Toxic shame is an emotional experience characterised by feeling bad or negatively about oneself. When we sense we have failed to live up to our own or others expectations, judgements, or moral values shame often ensues. Typically, when we talk to ourselves in a shame state we might describe ourselves as unworthy, foolish, stupid, wrong, defective, inadequate, inferior, or unlovable. There are numerous descriptors which basically are a negative way of describing oneself.

Emotionally when we are in such a state we feel increased arousal, perhaps flushing and a sense of being over-exposed. Similar to the cognitive labels we also emotionally experience ourselves as being stupid, wrong, defective, inferior etc. There can often be a very pronounced, embedded, and visceral sense of shame that runs deeply and seems to reside at the core of who we are.

Gripped by Shame, the body tends to want to curl up in a ball, to hide and retreat from further negative exposure or judgement from others. Toxic shame (conscious or sub-conscious) can be an extremely crippling and debilitating emotion that taxes the nervous system. There is often a noticeable narrative of self-loathing that colours the shame experience. This is particularly evident when we start to notice all the punitive or contemptuous ways we relate to our self. Toxic shame can also be evident in all of our efforts and the over-compensations we adopt to avoid and defend against criticism and judgement.

Shame as a Common Human Experience

Most of us experience some degree of shame from time to time. We might feel a shameful deflation and drop in pride over our ability, strengths, weaknesses, and appearance. For example, if we encounter someone whom we deem to have a better quality in some way we might feel a slight deflation in mood and ego. Or after a few too many drinks during a night out, where you were dancing on a table, you might wake to feel a pang of shame and embarrassment. However, we usually bounce back to our resting state after a few hours. Similarly, we might feel a degree of shame if for example we knowingly cheated on an exam or a partner. Healthy shame allows us to learn and correct inappropriate behaviour or action.

Our shame might centre around certain bodily features, thoughts, feelings, actions, and things we have said or done in the past. Or it can be more generalised as in our whole being is wrong or unworthy. Often we go about our interactions comparing ourselves unfavourably to others or ruminating about things we might have said or done. There is no room for error, even the slightest of our comments, interruptions, or actions during a social exchange might get brutally dissected and self-judged afterwards.

To be flooded by shame is one of our most painful human experiences. People can often end up experiencing significant drops in mood and self-confidence during a shame spiral. Given the potency of shame reactions we often learn ways to try to cope or manage this feeling. With chronic shame we often develop lifelong strategies to deflect and distract from this state.

How Shame Develops: Shame As A Relational And Emotional Experience

Shame experiences start to get scripted at a very young age within the first 2 years of life. Very young children go about their day with little shame and care for other peoples’ reactions. However, as they start to grow and interact with the caregivers they build greater awareness of the world and themselves. From here our sense of shame gets elaborated and reinforced depending on how our parents respond to us or for that matter don’t respond to us growing up. Shame although often a deeply private and internal experience often stems from relational neglects and failures at a young age.

Shame acts as a powerful motivator and punisher and is often used as a method of parenting. A degree of shame can actually have prosocial benefits. It helps us to fit in, do the right thing. It guides our actions and can be imbued with values and judgements. However, toxic levels of shame are more likely to develop when the caregiver or parent repeatedly fails to meet the developmental needs of an infant. The child learns that this need or feeling is not ok to feel. The problem, fault, and shame gets directed on to the developing child. They come to sense that they are bad.

Sometimes, shame is amplified if we receive direct criticism or hostility from another. For example a child may be scolded and reprimanded and called an idiot for making a mistake such as spilling a drink. Or the child playing rambunctiously gets yelled at by an agitated intolerant parent. Shame also often stems from relational ruptures and traumas, parental absences, withdrawals and with-holding of approval/affection, or abuse. Sometimes the shaming can be subtle or less overt – based on disapproving looks, tones, and gestures (that all add up over time and if repeated).

The developing child has healthy desires and need for connection, love etc. If the parent persistently fails to meet the child, then the child emotionally concludes that their is something unworthy or undeserving about them. In the above examples, the child’s immediate reaction might be to look away or hang their head in shame. Such experiences can all lead to an implicit sense of the self as being unworthy of love and worthy of condemnation.

In conclusion, the developing child might learn that there is something emotionally and inherently wrong with them. If a parent constantly attacks and belittles a person’s creative pursuits and explorations they can learn to shut down and disown large aspects of the self. As a result of such shame experiences the child learns a strategy – something that retains the connection with the parent and also mitigates the feeling of shame.

Society And Shame

Collective society is another avenue that dishes out shame. There are all too many people out there ready to dispense with their critique of a person’s actions and experience. Often without little awareness of that person’s situation. So the messages we receive are widespread – You’re too lazy, too loud, too quiet, too skinny, too fat, too relaxed. Furthermore, religions, the media, and other power systems have often used excessive shaming as a form of control.

