Toxic Shame (A brief guide)

In this guide, we will discuss what toxic shame means, signs and symptoms and some tips on how to overcome toxic shame. 

Toxic shame: what is it?

Toxic shame is considered a neurotic and irrational feeling of worthlessness, humiliation, self-loathing and paralyzing feeling that is said to be inflicted on an individual through traumatic experiences repeatedly and often it is said to be rooted in childhood but it is not a general rule. 

Have you ever felt as if no matter what you do the result is always the same? Or probably you have learned the world is a cruel place and there is nothing you can do about it, apart from having to live in it. Well, this is called “learned helplessness” and this prevents us from challenging our circumstances because we have mental barriers that prevent us from acting.

Toxic shame has the ability to control our behavior and this can have a major impact in your life and we don’t mean a positive one.

We all have felt shame, it is considered a natural human emotion, however, it is endured and experienced with great discomfort. It is necessary though because as you grow older you start to get feedback on your behavior and understand when you have done something wrong helping to set societal boundaries and what it is considered as acceptable behavior, preventing you from making the same mistakes over and over again. 

However, shame can become a problem, when it has a prolonged effect and is chronic. This is not linked anymore to something you have done wrong but instead, it is a deep belief that you are (in some way) not good enough, you start feeling unworthy of being loved or full of flaws others are able to perceive. 

But why do some people develop toxic shame and others don’t? Well, it is usually, in most cases, related to your upbringing. “Shame can be triggered by your parents, religious systems, school friends, bullies, teachers or even strangers” (

For some people, this feeling of shame usually lasts for a short period of time and serves a specific purpose, teaching us a lesson. But for others, it persists and stays with them usually due to a combination of two main reasons:

  • As a child, you are more susceptible and sensitive to shame.
  • It is likely that as a child your parents or caregivers didn’t give you enough emotional support or reassurance.  

The result of these two factors creates a consistent and constant feeling of being “ashamed” and you may feel there is something terribly wrong with you. This is considered a toxic shame.

Are there any signs or characteristics of Toxic Shame?

Yes, there are and as we have discussed Toxic shame differs from ordinary shame in the following key points according to Darlene Lancer, JD, MFT from PsychCentral:

  • It can hide in our unconscious so that we’re unaware that we have shame.
  • When we experience shame, it lasts much longer.
  • The feelings and pain associated with shame are of greater intensity.
  • An external event isn’t required to trigger it. Our own thoughts can bring on feelings of shame.
  • It leads to shame spirals that cause depression and feelings of hopelessness and despair.
  • It causes chronic “shame anxiety” — the fear of experiencing shame.
  • It’s accompanied by voices, images, or beliefs originating in childhood and is associated with a negative “shame story” about ourselves.
  • We needn’t recall the original source of immediate shame, which usually originated in childhood or prior trauma.
  • It creates deep feelings of inadequacy.

Even though toxic shame is not classed as a mental illness in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders as it is the case of anxiety or depression, it is important to address it and understand it to avoid developing into a major mental illness. 

Beliefs of someone with toxic shame

As we discussed, people with toxic shame belief they are unworthy of being loved or create a special connection with others and they can have the following thoughts or beliefs rooted deep inside their minds according to PsychCentral:

  • I am stupid
  • I am not attractive so no one will be interested in me or I am ugly
  • I am a very bad person
  • I am a fraudster
  • I am so selfish
  • I am not enough (in various aspects or settings)
  • I hate myself
  • I don’t matter to anyone
  • I am defective
  • I shouldn’t have been born
  • No one will ever love me or I am incapable of being loved
  • I am a failure

According to the shame resilience theory, the feelings mentioned above are felt by anyone who fits in the explanation of the theory.

Are there any identified causes for toxic shame?

As we have discussed so far, toxic shame seems to be most commonly reinforced through our childhood experiences. For instance, if your mom or your dad usually and constantly punished you (physically) or verbally expressed how ashamed or disappointed they were of us then this is when we may have embraced the idea of being “shameful”. 

However, shame can also be internalized in other settings such as school or when interacting with friends or other relatives. In addition, toxic shame has also been suggested to develop later in life due to certain traumatic events such as having an abusive relationship or incidents at work where we experienced humiliation or maybe repeated rejection from other people. 

