What Is Toxic Shame and How to Heal It?

Written by: Ankita Kathad – MA (Clinical Psychology)
Last updated date : February 21, 2023

Sona was in an important presentation. Suddenly the projector screen went blank for a minute. It was a technical error. However, things were okay soon after that. Sona couldn’t sleep that night. She felt that she had made a huge mistake. She thought that she was worthless. Sona was experiencing toxic shame. In this article, we understand what is a toxic shame and How to heal toxic shame.

“Practical and insightful” David

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Chapter 1:

What Is Toxic Shame?

We all feel guilty or ashamed when we make a mistake. However, for some, the shame takes a toll on them. They go through toxic shame. Toxic shame is a belief that you are not worthy. It usually occurs if you are treated badly in childhood. You think that this treatment was given to you because you were a bad child. You internalise that treatment as a conviction about yourself. When you have toxic shame, you consider yourself worthless and good for nothing.

Toxic shame manifests can itself in an acute or chronic manner.

  • Acute Toxic Shame: Here we want to lash out, hide and run away as soon as possible from a situation where we feel ashamed.
  • Chronic Toxic Shame: In this, the shame is more hidden and persistent. Shame may manifest as anxiety, shyness or anger. The person may not even be able to identify the emotion of shame.

Chapter 2:

How Is Shame Different From Guilt?

When we commit a mistake, guilt is normal. It is a realisation that we have made a mistake. Guilt is healthy in order to maintain relationships. It encourages us to improve in future. It also teaches us the value of things. Guilt also helps us keep a track of our morals. It prevents us from making a big mistake that can hurt others.

Shame on the other hand can make us feel unworthy. It is usually a result of others telling us that we are ‘stupid’ or ‘losers’. Shame makes us feel that we made a mistake therefore we are bad people. Guilt is a constructive emotion at times whereas shame is often a negative feeling. Shame is related to self-blame.

All of us have experienced shame. We will face shame in future too. The shame may last for a few hours or a few days. However, most of us are able to shake it off. Shame becomes toxic when we develop a tendency to ‘replay the incident’ again and again. When you keep thinking of the incident where you felt ashamed. It is toxic when the thoughts of embarrassing yourself, stop you from doing your work.

Shame becomes toxic when we avoid social events. When we give up on a task even before trying. When we think “Oh! I can’t succeed in this task as I am not good enough”. Toxic shame stops a person from approaching new people. When people experience toxic shame, they avoid speaking in a crowd or in front of a class. When something goes wrong, they don’t consider external factors. They blame themselves. For instance, If a group meeting goes wrong, a person with toxic shame will blame themselves. They will not consider that others in the meeting may have made a mistake too.

Chapter 3:

What Causes Shame to Become Toxic?

There are many reasons why one is experiencing toxic shame. Most of the causes are rooted in childhood. This is the time when our identities form. We learn a lot from the feedback given to us by our caregivers and elders. Children make a lot of mistakes in the process of learning. Let us consider a scenario. When a child learns to colour, there is a possibility that they may ruin the picture. In this case, a parent may react in the following ways:
  1. They may say, “it’s alright, mistakes happen, with practice you can improve”.
  2. They can also say, “Oh! look. What a mess you’ve made.”

In the second scenario, the child is more likely to internalise that they ruined the picture and therefore they are good for nothing. In the first case, however, the child may understand that their mistake can be corrected. If the parent keeps blaming the child for mistakes, the child may feel that something is wrong with them. Since childhood is a critical period, they may grow up believing that they are worthless. Children also feel that their parents are always right. Therefore, any criticism from them is thought to be true.

Similarly, in a classroom, if a teacher constantly yells at the children for making a mistake. The child may believe that they are not smart. When the teacher uses phrases like, “You are so dumb to not get it right,” “You can never do it correctly”, and “Others can do it, why can’t you”. The child may feel that they are not worthy of being loved.

Chapter 4:

What Are the Effects of Toxic Shame?

To deal with the shame, a person may use defence mechanisms. Often these are unhealthy ways to cope with shame. They might end up being very dependent on these defences to avoid feeling ashamed. Some of the damaging effects of toxic shame include:
  • Withdrawal: Shame will make us want to hide away and disappear. The most common reason why this emotion remains unresolved is that it is hidden. We may want to just curl up in a ball and vanish. Shame makes us feel that we are not good enough therefore it is best if we disappear.
  • Avoidance: Shame will make us think that we are not significant. The party can go on without us and the show can continue without us. It makes us avoid social interactions
  • Substance Abuse: To overcome shame, we may start drinking alcohol. It helps in forgetting the bad memories. We can also engage in binge eating because eating makes us feel good. However, these are not only bad for health but they don’t solve the actual problem.
  • Rage: Shame is emotionally painful. We may direct our pain in the form of anger at softer targets. For example, we may shout at younger kids. This makes our pain go away but it hurts others.

Chapter 5:

How to Heal Toxic Shame?

As we grow in life, unresolved shame can reduce our self-confidence. It can prevent us from taking chances. We may feel scared to take an initiative. We can get trapped in a cycle of shame and low self-esteem. You may avoid a task out of fear of shame. This lowers your self-esteem. Low confidence and self-esteem further prevent us from doing a task. Unhealthy defence mechanisms harm us and others around us. We can also start to have unrealistic expectations from ourselves that we need to be perfect to be loved. It is therefore important to recover from and heal toxic shame. Here are some ways:
  • Acceptance: To heal from toxic shame, we must accept that all of us on this planet are imperfect. We all have flaws. All of us are prone to making mistakes. The greatest discoveries on this planet were all result of mistakes. When we accept this fact, we understand that mistakes made in childhood were part of the learning process. This acceptance makes us forgiving of others’ mistakes as well.
  • Compassion: We must understand that toxic shame comes from the past and therefore we can improve it to make our future better. Even if we have made a huge mistake, we are only humans. Nature has not made us perfect. We must therefore love ourselves. We must treat ourselves the way we would treat a good friend- With love and forgiveness.
  • Go Back to the Past: Think of the times when you were little and how your mistakes were not forgiven. Talk to your younger self and face the shame. To move forward, looking back can be helpful sometimes. Forgive the younger self and move on. This will help you heal the toxic shame.

Chapter 6:

Moving Forward

We can seek professional help if the memories of the past are too painful. The key to escaping toxic shame is to face it. Self-acceptance can help us move forward in life. The practice of mindfulness can help you to notice shame when it comes. You will realise that shame forces you to react in a certain way. Mindfulness can help you question those thoughts and ways. Practice self-help. Talk to your close friends when you feel guilty. Maintain a gratitude journal.

At Epsychonline, some courses and articles help you cope with feelings of shame and heal from memories of shame. These courses are created by experts. They are easy self-help modules that let you deal with shame. Do check them out.

"Practical and insightful" David

70 sections

6-Weeks Self-Paced

  • Educational Content
  • Quizzes
  • Self-reflection material
  • Suggestions & feedback
  • Worksheet, tips & tools to use

$9.00 $12.00

25% discount