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Toxic Shame: How to Tackle it?

Toxic Shame: How to Tackle it?

Updated on May 27, 2022

Reviewed by Dr. Nereida Gonzalez-Berrios, MD , Certified Psychiatrist

What is Toxic Shame - It's Symptoms & 15 Ways to Heal It

Back when we were kids, teachers, parents, and peers often shamed us for many reasons. However, no one talked about toxic shame. Sometimes the shaming was even intentional.

Nonetheless, we felt the emotion and it did hurt quite a bit. But, the best part was that the feeling would pass away.

So why do we make such a big deal of it today? Well, a person experiences shame on many occasions in his or her life.

It is a very normal emotion triggered by your nervous system. Mind you, this emotion holds the power to trigger many feelings (both good and ugly). However, the problem starts when people internalize the shaming and refuse to get rid of the baggage.

Many people believe that shame is necessary, it keeps a check on the law and order in society. The idea is that people are ashamed to commit a mistake.

Toxic Shame Infographic

Toxic Shame - How to Tackle it
Toxic Shame – How to Tackle it

What is Toxic Shame?

If memories of a shameful experience stay on, it breeds toxic shame.

Psychologist Silvan Tomkins has explained the concept in detail. Often, people are confused about the difference between shame and toxic shame. Very simply, toxic shame is just the remnant of a shameful experience that you are not able to let go of.

This experience somehow manages to make a place in a corner of your brain and just stays there, gradually overpowering your other emotions. You may not notice the impact on your behavior immediately, but you end up becoming a victim over some time.

Toxic Shame Symptoms

Now that you are aware of the definition of toxic shame, let us understand the symptoms. Remember, it is important to keep a lookout for these symptoms in people around you.

1) Low self-esteem

These people will find it difficult to maintain eye contact during conversations. They will try to avoid confrontations and never bother to voice their opinion.

Low self-esteem makes them lose confidence in their ideas and therefore they want to avoid conversations on most occasions.

2) Self-loathing

Victims of toxic shame will refuse to acknowledge any positive traits in their personality. Such people usually find it very difficult to meet the expectations of their peers in their professional as well as personal life.

Victims will also find it very difficult to trust others around them. They are likely to be suspicious about everything.

3) Good for nothing

Since toxic shame is linked to a shameful experience/memory that refuses to erase from the brain, victims tend to associate it with every situation around them.

This leads to a drastic drop in their confidence levels and the result is an individual who firmly believes that he/she is good for nothing.

A person experiences shame when he or she is elated or happy and someone or something suddenly interrupts this feeling. The sudden change in the emotional experience triggers a feeling of shame.

4) The need to disappear

Those suffering from toxic shame will experience intense emotional distress. In some situations, the victim just wants to avoid facing other people. They feel shame and guilt, therefore they will go to any extent to pull themselves out of the situation.

For instance, a shame-based approach will prevent you from returning pending professional and personal calls. This is because you experience shame. 

5) Anger

The mental health of toxic shame victims has a downward spiral. The high levels of negative thoughts make them question every move they make. The increased self-doubt breeds anger and dissatisfaction only making matters worse.

The minute something goes wrong, a toxic shame victim feels guilt and prefers to be angry with others instead of evaluating the situation and understanding how to improve it.

6) Substance abuse

People who experience toxic shame often look for respite in substance abuse. It is their way of getting away from reality. They believe the negative thoughts will go away for some time. Such people are often sexually abused under the influence of drugs.

7) Poor mental health

Another symptom of toxic shame is deteriorating mental health. The victims are often mentally ill and don’t even realize it.

This could lead to a variety of issues like depression and anxiety. They consider themselves to be unworthy of love and submit themselves to constant criticism and shame.

What causes toxic shame?

Usually, it is associated with a traumatic experience. Often this experience happens in the early years of life. For example, a child who has faced extreme forms of abuse is likely to end up as a victim of toxic shame. This abuse can include anything like rape, molestation, incest, etc.

Occasionally, it is also caused due to bullying by peers, scolding by teachers, or your boss at work. The individual usually faces repeated rejections.

Broadly there are two types of shame that an individual can experience: 

  1. Normal shame: This is what people generally experience when a choice made by them does not end up as planned. We have experienced it since childhood. 
  2. Toxic shame: Repeatedly being shamed for every action is what leads to the normal shame becoming toxic. This shame stays with you instead of catalyzing a positive change. 

Normal vs toxic shame

Shame in healthy amounts is good. It is like a cultural element that helps you understand and appreciate social norms. In fact, we all experience it during our lifetime.

Few incidents of experiencing shame are no big deal. As long as you are briefly ashamed of your poor choice, take your lesson and move on, it is perfectly normal. 

But it becomes a problem when you start receiving only negative comments for your personality and intelligence. This is when the shame rises to toxic levels and becomes a part of your personality. You are blinded by all the positivity in your life. 

Shame vs. guilt

The feeling of shame is often followed by guilt. So, what is guilt? Simply put, it is a self-conscious emotion that is driven by an intent to rectify a mistake or wrongdoing.

You may or may not be able to set things in order but if you experience guilt, it is a sign that you will avoid the same mistake in the future.

