity, we gain the ability to admit what we’ve done wrong without hating ourselves. It allows us the freedom to accept we are not perfect, we make mistakes, and we are human. In this process of letting go of toxic shame to instead embrace a healthy perspective that says “I’m human too”, we need safe people to process with.
Solo Parent Society offers space for single moms and dads to explore feelings of guilt and shame in a healthy way. Dodd says supportive groups like Solo Parent Society are essential for single parents feeling the weight of toxic shame and at the point of saying, “I’m worthless.” Instead, they are met with the message that they are of great worth, they are not alone, and there is hope as they walk through their feelings of hurt, pain, guilt, and shame. And, when we embrace healthy shame, we can forgive ourselves for things we’ve done and we can let go of things done to us. In this acceptance of our humanity and the need we have for connection, we find the ability to see God at work. We can embrace the possibility and potential in the “glorious ruins” of our lives because God can build something beautiful from them when we give them to Him.
This exchange of beauty for ashes happens regularly in our Solo Parent Society groups as single parents go from hopelessness to hope, from rejection to acceptance, and from toxic shame to health. The intentional structure offers support, space to share burdens, and a pathway reconnecting to God, others, and a renewed sense of self. It provides an opportunity for solo parents to experience forgiveness for what they have done and to heal from hurts they have experienced.
In this process, we often feel like a mess. But God sees beauty in us. Much like a garden full of blooms that is also riotous and a little haphazard, there is beauty in our lives even when we think things are out of order. At Solo Parent Society, we work to advocate for those who feel shame in their humanity reminding them that God embraces us just as we are. Instead of shame, we embrace humility and the grace of God which is the gateway to all the beatitudes Jesus talks about.
As we do this, we discover an ability to feel forgiven and free. Chip says this is only accomplished when we accept how God sees us. And, this is hard work. God sees us which is through the eyes of love, care, and tenderness. Knowing this opens the door for us to submit to Him for forgiveness, and this inevitably includes some sadness and regret. We wish we were perfect and hadn’t made mistakes but our weaknesses are part of the human experience. We regret the hurts we have caused and wish we could make things all right again but only God can do that. When we release those regrets to Him then the feelings we carry can be released too. We can face the sadness with courage and turn it over to God. When we examine what happened and allow ourselves to feel the pain of it, we can also allow the hope of God to return knowing no mistake is too great to overwhelm His forgiveness and grace.
If we feel like we can’t be forgiven, we are stuck in toxic shame. This judgment of ourselves doesn’t reflect God’s truth and or His love for us. The good news is His love is more powerful than toxic shame and it is always available. Sometimes it is hard to embrace our need for God’s forgiveness and love but the doorway to being released from toxic shame is in that acceptance and dependence on Him. When we admit our needs, we can let Him meet them and we are freer to seek healthy connections with others too.
Steps to Freedom
Chip shares that healing from toxic shame means first admitting we need help. Then, we need safe loving people to connect with who have walked through healing themselves. These connections can be found at Solo Parent Society or through a recovery network and then we can begin the process of eliminating toxic shame. Chips says we do this through three key steps:
- Start with “I feel….” Identify the feeling
- Explore the feeling and where it came from
- Tell someone about it
As you go through the process of finding freedom from toxic shame, we would be honored to be part of your support network. Join our Solo Parent Society community by participating in one of our online groups meeting every week. Follow us on Facebook and Instagram (@soloparentsociety). Subscribe to our weekly podcast via AccessMore or wherever you get your podcasts, and download our Solo Parent app FREE in the app store. We love to connect single parents to resources that offer hope and help. If you want to donate so we can reach more single parent families, go to www.soloparentsociety.com. Questions? Email us at email@example.com.