Shame vs Guilt

It is common to confuse shame with guilt but they are not the same, the first relates to how you feel as an individual and the second is experienced when you feel sorry for something you may have done. 

In contrast, toxic shame is a pervasive feeling of being bad and who you are as an individual. 

How to deal and overcome with toxic shame

Overcoming and dealing with toxic shame is not easy but it is not impossible either. It requires your willingness and that “wanting” to change. Let’s take a look at some key aspects mentioned by Bernard Golden, a Ph.D. from psychology Today.

  • Become “aware” of that inner dialogue but expand your capacity to observe, try not reacting to it.
  • Develop greater inner compassion with yourself–being able to choose compassion as an alternative to cultivating a dialogue of increased self-acceptance of your humanity. This means recognizing that, like all humans, you have flaws and weaknesses, make mistakes and suffer. We are not alone, even when we feel that we are.
  • Become a “witness to” and mourn your wounds. This requires the ability to identify and sit with the pain associated with your hurts-current and past.
  • Forgive yourself for feelings, thoughts, or actions of your “former selves.” It is easy to beat yourself with hindsight about the insight that you lacked at an earlier age. However, you can only act from the awareness you have at any given moment.

Strategies for overcoming toxic shame

Some of the suggested strategies for overcoming toxic shame include:

  • Mindfulness meditation, which is considered a powerful tool to overcome anxiety and stress and can even help you overcome cognitive distortions (thoughts) or shift how we tend to feel and experience situations. This can also help “rewiring your brain” and creating new neural pathways as several studies have shown. 
  • Mindfulness can also strengthen our ability to recognize our internal dialogue and that hostile voice that tells us we are not worthy and will never be enough for anything or anyone. That internal voice is the source of your toxic shame, always telling you how you are and you are meant to be always, but that does not define you. This can help us overcome shame by practicing a few minutes daily or even several times a day if you have the chance. 
  • Cultivate your compassionate inner dialogue to expand your compassionate self as an alternative way of shutting that critical voice that makes you feel the toxic shame. Also, this involves cultivating a vocabulary that reflects forgiveness and self-acceptance, even if you are not feeling it all the time. Try identifying those words you have ever wanted to hear when you were a child and that you desperately need to hear now to open a real healing path. 

Why is this blog about toxic shame important?

As we discussed, shame is a natural feeling and it is part of our human nature, however, when it is pervasive, chronic and interferes without normal functioning, that is when we talk about toxic shame. Even though it is not considered an official diagnosis it can actually escalate until the point that it becomes a more complex mental illness. 

For some people, living with toxic shame is all they have known their entire lives, however, identifying the ways of overcoming toxic shame and understanding that it is not a normal way of living can make a huge difference and the first step to dealing with it. We advise seeking professional help if you feel you cant overcome toxic shame on your own. 

Please feel free to comment in the comments section below. 

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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Toxic Shame

What does shame do to a person?

Shame can have many negative effects on a person, especially feelings of worthlessness, embarrassment, humiliation, and uncleanness.  It is known that people can experience shame for a lot of reasons and it is especially true when someone experiences or is associated with a perceived shameful act. Shame can be so powerful that it can interfere with someone’s normal day to day functioning.

What is internalized shame?

Internalized shame refers to a permanent state of “being” and how many people are able to identify with it. It is no longer a short-experienced emotion, it becomes pervasive and frequent.  This internalized shame becomes a toxic shame giving you a sense of worthlessness or not being enough

Can shame make you sick?

Some have suggested that the prolonged feeling of shame can affect you not only emotionally but also physically, having a negative effect on our immune system and even manifesting it through different health conditions. However, it is still not clear how it can affect your overall health. 

What is a shame attack?

Shame attacks are generally understood as valuable assignments that challenge “our desire to conform to social standards, as well as our need for the approval of others. Often when others express their disapproval of our behavior, we engage in catastrophic thinking, and ultimately question our self-worth. Thus, shame attacks help us discriminate between our engaging in a specific behavior, and our worth as a human being” (Albert Ellis Institute). 

What is the synonym of shame?

Some synonyms of shame include contriteness, contrition, guilt, penitence, regret, remorse, remorsefulness, repentance, rue, self-reproach.



The Albert Ellis Institute

Psychology Today

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