Sharing your guilt is always easier because it talks about remorse for your actions that may have impacted others. 

Shame on the other hand is more complicated since it is associated with you. This also allows shame to have a stronger impact on your feelings. The feeling of shame lingers around for longer than that of guilt.

15 signs of toxic shame in a person

Those who are feeling ashamed will show various symptoms – from social anxiety to suicide attempts. Their feelings of shame will make them doubt the family system, friends, and practically everyone.

Shame can lead to various mental health issues, compulsion codependency, guilt, depression, and a lot more. While the list is endless, there are a few signs that indicate unhealthy levels of shame in a person. Contrastingly, there is a healthy shame, which is actually good. 

Here is a look at 15 such signs:

1. They will not trust people in the long term. The minute someone says that there is something wrong with them, the addicts will easily believe.

2. Such people will always want to ‘fix themselves.’ Instead of focusing on their strength, they will only look at the flaws or challenges.

3. Those suffering from toxic shame will never trust their instincts even as they walk into a dangerous situation. Therefore, they often fail to protect themselves.

4. The constant depression often leads to various types of other health issues like fatigue.

5. Guilt is one of the most common facial expressions that such people will exhibit.

6. They exhibit a self-destructive mentality.

7. Toxic shame victims will experience intense emotions in a short duration of time.

8. Such people always prefer to run away from confrontations or conversations.

9. The victims are likely to have a history of trauma and abuse.

10. They will find it extremely difficult to meet expectations.

11. Avoid criticism because they are highly sensitive to any feedback.

12. The victims prefer to isolate themselves and will walk the extra mile to stay away from people.

13. They will avoid eye contact during a conversation because they are low on confidence.

14. They are on the lookout for any signs of disapproval in a conversation.

15. Victims of toxic shame will be extremely shy and uncomfortable when approached for a conversation.

Shame behavior patterns

Shame is a universal emotion, all of us experience it. In healthy limits, shame is good because it shapes your personality positively.

For instance, a baby experiences some amount of shame when being scolded for doing the wrong things. This shame helps the baby categorize the right and the wrong for the future.

However, toxic shame is when this seemingly simple emotion becomes painful and difficult to handle.

A personality trait emerges from a behavioral pattern that has lasted long enough to impact professional and personal relationships. Therefore, personality traits associated with toxic shame can be dangerous.

Here is a look at shame behavior patterns – 

1. Minimal social interactions

This behavior pattern involves avoiding interactions with people. Sufferers become extremely anxious and uncomfortable when they are around too many people.

2. No sense of belonging

Someone who feels shame in toxic amounts may avoid sharing their opinions. They would prefer to follow the mob blindly.

3. Inability to sustain relationships

The kind of commitment and patience required in a relationship is often a challenge for someone who feels shame. Therefore, such people will face problems in their professional and personal relationships.

4. A feeling of neglect

Toxic shame victims tend to isolate themselves. Their inability to take feedback or even participate in a conversation breeds a feeling of constant neglect.

5. Haunted by mistakes

The shame and guilt from mistakes made in the past continue to haunt them. This leads to embarrassment and further lowers the confidence of the individual.

6. Ignore physical and emotional needs

Toxic shame often develops from the family ignoring a child’s physical and emotional needs. However, when this becomes a habit, those suffering also overlook their needs.

They develop a mindset, which teaches them to curb and in some cases even completely ignore their physical as well as emotional needs.

7. Extreme vulnerability

Toxic shame victims are extremely vulnerable to the surrounding environment. What could be a seemingly harmless remark for a normal individual ends up becoming a traumatizing experience for them.

Toxic shame treatment

One of the first and most important steps to treat shame is to acknowledge its existence. Do not feel ashamed to acknowledge the thoughts and emotional abuse that lead to toxic shame.

To identify victims of this condition, you can look for the symptoms stated in the article above. Alternatively, a common symptom in all such victims is the constant lingering of negative thoughts in the background.

Listed below are some of the steps that one can take to treat toxic shame:

1. Acknowledge and explore

The first step towards treating extreme shame is accepting the negative thoughts that come your way. Do not reject them blindly, instead treat them logically.

Once you acknowledge the negativity, explore the thought that leads to it. Ask yourself, where does this thought come from?

Is the source –a legitimate reason? If yes, look for ways to correct the situation. If not, you can simply trash the thought.

However, since you have trashed it after a proper evaluation, you can minimize the chances of it re-entering your mind. This helps in healing toxic shame and reducing anxiety.

2. It’s okay to make mistakes

The anxiety disorder, mental illness, and feelings of unworthiness make it difficult for toxic shame victims to accept their mistakes.

Since they are constantly experiencing shame, they are never in the right frame of mind to evaluate their actions. The result is that they experience an urge to downgrade their capabilities.

As a step towards treating the condition, such victims can start by acknowledging their mistakes. Tell yourself that it is okay to make mistakes. Look for motivation in all the things that you were able to do correctly. Remember that being flawed does not make you a failure.

3. Be kind to yourself

There is no need to judge your actions. Indulge in some form of self-love. This does not happen overnight, you will need to cultivate the habit gradually.

