What is Toxic Shame?
Shame is a particularly heavy burden to bear and yet we carry it around with us everywhere we go. In order to forgive ourselves for our past mistakes and live fuller lives, it’s important to unpack the roots of our shame, understand how shame works in our lives, and work on removing it from our backs. Particularly, we’ll examine how toxic shame and other forms manifest in our lives and what to do about it.
What is toxic shame?
Toxic shame is the feeling of guilt and self-loathing that can lead to addiction, self-sabotage, and depression.
Toxic shame is a form of trauma that people experience when they are treated unfairly or criticized. It’s a defense mechanism that’s activated when someone is repeatedly attacked. It can lead to addiction, self-sabotage, and depression because people are often not aware of it. The effects of toxic shame can be seen in mental health disorders like bulimia nervosa and PTSD.
It stems from internalizing abuse that others have inflicted on you and believing that you are somehow worthless. It’s a common form of shame found in children and teens who are neglected and abused. However, these messages and feelings often carry over into adulthood.
The Roots of Toxic Shame
The foundations for toxic shame often begin in childhood. It’s not a temporary emotion like other forms of shame, rather an ever-present feeling of “not good enough.”
When you grow up bombarded by messages that you are not good enough you start to believe it, which traps you in an ongoing cycle of negative self-talk and cognitive distortions. These messages become the background music to our lives.
It’s an insidious type of shame that builds over many years, which makes it challenging to overcome. (But you definitely CAN.)
Parents can plant the seeds with messages like:
- “What’s wrong with you? Why are you always messing up?”
- “You’ll never be good enough to make that team.”
- “You’re just not smart like your brother.”
Having an overly critical parent or abusive who was unable to tend to your emotional needs can lead to toxic shame and other mental health issues throughout your life.
Signs of Toxic Shame
Some common signs of toxic shame include:
You’re quick to believe that everything is your fault. You believe that you deserve abuse or mistreatment. “If only I would have done X, then Y would have never happened.”
Unable to forgive oneself:
You feel incapable of self-compassion or forgiveness. When you believe you are a fundamentally flawed and broken person, it is hard to genuinely forgive yourself for mistakes. Instead, you beat yourself up about it and allow it to fuel the narrative in your head that you are a bad person.
Sense of powerlessness:
Toxic shame can leave you feeling like you have no real power in your life, which leads to acting like a punching bag for others. You’ll allow friends, relatives, significant others, bosses, and whomever else to get away with things and run over you. Even if you try to speak up for yourself, it doesn’t feel valid and you wind up back-tracking or second-guessing the move.
Sense of inadequacy:
You walk around feeling perpetually “not good enough.” This is a holdover from the messages you received as a child. You may compare yourself harshly against everyone else or become paralyzed by thoughts of inadequacy that prevent you from advancing personally and/or professionally.
Constantly feeling like a bad person can cause people to withdrawal into themselves. They turn down social offers and limit the people they allow into their orbit. Social isolation brings severe health risks including, but not limited to:
- Alcohol or drug use/abuse
- Increased risk of premature death
On the other end of the toxic shame spectrum is a tendency toward perfectionism. When you feel like despite your best efforts you aren’t good enough that can lead to a relentless striving for perfection. It’s our way of trying to prove to our parents (or whoever instilled that shame in us) that we ARE good enough. The problem is perfection is unattainable and we feel that intensely with every effort.
This is a more dangerous cousin to what we call daydreaming. Dissociation is a break in how your mind handles information. You experience gaps in your memory. Additionally, you might feel that you or the world isn’t real. This is a severe trauma response and requires medical intervention. Additional symptoms include:
- Have an out-of-body experience
- Feel like you are a different person sometimes
- Feel like your heart is pounding or you’re light-headed
- Feel emotionally numb or detached
- Feel little or no pain
Warning signs of dissociation include:
- Rapid mood swings
- Trouble remembering personal details
- Forgetfulness about things you’ve said or done
- Behavior or abilities that change (altered identities)
- Depression, anxiety, or panic attacks
- Thoughts of suicide or self-harm
- Substance abuse
- Failed treatments or hospitalizations for mood disorders
How to Heal from Toxic Shame
Only you can truly know the severity of your toxic shame, but more often than not, it’s worth seeking professional help, especially in the beginning. A trained therapist can help you unpack the roots of your toxic shame and give you strategies tailored to your specific needs.
You don’t have to figure this out on your own.
Additionally, there are some things you can do on your own to heal from toxic shame. These include:
Meditation and mindfulness are great ways to reconnect with your body, something individuals suffering from toxic shame often need. It will teach you to observe your thoughts and help you learn to detach your sense of self from them. Toxic shame can make us emotionally reactive. Mindfulness helps us undo those patterns.
If you’re new to meditation, there are some great tools available to help. I personally recommend Insight Timer. It’s a 100% free app (no up-sell to premium access) with a wide range of meditation styles and topics to learn from. Additionally, you might want to check out books on meditation that can help you understand why it works and which practice is right for you.
In many ways, this is an extension of mindfulness. Practicing self-compassion can look like being tender with yourself and caring for yourself in ways you didn’t receive as a child. Perhaps you cook yourself a nice meal or giving your feet a massage. Maybe you take a walk when it’s nice outside. The purpose of these activities is to be kind to yourself. When you’re carrying around toxic shame you have to learn how to be kind to yourself. Physically connecting with yourself in ways that show kindness is a good place to start.
Please note that this is a slow process. You aren’t going to take bubble baths a few times per week and feel unburdened from years of trauma, but it will teach you that you are worthy of care. These little kindnesses add up.
Journal through your feelings:
Journaling is a wonderful tool for mental health. As it relates to toxic shame, journaling can help you work through some. of the negative messages you’ve internalized.
One way to do this is to examine your negative thoughts more completely. Here’s an example. Let’s say your boss asked you to redo something on a project you’ve worked hard on. You immediately go into toxic shame mode.
Acknowledge the thought: “I can’t do anything right. I worked so hard on this project and my boss hates it. I will never be able to please this woman.”
Where does this come from?: Your father never approved of your schoolwork. He always found something to nitpick that you should’ve done. You never felt like your best was good enough. An A- was a failure. Even if you improved your grade, if it wasn’t perfect, it was viewed as a failure.
Argue against the thought: My boss didn’t say I did the entire project wrong. She had a couple of points she wanted to be redone. It doesn’t mean all my work was a failure. Revisions are a perfectly normal part of the work process. I’ve overreacted.
See it differently: A healthier response would be to accept the feedback, learn from it, and apply it. The suggestion was reasonable. I can fix it. It’s not a big deal.
Writing out and refuting our negative self-talk can help us detach from it and see it for what it is: a terrible byproduct of toxic shame that we are actively working through.
Toxic shame has deep roots. The healing process will take some time but it is completely within your power to do it. Absorbing the impact of abusive or emotionally neglectful caregivers is no easy task. Many of these messages are baked into our sense of self. But it doesn’t have to be our fate. With professional help and a conscious effort to undo the harms of toxic shame in our lives, we can break from it.