The degree of bombardment from various informational sources, friends, and family can sometimes make it difficult to hear our own internal compass.

How These Patterns Impact Life Now: Defences We Learn To Reduce Shame Spirals

Chronic and toxic shame can all have an an inhibiting impact on a child’s and then adult’s pursuit of healthy goals, relationships, and self efficacy (the belief in one’s capacity to carry out life’s functions).

As noted before, people often develop a plethora of defensive strategies and behaviours that stem from toxic shame. Perfectionism, people pleasing, self-deprecation, self-distrust, and anxiety are often in close pursuit. There is often a hyper-vigilance around how to behave, what to say, and how to think. The underlying fear of being found out, being a fraud, or an imposter is ever present. These sets of strategies can often stem from a deep sense of unworthiness. We end up having a deep aversion to experiencing and feeling this emotion because of its potency. In effect, the developing adolescent might learnt that the only way to feel good about themselves is to perform and strive to a very high standard.

Conversely, we might develop other forms of over-compensation such as a loud persona, workaholism, or alcoholism. We might camouflage shame with other emotions. In particular, anger is often used to mask feelings of shame or vulnerability. So often in couples relationship there is a pattern where anger (the secondary emotion) is used to surpass and bury shame the primary emotion. We might also move about he world judging and criticising others as a way to deflect from our own inadequacies.

If we bury our shame too deeply we act without shame and can end up behaving inappropriately, callously, or in opposition to our values. Narcissism is often characterised by significant marginalisation of shame. In these instances, as we let go of self aggrandisement we start to come face to face with our shame.
During healing we can often go through phases of shame. As other layers are removed we are left with toxic shame to metabolise. This can present us with opportunities for healing and correcting our relationship with self and others.

A Few Tips About Treatment Of Shame

In the case of chronic, unrelenting, and toxic shame the journey to greater self-acceptance can sometimes be a long one. I would like to say that a few techniques can help to shift a lifetime of shame. However, the fact is that more often than not we have to work consistently on ourselves when restoring healthy self-worth. The best place to start is by reading various books on shame and by cultivating a new internal system for self-worth. This can happen intellectually, but also needs to be fostered at the emotional or felt level of the self. Therapy with a trained psychologist or counsellor can also be a useful way to work through toxic shame, negative self-worth, and associated traumas.

  1. The first step is to build awareness around shame the feelings that arise, and the narrative that runs with it. Notice how it takes hold in the body, the negative thoughts that accompany the feeling, and resulting actions.
  2. As you process emotional experience and work through defences we can encounter phases of buried shame or shame at past actions. Sometimes we need to reach a state of self-forgiveness in order to move on.
  3. If in therapy or working through shame – Be kind to yourself – realise that often a lot of our actions might have been adaptations and survival mechanisms not fully within our control. We might have acted out of desperation or alone-ness or some other needs. It is normal to make mistakes in life.
  4. Recognise that shame was likely imposed on you by others. Can you reflect on the shaming messages that you might have received during your up-bringing.
  5. Park your shame for the day! Take a step back from people-pleasing, having to get every thing right, and perfectionism.
  6. Build self compassion – this involves treating your self kindly at the physical, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual level.
  7. Learn to reduce interactions with shame inducing others. And or not to take peoples throw away comments too personally.
  8. Start to focus on things you like and yes love about yourself. Learn to see your own value just for being here.
  9. Nurture relationships with people that recognise your value.
  10. Build courage to reduce interactions with people that are shaming, critical, and abusive.
  11. Pat yourself on the back for a job well done and any small achievements that you make. Notice any feelings of positive pride, achievement. Take note of how your body feels. Notice what it feels like to hold yourself confidently, to stand tall.
  12. Check those thoughts and projections, is anyone really judging you? or is it a repetitive thought circulating in your mind.
  13. If someone is judging you – question that thought “so what if they are? “What’s the worst that will happen?”
  14. We need more of your goodness. There are so many messages telling us how to be, it is hard to hear who we are. Spend time listening to who you are, what your goals and dreams are. Take small steps towards those dreams.
  15. If you were that young child again how would you speak to yourself.

The list can go on as to how we might start to challenge our toxic shame structure.

In summary, shame is a painful emotional experience characterised by a negative feeling we have about or towards our self. Shame can have an adaptive purpose that can influence prosocial behaviour. However, toxic shame is a debilitating state that can have a huge impact on our life and sense of worth. Recognising and cultivating awareness and self-compassion are often the first steps towards reducing toxic shame.

Dr Damon Mitchell

Dr Damon Mitchell is a clinical psychologist and owner of Core Life Psychology. As a psychologist he is passionate about assisting people to transform their inner world. Damon connects and works actively with people to find pathways to hope, healing, and inner well-being. He recognises that life can be challenging and complex and takes a non-pathologizing approach to understand each persons experience.

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