For instance, explore all your positive actions and laud yourself for the outcomes. The occasional ‘pat-on-the-back’ approach goes a long way in increasing your self-worth.

4. Practice meditation

Meditation is a great way to teach the mind to become observant instead of reactive. As you observe, the mind learns to evaluate the thoughts and this helps in avoiding toxic shame. This is also a good chance to hear your inner self.

5. Talk to friends/family

If something embarrasses you, speak to your friends and family, an insight into their thoughts will help you change your perception.

6. Seek professional help

Sometimes speaking to a psychologist is one of the best ways to treat toxic shame. In addition to helping you organize your thoughts, the psychologist may also prescribe cognitive behavioral therapy. 

7. Learn to forgive

Let go of the mistakes that you made. Beyond a point, you may not be able to rectify them hence teaching the mind to move on. This helps avoid developing toxic shame.

How to Heal Toxic Shame

Healing toxic shame is a time-consuming process. While you will notice an immediate change, it will take time for the negative thoughts to be flushed out from your subconscious.

Here is a look at ways to heal toxic shame

1. Don’t hold or hide

 Don’t stifle the emotion or hide from it. If you are experiencing shame, it’s okay. If you obsess over the negativity, you are only going to make the shame even more powerful.

2. Toxic Relationships

Identify the toxic relationships in your life and end them amicably. A relationship where you are not valued is only going to make you feel worse.

3. Take the challenge 

Challenge the negative thoughts in your mind, instead of letting them overpower your ability to think.

4. Exercise 

Indulge your mind in any kind of exercise. It could be something as simple as a walk or even an activity like gardening.

5. Avoid harmful behaviors

Consciously avoid harmful behaviors. This is not as easy as it sounds. You will need to learn to think before you act and observe your actions.

For example, if you are into substance abuse or eating disorders, stop and rectify the situation.

6. Write a journal 

Maintain a journal where you pen down your thoughts. This way you can spend time to strike out the negative ones.

7. Face your fears

Face your fears instead of running away from them. Confronting your fears will help you overcome them and avoid any shame whatsoever.

8. Don’t take the blame 

Don’t let others project their shame on you. If it is not your fault, the blame is never yours to take.

9. Talk about it

Talk about the shame that you experience. The more you are able to desensitize, the easier it will be for you to overcome the trauma.

10. Positive Talks

Rely on positive talk from people close to you or one of those motivational speakers.

11. Take time off 

 Take some time off- plan a vacation or any other fun activity that interests you.

12. Keep your inner child 

Get in touch with your inner child and try to revive the innocence that separated you from the lot, back then.

13. Self evaluation 

 Get a routine self-evaluation done to keep a check on your mental health and well-being.

14. Don’t bother about being judged

Stop worrying about being judged by other people. Remember they never stepped into your shoes so they don’t know how it actually feels.

15. Give time

Last but not the least, this healing takes time. As you go through the journey celebrate every milestone that you achieve.

Confronting your hidden feelings is not easy. There is a possibility that you may need to seek therapy to get through this stage. Therefore, do not hesitate to consult a psychologist if you find it difficult to handle things.

5 books on toxic shame

There is nothing like a good read to cleanse the mind of its negative thoughts. Here is a list of some good books that can help you understand and overcome toxic shame.

1. Healing the Shame that binds you

This book is authored by John Bradshaw. It talks about ways to overcome toxic behaviors associated with compulsion codependency and anger, among others.

2. Shame Unmasked

Authored by Rick Patterson, this book talks about overcoming the inner critic and embracing positivity in life.

3. Toxic Shame: Is it defining your life?

In this book, the author Oliver JR Cooper talks about the various symptoms of toxic shame and also touches upon how to heal from it.

4. The Soul of Shame

In this book by Curt Thomson, shame is viewed as a phenomenon that impacts professional and personal relationships. The author talks about the chaos that it causes and sheds light on how the victim can start the healing process.

5. Shame-Informed Therapy

Authored by Patty Ashley, this book touches upon the various treatment options that can help people get rid of toxic shame and related disorders.

The toxic shame quiz

Are you a victim of toxic shame? Take this quick quiz and find out!

1. Do you find it difficult to make friends?

a. Yes

b. No

2. Are you the first to take the blame when anything goes wrong?

a. Yes

b. No

3. Are you the one running away from confrontations or expressing your opinion, just to avoid social interactions?

a. Yes

b. No

4. Did you crave emotional support from your family as a child or continue to do so?

a. Yes

b. No

5. Are you worried that people around you will judge you?

a. Yes

b. No

6. Do you carry the burden of your mistakes long after you have committed them?

a. Yes

b. No

7. Do you walk like you have a burden on your shoulders instead of looking the world eye to eye?

a. Yes

b. No

If the answer to most of these questions is affirmative, it is advisable that you should speak to a psychologist and get your mental health evaluated.

Concluding Note

Toxic shame is not a hot topic of discussion when it comes to mental health and well-being. However, its impact is dangerous. Therefore, never ignore the symptoms.

The healing process is strenuous and will take up a fair amount of time as well as effort. But do not give up because the journey will transform you into a healthy and happy individual.

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